Potato Stamps and Ash Splints

May 5, 2015

Potato Stamps and Ash Splints:
A Narrative of Process and Exchange

Object Analysis for Anthropology of Museums
by Elizabeth Peng

Mrs. Michel Buckshot (whose personal name was Mackosi’kew, also spelled Meshkosikwe, meaning “Beaver Meadow Woman”) was well known as an Algonquin herbalist and artisan who made a variety of traditional crafts. These included puzzle pouches, a craft taught to her by her grandmother at Golden Lake, where she was born. She and her husband befriended University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Frank Speck and his student, Frederick Johnson, who was extremely interested in capturing the “traditional” culture of the River Desert Band of Algonquin (also spelled Algonkin or Algonkian) at Maniwaki (now called Kitigan Zibi). At the time, Mrs. Buckshot was the only person in the Band practicing ash splint basketry.[1]

During the 1920s, a collection of potato die stamps illustrating the process of stamping baskets, along with the corresponding stamped ash splints, entered Johnson’s possession. He commissioned Mrs. Buckshot to create these potato die stamps, in order to show the traditional use of vegetable stamps and herbal dyes to decorate ash splint baskets. The dies, which are now preserved (likely in alcohol) inside a glass jar, consist of chunks of potatoes onto which various shapes have been carved, such as leaves and other organic shapes. Even today there are remnants of colored pigment on at least one of the stamp surfaces. Because the organic material would shrivel if exposed to the air for extended periods of time, these would have been made immediately preceding use. Collected at the same time were illustrative stamped ash splints, to serve as proofs of the dies used.

Figure 2. Elizabeth Peng in the Penn Museum Study Lab, with jar of potato stamps and ash splints from River Desert. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.
Elizabeth Peng in the Penn Museum Collections Study Room, with a jar of potato stamps and ash splints from River Desert. Photo by Margaret Bruchac. Museum Object Numbers 29-10-79A and 29-10-79B.

A variety of colors and shapes can be found on the stamped pictures. On one splint, red (now faded to pink), brown, and blue dyes were used to stamp shapes in the form of flowers, leaves, beavers, shells, hands, feet, and what appears to be either a mask or a face. On another, pink and brown dyes were used to stamp shapes in the form of flowers, leaves, beavers, birds, and a round shape that appears to have spokes, much like a wheel. These ash splints were meant to be woven into basket form using what Speck described as “the simple under-and-over twill,” better described as plaiting or checkerboard weave. He concluded, through comparative studies of baskets in the region, that this type of splint work does not extend farther north than the uppermost boundaries of the Algonquin nations, although it is widespread elsewhere in Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Iroquois) and Algonkian territories.[2]

Figure 3: Coiled ash splints from River Desert, Quebec. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum.
Coiled ash splints from River Desert, Quebec. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number: 29-10-79B

Johnson eventually sold these objects to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where they are now curated as objects 29-10-79A and 29-10-79B, as part of the Frederick Johnson collection.

The Johnson collection from River Desert includes 90 objects, representing: hunting equipment (woven nets, bows, arrows, birchbark moose call, etc.); craft tools (bone awls, needles, knives, etc.); and personal gear (snowshoes, war clubs, canes, wooden spoons, pouches, containers, etc.). In her summary of this collection, Marilyn Norcini notes that the River Desert collection is exceptional for the: “fibrous and tactile nature to these vernacular objects from the northern words. What they may lack in color and elaborate design, they make up for in a feeling of everyday life expressed through the common, utilitarian objects.”[3] Yet they also express the relationships embodied in the material exchanges between the River Desert Band, Speck and Johnson, and the Penn Museum.

NOTE: For more information about these stamps and splints, see the related blog article—“Mack0si’kwe’s Baskets: Marking Relationships”—by Margaret Bruchac.


[1] Speck, Frank G. 1939. “More Algonkian Scapulimancy from the North, and the Hunting Territory Question.” Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 4(1): 21-28. Also see Penn Museum notes on collection cards re: Purchases from Frederick Johnson (#1-93) / Gifts of Frank Speck (#94-99).
[2] Speck, Frank G. 1941. Art Processes in Birchbark of the River Desert Algonquin, a Circumboreal Trait. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnography Anthropological Papers 128(17):1-60.
[3] Norcini, Marilyn 2008. “Frederick Johnson’s ‘River Desert Algonquin’ Materials at the University of Pennsylvania Museum: A Collection History,” Museum Anthropology 31(2):122-147.