University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Traces of Culture in Traces of Paint


By: Margaret Bruchac

November 27, 2017

This object analysis was conducted for the Fall 2017 University of Pennsylvania course “Anthropology of Museums.” Students are examining Native American objects in the American Section of the Penn Museum by combining material analysis (elements, construction, design, condition, etc.) with documentation (texts, photographs, ethnographic data, etc.). Since some objects have minimal provenance data, we seek out similar materials, consult research articles and archives, and consider non-material evidence (oral traditions, ecosystems, museum memories, etc.) that might illuminate these objects. This research is designed to expand our understandings of object lives, using insights and information gathered from inside and outside of the Museum.

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Traces of Culture in Traces of Paint: Key Marco Deer Figurehead

Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums
by Sheridan Small

Sheridan Small examining object 40707A-C. Penn Museum. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

The history of object #40707A-C—the preservation of centuries old organic materials, extensive documentation including on-site watercolors, and the mystery of a lost cultural tradition –immediately grabbed my attention. Once I saw this object, a wooden figurehead carved in the shape of a deer head, I couldn’t forget it. Even without any knowledge about the geographic region or the people who made it, this dark brown deer head with its paler, detached ears conjured up a sense of vitality. The grace of the carving creates an extreme sense of realism, in the deer’s round and alert eyes, practically quivering nose, cheeks arrested in the moment of exhalation, and ears almost comically standing to attention. I felt that if I reached out and touched it, I would feel smooth hair on warm skin overlaying the delicate skull bones of a live animal. Its existence testifies to the skill of the artisan and his or her intimate familiarity with their subject. Upon closer examination, I noticed traces of what looked like black paint. As I would later learn, the figurehead was originally painted with black, white, and blue pigments, the remains of which resembled wisps of smoke, elusive as the culture from which it came.

This deer figurehead was excavated by Frank Hamilton Cushing in 1896 during the Pepper-Hearst exhibition in south Florida, sponsored by the Penn Museum (then called the Free Museum of Science and Art) and the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution.[1] In the swampy areas of Key Marco, Florida, Cushing uncovered highly unusual organic materials. The anaerobic conditions of the waterlogged area meant that organic materials like wood were kept safe from the destructive effects of oxygen and pests. Wooden plaques, animal sculptures, human masks, nets, weights, and numerous tools that are rarely found by archaeologists were preserved there for hundreds of years.

(left) Plan and section of the “Court of the Pile Dwellers” by Wells M. Sawyer. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, volume 35 (1896). (right) Key Marco, Florida Expedition (1895-1896), Penn Museum Archives.

This area of Florida was originally inhabited by a tribe called the Calusa. Records from Spanish missionaries indicate that the Calusa had a highly organized, stratified society based on exploitation of maritime resources. Archaeologists marvel that their territory was so ecologically rich that the Calusa could develop a complex society dominating at least 60 villages, controlling the majority of southwest Florida and the Keys and the lands in those latitudes from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, apparently without the use of agriculture (a matter of continued debate). The Calusa constructed shell mounds to support wooden structures as well as contain burials; these mounds still dot the landscape the Calusa once inhabited.

Cushing was digging in an area he referred to as the “Court of the Pile Dwellers” on the island of Key Marco when he discovered the figurehead, “lying, in a very natural position, on its side. Thus seen in the midst of the dark muck, its light-hued painted lines vividly revealed by contrast, its large, deep brown eyes wide open and lifelike.”[2] A number of human masks and animal figureheads were found near each other. Once removed from their anaerobic shelters, they quickly began to warp and decay. Luckily, artist Wells M. Sawyer was able to take photos and paint watercolors of many of the specimens as they emerged. Today, these visual records are the only evidence of the bright painting that once decorated these masks and figureheads.

(left) Deer figurehead in situ. Photographed by Wells M. Sawyer. NAA Photo Lot 2, image ID “BAE Florida 20,” National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. (right) Photograph 13254.5 by Wells M. Sawyer, “Deer Masquette,” 40707. Penn Museum Archives.

Although Florida was far removed, culturally and geographically, from Cushing’s earlier excavations in the American Southwest, he used his knowledge about the Zuni to make hypotheses about the potential meaning of the masks and figureheads he found. In his manuscript about the excavation, Cushing explains:

“[The Zuni] observe that life is never manifest save in some sort of form, they argue that no form is without some sort of life, and since they further observe that each particular kind of life is manifest in some particular kind of form, they argue that form strictly conditions life…therefore, they accord to forms…even of inanimate things, such potencies as they see manifested in the forms of the animate beings these things most resemble externally or otherwise…”[3]

Cushing’s experience with object analysis enabled him to recognize similar designs on the human masks and animal figureheads. This led him to postulate that the masks and figureheads were “used in a dramaturgic- or dance-ceremonial of these ancient people, in which it was sought to symbolize successively the different aspects or incarnations of the same animal-god…that is, his animal aspect, and his human aspect.”[4]

Object 40707A-C. Penn Museum. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

Noticeably, the ears of the carved deer are separate from the head. I noticed that there are holes in the back of the deer head. Perhaps the ears were attached with string, and could be swiveled just like a real deer would move his ears while trying to detect a slight noise in the forest. Cushing confirmed that “the ear-pieces had been attached to the back of the head by means of cords…thrust through them and then through bifurcated holes at the points of attachment to the head-piece, in such manner that they could be used as pulleys for the realistic working of these parts.” Furthermore, the realism would have been heightened by “the skin of a deer or some flexible substitute” attached via “peg-holes all around the rearward portion of the head… the more perfectly to disguise the actor who no doubt endeavored in this disguise to personate the character of the deer-god or dawn-god, the primal incarnation of which this figure was evidently designed to represent.”[5]

The scant evidence for early Calusa rituals comes from Spanish missionaries. Despite religious and cultural biases, they left some useful descriptions. According to Pedro Menendez de Aviles, a Jesuit missionary, in 1566 the central Calusa village contained a special mound where masks were kept and human sacrifices were made.[6] In 1697, Fray Feliciano Lopez described a “room made of mats” on top of a “high flat-topped mound” around which the Native people danced: “the walls are entirely covered with masks, one worse than the other.”[7] In 1607, Juan Sanchez commented on the events that he and Father Rogel witnessed in 1567: “…a notable thing happened. And it was that [there] was a temple of idols there, [in] which were some very ugly masks, which some Indians donned… And they went out into the village with them…with the women singing certain canticles.”[8] Father Juan Rogel himself wrote:

“…they attempted to climb up to our fort to hold a procession with their masks, coming from a little hill, where they had their houses, to the hill on which our fort was located. Between these hills there was a little valley where they were accustomed to promenade in view of the people… And the women adored them and sang their praises.”[9]

From ethnographic sources at the time, it seems that the Calusa religion was as organized as the rest of society, with a “chief priest,” “sorcerers” who had duties in the “house of the idols,” and “some Indians appointed” to wear masks from the temple in a procession.[10]

The detailed records that Cushing kept of his excavations support the idea that these masks and figureheads were kept in one building, perhaps of some significance. On March 7, 1896, Cushing wrote to Dr. William Pepper at the Penn Museum about his “startling” discoveries: “…Yesterday painted masks were found by Mr. Bergmann and the timbers of fallen dwellings everywhere by all the men.”[11] The fact that the objects were found among the remains of buildings suggests that the site was left intact when the few remaining Calusa, decimated by foreign diseases, fled from the Spanish colonists in the 18th century. Cushing was more explicit about his own findings: “On one or two occasions I found the masks and figureheads actually bunched, just as they would have been had they thus pertained to a single ceremonial and had been put away when not in use, tied or suspended together.”[12] This description strongly supports the Spanish missionaries’ accounts of a special building containing many masks hanging on the walls.

(left) Wolf figurehead (40700A-F) and (right) deer figurehead (40707A-C). Florida Expedition (1895-1896). Penn Museum Archives.

Although the Calusa fiercely resisted the efforts of Spanish missionaries and other colonists for two hundred years, by 1711 what had once been a population of thousands was reduced to a small community of a few hundred. The survivors fled to Cuba.[13] 

Historians now describe the apparently “extinct” Calusa in romanticized terms, as the heroic victims of a tragic story. As the Marco Island Historical Museum’s website says, “for two hundred years the Calusa held the Spaniards at bay, until they finally succumbed,” leaving only traces within the accounts of “undaunted missionaries” and fragments uncovered by “modern archaeological excavations.”[14] Ironically, a heroic aspect is assigned to the colonists who might have been involved in the destruction of the very people they are said to have saved in their record-keeping.

Work has been done comparing the iconography of Calusa artifacts with artifacts found elsewhere in southern United States, deemed part of the Mississippian culture.[15] The artifacts from Key Marco have been described specifically as being part of Glades Cult or Glades Complex. Perhaps research into neighboring tribes can help illuminate the possible lifeways of this carved deer head, a faded artifact from a seemingly vanished people. Calusa traditions and beliefs (and perhaps people) appear to live on in other Native American tribes, such as the Seminole and Miccosukee people of Florida. In the 1930s, folklorist–ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore reported that a “singer [of Seminole songs] said…that long ago the Calusa and Seminole camped near one another and the people of each camp visited freely in the other, learning songs and joining in the dances.”[16]

The process of turning an object into an artifact, through excavation and museum curation, can detach it from a living community and allow new meanings to be constructed around it, prompting, simultaneously, the sad erasure and romanticized recreation of Calusa history. Yet, the faded remains of this deer figurehead contain the traces of the rich ceremonial complex to which it was connected. It is evocative of a whole belief system centered around the dynamism of a lush natural environment teeming with life.

The delicate physique of the small figurehead is striking. This petite figurehead could represent the endangered Florida Key deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium), the smallest sub-species of North American white-tailed deer that was once abundant in the Lower Florida Keys.[17] The remains of this sub-species and the more common white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are found in Florida middens or trash heaps of all time periods. Therefore, deer meat was surely eaten, and the bones of deer were made into a variety of tools, such as fishing implements.[18]

Florida Key deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium) on Big Pine Key. USFWS photo. National Wildlife Refuge Association.

Today, the Key deer live only on 20–25 small islands at the very south end of Florida. Given the extensive reach of the Calusa people, it is not unlikely that the craftsperson who made this figurehead was familiar with the Key deer. Therefore, not only is this figurehead a remnant of a once numerous population of Indigenous people, it also speaks to the survival of a once plentiful species. This object seems mute, but it can be reanimated by thinking more deeply about the whole cultural construct that it is a part of, and it can speak to us by making us aware of the vital importance of those past ceremonies.

To me, this figurehead is beautifully naturalistic, with its soft brown color and gentle curves suggestive of a breathing animal. By looking at the watercolors of the undistorted object, you can grasp the impact of the abstract painted designs that highlighted certain features. Although the maker was highly aware of the naturalism of his or her depiction, this object is not meant to be strictly naturalistic. It is other-than-human and more-than-deer, imbued with the power of a god. To the Spanish missionaries, it was an ugly mask they were eager to destroy.[19] To the Calusa, it represented the embodiment of a god. If knowledge is constructed by the beholder, the possessor of the object, and the writer of history, how can we recover the story of the Calusa people? While we can appreciate this carving for its intrinsic beauty, we must also think about the meaning that may not be obvious to outside observers, to appreciate the intentions of the Calusa artist who created it.[20]

Sources Cited:

[1] Lucy Fowler Williams, “The Calusa Indians: Maritime Peoples of Florida in the Age of Columbus,” Expedition 33:2 (July 1991).
[2] Frank Hamilton Cushing, “Exploration of Ancient Key-Dweller Remains on the Gulf Coast of Florida,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 33 (1896), 392.
[3] Cushing, “Exploration of Ancient Key-Dweller Remains on the Gulf Coast of Florida,” 390.
[4] Ibid., 389.
[5] Ibid., 392.
[6] Williams, “The Calusa Indians: Maritime Peoples of Florida in the Age of Columbus”
[7] John Hann, Missions to the Calusa (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1991), 159-160.
[8] Darcie A. MacMahon, The Calusa and Their Legacy: South Florida People and Their Environments (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004), 85.
[9] Ibid.
[10] John Goggin and William Sturtevant, “The Calusa: A Stratified, Non-agricultural Society (with Notes on Sibling Marriage).” Explorations in Cultural Anthropology: Essays in Honor of George Peter Murdock. Edited by Ward H. Goodenough (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 191.
[11] Phyllis Kolianos and Brent Weisman, eds., The Florida Journals of Frank Hamilton Cushing (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005), 60.
[12] Cushing, “Exploration of Ancient Key-Dweller Remains on the Gulf Coast of Florida,” 388.
[13] Julian Granberry, The Calusa: Linguistic and Cultural Origins and Relationships (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2014), 14.
[14] Marco Island Historical Museum. https://www.trailoffloridasindianheritage.org/marcoislandmuseum
[15] Wheeler, Ryan J., Treasure of the Calusa: The Johnson/Willcox Collectionfrom Mound Key, Florida (Tallahassee, FL: Rose Printing, 2000).
[16]MacMahon, The Calusa and Their Legacy, 121.
[17] Dominique Watts, et al. “Distribution and Abundance of Endangered Florida Key Deer on Outer Islands.” Journal of Wildlife Management, 72(2): 360.
[18] William Marquardt, “Tracking the Calusa: A Retrospective,” Southeastern Archaeology 33(1) (Summer 2014): 9.
[19] Williams, “The Calusa Indians: Maritime Peoples of Florida in the Age of Columbus”
[20] MacMahon, The Calusa and Their Legacy, 102.

For an overview of the 2017 object studies in the Anthropology of Museums class, see:
• Margaret Bruchac. “Object Matters: Considering Materiality, Meaning, and Memory” in Beyond the Gallery Walls, Penn Museum Blog, fall 2017.


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