Inside the Peabody Museum: February 2010

Maya Sculpture Reconstruction and 3-D Scan

Hieroglyphic Stairway Figure (Copan)
Move hieroglyphic stairway figure

The iconic stone seated figure atop a hieroglyphic stone stairway has ruled the third-floor landing since the 1970s, and it’s ready for a makeover. The Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway reconstruction has been temporarily removed so it can be digitally scanned and later redisplayed with the hieroglyphic blocks in a new order.

The Stairway reconstruction had been in place since all of its pieces returned from a major show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the mid-1970s. New research by Peabody Museum Mesoamerican lab director Barbara Fash and several colleagues has shown that the hieroglyphic blocks are not in the correct order. When the Hieroglyphic Stairway was excavated in the late 1890s, the stairway had already collapsed and the thousands of blocks that formed it were scattered and often in pieces. Now that researchers can read the language, they are consulting old photos that preserve a lot of information about how the blocks fell, and they are closing in on a brand new reconstruction (albeit digital) of the inscription.

The Museum's Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program (CMHI) staff will be creating new digital 3-D scans of the blocks and sculpture for further research and then reconstructing the monument for reinstallation in about two years. (For more about scanning, see Symbols 2008.)

And what will top the third-floor landing until then? Other, stunning Copan sculpture pieces that have been in storage for the past 3 decades will take possession of the third-floor landing in March.

Diquís Ball Reflects the SeasonsStone Diquis Ball

Did you know that one of our artifacts is actually outside the building in our side courtyard? We invite all of our friends to regularly view our Diquís stone ball.

Ancient stone balls in Costa Rica first attracted archaeologists’ attention in the 1940s after the United Fruit Company purchased land there. Stone balls populated the Diquís Delta region, and ranged in size from a few inches in diameter to as wide as 8 feet. The Peabody’s Samuel K. Lothrop discovered as many as fifty in a single location. At one time, there may have been hundreds or even thousands of them, but just a handful remain in their original sites. (The Peabody Museum's ball was a gift from United Fruit following the 1964 World's Fair in New York. It's estimated to weigh 600 lbs.) The balls were carved by the ancestors of the indigenous Chibchan speakers between 200 BC and AD 1500. Their true purpose remains a mystery, but the balls continue to attract interest; next month, UNESCO will convene an International Meeting of Experts on Stone Balls. (And no, we did not make that name up!)

Find out more about the stones in Deputy Director Jeffrey Quilter's book, Cobble Circles and Standing Stones: Archaeology at the Rivas Site, Costa Rica.

Protecting a Treasure, One Page at a TimeConservator turns a ledger page.

Every three months, a team of conservators, registrars, exhibition workers, curators, and curious onlookers have assembled in a first-floor gallery of the Peabody Museum to turn the page of a book. “Half Moon” is 19th-century ledger book filled with 77 color drawings by Plains Indians, and it’s the centerpiece of the exhibition Wiyohpiyata: Lakota Images of the Contested West. About the size of an airport paperback, the ledger book was owned by a man who was possibly a gold prospector, before it was taken by Lakota (Sioux) Indians. At least five Lakota warriors drew pictures of their accomplishments in the book. It was later taken from a funerary tipi after the battle of Little Big Horn, and rebound in the late 19th century by a Chicago newspaperman into its present form.

Now in the collection of Harvard’s Houghton Library, the book was loaned to the Peabody Museum. Houghton Library Lake Conservator Mary Oey reviewed the book’s condition carefully before the loan, and she visits the Museum when the pages are turned. Scott Fulton, a Peabody Museum conservator explains, “We’re collaborating with Mary so we can limit exposure of each page to light and air. Before each page turn, we measure the pages’ pigment with a spectraphotometer to monitor color fading.” The book, with its page newly turned, is secured open with a thin strip of plastic and gently returned in its cradle to display. “Half Moon” will remain on view in the Wiyohpiyata exhibition through early April 2010.

Intern Creates New Online Exhibition: Digging VeritasStudents analyze Harvard Yard archaeological objects

Digging Veritas, the online exhibition, is now on the Peabody Museum website. It was prepared by Native graduate student Rachel Sayet (Mohegan). As an intern in the Museum’s Curatorial Department, Sayet reviewed the exhibition research and texts to distill key themes and information into a coherent story suitable for the web. Sayet was also one of the student curators of the exhibition. Her reflections are included in the online exhibition.

The online exhibition explores several themes from the real-life exhibition Digging Veritas: The Archaeology and History of the Indian College and Student Life at Colonial Harvard, on view through January 2011. The online exhibition provides a preview and a post-visit resource for Museum visitors, while creating a journey through Harvard’s colonial past for others unable to visit. The online exhibition will remain on the website even after the Museum exhibition has ended.