Inside the Peabody Museum: June 2010

The Mysterious Writing on the Glass

harvard yard window graffiti

Daniel Balmori (’11) couldn’t wait to tell classmates in Anthropology 1131: The Archaeology of Harvard Yard about his find. Months earlier, a dirt-covered piece of window glass had been plucked from the lower depths of the class’ excavation in the Yard. But now, freshly washed in the lab, the fragment revealed a hidden message.

Balmori excitedly emailed the faculty, “I saw that it was somewhat scratched. Looking closer and holding it up to the light it appeared someone had at some point inscribed some writing on the glass. As I made out the letters on the glass I almost fell over in my chair. There was a NAME inscribed in cursive and what more? A YEAR! Someone had etched their name into their window and it had remained under 45+ centimeters of dirt in Harvard Yard for all of this time! What more could you ask from an artifact?!”

This is the kind of discovery that keeps archaeology students digging for more. The glass clearly showed letters and the dates “1869” and “1871.” But deciphering the graffiti and imagining the missing parts of the message would prove more challenging.

Weeks later, students think they have an answer. They compared the glass inscription to Harvard College records and the popular Spencerian handwriting method of the time. They found a likely candidate, student John B. Gerrish (’71), who lived near the dig site in a Harvard Yard dormitory in 1869. The complete inscription probably looked like this:

John B. Gerrish
Class of 1871

The initial in the top left corner of the fragment is almost certainly the bottom half of an uppercase “B.” Presumably, this is preceded by “John”; not hard to imagine, as the phrase “Class of” was probably also written on the missing left half of the glass. If the initial in the top left is really the bottom of a B, then it is plausible that the adjacent scratch is the lower half of a large “G.” The “e” and “sh” portions of the last name are clear, although the “rri” portion is a bit muddled (not too surprising, given the difficulty of scratching into glass).

Who was Gerrish? Freshman research assistant Sam Peterson has begun to answer this question with guidance from Harvard University Archives staff. He reports that the Harvard Catalogues (1868–1871) list New Bedford as Gerrish’s hometown and show that Harry Godey (who accompanied Teddy Roosevelt on a trip up the Nile, according to Roosevelt biographer David McCullough) was his roommate throughout his tenure at the College. The “Report of the Class of 1871,” compiled in 1886, lists Gerrish’s address at that time as 62 Leonard Street, New York, and says the following about his post-Harvard activities: “Taught in DeVeaux College from September, 1871, to June, 1872; from September, 1872, to August, 1874, in the publishing business; from August, 1874, to March 1, 1875, out of business; from March 1, 1875, and onward, dry goods commission in the house of Gardner, Brewer, & Company, and their successors, J.L. Bremer, Brother, & Company, and John L. Bremer & Company, in New York.” A number of books, formerly in the Harvard Union Library and now mostly in Widener Library, were donated by Gerrish and bear labels reading “The Gift of John Brown Gerrish of New York, Class of 1871.”

"The window glass is significant," says Senior Curatorial Assistant Christina Hodge. On the one hand it gives us further information about student behavior and misbehavior. On the other hand, it's a rare connection to a named, known student in the past."

For more glimpses into Harvard's student past, see the exhibition Digging Veritas: The Archaeology and History of the Indian College and Student Life at Colonial Harvard.

A Mask for a Horse...and a Museum

horse mask by Butch Thunder Hawk

Lakota horses wear masks on celebratory occasions.

This horse mask was created for a celebration of sorts; Lakota artist Butch Thunder Hawk made it for the Museum to commemorate the opening last year of the exhibition Wiyohpiyata: Lakota Images of the Contested West, which he co-curated with Castle McLaughlin. The central image of the blue thunderbird refers to Wiyohpiyata, “the west,” where horses originated and the storm powers that govern warfare reside. The colors red, green, and yellow and the four-pointed stars represent other cosmological forces.

The horse mask will remain on view in the Museum Lobby through June. Wiyohpiyata: Lakota Images of the Contested West will remain on view through 2011.

Young Anthropologists Say “Thank You”

When school groups come to the Museum, what do they learn? The Education Department teaches young Globetrotters how different environments shape the clothes, toys, and tools that peoples of the world use to meet their basic needs. In return, Education Manager Sheila Sibley and Education Specialist Andy Majewski occasionally get “thank-you” letters from students. Here are two from a group of 6-year-olds from the Tobin Montessori School in Cambridge.

If you have a young anthropologist-in-the-making, check out our Globetrotters Family Fun Workshop on June 12 (see below).

thank you letter     thank you letter

Above: “Dear Sheila, Thank you for giveing us a torw. I larnd that you can make clothing out of all cinds of things. From, Genva."


Above: “Dear Sheila, Thank you for teaching us to sort the hats, shoes, and the other things. I learned about artifacts."

Sheila explains to two smiling students that “The sole of this show [shoe] is made of tire.”


Left to right: Map, hoops holding artifacts from each region, and students.



A Rare View of the Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copan

putting tarp on hieroglyphic stairway

Only once in the past four years has the magnificent Maya Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copan been visible without a cover. Peabody Museum Post-Doctoral Fellow Alexandre Tokovinine captured the rare view, plus a sequence of shots as the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History installed a new shelter tarp over the Stairway.The previous cover was worn out after five years of service; rain was seeping in. The Peabody Museum’s field research staff in Copan assisted with the installation and continues to play an active role in the conservation and study of the monument.

However, Alex’s true mission in Copan is to create even more astounding views of the Hieroglyphic Stairway. Alex is part of the team making 3-D images of the Stairway. The Museum’s Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions (CMHI) project has been methodically documenting each of the steps. Working at night for the best lighting conditions, the team scans each stone block. So far they’ve recorded 35 steps of the 64-step monument (331 inscribed stone blocks), plus its altar and a carved figure. In addition to the 3-D images, the Corpus also documents each inscription as a photograph and line drawing. Why is this necessary, when the Stairway is already getting the 3-D treatment? Epigraphers, who decipher the ancient glyphs, use the line drawings to see the glyphs in their most elemental form. Barbara Fash, CMHI Director, has been drawing the glyphs for years. She explains,” By adding the 3-D models to the documentation process, the CMHI is helping to set new standards for recording Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions, and expanding our view beyond the naked eye.”

As they progress, the CMHI has been sharing the scans with a team of epigraphers. Together, they are working to create a virtual reconstruction of the steps in their original order, revealing a new understanding of Maya culture and history. When complete, the stairway and its individual stones will be easily visible to researchers and others on the web.

The Museum is Open!

Peabody MuseumBeginning June 2, Divinity Avenue will be under construction for an estimated 18 months. The Museum will remain open and fully accessible throughout. On weekdays, a police officer will direct traffic near the site. To avoid the construction completely, walk from Oxford St. to the Divinity Avenue entrance via the brick path opposite the Laboratory for Integrated Science and Engineering (LISE) building. The path crosses straight to Divinity Avenue under a large arch between two buildings.


  See what's coming up in the Calendar of Events.

Saturday, June 12

Globetrotters Family Fun Workshop
Choice of two 60-minute sessions: 10:00 am & 2:00 pm
Free with regular admission; advance registration required and space is limited, call 617-495-2916

Recommended for children ages 5-8 with an accompanying adult
Join us for a special day when young anthropologists are invited to travel the world! Compare clothes, toys, and tools used by people in Africa, Asia, South America, Europe, Australia and right here in North America. Then make your own toy out of recyclable materials to take home!