Inside the Peabody Museum: August 2010
Dolls, statues, figurines, totems, models, mannequins, dummies, or sculptures: three-dimensional human figures come in all sizes and have many purposes. These are two of the hundreds of “dolls” found in the Peabody Museum’s collections. They are Cuna curing dolls or nuchus.
In the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama, Cuna seers, shamans, and curers used nuchus, male or female carved wooden figures imbued with a healing spirit, to prevent and cure illness. Curing rituals could be simple or elaborate and involved specialists who chanted to the nuchu in a spirit language to enlist their aid in defeating the poni (malevolent spirit). Nuchus could be discarded after use if their powers were expended during the ritual; others were kept in a basket in the home. Nuchus were carved of various woods, but most often of balsa. The quality of the carving varied with the skill of the carver, and many are little more than sticks. Curing dolls are found in abundance in Cuna villages, even today, where traditional medicine is practiced alongside modern medicine.
These unusually large, early 20th-century nuchus—both over 4 feet high—may have stood at the door of a home to keep evil spirits away or they may have been used in a village curing ceremony. On display in Encounters with the Americas.
“Willy-nilly our ears were beset with an abundance of ethnological material in song,” wrote a Peabody Museum archaeologist about his northern Mississippi digs in 1901 and 1902. The sound of the Delta blues surrounding the excavation affected Dr. Charles Peabody so profoundly that he wrote about the music in a 1903 issue of the Journal of American Folklore before publishing his archaeological findings. It was the first historical documentation of the Delta blues.
Peabody—a great-nephew of the Peabody Museum’s founder, George Peabody—was an accomplished archaeologist studying Native American earth mounds when he encountered the Delta blues sung by the men on his excavation and people nearby.
“The Methodist hymns sung on Sundays were repeated in unhappy strains, often lead by one as choragus, with a refrain in ‘tutti,’ hymns of the most doleful import,” he wrote. “Rapid changes were made from these to ‘ragtime’ melodies of which ‘Molly Brown’ and ‘Goo-goo Eye’ were great favorites….These syncopated melodies, sung or whistled, generally in strict tempo, kept up hour after hour a not in-effective rhythm, which we decidedly should have missed had it been absent.”
Ever the scholar, Peabody noted that his recollections “may be suggestions for future study in classification” of the music that came to known as the Delta blues.
Want to learn more? Two authors devote a chapter to Peabody’s discovery in their books: Robert Palmer, Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta (Penguin 1981) and Ted Gioia, Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music (W.W. Norton 2008).
Every third Saturday of the month, the Museum offers a family program. On a recent Saturday afternoon, children and parents filled the Education Classroom, exploring ancient Maya culture through crafts, activities, and hands-on artifacts. Younger children assembled a giant jigsaw of a Maya king and made colorful tracings and rubbings of the Maya glyphs for the sun god, “jaguar,” “bat,” and “crocodile.” Older children constructed their own Maya-style codex (book) inspired by the design of the Madrid Codex. They folded paper into simple accordions, then drew scenes and added glyphs of their own or pasted in ready-made glyphs.
“Creating a codex activity was more suitable for older kids, but even some of the younger kids were drawn to it, coloring glyph components in different colors,” said Education Specialist Andy Majewski. “They noticed there are real distinct parts to each of these complex glyphs. That was wonderful to see.”
This summer’s interns came away with diverse and enriching experiences working with the collections. Ten students from Harvard, Harvard Extension School, and Yale worked in the Conservation, Curatorial, Education, Osteology and Paleoanthropology, Zooarchaeology, and Registration departments.
Among their projects were organizing the osteology, Zooarchaeology, and Boston Museum collections, and researching recent acquisitions and archaeological excavations.
The Hall of the North American Indian exhibition got particular TLC. Three interns carefully performed conservation tasks on the Southeastern cases, and two helped develop a tour for Native American youth, while a third helped create a new vision for several cases in the gallery. Watch for new developments in the Hall this fall.