Inside the Peabody Museum: November 2010

Artists Reveal Stories Behind the Day of the Dead Altar

day of the dead altar

The Day of the Dead altar is one of the Peabody Museum’s most popular exhibitions.

Originating with the Aztecs, the Mexican Day of the Dead is a unique blend of Mesoamerican and Christian rituals. The holiday, which is celebrated on November 1, All Saints’ Day, is usually dedicated to children; November 2, All Souls’ Day, is dedicated to adults.

Traditions vary from region to region, but generally families gather at cemeteries to tend and decorate the graves of their departed loved ones and remember them by telling stories, eating their favorite foods, and dancing in their honor. Many families build altars at home, decorated with flowers and food, especially pan de muerto or “bread of the dead.” A festive and social occasion, the holiday welcomes the return of those who have died and recognizes the human cycle of life and death.

brownie and ratty eat cheese

A number of the artists who contributed panels to the exterior of the altar have donated their works to the Peabody Museum. They share their thoughts about the creative process, their inspiration, and what the altar means to them.

Peabody Museum Curatorial Assistant Bob Ganong is one of the artists. He explains the visual pun of "Brownie & Ratty Eat Cheese”: "The rodent is often a disparaged creature. But Brownie and Ratty were beloved by my son, Elias. His first pets. And, soon, as with little animal friends, they were his first experience of the loss of a loved one in his own life. I painted this panel to give them all of the pleasure and importance in death that they afforded him in life."

day of the dead panel - pulling

"The Pulling" is a collage which combines the work of four American artists: the late painter Susan Melikian; Ippy Patterson, an award-winning illustrator; Toots Zynsky, a glassmaker whose works are represented in numerous museums, including the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and Smithsonian National Museum of American Art; and designer April Flory. Greg Steinsieck, Sue Melikian’s husband, comments, “This work was a celebration of their collaboration with Sue. Sue was in a tremendous battle. It didn’t bother her to look soundly at her mortality.”

To create “The Pulling,” Sue's friends provided her with elements to incorporate into the collage. “The idea of a glass nest was Toots’ response to Sue’s sea forms, especially sea urchins, that Sue used in her own work.” In “The Pulling,” Melikian, who had trained as a jazz musician and vocalist, emphasized “rhythmic components that set up a musical character.”

In the last five years of her life, Sue Melikian exhibited her artwork in Valencia, New York, Boston, and Beijing. She died in 2006.

day of the dead panel - drums

Greg Steinsieck, an artist in his own right, explains his work, “Drums at the River’s Edge”: “The river is where the quadrants of earth, sky, water, and fire interface and overlap. In a sense we are all at the edge of the river . . . the drums excite and bring us to that moment that we can glimpse death and that says there is no death in death.”
Greg, who teaches the visual arts at Brookline High School, sees the artwork in the Day of the Death exhibit as a source of energy and inspiration. “Artists are always working to open everyone’s eyes to the deep threads of meaning that hold people together.” Contributed by Genevieve Fisher, Registrar

"...and Other Duties as Required."

vacuuming a stelaCuratorial Assistant Stu Heebner dons a lab coat and climbs onto an industrial lift for this grooming job. Periodically, the giant casts of Maya monuments (stelae) in the Encounters with the Americas exhibition need to be cleared of odd bits of dust and debris that accumulate in a public space. 

"I live to clean," jokes Heebner, who actually spends more time photographing, inventorying, rehousing, and moving around artifacts. "I used a special vacuum from the Conservation Department. It has variable speed suction for more controlled cleaning of museum artifacts.” He also used it to sweep the totem poles and the enormous carved wooden dance screen hanging up high in the Hall of the North American Indian. “Very few people get to be face-to-face with a bear or other clan figure carved into a totem pole twenty feet up in the air. But the best part? Maneuvering the lift we borrowed from the campus maintenance department. I’d never done that before. It felt as if I was a brain inside a robot.” Photo by Jeffrey Quilter.

Animal Skull Carved by Ancient Mayans Sparks New Research

carved peccary and drawing

The newly reassembled Skull 2. Left: conservation treatment and photograph by Scott Fulton. Right: drawing by Marc Zender.

In September 2008, Curatorial Assistant Martha Labell was inventorying a tray of organic materials. To her surprise, she found the elusive fragments of an animal skull carved by the Maya and buried in a tomb sometime during the 7th century. The fragments had become separated over the centuries and mixed with other samples.

Labell’s re-discovery sparked immediate interest among the Mesoamericanist specialists at the Peabody Museum. The Museum is the caretaker of a well-known and more complete carved animal skull (skull 1) from the same tomb in Copan, Honduras. Skull 1 is considered one of the finest Maya bone carvings ever discovered and it has long intrigued archaeologists. Naturally, the second skull (skull 2) presented new opportunities for learning about Maya culture and history.
Both skulls are from small wild pigs called peccaries. The peccary skulls were found on the floor of Tomb 1, in an area south of the main Acropolis excavated in 1892 by Marshall Saville during the Peabody Museum’s expedition to Copan. In his field notes, Saville wrote he believed the skulls were intended for use as vessels. Both were broken when discovered, but only one was ever repaired. Under one of the skulls, Saville notes there were two bone needles.

In 2004, Harvard undergraduate and Peabody Summer intern Diana Fridberg studied peccary skull 1 and the fragment(s) of skull 2 known at the time, and wrote her senior thesis on the topic of peccaries (a version soon to be published in Ancient Mesoamerica). Peccaries were a rare but important food source for the ancient Maya inhabitants of Copan, and it is believed that the constellation Gemini may have been seen as three running peccaries by the ancient Maya. Based on this knowledge and an analysis of the carved images and inscriptions, Fridberg concluded that peccaries help to bridge the boundary between the natural world and supernatural worlds, and were therefore an appropriate bone on which to carve scenes taking place in both realms.

Following Labell’s re-discovery, Barbara Fash (Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphics Inscriptions Program Director), Bill Fash (Howells Director of the Peabody Museum and Bowditch Professor of Central American and Mexican Archaeology and Ethnology), and Marc Zender (Peabody Museum Associate Curator), took a closer look at the object's imagery and incised hieroglyphs, a process greatly facilitated by Barbara Fash's recognition of precisely how the small pieces fitted into a coherent design. Nawa Sugiyama (anthropology graduate student and zooarchaeology specialist) examined the two skulls for comparative studies and species identification. She reported that both specimens seem to be Tayassu peccaries (collared peccaries). Conservator Scott Fulton attended to the conservation treatment of the fragments. Once they were rematched, he skillfully adhered the fragments and built a support and box for the newly reassembled skull.

Following their study of the skull's imagery, Barbara Fash, Bill Fash and Marc Zender have recently concluded that the central scene, although badly damaged, probably depicted the interaction of Itzamnaaj (the Maya Creator God) with a hummingbird: a mythological scene well-known from early Maya murals and later painted vessels. It it therefore similar at least in some ways to the mythological subject matter already known from peccary skull 1.

After studying and drawing the hieroglyphs on skull 2, Marc Zender noted that it has “four hieroglyphs executed in a rapid but practiced hand, almost certainly with a sharp tool perhaps made of flint or obsidian.” He says the first two may be read as “It is the bone of the one from ‘big eye’-house,”a method of ‘name-tagging’ common to many inscribed objects among the Classic Maya. “The title of the bone’s possessor is much less well known, Zender continues. “It involves a rare piscine main sign with an over-large eye. This place name appears on Copan Stela 12, commissioned by king K'ahk' Uti' Witz' K'awiil (Ruler 12) in AD 628. It may refer to the location of Stela 12 itself, high up in the hills to the west of Copan's Acropolis and principal group of ruins.”

The next two glyphs appear to continue the names and titles of the skull's owner or commissioner: “Lord of Copan, Southern Yoon.” Zender points out that “although neither glyph is fully deciphered, the first is well known as the Emblem Glyph of Copan, whereas the second is an interesting title connected to Ruler 12 in several other Copan inscriptions. While at least one other later ruler also carries this title, the connection to K’ahk’ Uti’ Witz’ K’awiil seems more than coincidental.”

Considered together, Zender suggests the skull “makes mention of one of the most important kings of 7th-century Copan. Since we know that K’ahk’ Uti’ Witz’ K’awiil was buried in the Chorcha tomb beneath Copan’s Hieroglyphic Stairway, this important object may have been a gift given to the occupant of Tomb 1 by the king, or may have been an heirloom piece put to rest with a less exalted member of the royal family. In any case, a proposed mid to late 7th-century date would also be consistent with the ceramics recovered from Tomb 1.”

“It is always exciting when an object we knew about from the 19th-century reports is relocated during the Collections Departments on-going systematic inventory,” says Barbara Fash. “The rediscovery of the fragments of the lesser-known skull 2 was just that kind of moment. The skull added additional insights to a student’s research and opens more questions about Ruler 12’s interactions with local nobles.”


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


Did you miss the Visible Language lecture, Diviners and Scribes: The Origins and Development of Writing in China? Listen here.

October 29

5:30 pm

Robert Gardner will appear in person at a reception at the Harvard Film Archive on Friday, October 29 at the Sert Gallery of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (24 Quincy St., Cambridge). The reception will be followed by a screening of Gardner’s film Still Journey On and other new work at 7 PM. Gardner's new book, Just Representations, will be available for purchase at the reception. The reception, sponsored by the Peabody Museum, and screening are part of Still Journey On: The Films of Robert Gardner, a film series by the Harvard Film Archive running October 15–November 8, 2010. Space is limited for the screenings; please reserve tickets in advance.

 November 2

3-5 PM

Day of the Dead Family Event

November 2

6-8:30 PM

Day of the Dead Fiesta FREE TICKETS ARE SOLD OUT, but admission will offered to those without tickets if costumed as Catrina or Catrin. See full details on the Day of the Dead Fiesta link.)

catrinaHaul out your feather boas, your long skirts, your elegant and enormous hats, or for the gentlemen, your tux.

In addition to the music of La Tuza, new altars, and refreshments from some of your favorite Mexican restaurants, this year’s Day of the Dead Fiesta on Tuesday, November 2 from 6-8:30 PM, will feature a contest for the best Catrina/Catrin costumes. Gentlemen, this includes you.

What is La Catrina? Created by Mexican engraver and illustrator José Guadalupe Posada in 1913, la calavera catrina ("elegant skeleton," shown here) is a zinc etching, and now iconic image of the Mexican Day of the Dead. Posada (1852–1913) often used his illustrations and engraving of skeletons to mock the upper classes and social and political injustice. La Catrina is a high-society lady wearing all her finery and her signature, large, fancy hat. She is a symbol of the rich and fashionable who despite their pretensions to importance are just as susceptible to death as the rest of us. Catrin is a male high society skeleton.

No tickets or reservations are required for the Family Event (3–5 PM, also on November 2). Enjoy!

November 15

Winners of the Talking Aztecs caption contest will be posted on Facebook and our website. 

November 18

5:30 PM

Yenching Auditorium

2 Divinity Ave.

Art as Writing: The Magic of Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Peter Der Manuelian, Philip J. King Professor of Egyptology, Harvard University


November 20

Family Event: Day of the Dead in the Discovery Room

December 9

5:30 pm

Yenching Auditorium

2 Divinity Ave.

New event: Founder's Lecture

Technology, Tombs, and Texts: Uncovering the Ancient Maya Past at Caracol, Belize

Diane Z. Chase, Vice-Provost in Academic Affairs, University of Central Florida (UCF) and Arlen Chase, UCF Anthropology Chair