Inside the Peabody Museum: February 2011

Student Makes Ancient Whistling Bottles Perform

researchers get sound from Chimu whistling pot

Chimu whistling pot

Listen to the whistling bird bottles:
Bird bottle whistle mp3; Jaguar bottle whistle mp3

A bird head is a fitting decoration for the spout of this ancient ceramic vessel from Peru's Chimu culture. The vessel was designed to whistle like a bird, and it still works, as student researcher Danielle Parga proved recently. The whistle mechanism is inside the spout with the bird head. As air is forced past the whistle, a convincing bird-like sound emerges.

While research on the sounds produced Peruvian whistling vessels has been conducted by archaeologists and musicians since the mid 20th century, the Peabody’s collection of Peruvian whistling vessels had never been tested. Professor Tom Cummins, Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian and Colonial Art, requested Parga research and record sounds made by Peruvian whistling vessels in the Peabody Museum collections. He wanted to demonstrate the sounds for students in his courses, such as The Imperial Arts of the Inca and the Aztec and Pathways through the Andes.

After carefully weighing conservation issues and research interests with Museum best practices regarding artifact preservation, Museum staff worked with Professor Cummins and Parga. The team chose specific vessels based on their stability and the likelihood of each vessel’s “sounding” potential.

Andean whistling vessels belong to a tradition beginning in 1000 B.C. and they are still made today. There are two varieties of whistling vessels: one variety has a stirrup spout while the other variety is a two-chambered vessel. Two chambered vessels, like those tested by Parga, can be tested either by blowing into the spout just as one would with an ordinary whistle, or alternatively, by simply tipping the vessel when it's partially filled with water. That's right; no blowing is required.

While other museums and researchers have recorded sounds from Peruvian whistle vessels, Parga noted that she was skeptical of the vessel’s ability to a sound: "These bottles are 1000 years old."

Working with museum staff, Parga tested two vessels using the water method. The bird vessel was filled with water to a level just above the passage which connects the two chambers. Then, digital recorder in hand, the vessel was tipped so water inside the chamber topped by the bird whistle (shown on the left side of the top photo) drained to the other chamber. This part of the process resulted in silence and some water sloshing. Then, as they tipped the vessel back the opposite way, refilling the first chamber with water, the water forced the air past the whistle, producing sustained bird calls.

"Actually hearing the bottle—it was magical," remembers Parga."We were so surprised. We turned off the recorder and we couldn't believe how wonderful it was."

Find out more about the music of Peruvian whistling vessels in Dale Olsen’s 2002 Music of El Dorado: The Ethnomusicology of Ancient South American Cultures available through University Press of Florida. Audio examples of whistling vessels from UCLA collections that accompany the book can be found here. (tracks 30–33).

"Watching" the Pots

Nampeyo pottery

Born in northern Arizona around 1860, Hopi potter Nampeyo started making pottery as a child and continued working with the clay until her death in 1942, despite her blindness late in life. She learned the traditional craft from her Hopi grandmother and mother, and raised pottery making to a fine art over her lengthy career.

“Some people have perfect pitch; Nampeyo had the ability to make perfectly shaped pots. She also had incredible drawing skills. She’s an unacknowledged American modernist artist,” says Steve Elmore, an oil painter and self-described Indian trader who has been fascinated by Nampeyo’s work for over 20 years.

Elmore recently traveled from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to research the Peabody Museum’s Keam collection of Nampeyo’s work. He was accompanied by contemporary Hopi potter and Nampeyo descendant Rachel Sahmie, whose insights will enrich his study. “The Peabody Museum has 200 to 300 of Nampeyo’s pots,” says Elmore, “but few have been previously identified as hers because they are early, and we were not able to distinguish them before. But the Keam collection, assembled between 1875 and 1892, has identifiable batches of pottery by Nampeyo.”

Elmore is bringing his passion for Nampeyo’s artistry to the book he is writing about her work, to be published as a Peabody Museum Collections Series volume, tentatively titled Watching the Pots. “That’s how Rachel Sahmie describes our research,” Elmore chuckled. “We’re watching the pots.”

There is much to see in Nampeyo’s pottery. Elmore says the bowl above was made around 1900 and is “white slipped and traditionally fired in wood and manure or coal. The design represents a powerful kachina figure, complete with feathered headdress.” Kachinas are spirit beings of the Hopi who still dance and conduct ceremonies in the Pueblo villages of northern Arizona.

“Most of Nampeyo’s masterpieces were created after 1892, even after 1900,” says Elmore, “but in this collection I feel like I’ve found her beginnings, her apprenticeship work. She’s a great artist who hasn’t been clearly accepted yet in art history circles, but she will be.”

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


Get up close to the Feejee Mermaid or discover what ancient Maya murals reveal about Maya music. Visit the Peabody Museum's YouTube channel.

February 10

5:30 pm

Visible Language Series Lecture

To Write or Knot? Another Route to Record Keeping in the Ancient Americas

February 17

5:30 pm

Tatiana Proskouriakoff Award Lecture

The Ajaw’s Own Words: Oration and Royal Testimony in Ancient Maya Texts

February 19

Noon–4:00 pm

Family Program

School Vacation Discovery Room

February 23–26

Noon–4:00 pm

Family Program

School Vacation Discovery Room


February 24

5:30 pm

Visible Language Series Lecture

The Living Sign: Maya Hieroglyphs and Vitalized Writing