Inside the Peabody Museum: June 2014

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JEOPARDY! Features Peabody Museum

Secrets of the Diquís Ball

Coming up at the Peabody

 jeopardyJEOPARDY! Features Peabody Museum

Peabody Museum fans had a jump on the answers to May 29th's JEOPARDY! clues. A Maya stela, Chinese "lotus" shoes, and the colorful Day of the Dead altar were among the objects featured on the wildly popular game show in a "World Cultures" category.

Last winter, hours before the museum opened to the public, JEOPARDY!'s "Clues Crew" arrived to shoot clues in the gallery. The crew's visit was weeks in the planning: museum staff secretly coordinated with the show's producers and clue writers to prepare the "clues" and choreograph the shoot efficiently, so the public could enter the galleries as usual at 9:00 AM.

diquis ball install photo by John Hollister

The stone ball (65-48-20/22980) and its base (2012.0.59) were reinstalled next to the Peabody Museum. Photo by John F. Hollister, Senior Capital Project Manager, FAS - Office of Physical Resources and Planning. See more installation photos on Facebook.

Secrets of the Diquís Ball

As a crowd gathered to watch, the Peabody Museum’s 4,800 lb. stone ball from Costa Rica and its base returned to Divinity Avenue recently. The ball and its base were removed from their nearby leafy courtyard spot in 2012, and stored as the new Tozzer anthropology library was constructed next door. Now the ball is closer to the museum's entrance, just in front of the glass bridge joining the museum to Tozzer Library and which now doubles as the new wheelchair-accessible entrance.  Peabody Museum William and Muriel Seabury Howells Director Jeff Quilter, offered this primer on the stone ball.

Many people will wonder about the origin, purposes, and manufacturing processes of the stone ball. Well, archaeologists are wondering too, although they do have some answers to some of the questions. First, while there are some round stones that occur naturally, the hundreds found in Costa Rica all appear to have been made by humans. They were made of a range of different materials but most of them are made of diorite, closely related to granite. The majority of stone balls are found in southern Costa Rica in what is known as the Zona Sur (Southern Zone), especially in the Diquís Delta, and they started to be made circa C.E. 700 or so and continued to be made until about C.E. 1300.

Stone balls range in size from small to large. Some people consider marble-sized objects as part of a mini-macro world of these artifacts but we are fairly sure that bowling ball-sized objects fit into the category. The largest are slightly over 2 meters in diameter and weigh several tons. The Peabody Museum stone ball is on the larger end of the medium-sized stone balls.

And what were they used for? Unfortunately, because so many were looted to be placed as lawn ornaments or in front of governmental buildings and churches, this question is hard to answer. Happily, however, recent excavations by Costa Rica archaeologists have found many balls in situ. They appear to have had a wide variety of uses but mostly marked spaces of political and ceremonial importance such as the fronts of chief's houses, around the edges of cemeteries and plazas, and so forth. Some appear have been placed in alignments in relation to celestial events of importance.

One final note: not all of them are perfectly round although many appear to be close to spherical. They were made by chipping and grinding as based on evidence at workshops and forms, probably made from wood or other perishable materials, likely were used as patterns by which to carve them from the parent rock. Some people refer to these objects as "spheres," but since all are not perfectly round and "sphere" generally refers to a hollow form, I believe that "ball" is a better term as it does not pretend to a precision that is not always present. Lastly, many people ask "why a round ball?" One answer, of course, is "why not a round ball?" which is close to the mark. "Perfect" (or near- perfect) round objects are rare in nature so these stone sculptures are strong cultural markers on the landscape. In addition, ethnographic accounts by the Bribri, Cabécar, and Brunca descendants of the people who made these objects refer to spheres of reality and the cosmos, so these kinds of ideas probably were also part of the world views of the peoples who made these balls expressing such cosmovisions in them.

There is not a lot of literature in English on these objects but further reading may be found in:
Patricia Fernández and Ifigenia Quintanilla 2003 "Metallurgy, Balls, and Stone Statuary in the Diquís Delta, Costa Rica: Local Production of Power Symbols. Pp. 205-244 in "Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia," Jeffrey Quilter and John W. Hoopes, eds. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.

storied walls

Calling all Museum Lovers: Hands-on Inspiration Workshops

What draws you to a museum object? Which objects resonate with you and inspire you to think of your own life and experiences? Help museum experts understand the power of the anthropological collections you see on display. This fun free 45-minute workshop will allow you to have a hands-on exploration of objects and share your own ideas about what the objects mean to you.

Come alone, with a friend, or with children, and bring nonmembers for free. Workshops will be held 10am-5pm from Tuesday, July 1st through Saturday, July 5th. Please contact the workshop developer, Dr. Monique Scott at for more information or to register for a visit. There will be a small "thank-you" gift for participants.


Special Event

Saturday, June 21, 5:00-9:00 pm

Summer Solstice Celebration: Night at the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture

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