Tag Archives: museums

La Brea Woman: Image Controversy

La Brea Woman forensic reconstruction.

I came across this interesting article chronicling an emerging controversy in Los Angeles.  I never knew that human remains had been found in the La Brea tar pits, but a partial skeleton of a young female had been on display until recently in the George C. Page Museum there.  At some point, a museum  volunteer made forensic-style reconstructive drawings of this young woman.  Now the museum is trying to prevent their publication, a move which some claim is designed to help prevent their repatriation.

Are illustrations of human remains tantamount to display of the human remains themselves?  Is the display of a cast any different?  The forensic reconstructionist apparently used the cast, not the actual skull. But consider the process of making a cast: is not that a greater insult to the dead than merely handling their bones would be?  In any case, these forensic reconstructions contain a little too much interpretive latitude: consider the Kennewick man reconstruction whose resemblance to Patrick Stewart has done nothing to quell the notion Kennewick man was ‘Caucasian’. Further, the forensic reconstructions include disturbing “cutaways” revealing the reconstructive process and producing an otherworldly, inhuman appearance (see below).

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Pitt Rivers Museum Haida Collection on flickr.com

Any idea what activity is being represented on this Haida argillite carving?

The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is one of the world’s great ethnological museums.  Indeed, it is largely presented as a “museum of a museum”, with artifacts and curios displayed in glass cases in juxtapositions that made sense to anthropologists.  Now I see they are putting some of their collection online – one of many interesting innovations going on at that museum.  The Haida Collection which Cara Krmpotich has worked on consists of 200 really well composed and lit photos on the flickr.com website.  Cara notes that she hopes making this material available in this manner will facilitate its use by Haida people and I expect they will (indeed one person with a Haida name has been commenting on some of the photos).  Coincidentally, I see there has recently been a Haida delegation to the Pitt-Rivers museum.

In any case, the flickr set is a fantastic set of images of Haida art and technology. It would be nice to have the full catalogue information or other information associated with these, or at least a statement that such information is lacking.  While there are visually spectacular items throughout the set, also check these plain spoons from SGang’gwaay, Tanu’uu and Masset,  this bird bone whistle, and this tidy little loop of twine.

Haida wooden labret at Pitt Rivers museum.

Argillite Beaver

Haida argillite pipe representing the SS Beaver. Photo: University of Aberdeen.

The SS Beaver was a prominent early side-wheel trading ship on the NW Coast.  Nice to see it memorialized by Haida argillite pipe in the Marischal Museum collection of the University of Aberdeen, along with some other exceptional Haida pipes.  Apparently donated to the museum by the former Captain of the SS Beaver, William Mitchell, this pipe sports a rotating side wheel carved from whale bone, a beaver figurehead, and someone peeking out of the cabin windows, perhaps Capt. Mitchell himself who probably commissioned this carving.  Some other close ups (in an awkward zoomable interface) are  available on the Scots and Aboriginal People in the Fur Trade site.  More on the SS Beaver here.

A figure looking out the window of the SS Beaver pipe.

The Brooklyn Museum Collection

Tsimshian Skull "Helmet".  Click for higher resolution.

Tsimshian Skull "Helmet". Click for higher resolution.

Of all places, the Brooklyn Museum has amassed an impressive suite of NW Coast artifacts and art.  Their online catalogue is mainly lodged under the  “research” and “collections” tabs.  One interesting thing about this collection is that any viewer can ‘tag‘ a picture, building up a folk taxonomy that cross-cuts more traditional museum categories.  This has its advantages of course (e.g., items which are tagged “beards“, or “scary“), but also raises questions about just how comprehensive is any set of results?  And how accurate – this rattle is tagged Tsimshian despite being collected in Bella Bella (Heiltsuk territory).  Still, with a grain of salt it is an idea definitely worth pursuing.  You can also click around on their “visible storage” map.  The images are decent resolution and combined with the tag-surfing possibilities this is a fun and informative site.

Heiltsuk Ladle with Skull. Click for larger resolution.

Heiltsuk Ladle with Skull. Click for larger resolution.

NW Coast Objects in Madrid

Tlingit adze with quillwork and copper insets in the Museo de América, Madrid.

Tlingit adze with quillwork and copper insets in the Museo de América, Madrid.

Even though the Spanish were among the first outsiders to eplore the NW Coast, you don’t hear much about collections they may have made while out here.  So it is welcome to see this (now, 10 year old) writeup on NW Coast items in Madrid’s Museo de América.  The article suggests that many such objects were collected but not retained in Royal Collections, perhaps because they were considered inferior to, say, Aztec and Inka pieces.  Either way, there are some spectacular objects illustrated in the article, though the photographs are not very sharp at all.

Going to the Museo de América’s website shows they have a search function and some online thumbnails.  This link should take you to their 52 pieces labelled as NW Coast, while this takes you to six pieces listed as from BC.   Most of the illustrations are extremely low resolution, though I found one or two which aren’t such as the outstanding Haida waterfowl, below.  Look how fluid the form-line rendering is in this 18th century piece.  Click the images on the Museo site for slightly higher resolution or go to the records page by clicking on “Ficha Completa” and then on “Ampliar Imagen”, where you can zoom in slightly using the magnifying glass.  Also worth checking out, this Tlingit clap-board style “rattle”, this foreshaft and point, and this rather spectacular hat.  Anyway, something to poke more: online catalogues in Spanish Museums.

EDIT:  I see their search function makes links to search results expire after a short time so I crossed them out, above.  Pretty lame, but there you go.  Get into the system via the generic system and then browse around, if you want.

18th Century Haida Waterfowl.

18th Century Haida waterfowl, listed as made from"Ivory".

Tseycum Repatriation from AMNH

Inside the Tseycum Longhouse.  Click Image for etended video.

Inside the Tseycum Longhouse. Click Image for extended video.

This is old news now that in 2008 the Tseycum First Nation in North Saanich managed to repatriate the remains of 55 of their ancestors who had been removed and sold by Harlan I. Smith.  What I didn’t realize is in addition to the snippet on The National with Wendy Mesley (the file is incongruously called “brown-bones” – WTF CBC?), there is also an extended uncut video of the ceremony in the Tseycum longhouse.   Cora Jacks, who spearheaded the Tseycum repatriation effort and is interviewed here, sadly passed away soon after.

The detailed field notes kept between 1854 and 1910 assisted greatly in tracing the location of the ancestral remains. Museums in the states are required by law to provide information when a nation makes its request. This law called NAGPRA is the Native American Gravesite Protection Repatriation Act and has greatly facilitated the provision of a long list of human remains and sacred objects. (Similar legislation in Canada does not exist.) Historic references show that skulls had been sold for $5 each with similar price tags having been placed on skeletal remains.

Cora had visited New York in 2005 with Vern Jacks Jr. and experienced the deep emotionality of viewing the remains stored in boxes and placed on shelves. The museum had not followed any cultural protocol so that skulls were often separated and Jacks explains the “spiritual restlessness,” which results from this disrespectful treatment. In Chicago Jacks also discovered about 79 sets of remains many of which are probably from this region and most of them were small children who had likely died of smallpox after contact with European settlers. (source).

As the NY Times noted, the Field Museum in Chicago had not yet begun repatriation negotiations with the Tseycum.  While the NAGPRA law in the states is very strong when applicable, it clearly does not apply outside American borders so credit to the AMNH for working in good faith with the Tseycum.

But also: Grant – what the heck – is it really necessary to defend Harlan Smith?  Maybe as a curator of archaeology it is.  I dunno, seems like another relativising moment rather than a chance for an apology or a plain admission that it was wrong, then and now, to steal human remains for profit. But hey, stealing their land was also done in the spirit of the times, so what the heck?  Let’s not forget the RBCM itself is built on top of a village site.

Harpoon Head from the Hunterian

I have to say, I disagree with your description.  Based on size alone, at 14 cm this is much too large to have been for salmon fishing.  Stylistically, fish harpoons tend not to have a blade bed, but rather some kind of cylinder formed by the two valves.  Flat beds such as this one are more consistent with large arming points made of ground slate or ground mussel shell.  If intended for a fish, this would be more suitable for Fraser River sturgeon, say.
But I doubt it.  I’d suggest in size and manufacture this is much more consistent with a sea mammal harpoon head.  I don’t recall seeing any of this size in Coast Salish archaeological sites.  If your provenance traces to Laskey and thus to Cook, I’d suggest it is much more likely to be from the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) area of western Vancouver Island, where Cook occupied himself much of the time he spent on the NW Coast proper, and with which it is stylistically consistent.  Indeed, even without provenance that is where I would assign it.  And I would suggest in size and manufacture it is more likely to be a large sea mammal – probably whale – harpoon head of a kind we describe out here as “Composite Toggling Harpoons”, composed of two valves forming the barbs with an allowance (usually) for an inset arming point.  Something like a sea lion harpoon I would expect to be about 2/3 of this size.   Further, Cook never really had much interaction with Coast Salish groups.
Normally too I would expect the valves on one of this size to be made of antler or of wood (yew, or Douglas fir) and not bone so that is an interesting difference.
Anyway, all this is by way of saying, it appears the lanyard extends up one side, then crosses through the notch (blade bed) to the other side where it fastens.  I’d be interested in knowing if this is the case since it would be an interesting functional design aspect encouraging the harpoon head to toggle when pressure is put on the lanyard.  If you had higher resolution pictures I would love to see them.
Composite Toggling Harpoon with lanyard.

Composite Toggling Harpoon with lanyard.

This item from the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow traces its provenance provisionally to Captain Cook:

This harpoon head has one large split point, with a curved split socket with pointed tips. It has twisted sinew lashing around the middle and a line of vegetable fibre attached. This type of harpoon would have been used to catch salmon and is stylistically attributable to the Salish people of the North West Coast of America. The harpoon was originally accessioned as donated by Dr. G. Turner, however there are no items from the North West Coast on the 1860 donation list. It may be one of the hooks mentioned by Captain John Laskey in his 1813 account of the museum, in which case it may have been collected on one of the three Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook.

I have to say, I disagree with the description. Based on size alone, at 14 cm for the head, this is much too large to have been for salmon fishing. Stylistically, fish harpoons tend not to have a blade bed, but rather some kind of groove formed by the two valves which supports a cylindrical bone point.  Flat beds such as this one are more consistent with large arming points made of ground slate or ground mussel shell. If intended for a fish, this would be more suitable for Fraser River sturgeon, say.

But I doubt it. I’d suggest in size and manufacture this is much more consistent with a sea mammal harpoon head. I don’t recall seeing any of this size in Coast Salish archaeological sites. If the provenance traces to Laskey and thus to Cook, I’d suggest it is much more likely to be from the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) area of western Vancouver Island, where Cook occupied himself much of the time he spent on the NW Coast proper, and with which it is stylistically consistent. Indeed, even without provenance that is where I would assign it.

And I would suggest in size and manufacture it is more likely to be a large sea mammal – probably whale – harpoon head of a kind we describe out here as “Composite Toggling Harpoons”, composed of two valves forming the barbs with an allowance (usually) for an inset arming point. Something like a sea lion harpoon I would expect to be about 2/3 of this size. Further, Cook never really had much interaction with Coast Salish groups.  These harpoons work by an analogous process to the toggles on a duffel coat: insert the toogle narrow-ways, then it turns side-ways and won’t pull through the loop.  For toggle, read “vicious harpoon” and for loop, read “flesh”.  Because most maritime hunting and fishing technologies require immobilization of the prey and retrieval, the technology tends to quite a bit more complex and intricate and well-engineered than terrestrial hunting technology which is more single purpose (kill!).  The composite harpoons are a great example of this.

Normally too I would expect the valves on one of this size to be made of antler or of wood (yew, or Douglas fir) and not land mammal bone so if these valves are land mammal that is an interesting difference.

Anyway, all this is by way of saying, it appears the lanyard extends up one side, then crosses through the notch (blade bed) to the other side where it fastens. This would be an interesting functional design aspect encouraging the harpoon head to toggle when tension  is put on the lanyard.  (I emailed the Hunterian to see what they think)

What is that organic matter between the valves? The lanyard?

What is that organic matter between the valves? The lanyard?