Peabody Museum Ethnographic Collection

Haida carved cockle. Source: Peabody.

The Peabody Museum at Harvard has a predictably great collection from the Northwest Coast.  I’m more drawn to the archaeological-type artifacts vs. the masks and baskets and argillite, but fill your eyes with the charming Haida carving of a cockle, above, collected in “Massett Bay”.

One nice thing about this collection is the accession ledger is also scanned in and made available.  For example, if you go the the page for the cockle above here, you can click on the cockle picture for a higher resolution, on the first ledger page for the left hand side of the ledger book, and on the second for the right hand side.  It is possible in this way to do some ad hoc fact checking of their descriptions to finding additional information. For example, the cockle’s second page contains the notation “taken from the interior of R/200”.  Accession number R/200 turns out to be this unusual ?argillite carved box with inlaid shell.

Some of the other objects are equally unusual – I’d say there are more “wow – never seen one of those before” moments in this collection than any other I have seen.

Haida bark peeler from Massett. Source: Peabody.

"Stone sledge" from Skidegate. Source: Peabody.

The above items are two nice utilitarian tools from Haida Gwaii, the bark peeler donated by one J.G. Swan.  You can use the search form to find items: if you search under “Who” using an ethnolinguistic term (e.g., Haida) it works well for the Northwest Coast; you can also search by keyword, often with many more hits.  When you get the list of search results, you need to click on the text, not the picture, to go to the accession record.  Then, as noted above, you need to click on the picture (even though the cursor does not change when you hover over it) to get the higher resolution.  It’s a good system and the links are stable, but the fact I have to explain it suggests it could be better designed.  Also, while individual objects can be linked with stable URLs, searches cannot be.

"Stone pendant charm for scratching: argillite with bear motif and red pigment". Source: Peabody

But you didn’t click on “read more” to see bark peelers.  One of the most unusual objects I have ever seen from the Northwest Coast is shown above.  While the web page describes it as “Tlingit?  Haida?”, the ledger book describes it as “Stone ornament – Haidah (Emmons)” which makes it seem initially likely to be Kaigani Haida — a branch of the Haida Nation who live on Prince of Wales Island in Alaska, where Lt. Emmons worked.  However, the ledger goes on to read “the stone is probably Chinese, and imported to the Queen Charlotte Islands by traders”, which suggests Haida  Gwaii origin.  I don’t know on what basis the stone is said to be imported other than it is a very unusual medium for NW Coast stone carving (it looks like alabaster?) and overall it is an extremely rare and enigmatic carving.  And is it really just a “bear” — aren’t those flukes in the bottom centre, meaning this is a sea-bear or Wasgo?

Skokomish digging stick. Source: Peabody.

In other cases, the ledger book is able to clarify vague descriptions, such as the above digging stick which is described on the web as Salish-Puget Sound but this is clarified in the ledger to the Skokomish Tribe.

"Whale Bone Club for killing deer", Nootka Sound. Source: Peabody.

There is a huge collection of ethnographic objects at the Peabody and almost all of these were unfamiliar to me, such as the spectacular Nuu-chah-nulth club, above, or the even more unusual and spectacular club below.    The search interface is quick and efficient though not entirely transparent or intuitive.

Anyway, it’s a good place to spend a few minutes browsing – post your faves in the comments!  (limit two links per comment or you get Spam-canned)

Green stone club in design of killer whale, the blade representing the fin. "Probably Nootka (Boas)". Source: Peabody.

17 responses to “Peabody Museum Ethnographic Collection

  1. OK, here is one of my favourites – this is a truely amazing collection, thanks for pointing out it’s electronic existence.

    A carver’s knife from the NWC:

    FH Rindge, the collector/donor, looks like one of those well intentioned philanthropists of the era that might have done quite a bit of harm mixed in with his “good works”. He was interested in archaeology apparently, so that probably makes it all OK, even the temperance piece.


  2. I like these too, and they show how you probably have to browse pretty widely to find what you are after. These quill decorated deer skin trousers are noted as Tlingit, but surely must have been made by their Athapaskan speaking inland neighbours.


  3. Tlingit Hide Armor covered with Chines coins:

    This recent marmot skin throw is interesting manufacture but only a thumbnail available:

    Like the “alabaster” one above, this is described as a “scratcher”, not sure what that is:


  4. That marmot skin throw looks a lot like it might be arctic ground squirrel or “gopher” which would fit well with its Haines collection locale. Gopher blankets or robes and hides were commonly traded from the interior to the coast in this area. One archaeological example is known, the Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi robe or blanket which is briefly described in the link below as well as several other publications listed in the second link below.

    Click to access beattie_et_al_ocr_small.pdf


  5. I think that Nootkan deer club with the ‘starbursts’ was illustrated in Boas’ “Primitive Art’ book. I’ll have to look tomorrow. I also agreed on the ‘Athapaskan’ origin for the buckskin trousers; and the ledger states this. As usual for these catalogues (and BC Site Inventory Forms!), there seems to be a lot of detail in the handwritten version that often isn’t transcribed.

    Great site! The Haida bark-peeler looks like one for raising the bottom fringe of bark on a cedar; similar to the antler bark-peelers for pine cambium in the interior. THe Royal BC Museum has a fantastic Haida bark peeler that is like an overgrown spatula, made from yew, about 2.5 m long. I suspect its for assisting with loosening the bark from the big rectangular slabs used to make cedar ‘bark boards’. Its worth asking to see if you are ever touring collections at the RBCM.


  6. Whaling harpoon with mussel shell blade, bone toggle, cedar bark sheath. Its attributed to Makah, but that looks like an attempt to correct the original entry which was for ‘Esquimo’ so it could also be Ditidaht or Nuu-chah-nulth another couple, attributed to Quileute, the top of one kwiqablh (whale harpoon sheath in Ditidaht) turns from the unprocessed cedar bark into fine weaving. It has the look of West Coast twining or possibly wrapped twining. Lovely!


  7. I’ve just had so many “WOW, never seen that before” moments (or only in a black and white drawing in Teit) when I searched on “Thompson River”. THere are over 350 objects, many of them utterly unique, and apparently very well-described – the descriptions are mostly truncated. This is surely James Teit’s work over many decades. I was expecting mostly coiled baskets when I started the search, after noticing a ‘Thompson beaver spear’ in an earlier search on harpoons. But the objects are from all parts of life, from simply bundled and tied Douglas-fir branches used as a pubescent girl’s mask, to a rattlesnake skin container for bird down, to complex equipment for various ball and dart games, to ‘practice arrows’ vs. war spears; several items with hafted flaked stone; and the drawings and paintings on the buckskin clothing items are clearly related to pictographs. The things are clearly not made for the collector market. I’m completely in awe, and choked up to find such a large collection in such excellent condition. THanks for finding this Q!


  8. It seems sometimes like the same 100 objects get illustrated all the time. But, this is an incredible collection of items which seems to be under the collective radar? I haven’t had much chance to go through it myself, but here goes a few which caught my eye under who = “Kwakiutl”

    Stone paint dish, with paint, from Mamalilakula:

    Oolichan dip net from Kingcome:

    Fish trap: Alert Bay

    Halibut float made from hair seal bladder:

    Hooked stick for raising flounder lines:


  9. This is an incredible collection and great to see online.

    Whats surprising to me is the seeming lack of additional contextual information about the objects aside from the threadbare ledger. Does this represent the sum total of desired knowledge about the objects? Have they not had time to add detail to their catalogue over the last 100-200 years? What does this say about their capacity, interest, and academic basis for curating these highly interesting artifacts?


  10. The condition of things looked good, I suspect their conservators are top-notch; I wondered about additional information; certainly the James Teit collections came with more. I’d give them a C+ for their database – poor control over synonymy (if thats how to describe multiple entries or spellings of the same thing).


    • Hi Morley, twoeyes,

      I think synonymy is a huge problem for any museum. Consider they have tens of thousands of things from all over the world – should they wait before putting them online before someone can basically write a thesis on each area? I think they do very well indeed to include the ledger books – though the next step would be to include a user comments form which would allow someone such as you or I to make gentle little corrections or add some insight. I think the Brooklyn Museum does this.

      They are on the right path though for sure — note also the options to avoid the display of human remains and the warnings of sensitivity. This is part of an emerging rubric of “virtual repatriation” which actually has its nexus right here in B.C:

      Click to access 50-4-Kate-Hennessy-In-Focus.pdf

      Twoeyes – I suspect there is more for some items, but again, integration of disparate sources of information from, say, Teit’s field notes into the ledger book is unlikely. Again, allowing a sort of “crowd sourced” input into each accession record would be a cool thing.

      I see the Peabody is now following this blog on “twitter” so maybe they have something to say! I am finding it hard to fault them since in my travels through the internavel, theirs is one of the best presentations I have seen – compare to RBCM or NMC if you don’t believe it.


  11. I don’t think some of this is going to require field notes; in this case, I’d be willing to bet that James Teit, as thorough as he was, included a detailed catalogue when he submitted the artifacts. For instance, Peabody # 15-36-10/86316 has a caption “Old snow shoe. Filling of cowskin thongs. Made by Atlaxaiux half way between L”

    This truncated information doesn’t appear in the original ledger, so they got it somewhere else. Its fascinating, because it gives the maker’s name and, apparently, the location where he made it, and who knows what other gems of ‘agency’.

    Peabody # 15-36-10/86385 on the other hand, has the truncated part of the text in the ledger; but it must have been copied in there. Talk about ‘never seen this before’ – modified deer mandibles with the teeth used to make parallel lines in face paint, apparently just for pubescent girls.

    I thought that 15-36-10/86424 was the one illustrated in Teit 1900 Figure 260 (you can download the entire document, I expect Q has the link!); but close examination shows this “Ketckaitcola or ring for throwing stick game.” has ovoid glass trade beads on the six inner projections, where the illustrated one has facetted glass beads. So they aren’t necessarily the illustrated items. THe inner beads do conform to his notation about 4 dark and 2 light colours. He has all the rules including how many points were scored based on which combination of colours landed on the special throwing stick. You could easily recreate several of these games based on his descriptions.


  12. Would you be intersted in purchasing a Northwest Coast Rattle? I inherited it from my father, who as far back as I can remeber, a collector. I have such things as this rattle a Navajo rug, some iroquois raised beadwork. I am enrolled Oneida from Wisconsin. If you have no interest, would you be so kind as to point me in the right direction. I would really like to sell some pieces but dont know where to go. Thank you! Cheryl


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