Talking with the Belts at Harvard Peabody

Group picture storage rooms(From left to right: Margaret Bruchac; Patricia Capone, Museum Curator and Director of Research and Repatriation; Lise Puyo; Stephanie Mach; Susan Haskell, Curatorial Associate and Research Coordinator)

by Lise Puyo

When we entered the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, I thought looking at the belts would be a courteous visit before we can delve into the real work: rummaging the archives, looking at collectors’ correspondence and accession ledgers. When we passed the storage doors, stepping on a sticky carpet to leave our dust outside, Susan Haskell said “We don’t have much data,” and I thought I would soon be able to take off my gloves and chill out before lunch. Four hours later, we were still talking with excitement, taking notes and pictures as fast as we could.

For the time being, we cannot share our pictures of the belts and collars we paid a visit to, but we can share our impressions (and you can see the collections online).

I thought we would soon be done with looking at the objects because I trusted the pictures: I had seen those belts and collars, I knew their designs and the number of rows, I knew their inventory cards. Looking at them more closely, however, new insights began to surface. One collar was entirely woven on linen threads of a reddish brown color and a deep green color. That’s unusual! The constructions allowed us to differentiate artists, styles, and maybe regions of production, so maybe different uses as well. Whether the collar is worn or held, the ends are not tied the same. Sometimes sweat has soaked into the leather, giving this specific shine to it, indicating how often it was worn.

We are also starting to notice glass beads. Since those are in the white designs, it is hard to tell in photographs if you do not know what you are looking for. They do not shine, they are somehow greyer than the shell beads and more regular. Now, we are looking for glass beads in every belt we meet! Some of them have none, some of them have some, and some of them have an unexpectedly large number.

Group ic with Emily cropped 1024(With Emily Pierce, Curatorial Assistant and Academic Partnership)

On our second day at Harvard, Emily Pierce showed us the material from the Campbell factory, which was great for comparing the shells that beads were being made from. With the debris from the site, we were also able to reconstruct step by step how they would turn a full shell into tiny beads. We realized that they were not only making wampum on the Campbell site; they were also making long beads for breastplates and abelone ornaments.

Going forward, we are now aware of the increasing complexities of wampum manufacture. We are looking for: glass, quahog, whelk, conch beads; brain tanned leather, rawhide, sinew, hemp, linen, cotton; sweat, red ochre, and dirt (the list is still growing).

All of the above are indicative of artists, intents, and relationships.

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