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Welcome to the Haffenreffer Museum blog, a place for museum staff and guests to reflect on the work of the museum. Visit the museum web site to learn more about us.

Exploring the Haffenreffer’s Lithic Collection

Today’s post is from Colin Porter, who will defend his dissertation in Anthropology at Brown University this spring. He reports on research conducted as a proctor at the museum in fall 2012.

Archaeologists endeavor to understand changes in human behavior over time through the systematic analysis of its physical residues: hand axes, ceramic shards, cigarette butts, and whatever else people have left behind. However, environmental conditions—soil acidity, free-thaw cycles, sea level change, and so on—conspire to leave archaeologists with only faint traces of past cultural activity.

Despite more than 12,000 years of human occupation in New England, the region is notorious for poor artifact preservation. Here, archaeologists often identify archaeological sites dating to before the era of European colonization (ca. 1500 AD) by a scatter of stone tools. The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology currently curates more than 50,000 stone tools, many collected from sites near the Collections and Research Center in Bristol, Rhode Island.

Rows of Worm boxes
Lithics in storage at the Haffenreffer’s Collections and Research Center.  (All photos by Colin Porter.)

Archaeologists have long observed that the size and shape of lithic, or stone, tools vary predictably across space and time and offers rich data for cultural analysis. In particular, triangular dart and arrow points—those lacking stems and notches—are commonly found on archaeological sites across northeastern North America. Since the 1960s, archaeologists have classified these artifacts as one of four types based on their size and shape: Squibnocket (small and heart-shaped), Beekman (small and equilateral), Madison (small and isosceles), or Levanna (large and equilateral).

Triangluar point types
Triangular point types

However, triangular points are often difficult to classify in practice. Specimens excavated from archaeological sites were often broken when they were deposited in the soil. Others intergrade—they bear characteristics of two or more types—which makes classification difficult, if not impossible. In recent years, some archaeologists have decided to give up the existing typological framework altogether.

As a museum proctor during the fall semester, from September to December 2012, I conducted an independent study of 623 triangular points from HMA’s lithic collection. I classified, measured, and recorded formal characteristics of each point (curvature of base and sides, material, and presence/absence of a tang). Then I performed a hierarchical cluster analysis, a type of quantitative analysis, to group the artifacts based on shared similarity. Finally, I performed a spatial analysis to examine the geographical distribution of different clusters.

The study revealed an alternative taxonomy of triangular points based on tool morphology. When these clusters were mapped, some clusters showed different geographical distributions. In particular, the presence of a basal tang, which appears on both Madison, Squibnocket, and Levanna types, is confined to a relatively small geographical area around the northern coast of Narragansett Bay. This evidence of intra-regional variation in material culture suggests differences in other, more ephemeral cultural practices.

Exploratory analysis of existing collections can not only generate new hypotheses for future evaluation, but also lead to better classification of specimens in the museum. While archaeologists know relatively little about the expanse of human history in New England, we are constantly learning more. The HMA’s lithic collection, one of the largest in the region, has been essential to this mission, and will continue to be so into the foreseeable future.

Thanks, Colin! Readers, you can learn more about Colin’s research on colonialism, material culture, and social memory in northeastern North America at

And please note: we welcome guest bloggers! If you are interested in writing about your experience with the Haffenreffer, please contact

Congratulations on 30 Years: Traveling Near and Far with Thierry

Back in December, Thierry Gentis, Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology Curator, celebrated 30 years with Brown.  Things were busy then — we finally get around to offering Thierry our belated but heartfelt congratulations with this post from Rip Gerry, HMA Exhibit Designer and Archivist.

When I was asked to write something short about working with Thierry in the “early days” at the Haffenreffer Museum, my initial response was: “sure, no problem.”  Then I thought “wait . . . do I have to be nice?”  In that case it will have to be short!”

When I think back to those early days, the first thing that comes to mind are road trips.   Thierry and I always seemed to be traveling in the museum’s van to pick up wondrous donations.  One of the journeys that comes to mind is a trip to Washington D.C. to pick up a West African collection being given by Bill Mithoeffer — and struggling to load up some very large heavy stone sculptures. During one trip to Philadelphia to pick up Cameroonian artifacts from Igor Kopytoff we were treated to a behind the scenes tour of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.   More than once we found ourselves in New York City to pick up donations of African art from William Brill, and were “forced” to join Mr. Brill for a martini lunch.  And there was a trip to central Ohio to retrieve Ferdinand and Beverley Bach’s donation of Northwest Coast model watercraft.  This drive is especially memorable because of the summer heat: we were on the lookout for a lake so that we could take a refreshing swim. These journeys and more are filled with good memories.

While we also took a fair share of short trips out to Cape Cod or up to Boston for the day, many of our road trips required overnight stays, and we benefited from some free time to explore the local sights.  We of course ventured into the museums and galleries to critique the displays, and I often also found myself in curio and antique shops with Thierry.  In our prowling of the shops as in our visits with generous donors, the thing that amazed me, as it still does, is Thierry’s ability to identify any artifact, no matter how obscure, and then to relate some little known fact about that type of cultural treasure.

Those who are lucky enough to be part of a tour or class led by Thierry  will know that I am not exaggerating when I say: “No one knows the collections as well as Thierry.”

~ Rip Gerry, HMA Exhibit Designer and Archivist


–Thank you, Rip.  And congratulations Thierry — here’s to many more happy years at the Haffenreffer!

See pictures of Thierry’s recent travels around campus below.

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See you in January

The blog is on hiatus for Brown’s winter break. We’ll be back in mid-January with information about the new term, graduate student research in the collections, and more. Until then, best wishes for 2013!

~ Jennifer Stampe, Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology

A note from the editor: We welcome guest bloggers! If you are interested in writing about your experience with the Haffenreffer, please contact

Installing New Student Exhibit: “City • Plaza • People”

We are deep into installation for the exhibit “City • Plaza • People: Sharing Public Space in Providence,” curated by Rebecca Carter’s class, “Urban Life: Anthropology in and of the City,” at Brown.

Please excuse our appearance!

Please excuse our appearance!

As students’ promotional materials describe it: the course has examined “public spaces in transition, focusing on Providence’s Kennedy Plaza.” The “exhibit draws from [students’] own anthropological fieldwork to explore how the plaza has evolved and how it continues to be shaped by historical and current events, urban planning and design, social movements, and everyday users.” Following the work of urban anthropologists, it understands plazas as “key sites for understanding the constant reworking of social life”; it seeks to to “shed light on the evolving story of the American city” by telling the story of Kennedy Plaza today.

The exhibit is something of a departure for the Haffenreffer: it depends less on our collection and more on archival documents and materials generated by students in the course of their ethnographic research into plaza life, such as maps, plans, and photographs. We’ve also been experimenting with some multimedia features, all student-produced, including ambient sounds from Kennedy Plaza, a station for listening to interview excerpts, a video depicting everyday life in the Plaza, and the opportunity for visitors to contribute their own ideas to the next stage of Plaza development (by taking Gillian Wearing-style photographs).

Students worked closely with Haffenreffer staff as they developed their plans.

Students in their exhibit space for the fist time.

Students in their exhibit space for the fist time. Note the new walls!

Students prepare to show their final plans.

Students prepare to show their final plans.

Students present their ideas.

Students present their ideas to Nathan Arndt, Assistant Curator (standing), and Kevin Smith, Deputy Director (sitting).

Students present and critique plans.  Rebecca Carter (center) and Rip Gerry, Designer/Archivist (far left) look on.

Students present and critique plans. Rebecca Carter (center) and Rip Gerry, Designer/Archivist (far left) look on.

This has been an ambitious project. We congratulate the students and Prof. Carter and look forward to opening the exhibit!

The exhibit opens to the general public December 15 (with an invitation-only “soft” opening the day before). It will be on display through March. See it at Manning Hall Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm.

~ Jennifer Stampe, Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology

For more on the exhibit, see

Rebecca Carter is Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology at Brown University. To learn more about her research and teaching interests, see

Education Outreach at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

Today’s post is from Geralyn Ducady, Curator of Programs and Education at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.

Even regular readers of our blog may not know that the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology has a vibrant outreach program to local schools. The “Culture CaraVan” program travels to schools throughout Rhode Island and parts of Massachusetts and is taught by our Education Coordinator, Kathy Silvia. In addition, we have two special programs that are in-depth collaborations with Providence schools run with the help of Brown University graduate student interns. This academic year, Alexandra Goodman and Emily McCartan, both Masters students in the Public Humanities program, serve as our education interns.

The “Think Like an Archaeologist” program is a collaboration between the Haffenreffer, the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology, the RISD Museum of Art, and Providence Public Schools, now in its fourth year. It features a five-session, hands-on, experiential study of archaeology for sixth graders: four sessions are in the classroom and the fifth is a visit to the RISD and Haffenreffer Museums. We recently visited the Nathan Bishop School; this year we will also work with the Nathaniel Greene, Roger Williams, and DelSesto Schools.

Students at the Nathan Bishop School work on a mock dig

Students at the Nathan Bishop School work on a mock dig

Müge Durusu-Tanrıöver, Ph.D. student at Brown University's Joukowsky Institute helps a Nathan Bishop student identify his find

Müge Durusu-Tanrıöver, Ph.D. student at Brown University’s Joukowsky Institute, helps a Nathan Bishop student identify his find

Geralyn Ducady, HMA Curator of Programs and Education, compiles a class map of the mock dig site

Geralyn Ducady, HMA Curator of Programs and Education, compiles a class map of the mock dig site

We have another great collaboration, started last spring by Education Intern Alexandra Goodman, with the principal, teachers, and students at Fox Point Preschool. Our pilot program with the school included a visit to the classroom and two visits to the Museum with the four-year-olds. This year, Alex plans to develop an extensive curriculum featuring multiple in-class and museum visits for both three- and four-year-old groups. We hope to culminate their experiences with a small exhibit curated by the students! Look for that information in the spring.

~ Geralyn Ducady, Curator of Programs and Education

Thanks Geralyn! For more information on our education programs, or to schedule a program, see

Last Chance to See Natasha Smoke Santiago Exhibit!

Liz Hoover’s discussion of Native American Environmental Health Movements (from November 21, below) mentioned Akwesasne Mohawk artist Natasha Smoke Santiago’s work on view at Manning Hall. This exhibit has been extended and can be seen for a few more hours. If you’ve missed this exhibit, get to Manning as soon as you can!

Natasha Smoke Santiago’s Strawberry Belly, on view at Manning Hall

~ Jennifer Stampe, Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology

Native American Environmental Health Movements at Culture Lab

This week’s post is from Liz Hoover, Assistant Professor of American Studies at Brown. Her class recently visited Culture Lab to see Yu’pik materials including clubs, knives, bags, and clothing, as pictured below.


Native American Environmental Health Movements Students at Culture Lab

American Indian reservations are currently home to over 600 Superfund sites, and countless other sources of environmental contamination. Many of these communities are concerned about how contamination from these sites will affect their health, and about how conventional risk assessments done at these sites do not often take Native culture and subsistence into account. In the past, scientists had sometimes descended on the community, collected physical data and personal information, and left without concerns of tailoring their studies to community needs, or reporting results back to the community. Today, many Native communities are taking charge of the research process, and partnering with scientists through a “community based participatory research” (CBPR) approach, which takes a more democratic and ecological approach to the study of environmental health. Native American Environmental Health Movements (ETHN1980J) examines how environmental contamination has impacted the health and culture of different Native communities across North America. We look at three case studies to understand how these communities organized around environmental health issues, how they pushed for results, how they worked with and/or fought against science. Within each case we learn about the culture and history of the community, the more recent histories of environmental contamination, and how the community has organized and sought to draw attention to their environmental health issues. After examining the PCB contamination of the St. Lawrence River that bisects the Akwesasne Mohawk community and the uranium mines that affected miners, their families, and community members who consume contaminated water on the Navajo reservation, the class is now looking at the PCB contamination of food sources for Yu’pik villagers on St. Lawrence Island in Alaska.

We have used Culture Lab as a place to explore the material culture produced by each tribe. Because this class draws an interdisciplinary range of students, ranging from Environmental Studies, Public Health, Ethnic Studies, and Biology majors, for some students this is their first experience in working with museum objects while as college students. These mini-field trips have been a hit! Students find that viewing and handling objects made by people connected to the tribal communities that we are studying makes the interruption of those cultures by environmental contamination all the more real: it is one thing to read about how PCB contamination is impacting Yu’pik resource usage, it is another to witness an entire table filled with a myriad of creative household and hunting items crafted from animal skins, bones, teeth and sinew.

Students Examine a Yu’pik Beaded Mukluk

Recently, the Haffenreffer hosted Akwesasne Mohawk artist Natasha Smoke Santiago. Through her contemporary pieces, students have been able to visually engage with both the Mohawk creation story as well as contemporary health issues through Natasha’s brilliant new piece featuring Sky Woman constructed from insulin bottles. In this way, through the Haffenreffer’s older collections and newer exhibits, students have been better able to grasp what Native people have at stake when they pursue environmental research.

~ Liz Hoover, Assistant Professor of American Studies

For more information about Professor Hoover’s teaching and research, see

Learn more about Natasha Smoke Santiago’s work at

Recent Work in Our Conservation Lab

Today’s post about conservation projects at the HMA comes from Nathan Arndt, Assistant Curator at the Haffenreffer.

While many students know of the HMA’s galleries located at Manning Hall, many remain unaware of the work that is done at the Collections and Research Facility in Bristol.  It is in these historic buildings (below), built by Rudolf F. Haffenreffer III and the site of his original museum, that the collections are stored and our cataloging, research, and preservation work is done.

The Collections and Research Facility in Bristol

This year we have employed two Post-Docs, four Proctors, and two interns to assist us in preparing the collections for both student and faculty use.  Like most museum museums, we have conservation concerns that range from insect damage to mold removal.  The Haffenreffer has turned these problems into highly useful teaching aids, by giving students the chance to learn basic preservation and conservation skills.

One of the largest projects we are currently working on is removing all artifacts from the North Wall storage area and retrofitting the space to better fit our collections.  Historically, the area has been the most difficult one in which to maintain the proper environment for our collections — and many of the objects show evidence of this.  High humidity and a once-leaking roof have left many pots with salt residues which were damaging the pigments and putting the pots at risk.  We are currently undergoing an extended soaking process that safely removes these salts.  Its results as can be seen in the photographs below.

Nasca Bowl Before

Nasca Bowl After


Maricopa Pottery Before

Maricopa Pottery After

We are constantly researching the best methods to care for our objects and we work very closely with a contracted conservator to ensure that these collections are available for students to use in exhibits and for research.  In some cases, such as our beaded table top, we only clean half of the item so that we can it as an educational tool, and show what years of dust, soot, and water can do to an object.

Table only half cleaned

It is through proper preservation and conservation methods — and educating others about them — that we can ensure the survival of our collections.

~ Nathan Arndt, Assistant Curator

A note from the editor:  We welcome guest bloggers!  If you are interested in writing about your experience with the Haffenreffer, please contact

Haffenreffer Museum Student Group Plans Exhibit

Hurricane Sandy edition: The Haffenreffer has weathered the storm and its staff members are getting back to work and checking for damage (we’re happy to say things look fine so far). We were planning a post about new acquisitions but, after a couple of unexpected days away from work, have had to postpone it. Instead, we present these pictures from the recent visit of the Haffenreffer Museum Student Group to the collections facility in Bristol (with thanks to Assistant Curator Nathan Arndt for his camera work). The group is making plans for a spring exhibit, weighing the options described below.

Above, curator Thierry Gentis discusses objects from the J. W. P. Jenks collection with students. Jenks founded and built the collection for Brown’s first museum, housed in Rhode Island Hall from 1871 to about 1915. His collection speaks to the relationship of anthropology to the natural sciences, and to institutional change in the discipline’s “museum era” at the end of the 19th century. Learn more about the Jenks Museum of Natural History at

Above, students examine objects from our substantial collection of furniture from Africa. They may propose an exhibit focusing on Ashanti stools, important as personal, utilitarian objects and as symbols of status, rank, and power.

We look forward to working with the Haffenreffer Museum Student Group, and we will hear from them here when they have decided what direction their exhibit will take. The group is registered with the Undergraduate Council of Students at Brown University. For more information, see

Our very best to our colleagues recovering from Hurricane Sandy!

~ Jennifer Stampe, Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology

Sven Haakanson and the Alutiiq Museum: “Reversing the Studies”

2012-09-26 Sven Haakanson 009
Sven Haakanson photographs Alutiiq bag at HMA

A few weeks ago, the HMA hosted a visit from Sven Haakanson, Jr., Executive Director of the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository in Kodiak, Alaska. Haakanson gave the Jane Powell Dwyer Memorial Lecture, a compelling talk titled “Using Collections to Explore Local Heritage: Lessons from the Alutiiq Museum.” He described the work he and museum staff members do to support a living Alutiiq culture through arts, language, and archaeology programs, and he outlined an approach that sees the museum and its work to teach about an Alutiiq way of life as both a tool for promoting local change and a platform for garnering respect from outsiders. Given a long history of Alutiiq dispossession, the museum’s brief is to “reverse the studies” or repatriate knowledge, reclaiming it from contexts where it is of little use to Alutiiq people (who call themselves Sugpiaq and are also known as Pacific Yupik).

Its ways of doing so are inspiring. Among other projects, the Alutiiq Museum sponsors artists’ travel to collections made over the last two centuries and housed in museums in Russia, Scandinavia, and Europe. Participants document the collections, study how objects were made, produce similar objects for the Alutiiq Museum’s collection, and teach community members the techniques they have learned. This work requires a lot of grant writing, as well as a lot of relationship building.

Haakanson also visited the HMA Collections and Research Facility in Bristol to view coastal Alaskan objects from the collection. Below, he photographs one of these objects, a gutskin pouch from the Aleutian Islands (HMA 64-921). While our information about the pouch comes in part from a tag on it that reads “Tobacco pouch made of fish skin. Herschel Island (Alaskan Indians),” Haakanson thought the material was certainly sea lion throat, a thing he could tell, in part, by its width. This is one of many insights that we’ve now added to our records, and we’re glad to have it. Haakanson works with an artist who wants to make just such a bag. He planned to try one out himself on his return to Alaska. We hope to hear how that goes, and will report on it to you when we do.

In the photo above Haakanson photographs this pouch. His hand is in the picture to provide a comparative scale. For the artists who will use the photo, there’s no better way to indicate it. Click on the photos below for a better view of the bag and to see other photos from what was a fun session!

~ Jennifer Stampe, Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology

Learn more about the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository at