August 23, 2012
Although little is known of the lives of the nomadic tribes, who 2,500 years ago roamed the Asian steppe land in today’s Kazakhstan, the region’s semi-arid climate has provided the perfect temperature and humidity in the ground’s permafrost for the preservation of rare organic artifacts. Richly woven textiles, gorgeous gold-leaf covered wooden horse tack ornaments and other rare organic artifacts, normally not preserved in other areas of the Ancient Near East and Central Asia, have been excavated in burial mounds, or “kurgans”—some more than 100 feet in diameter—that uniformly dot the Kazakhstan landscape, a vast landlocked country, larger than all of western Europe and sharing borders with Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
More than 150 artifacts and works of art excavated from these sites are on display in a new exhibition “Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan,” which opened at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery on Saturday, August 11. The works represent some of the most significant archaeological discoveries made in Kazakhstan over the past few decades, and the show marks the first time that the ancient visual arts of Kazakh culture have been showcased in a Washington, D.C.-based museum.
Since the tribes moved about the countryside with each change of the season, few physical evidences or traces remain of the culture. No centralized city centers or trade routes could be found or documented. Instead to understand how the nomads lived and died, archeologists mainly rely on the kurgans, where elite members of the society were interred with their goods and even with their horses.
What is beginning to emerge from the excavations is the evidence of a highly sophisticated culture, one that maintained communication networks and strategic migratory routes. But also evidenced is the fact that the Saka people, as the nomadic tribes were called in ancient Persian sources, had a close, almost sacred bond, with their horses. Not an entirely surprising fact, since nomadic cultures throughout the millennia have depended on domesticated animals for both transportation and food. But archeological evidence uncovered from Saka burial mounds indicates that horses were treated as divine beings.
Since the ground’s pervasive layer of permafrost keeps the organic contents of a kurgan at a constant temperature, preventing decay, archaeologist Alexander Nagel, the show’s curator, says that researchers must take extreme measures to protect artifacts during excavation. Oftentimes, entire sections of the excavated site are packaged and removed from the ground intact. The tomb is then transported to a climate-controlled laboratory where researchers carefully examine the kurgan’s contents.
In one unearthed kurgan, a man was interred with a woman—who was presumed to be his mother—in a large sarcophagus, surrounded by 13 horses that were sacrificed for the burial. Three of the horses were decorated to resembled supernatural creatures, and wearing leather masks with wooden horns painstakingly decorated with gold leaf
In life, horses were outfitted with saddles and bridles as extravagantly decorated with ornate gold-laden garb similar to the rich costumes of their riders, often Saka nobility. As for the nobles, gold ornaments were sewn into intricately woven textiles and diadems, golden headbands signifying royal descent, graced the heads of the richest tribe members. Metal shaping tools were used to form incredibly minute and precise details on the golden ornaments, and semi-precious stones such as carnelian and turquoise were carefully applied as accents.
The craftsmanship was appreciated far beyond the borders of today’s Kazakhstan. Carvings sculpted into the palace walls of ancient Persia depict the arrival of foreign Saka delegations to present Persian kings with trade items. On the façade of the Apadana, a fifth century building at Persepolis in southwestern Iran, a carving depicts a procession of Saka people bringing jewelry and other ornaments as tributary to the Persian King.
Horse tack ornaments and jewelry carved from Kazakh trees has surfaced in many archeological finds spanning many territories in Eurasia, suggesting that the Saka people were heavily integrated in the ancient trade network.
Yet as much as researchers can glean from the physical remnants of the ancient nomads, much about their way of life is still shrouded in mystery. Local Kazakh animals, such as red deer, snow leopards, wolves, ravens, ibexes and Bactrian camels are frequently seen in jewelry and small altars made of stone or bronze. In some depictions, snow leopards were given wings, suggesting they might have been deified just as the horned horses were. The ibex appears again and again in ancient artifacts and still today remains a symbol of supernatural power in Kazakhstan.
“Scholars are just beginning to learn more about the rituals practiced by the Nomadic tribes,” Nagel says. “We do know that later on, shamanism was practiced and that it continued into the modern 19th century.”
“Central to the Sackler exhibit is the depiction of how the nomadic tribes interacted with their landscape,” says Nagel. The show reveals physical evidence of how the nomadic tribes traversed large expanses to participate in regional trade networks and to herd domesticated sheep and goats through seasonal changes.
The exhibition was organized by New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. The Sackler’s show includes new landscape photographs by Wayne Eastep, as well as reconstruction drawings. As part of the exhibit, the Sackler has partnered with archeologist Claudia Chang. Chang will be blogging about her experience digging in Tuzusai, Kazakhstan. Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan is on view through November 12, 2012.
July 13, 2012
“The carnage on the beach was unbelievable,” said Sammy Ray, recalling when he landed on the island of Peleliu with the 1st Marine Division in September 1944. “Still to this day, I don’t know how I got out alive,” Ray says.
As the Navy senior hospital corpsman for the division, Ray experienced firsthand the horrors of the casualties as his medical team attempted to save lives and limbs. Those traumatic memories were still vividly fresh in his mind several months later on April 1, 1945, when his unit landed on the beaches of Okinawa. Ray was filled with sharp anxiety, fearing the loss of life on Peleliu foreshadowed what laid ahead for his unit on Okinawa.
His fears were, fortunately, unfounded; their invasion of the island was uncontested by the Japanese. Nonetheless, on April 1, 2011, 66 years to the day after landing on Okinawa, an emotional Sammy Ray visited the Smithsonian collections to view many of the 171 bird specimens he had collected, preserved and shipped to D.C. from various South Pacific islands during World War II.
“To see the birds again, and the fact it happened on the anniversary of a day that was very strongly etched in my mind…it took me back to what I was experiencing that day [in 1945].”
His contributions during World War II, along with the efforts of many other scientists and servicemen who worked in the South Pacific, helped the Smithsonian gather a wide-ranging collection of biological specimens from the relatively unexplored ecosystem.
A special exhibit opening July 14 in the Museum of Natural History will explore Smithsonian’s collecting efforts during World War II through photos, specimens, correspondence and museum records that have been maintained and studied by specialists at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
“When Time and Duty Permit: Collecting During World War II” exhibits many pieces of Ray’s story firsthand, including a pristinely preserved bird skin he stuffed and letters he exchanged with Alexander Wetmore, who was an ornithologist and Secretary of the Smithsonian at the time. In one such letter, Ray said that as dedicated as he was to collecting birds, he was committed to the responsibilities he had as the senior hospital corpsmen. He penned to Wetmore he would collect bird specimens “when time and duty permit.”
Ray, a bird zoologist with a college degree at the time he enlisted in the Navy, was recruited by Wetmore to be a specimen collector before he had even received his station assignments.“From that moment on, preparations were made for me to collect in the South Pacific,” Ray said. “No one knew for sure [I would be assigned to that region] but that was the guess.”
Wetmore’s gamble paid off; Ray was assigned to meet the 1st Marine Division in New Caledonia, about 100 miles north of Australia. From there, his division hopped from island to island, which put Ray in a perfect position to collect a variety of exotic birds.
“I was the most-armed non-combatant to ever hit the beach in the South Pacific,” Ray quipped. In addition to his military-issued weaponry and a heavy arsenal of medical equipment, the Smithsonian provided him with a special collecting gun. The gun was retrofitted with an auxiliary barrel for discharging “dust shot” — light ammunition designed to kill small birds without destroying their bodies.
After hunting down a bird, Ray would remove its skin and use wood straw or hemp to stuff the inside of the pelt, sewing the skin back together to create an real “stuffed animal” of sorts. Ray’s impeccable taxidermy skills have stood the test of time, nearly 67 years later his specimens are still immaculately well-preserved.
But his efforts weren’t always appreciated or understood by other members of his unit.
Ray recalled a time when he spent the night in a mangrove swamp after staying out late to collect birds. A fitful night was spent with iguanas crawling across his body before the morning sun rose. When he returned to camp, a line of men standing was around their colonel at 6 a.m.. Ray knew immediately that they had been looking for him.
Although his bird collecting at first landed him in trouble with the unit’s colonel, Ray used his ingénue to establish a working relationship with the commander. The colonel warmed to Ray as soon as he learned that he was the senior hospital corpsmen. In such a position, Ray had access to the medical supply of alcohol, a hot commodity among military men. By satiating the colonel’s thirst for alcohol, Ray was able to carry on his bird collecting without interference.
Upon completing his tour of duty in November 1945, Ray continued in his studies of biology to earn his master’s and Ph.D degrees from Rice University through a fellowship program sponsored by Gulf Oil, concentrating on understanding parasite life cycles. Ray, now 93 years old, teaches biology at Texas A&M University Galveston, where he has been an influential faculty member, mentor and teacher since 1957 as a highly respected shellfish expert and self-titled “oyster doctor”.
“When Time and Duty Permit: Collecting During World War II” is located on the ground floor of the Constitution Avenue lobby at the Museum of Natural History and will run from July 14, 2012, through late May 2013.
July 6, 2012
According to the theory of the six degrees of separation, she is connected to Albert Einstein, Cézanne, Eleanor Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Frida Kahlo and President Ulysses S. Grant.
But who is Peggy Bacon?
Bacon (1895-1997) was a New York artist and talented caricaturist of celebrities and artists, however, her name is by no means well known. The Archives of American Art specialists, who created the “Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon” exhibit, do not expect people to know who Peggy Bacon is—in fact, that’s the point.
While the original concept of the six degrees of separation dates back to Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, who developed a radio telegraph system, the term became commonplace in 1990 when playwright John Guare debuted his production, “Six Degrees of Separation.” The play was based on the idea that no more than six acquaintances separate any two people.
Playing off the popular celebrity trivia game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” in which players try to prove that any actor or actress can be linked to Kevin Bacon in fewer than six steps of film roles, the “Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon” exhibit creators hoped to show how a relatively unknown but well-connected artist was linked through archival documents to many of art and society’s most influential people.
“We wanted it to be surprising,” says Mary Savig, the exhibit’s curator and an archives specialist at Archives of American Art. “We chose Peggy Bacon because we knew nobody would know who she is.”
On display June 27, 2012, through November 4, 2012, in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, demonstrates how artists inform and inspire each other. “They don’t just work alone in their studios,” Savig said.
The exhibit is also intended to demonstrate the “shrinking world theory.”
The advent of radio technology, telecommunications and most recently, social media, has vastly increased the connectedness among the world’s inhabitants. In fact, Savig says, a study conducted last year by Facebook and the University of Milan demonstrated that social media has reduced the average degree of relatedness between each person on Earth to a mere 4.74 degrees.
“These documents show exactly how people are personally connected,” Savig says, pointing to a layout of correspondence and photographs connecting Bacon to artists like Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, Janice Lowry, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Archival letters and materials provide paper trails to document each of the connections in Bacon’s web of six degrees.
The incredible ability to present such detailed documentation stems from the concerns of former Director of the Detroit Institute of Art E.P. Richardson and art collector Lawrence A. Fleischman. Richardson and Fleischman founded the Archives in 1954 in Detroit as an effort to address the lack of archival material documenting American art and artists. The Archives of American Art became a part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1970, and today holds more than 16 million items in the world’s largest collection of primary resources relating to the history of American art.
The Archives’ fastidious documentation and research of their collection is what allowed for the success of “Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon.”
In fact, on the exhibit’s opening day, a member of the public was shocked to find her former babysitter incorporated into Bacon’s web of relatedness.
“The woman pointed to the picture of Mary Chapin Carpenter and said, ‘She used to babysit me,’” Savig explains. Carpenter, a folk and country music singer, is bubbled into Bacon’s web as a sixth-degree connection.
Carpenter is included on the web for her connection to Joseph Cornell, who was the inspiration for her 1996 song “Ideas Are Like Stars.” Cornell is connected to Ad Reinhardt for their shared Christmas Eve birthdays and the fact that both artists’ works were displayed in art dealer Peggy Guggenheim’s 1943 Collages exhibit. Reinhardt described in a memoir how in 1938 he listened to loud jazz music carrying through the walls of the neighboring studio to his, occupied by Stuart Davis. Davis was represented by art dealer Edith Halpert who represented his work at The Downtown Gallery for close to four decades. Halpert opened her gallery in 1926 at which time she displayed the works of Japanese-born Yasuo Kuniyoshi. And Kuniyoshi developed a friendship with Peggy Bacon while the two attended classes together at the Art Students League.
The visitor’s relationship with Carpenter drives home the entire point of the exhibit, Savig says. “We all really can connect to Bacon.”
June 29, 2012
The exhibit, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of Earhart’s disappearance, arrives roughly one month after a group of hopefuls uncovered what they believe is Earhart’s anti-freckle cream jar. The jar was recovered with other artifacts from a tiny coral atoll in the Pacific, where female skeletal remains were reportedly discovered in 1940.
Earhart’s life is documented in a clockwise journey around the one-room exhibit through a thoughtful and deliberate selection of photographs, artwork and memorabilia.
In a 1903 portrait taken of Earhart at the age of 5 or 6, she is donned in a frilly, white frock with a large bow fastened in her hair. The young, wide-eyed girl looks a far cry from the jumpsuit-clad aviator captured in later photographs of Earhart leaning against a Lockheed Vega, the famous aircraft that made an appearance in the 2006 film Night at the Museum and is on view at the National Air and Space Museum.
Another photograph shows Earhart standing with Wilmer Stultz and Louis Gordon, the two men who piloted the flight that earned Earhart the distinction of being the first woman to cross the Atlantic by airplane. She became an overnight celebrity, a reputation she didn’t relish, since she had only been a backseat passenger for the flight. An embarrassed Earhart confessed that aside from navigation tasks, “I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes.”
Earhart’s first solo transatlantic flight took place four years later in 1932, when she piloted the Lockheed Vega. The cabin was so tight she could only spare room to bring a few small accessories, including a leather flying cap and a bottle of smelling salts that she used to stay alert throughout the difficult flight.
The woman behind the leather flying cap springs to life in a selection of video and audio footage. Earhart is ceremoniously christening a plane for Transcontinental Air Transport. Earhart speaks into a microphone and addresses a crowd and radio audience, her voice sweet and friendly, her manner humble—almost reluctant to be at the center of attention. Earhart flashes her winning smile, then bashfully smashes a bottle of champagne on the propeller of a TAT plane.
“It’s great to give visitors the opportunity to hear her and see her,” said curator Frank Goodyear.
A more intimate look into Earhart’s personal life can be gleaned from a letter she penned to her fiancé the night before their nuptials. George Putnum, a publisher and explorer who helped select Earhart to be the woman on the 1928 transatlantic flight piloted by Stultz and Gordon, proposed to Earhart six times before she finally acquiesced to his requests in 1931. The letter she wrote on the eve of their union depicts a young woman filled with trepidation even hours before the ceremony.
“You must know my reluctance to marry…” she wrote. “I must exact a cruel promise and that is you will let me go in a year if we find no happiness together.”
It appears they did have a successful union, Goodyear explained, although infidelities were rumored to be true of both parties. After her disappearance, Putnam personally funded months of additional searches, combing the Pacific long after the U.S. Navy abandoned recovery efforts.
One of the last photographs taken of Earhart during her attempt to circumnavigate the globe shows the pilot shortly before she vanished on July 2, 1937. Earhart’s cropped hair is wind-touseled, an easy smile plays upon her face.
“It’s a quiet picture,” Goodyear said.
Even though Earhart was rumored to be sick and exhausted toward the last legs of her journey, her expression in the photograph is of a woman in her own element; confident, happy, and hauntingly at peace.
“It’s apparent from this picture, flying was her absolute passion,” Goodyear said.
“One Life: Amelia Earhart” will run through May 27, 2013.
June 28, 2012
This past weekend’s release of the movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter raises the question of how other American presidents might have dealt with monsters and conspiracy theories. Harry Rubenstein, chair and curator of the National Museum of American History’s Division of Political History, fields questions posed by Smithsonian magazine editorial intern Kat J. McAlpine.
In the event that the United States was attacked by an army of zombies, which president would best direct a defensive military campaign?
I think if it was a small, local uprising, a young Andrew Jackson would lead the campaign. As a frontier fighter, he would do a good job. His frontier experience, battle-tested organization skills and abilities proven during his defense of New Orleans in the War of 1812 showed him to be a strong military leader with the ability to rally a band of people. However, it is young, pre-presidential Jackson that would do well against a zombie uprising; when he was the president, he would have been too old to lead a battle against zombies.
On the other hand, if it was a large, international-scale zombie uprising, the best for the job would be Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower had extensive military experience and was responsible for the organization of D-Day and other military campaigns of World War II, which would put him in good stead to defend Americans against a zombie invasion.
What personality traits, personal strengths or abilities did Abraham Lincoln possess that would have made him a skilled vampire hunter?
I don’t really think of Lincoln as a vampire hunter, to be honest. He grew up on the frontier, so he was used to operating in the wilderness and he possessed a sharp, cunning mind. But Lincoln was not a very militaristic kind of individual. He sought to avoid conflicts and personal fights. There were a number of cases when he got into wrestling matches to demonstrate his toughness and to impress people, but he didn’t go looking for that kind of conflict. In those respects, he’s not the vampire slayer I imagine.
Someone who would go out and seek that kind of adventure and defense, and the character that colleagues have suggested to me – that’s Teddy Roosevelt. When he was a cowboy out in Dakota he hunted outlaws; he carried a big stick so to speak. Roosevelt was adventure seeking, looking for conflict, a real rough and ready type of character. He would make a more predictable vampire hunter.
What about Roosevelt vs. Sasquatch? Would he put up the best presidential fight in a scuffle with bigfoot?
Roosevelt was a sportsman and a hunter, he went to Africa looking for game and he was a well-known hunter in this country. He was a member of the Harvard boxing club. I think in some ways, however, if it was just a conflict between a president and the abominable snowman, this might be where Lincoln would shine. Lincoln was known as such a tough wrestler, known for hand-to-hand combat, frontier style.
We’ve talked about presidents who could take on monsters, but have there been any presidents who were monsters themselves? Werewolves in the White House?
I’ve consulted some of my colleagues and they suggest that there seems to be a trend that’s developed since World War II – none of the presidents have had facial hair. I’m not making a claim that this might be a conspiracy, but it does raise a question of why they have all chosen to strike a hairless appearance. Going on facial hair alone, you have to look at Hayes, Carter, Harrison and Garfield. And Van Buren with those mutton chops – could something have been going on? But these are just observations, we have no evidence.
And what about the creation of monsters? Were any of the presidents smart enough to have built a Frankenstein-esque creature?
Thomas Jefferson was our inventor president, dabbling in the sciences. While he was busy making different kinds of simple chairs and desks, if he was challenged to create a new man – he was active in imagining a new nation – I think he would have been up for the task. And the other, although a little bit harder to imagine, is Jimmy Carter. He was somewhat of a scientist, although he was more of a reformer than interested in making things anew. The real Frankenstein builder in some ways may very well have been Jefferson.
So what about unearthly creatures? All these conspiracy theories fly around about the government concealing information about UFOs and extraterrestrials. Which president is most likely to have made contact with an alien from another world?
I have no discernible evidence that a president has ever made contact with aliens, but in terms of which president would seek it out or embrace it – there’s a number of them. Thomas Jefferson, a man of enlightenment, would embrace the idea of intelligence around the universe. He definitely sought out minds with different opinions and ideas, so I believe he would embrace wanting to have that contact. Many internationalists would feel the same way, but out of the early American presidents, Jefferson sticks out.
In more modern presidencies, I’d have to say that Bill Clinton has always tended to engage people from different backgrounds. He might find the whole idea of extraterrestrial contact very intriguing, while others might be fearful.
What about threats from those hidden among us? Have any U.S. presidents been members of secret, conspiratorial organizations?
I think there is a lot more evidence that, yes – could you say they are involved in large organizations with secret aspects to them, with agents around the country, conspiring together to obtain power and put themselves in a leadership position of the nation? I think you could say all of the presidents have done that.
That’s what political parties are all about. It’s people organizing for political power, or for their point of view. The idea that there is something more powerful than agents, who are actively spending time working on their political base, is both silly and just competitive. Wherever people are gathering together, they are organizing and building support for what they believe in – but there is a quality to all political parties that is secretive and national; you could treat it as a conspiracy. They are conspiring.