Posts Tagged 'Colorado Agricultural College'

From bees to Babylonia: Ancient Mesopotamian artifacts in our collection

by Linda Moore, Curator of Collections

This month in the Museum’s Collections department we have continued to comb through our entire collection, trying to get an accurate picture of exactly what we have before we pack it away in preparation for our move to the new museum. We are still trying to make sense of the “edgier” objects in our collection: stuff, for the most part, acquired long ago and whose presence in our local history collection is… mysterious (you may have already seen my blogs about our Abe Lincoln top hat and our relationship with Calamity Jane’s secret daughter).

Ever since I started work here I’ve seen this box labeled “Babylonian Tablets, 4,000 years old” at the back of a cabinet, in a room reserved mostly for taxidermy and rocks. Peeking in, I could see what looked like four cute archaeological miniatures, souvenir size. Their banishment to this dark niche made me assume these pieces were illegitimate and inauthentic, and that the marks on their surfaces were only cuneiform-like. I never had the time to research their story. Recently, though, Collections Assistant Ashley Houston and I started talking about these nutty things, and she mentioned that CSU has one that looked just like ours and that they treated it as totally “legit.” I decided it was time to take the time.

Well, it turns out ours probably are legit too, and their obscurity in our collection comes from the fact that they seem to have absolutely nothing to do with the local history it is our mission to interpret. Not in a straightforward way, anyway. But their records reveal that these little pieces have a pretty interesting history, local and international, of their own.

The four tablets were donated to the Fort Collins Pioneer Museum in 1941, from the collection of C. P. Gillette. A little research reveals that Clarence Preston Gillette was Fort Collins’ first entomologist. He was an internationally respected authority in many buggy subjects, known especially for his work on bees. He headed the Entomology and Zoology department of Colorado State University (then Colorado Agricultural College) in the late 1800s, and the school’s Agricultural Experiment Station in 1911. Gillette established the school’s insect collection as a resource for teaching and research, and continued to curate and expand it until about 1931, assembling a collection excellent in both its breadth and quality of material (this collection still exists, bearing its founder’s name, see http://www.colostate.edu/Depts/Entomology/museum/) .

The Fort Collins Pioneer Museum acquired Gillette’s Babylonian tablets as part of a strange collection of interesting objects: the four tablets, an ornate copper spoon from the Pacific Northwest, an ivory yarn reel, two Pueblo pots, and two dinosaur gastroliths. None of these things have any connection to Gillette’s field of entomology and our records don’t help to reveal one. Still, it is easy to believe that, given the value he placed on collections in his own field, Gillette would have been eager to help expand the breadth of his local museum’s resource as well.

Along with the tablets, Gillette provided the Museum with a letter of authenticity signed by “Edgar J. Banks,” detailing some information about their origins and meanings. It turns out that Edgar J. Banks is a name that appears in artifact records of institutions throughout the United States; its appearance in ours makes the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center a member in a sort of “Edgar J. Banks Inappropriate But Amazing Artifact” club.

Edgar J. Banks started his professional career as an archaeologist. He spent many years excavating at an ancient Mesopotamian site called Bismaya, located in what is now Iraq. Historical opinions of Banks range from smarmy artifact looter to a “Johnny Appleseed of ancient history” (Ramsey Campbell of the Orlando Sentinel). He apparently had troubled relations with Harvard (where he pursued a PhD), the University of Chicago (which in 1903 sent him to excavate Bismaya, but asked him to resign from the expedition after one field season), and with Ottoman Empire government officials over his unlawful exportation of artifacts. Though the allegations which led to Banks’ removal from the Bismaya Expedition may have been (at least partially) false, his academic career never recovered after the incident and he left academia for a career as an antiquities dealer. Operating out of a gallery in New York City, Banks obtained artifacts of the Ancient Near East and, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, sold them for as little as three or four dollars a piece. He stayed very busy at this trade: it appears that the four tiny tablets in our collection are among about 175,000 ancient artifacts which Bank sold to universities, libraries, museums, and private collectors throughout the United States!

Even though Banks’ methods and practices were questionable, the authenticity of the Museum’s tablets’ age and cultural identity is most likely sound. Many institutions have confirmed that though Banks never liked to reveal the specific source of the material he traded, he did have the connections and expertise needed to obtain and identify legitimate artifacts of ancient Near East culture.

So. Gillette (not an archaeologist) must have purchased his Babylonian tablets from Banks (oops, not an archaeologist either, as it turns out), maybe while on a trip or even by mail order. They were donated on Gillette’s behalf to the Fort Collins Pioneer Museum even though the Museum (not an archaeology museum, but already displaying ancient artifacts of North American cultures) did not focus on collecting or interpreting ancient Mesopotamian culture. The museum we are today, the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center, doesn’t either and as its Collections Curator I definitely don’t put my energy into acquiring ancient artifacts of Near Eastern origin with iffy provenance. But having learned their story I feel good about having these little tablets in our collection: they reflect the breadth of interests held by a renowned member of our community. What’s more, the cuneiform writing they bear provides us a first-hand glimpse back four thousand years to the world’s oldest written record of language, which is understood by most to be a definitive aspect of human-ness – in Fort Collins as well as in the rest of the world.

Mystery cracked: Only a shell of what it once was!

by Ashley Houston, Collection Dept. Intern

When I started researching the Berry Egg collection several weeks ago, I never imagined what kind of tantalizing information I would uncover. One source led me to another source, and to another, and so on. There were so many questions I had wanted to answer!

The first one that I set out to find was how Mr. Berry had made such perfect and tiny holes in the small and delicate eggs to extract its contents. And for that matter, how did he do it with just one hole? Growing up, whenever I blew eggs for Easter I would make a small hole in the top and in the bottom and blow in one hole for the contents to escape out of the other one. It not only led to two holes, but my holes were also jagged and sometimes cracked the egg. So how, then, did John Berry create such a perfect little hole? Well, after reading about the practices of Ornithologists (who study birds) and Oologists (who study bird eggs) I found that even back in the late 1880s, oologists had started perfecting their techniques for preserving bird eggs. It involved a set of very small drills and a blowpipe. To prepare an egg, one would start with a very small needle to pierce the shell. Once that was completed, the drills would be used to make the perfectly cut holes in each of the eggs. Finally, a very small pipe was used to blow air into the hole causing the contents to bubble out and around where the air was coming in. Accomplishing this task successfully meant that only one hole in each egg would need to drilled. So, of course, finally answering this question means that a little experimentation needs to be done! I fully intend to test this out on an egg from the grocery store, and invite others to try it as well! For my blowpipe, I figured I would use one of those coffee stir sticks that are essentially extremely small straws and see if I can make a hole as small as Mr. Berry’s ones.

The next questions I wanted to answer were just who exactly was John T. Berry , and why did he collect nearly 500 eggs? A trip into the Local History Archive revealed that we had a vertical file on John and his wife with newspaper articles and a transcript of an oral history from his step-daughter. Turns out, Mr. Berry was a stone worker in Stout, the town that in now buried under Horsetooth reservoir. He owned a farm right outside Spring Canyon, which was the main entrance from Fort Collins to Stout that was filled in when they made the reservoir. This information only led to more questions, however. If he was a stone worker in Stout, why did he have a collection card from the Colorado Agricultural College? More digging finally brought the answer — W.L. Burnett. Mr. Burnett wrote an article in 1915 discussing how he was in debt to Mr. Berry for helping him collect information on the local birds. Apparently, Mr. Berry’s farm was a favorite place for birds to stop and nest. At the very end of the article, after a list of birds they had found, many of which are the ones now in our collection, was the words “Colorado Agricultural College.” There it was! Mr. Berry’s connection to the college and where the note card came from. William L. Burnett had worked in the Entomology and Zoology department of the college as the Deputy State Entomologist and Museum Curator. With the help of John Berry, Burnett was able to discover and record bird species that were not yet known in Larimer County and Colorado. He reported many of his findings to the Cooper Ornithological Society, who in turn, published them in their magazine, The Condor. So as it all works out, John T. Berry wasn’t just some man who collected bird eggs as a hobby, he was also indirectly responsible for expanding the field of ornithology in Colorado. What an exciting find!

Found in the Collection: the Berry eggs

by Linda Moore, Curator of Collections

In the world of museum collections, we sometimes make new and exciting discoveries without collecting anything new and exciting; this is a story of one of those times. Right now those of us working with the artifact collections at the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center are preparing for the Museum’s future move to a new building by making inventories of all our existing collections; emptying cabinets, pulling artifacts out of storage, researching their records — trying to make sense of what we have and what it’s going to take to get it from the Museum’s old home to its new one. Mostly, we are working with artifacts that are familiar to us: we’ve featured them in exhibits, or they’ve been requested by researchers and students. But among the 35,000 or so objects in the Museum’s collection some are bound to find themselves into the darker recesses of cabinets and shelves, where no one working at the Museum today has ever seen them — until now.

While some of these hidden objects are curious, and some are baffling, we are discovering some true treasures too. Recently we pulled a wooden box none of us had ever noticed before off the back of a top shelf. It was so light that climbing off the step ladder with it I thought it must be empty. But opening its hinged lid revealed, nestled in fluffy (and slightly stinky) wool, literally hundreds of bird eggs.

bird eggs

Each egg had been pierced with one tiny hole to extract their contents, and many bore a number in red ink. The variety in their colors and shapes was dazzling: speckled pinks, blues, browns; vivid smooth blues and glossy greens; roundish ones no bigger than the tip of a pinkie finger, and much larger conical ones. Papers included in the box identified the collection as the work of John T. Berry, of the Colorado Agricultural College (which eventually evolved into Colorado State University). According to these records Berry collected the eggs throughout Larimer County in 1904; his daughter Lottie donated them to the Fort Collins Museum in 1959. A numbered list of bird species seemed to correlate with the numbers on the eggs.  Included in these papers was one tantalizing note card which Berry filled with information about one particular set of eggs: it notes the date and weather when he gathered the eggs, the placement of the nest, the presence and behavior of the bereaved parent bird (equally troubling to my non-scientist’s heart and my contemporary conservationist’s mind), and the number of eggs in the clutch.

As a curator I could easily appreciate the immense historic value of this collection. In collecting these eggs John Berry had literally scooped up a chunk of the our local environment in 1904 and put it in a wooden “fancy peppers” box, where it had remained preserved for over a hundred years. I knew the collection must have a scientific value as well. What bird species are represented in this collection, for example, and in what numbers?  Certainly some of them must have become rarer or even disappeared in the years since Berry amassed his collection. It took a short afternoon looking through the information available on the use of historic egg collections like this one for me to start to appreciate the huge scientific value of this treasure.

bird eggs detail

While debate apparently continues on whether or not egg collecting should continue today — whether or not the conservation value of the information to be gained justifies the negative impact of collecting eggs on contemporary bird numbers — there is no disagreement within the scientific community on the research value contained in historic egg collections. Much like contemporary archaeologists are increasingly turning their attentions to existing cultural collections in lieu of excavating dwindling cultural sites, many contemporary bird researchers are turning to existing bird skin and egg collections rather than gathering specimens of dwindling species.  In addition to their importance for basic reference purposes, egg collections serve as valuable tools in areas such as ecology, physiology, zoogeography, and pollution studies. Historic assemblages of eggs offer researchers opportunities to study long-term changes which may have occurred in many aspects of the local environment: changes in the climate, the birds’ food base, and the presence and effects of pollutants. It was exciting to me to learn that research on museum egg collections was instrumental in establishing a conclusive link between the widespread use of the pesticide DDT and eggshell thinning in raptor species; establishing this link led to the eventual ban of DDT use in many countries, including the U.S.

It turns out that even the seeming neglect of Berry’s eggs within the Museum’s collection, their years spent at the back of a shelf in the dark, has some scientific merit. Egg collections that have been on display for long periods lose much of their research value because of damage resulting from exposure to light and dust — damage that is particularly relevant to DNA studies. Also, recent advances in sampling techniques and analysis methods used on egg specimens require smaller sample amounts, and employ less destructive means that research techniques of past decades. Should we allow a researcher to gather samples from this collection, this work will be done today with far less impact than it would have required back when the Museum first acquired the collection.

Our beautiful box of eggs clearly contains more questions than answers right now. Ashley Houston, one of the Museum’s new Collections Specialists, is still carefully going through the box, sorting, cleaning, and counting the eggs. How many will there be, of how many different kinds? We’ve contacted CSU in hopes of tracking down Professor Berry’s field notes. Will we find information that correlates with the numbers placed on the eggs in spidery handwriting? What will we discover about John Berry, his life, and his work with birds in Larimer County? What could we potentially learn about the changes that have occurred here in the 105 years since he collected these eggs? Keep in touch, and as soon as we answer any of these questions we’ll let you know.

bird eggs detail2

From the Archive: Workin’ up a sweat

by Lesley Drayton, Curator of the Local History Archive 

Check out this fantastic image of physical fitness for women during the early 20th century. It’s from the Archive’s oversize photograph collection and dates to the early 1900s. The caption on the back of the original photograph states that the ladies are from a gym class at Colorado Agricultural College, present-day Colorado State University.

Perhaps the most charming part of this photograph is what is found alongside it: a piece of paper attached to a scrap of royal purple felt-like fabric. The paper reads “The suits were made of this material + each leg of the costume was two full widths of the material.”

Well, Spandex it is not….but it still looks like these ladies meant business when it came to fitness. 

From the Archive: Shall We Dance?

by Lesley Drayton, Curator of the Local History Archive

It’s always fun to come across little bits of personal ephemera here in the archive; I especially enjoy viewing items that I’m certain the original owner never imagined would end up saved in a museum.

Dance cards are great examples of this. The Local History Archive has many of these diminutive booklets that were carried by attendees at formal balls to keep track of dance partners during the evening. Dance cards also served as sweet souvenirs of a fun event; many cards have decorative covers and pages that reveal the date, location, sponsors, and even chaperones of the ball.

The dance card below is from the Kappa Alpha Theta Midwinter Dance that took place on February 12, 1932. The card still has the wrist cord with a tiny pencil attached. It appears that “Joan” was the favored partner of this dancer.

Kappa dance card

Kappa dance card

Kappa dance card, inside view

Kappa dance card, inside view

Dorothy Bunn’s card is from the Spring Dinner Dance sponsored by the Tau of Gamma Phi Beta. This dance occurred on May 16, 1931 at the famous Lewiston Hotel in Estes Park. Tragically, the hotel burned on September 4, 1941 and was never rebuilt.

Dorothy Bunn's dance card

Dorothy Bunn's dance card

Lewiston Hotel

Lewiston Hotel

Finally, this beanie-shaped dance card is from the Class of ’35 Frosh Party at Colorado Agricultural College (present-day Colorado State University) that took place January 8, 1932. A page on the interior reveals that Donelly James was on hand that evening, “dispensing melodies.”

Class of '35 Frosh Party dance card, Colorado Agricultural College

Class of '35 Frosh Party dance card, Colorado Agricultural College


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