Skip to content


August 7, 2009
Boy Scouts at museum pageant, April 1945. Penn Museum image #29680.

Boy Scouts at museum pageant, April 1945. Penn Museum image #29680.

Guess what! The Penn Museum website has re-launched!

Be sure to visit the new archives pages for information about visiting, our collections and our work.


How to protect your home and family, the Sassanian way.

August 7, 2009

Ok, I’ll be honest. At first I just chose this image of an Aramaic incantation bowl as the fun friday image of the week because: “look! cute child-like monster drawings!”.


Penn Museum object B2945, image #152805. From Nippur (present-day Iraq).

But the more I learn about this esoteric corner of the archaeological world, the more relevant these little bowls become.

For several hundred years between 400 AD and 700 AD, when much of what we call the Middle East was under the influence of the Persian Sassanid Empire, these bowls were produced. Inscriptions in various dialects of Aramaic were painted on the bowls, (or inscribed in metal sheets or stone amulets) generally naming a long list of demons, spirits, and evil beings that were to be kept from harming the owner. For added emphasis and power, sometimes the demon itself would be drawn.

The inscriptions were probably produced by local magicians or scribes, but ordered by individuals who hoped to rid themselves of some persistent problem. Some bowls are customized with the owner’s family members’ names, or with a specific problem, such as to protect them from “the curse of the employee and employer who stole the wage and from the curse of the brothers who did not divide truthfully among themselves and from the curses of all people who curse in the name of idol demons”. [1]

What is both intriguing and frustrating to the scholar is their variety, and inconsistency. These objects contain texts in several different scripts, and many separate dialects of Aramaic. Late antiquity was a time of a great proliferation of religions, and the bowls appear to have been used by members of Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, Mandean, Islamic, and pagan groups. A single bowl will often name deities associated with several religions, and use magical words or phrases from more than one tradition. It seems that the users of these objects often tried to ‘cover their bases’ by invoking any powerful spirit they could think of – from any of their neighbors’ religious traditions – either for help or censure.

Like all archaeological specimens, these objects can tell us things about many different aspects of life in Iran and Mesopotamia in late antiquity. We can learn about family structure, naming traditions, literacy levels, socioeconomic pressures, and religious practices.  What is exciting to me about these bowls, particularly, is the insight they provide into the religious syncretism that may have been commonplace in these communities.

The syncretistic features of incantation texts reflect a society where the members of different religions living side by side shared many ideas and practices on the level of popular beliefs and customs that were not necessarily accepted by the leaders of those religions.(Morony, 2007).

The invocations weren’t always positive – often the gods of one group were transformed into demons by another – but these objects show how aware they were of each other. It’s always good to be reminded that we’re not the first multi-cultural, globalized society, and to see how others have done it before.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for this guy:


Penn Museum object B16017, image #141859. From Nippur (present-day Iraq).

Sources/Further Reading:

[1]: Bohak, Gideon. 1995. “Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity”, a web exhibit.

[2]: Morony, Michael G. 2007. “Religion and the Aramaic Incantation Bowls”. Religion Compass, vol. 1, no. 4. pp 414-429

Noegel, Scott B, Joel Thomas Walker, and Brannon M. Wheeler. 2003. Prayer, magic, and the stars in the ancient and late antique world. Penn State Press.

Corbett, Joey. Word Play: The Power of the Written Word in Ancient Israel.

Turtle Heist

July 31, 2009

We’ve all been told that anthropologists have no right to intervene in the lives of their subjects — does it make a difference if their subjects are small, green, and promise not to tattle?

Frank Goldsmith Speck, near the end of his career at Penn, befriended John Witthoft, a young colleague of his. The two had much in common — both were interested in Native American people, and neither were terribly interested in the fashions and pretenses of their peers in academia.

Speck came to the University of Pennsylvania in 1907 as a Harrison Fellow in anthropology, and received his Ph.D. in 1908. Considered one of the founders of anthropology at Penn, Speck organized the department of anthropology in 1913, and for forty years he was the senior member. John Witthoft studied with Speck; he joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania in 1966 and retired in 1986 as associate professor emeritus, specializing in the archaeology and ethnology of Native Americans.

One day, near the end of Speck’s career and the beginning of Witthoft’s, the two decided that the turtles under the care of the Philadelphia Zoo were longing for the outside world. The two snuck into the zoo one night, loaded them into a truck, sprung them, and transported them to what they thought would be a more congenial environment — a pond in Swarthmore, Pa.

Unfortunately, the always-intrepid Philadelphia police were able to trace the truck to the two turtlenappers, who were then asked to either reimburse the zoo for the two turtles — to the tune of $600 — or return them to the zoo.

This is where I would like to take a minute to imagine these two important names in the history of anthropology wading in a pond in the middle of who-knows-where, trying desperately to remember which were the turtles they stole and which were run-of-the-mill pond turtles.

Upon their return, the zoo director produced a receipt for their return and promised to upgrade the turtles’ environment.

“All the thoughts of a turtle are turtle” Ralph Waldo Emerson. I can't believe that I'm saying this, but this is probably not the turtle that Speck and Witthoft rescued. Courtesy of flicr user ricmcarthur.

The Tactile Experience

July 28, 2009

I previously wrote about the Penn Museum’s close calls with visitors outraged because forbidden to paw at the granite sphinx.  But when is it okay for a visitor to handle the artifacts?  Exceptions are made, not only when you are famous, but sometimes because you are blind, and more rarely, when you are famous and blind.  No, Stevie Wonder has yet to grace the museum’s hallways, but we have a picture of the most famous blind and deaf person, Helen Keller, closely examining a gorgeous bronze and silver candlestick from the museum’s collections.

Helen Keller and Arthur Upham Pope at the Exhibition of Persian Art, New York, 1940.

Helen Keller and Arthur Upham Pope at the Exhibition of Persian Art, New York, 1940.

The Penn Museum was a little out of the way for Ms. Keller, who is in fact attending “Six Thousand Years of Persian Art,” the first large-scale exhibition of Iranian art in this country, held in New York in 1940.  On the right is Arthur Upham Pope, the curator of the exhibition, and a fanatic of Persian art.

Helen Keller is justly famous because of the way she overcame her deafness and blindness, but she was also a famous author and radical political activist.  But for the less-well-known but nonetheless vision-impaired individuals, the Penn Museum established the Nevil Gallery for the Blind and Sighted in 1971, in which the objects on display could be safely handled by visitors.  It was a big draw throughout the seventies, with a series of changing exhibitions geared to the touchy-feely among us, as well as exhibits by blind artists, but by the late 1980s the novelty had worn away, and the theft of a Sri Lankan mask in 1988 brought the effort to a close.

Nevil Gallery for The Blind and Sighted, Penn Museum, Philadelphia, ca. 1980.

Nevil Gallery for The Blind and Sighted, Penn Museum, Philadelphia, ca. 1980.

If this doesn’t help you get through Wednesday, there’s not much more that I can do.

July 1, 2009
Two girls looking at crystal ball in Harrison Rotunda antechamber. Photo by Reuben Goldberg c. 1950. Penn Museum image 139420.

Two girls looking at crystal ball in Harrison Rotunda antechamber. Photo by Reuben Goldberg c. 1950. Penn Museum image 139420.

Do the museum guards really mistreat visitors?

June 26, 2009

It is an eternal conundrum of museums to balance the contradictory values of preservation and access.  On the one hand, museums must protect these countless pieces of the world forever, but on the other, they’re not allowed to do it the best way, which is to put everything underground in a salt mine beneath a mountain.

Salt mine, Wieliczka, Poland.

Salt mine, Wieliczka, Poland.

No, the reason we preserve this stuff is so that people are given a chance to see it, even ten generations from now.  So they can look, but can they touch?  Unlike libraries (which even allow you to take their merchandise home) or archives, museums do not generally allow this.

But enough jabber, because after consulting our ancient files, I discovered the following correspondence which will lay the argument to rest.  A graduate of Harvard and an expert on the Aztecs, George Clapp Vaillant was director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum from 1941 to 1945, when he died of an apparent suicide.  His fine words in answer to a complaint from a longtime board member will make you realize that self-entitlement is not a modern disease.

Lewis to Vaillant 1942

John F. Lewis, Jr., a museum board member hopes to gain the director's sympathy when those nasty guards tell his friends they can't play with the artifacts.

George Vaillant is cool and collected and defines the problem with a koan: When is touching not touching? And who can tell the difference?

George Vaillant is cool and collected and defines the problem with a koan: When is touching not touching? And who can tell the difference?

Desert Falconer

June 12, 2009
Ruwala (Bedouin) hunter with falcon, Northwestern Saudi Arabia, 1952. Penn Museum image #50202

Ruwala (Bedouin) hunter with falcon, Northwestern Saudi Arabia, 1952. Photograph by Carleton S. Coon, as part of his work in East and South Asia to document the cultural and physical diversity of human populations in these areas. Penn Museum image #50202