John Bartram’s Journey to Onondago

This post was originally published on the Biodiversity Heritage Library blog, March 24, 2016.

John Bartram was born in Marple, Pennsylvania in 1699. Although he received limited formal education, he eventually distinguished himself as one of the leading botanists of his day. Through an early and intense interest in botany, he collected rare and useful plants and seeds throughout the colonies which he provided to the gentlemen of Europe, an opportunity which arose from his close friendship with the English botanist, Peter Collinson.

He also established one of the finest botanic gardens of the colonial period in Kingsessing (now part of the park system in south Philadelphia). He grew dozens of species of trees, shrubs, and other plants collected on his travels. He even experimented with breeding and selection of cultivars to meet a demand abroad for exotic plants. His botanical supply business was so successful that it provided the income and incentive that enabled him to travel around the colonies and to Florida in search of new specimens.

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Junius Bird’s North American Expeditions, Norse Vikings and the Spindle Whorl

While interning in the Anthropology Division under the supervision of Ms. Kristen Mable, Registrar for Archives & Loans, I had the opportunity to work with some very interesting collections, the first being the Papers of Junius Bouton Bird, 1907-1982, regarding his research in North America. Bird, a careful excavator and pioneer in the use of radiocarbon dating and textile studies was best known for his South American research. He became the Curator of South American archaeology at the American Museum in 1957. Bird sailed to the Arctic several times, becoming an expert sailor while doing archaeological research work in areas such as: Eastern Greenland, Hopedale, Labrador, Cape York and Southampton Island, to name a few. Artifacts from Bird’s excavations in Labrador and Southampton Island can be found in the AMNH Anthropology Division’s collections.

Junius Bouton Bird sailing, possibly on the schooner "Morrissey".

As I explored the field reports, correspondence and photographs in this collection, I came across an interesting photograph of an artifact known as the “spindle whorl”, found at the L’Anse aux Meadows Norse Vikings settlement ruins on the Northern coast of Newfoundland. This site was first discovered by Helge Ingstad, a Norwegian adventurer and writer, in 1960 by following a hunch and an ancient map. This site, found to be almost a millennium old, was believed to be the place where Vikings landed in North America about 500 years before Christopher Columbus. The “spindle whorl” artifact was in fact, a yarn spinner, about 1000 years old, which proved that the Viking settlers included women, who performed household tasks. Bird did conservation work at the site from 1961 to 1964 and also gave a lecture on the Norse. His notes and slides from the lecture can be found in this collection as well.

The Spindle Whorl artifact found at the Norse Vikings "L'Anse aux Meadows" site on the Northern coast of Newfoundland.

This collection also includes archaeological sites in the United States, such as mastodon sites in Hackensack, New Jersey and the Kunatah rock shelter in upstate New York, among others. Also included here are Bird’s papers on his research work in Honduras and Okinawa, Japan. Junius Bird died in New York in 1982, leaving behind plentiful evidence of his illustrious archaeological research work for future generations of people, researchers, students and interns, such as myself, to re-discover. I feel privileged to have worked on this exciting collection and grateful for this unique opportunity.