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Museum News

Museum Mondays: An unexpected discovery among Incan artifacts

September 22, 2013 at 10:59 pm

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Hundreds of thousands of artifacts, thousands of years of human history, and hundreds of countries and cultures. Objects in the Logan Museum wait patiently for the right student, faculty member, or visiting researcher to acknowledge their presence. Dr. Kylie Quave, (above) visiting assistant professor of anthropology, is making discoveries in the museum on a weekly basis. Quave’s research focuses on Inca archaeology in the area around Cuzco, Peru. She and Nicolette Meister were recently searching for pre-Columbian coca bags in the Logan Museum and accidently discovered a quipu! These are the joyous happy accidents of museum work.

Quipu are Inca recording devices, encoded with knots made strategically along strings of spun and plied thread, made out of llama or alpaca hair and cotton. Only about 700 are known to exist, two of which are already catalogued in the Logan Museum and used in anthropology and math courses.

Meister was researching objects related to ancient health and use of medicine for Professor Katie Johnson’s FYI class, and in doing so consulted with Kylie about coca chewing in ancient Peru. Coca leaves are still chewed today as a mild stimulant, appetite suppressant, and treatment for altitude sickness. The paraphernalia hasn’t changed much over the centuries. The leaves are still carried in small rectangular bags with a long strap worn over the shoulder. The Logan Museum curates a large collection of pre-Columbian textiles, so Meister and Quave were hopeful to identify an ancient coca bag. One bag was particularly promising as it appeared to have something inside. The bag is part of a mummy bundle acquired in 1929 from a rather colorful adventurer, explorer, illustrator, and author named Alpheus Hyatt Verrill.

Carefully opening the bag, thin multi-colored strings became visible, and Meister exclaimed, “Is that a quipu?” It’s a memorable moment when a faculty member gets so excited that she can hardly speak, much less patiently stand still while the strings in question are carefully retrieved from the little bag. The bag contained a small quipu and many fragments, possibly quipu parts awaiting construction? Perhaps the bag belonged to a quipu maker? Quave has researched and published about quipu, so finding a previously unrecorded quipu is incredibly exciting, not to mention a great research opportunity. And the little bag had one more surprise in store for us: a small desiccated leaf was found in its recesses. Is it a coca leaf? Did the bag function as a coca bag and as a quipu kit? These are some of the questions Quave will explore as she learns more about the Logan Museum’s third quipu.