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7 Artifacts at Yale Peabody Museum that Changed the World

October 31, 2016:

byErik Ofgang

The world was so much younger then.

Or at least we thought so.

In 1866, when the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History was founded, our understanding of the planet was vastly different. Most people believed the Earth to be about 6,000 years old (it is now estimated to be 4.5 billion years old), evolution was not yet fully conceived, and even the concept of objects such as meteorites falling from space had until recently been — forgive the pun — an alien one.

Since its founding, the Peabody Museum, which marks its 150th anniversary on Oct. 22, has been one of the most influential research institutions in the world. The unofficial “Sistine Chapel of Evolution” has a rich history filled with scientists and adventurers with sometimes larger-than-life personalities who collectively played a major role in shaping our current understanding of the world.
Also see: New Gem Hall Will Bring Even More ‘Wow Factor’ to Peabody Museum

However, of late, the research portion of the museum has been overlooked by visitors.

“In a recent survey, literally 0.0 percent of the people we surveyed saw the museum as a research institution,” says Richard A. Kissel, director of public programs exhibitions and education at the museum. “We’re an education facility based on research, and we weren’t communicating that as well as we should have.”

To better emphasize the research component of its mission and to celebrate its 150th anniversary, the museum has launched the exhibit Treasures of the Peabody: 150 Years of Exploration & Discovery, on view through Jan. 8, featuring 150 artifacts and specimens from the collection showcasing the museum’s contributions to modern thinking.

Also part of the anniversary celebrations: Yale University Press published House of Lost Worlds, a history of the museum by Richard Conniff; the museum has launched an offsite gallery at 1 Broadway in New Haven — called Peabody2 — which features objects from the Peabody’s Southeast Asian and Australian collection; and at its main location is debuting its new cutting-edge, multimillion-dollar gem and mineral hall.

In the coming pages, we look at some of the most important objects from the museum’s collection and influential moments in its 150-year-plus history.
The Weston Meteorite

“It was easier to believe that two Yankee professors could lie than to admit that stones could fall from heaven.”

It looked like something out of the Bible.

At around 6:30 a.m. on Dec. 14, 1807, a fireball about two-thirds of the size of the moon streaked across the New England sky heading south, toward Connecticut. Above the town of Weston, three loud explosions were heard. At least six fragments of this relic of outer space fell in the area, with pieces recovered from Trumbull and what is present-day Easton, but was then part of Weston.

The Peabody Museum would not exist for about 60 years, but Yale was already becoming a center of North American science. In 1734, the university had become the first American college to obtain a compound microscope — this microscope is currently on display as part of the Treasures of the Peabody exhibit — and had appointed Benjamin Silliman as its first professor of “chymistry” and natural history.

Silliman is today known as Yale’s patriarch of science. Though a lawyer by trade, he embraced his new field with vigor and skill. During his tenure, he advanced science at Yale, founded the American Journal of Science and established a specimen collection that would ultimately grow into the Peabody Museum’s first holdings.

When the Weston meteorite fell from the sky, Silliman was in the right place at the right time.

Two or three days after the meteorite had been sighted, Silliman heard about it, and he and a Yale colleague, professor James L. Kingsley, dropped everything to search for fragments.

Meteorites had been observed since antiquity, but by the 1800s they were still little understood. In 1794, Ernst Chladni made the somewhat controversial argument that they came from outer space and not volcanoes or storm clouds. In Europe, skepticism of Chladni’s claims began to decrease after well-documented meteoritic falls there.

But no meteorites had ever been documented in the New World, and there were still many educated people who doubted their otherworldly origin. Among these skeptics was Thomas Jefferson, president of the United States at the time. When Jefferson heard of the Weston meteorite he expressed doubt it could have come from the heavens. Silliman’s son later quoted Jefferson as saying “it was easier to believe that two Yankee professors could lie than to admit that stones could fall from heaven,” though no other record of Jefferson having said this can be located by modern researchers.

Turning a deaf ear to skeptics, and with the dedication of detectives, Silliman and Kingsley visited every area where the stones had been reported to have fallen. Along the way they interviewed many witnesses. Some of the stones had been smashed during the impact from the sky, others had been gathered up by locals who had broken them, convinced they contained riches.

With difficulty, Silliman and Kingsley managed to procure fragments of the meteorite. The Yale professors published a detailed description of the incident in the Connecticut Herald. Later, a revised version of that article with the addition of a chemical analysis of the meteorite — the first to be performed in the U.S. and one of the first in the world — was read before the American Philosophical Society.

The fall and recovery of the meteorite laid the groundwork for the North American study of extraterrestrial objects and marked the beginning of Yale’s meteorite collection, the oldest in the United States.

About 350 pounds of meteorite fell on and around Weston. Currently, less than 50 pounds is accounted for. The largest piece, still on display at Yale, is 36½ pounds. Visitors to the museum can view the stone — one of the earliest pieces of evidence that, contrary to what Jefferson and others believed, rocks really did fall from heaven.
The First Brontosaurus

“Men came back with report of discovery of very big bones between quarries 8 and 9…”

In March 1877, Henry Beckwith, a retired Navy engineer from Connecticut, and Arthur Lakes, an English-born teacher, set out from Morris, Colorado, in search of plant fossils. As Conniff recounts in House of Lost Worlds, they were exploring Bear Creek Canyon when they stumbled upon what Beckwith initially thought was a fossilized piece of an ancient tree.

The two men searched for other nearby evidence, and Lakes wrote that “as I jumped on top of the ledge there at my feet lay a monstrous vertebrae.” It was 35 inches in circumference, “so monstrous … so utterly beyond anything I had ever read or conceived possible that I could hardly believe my eyes. We stood for a moment without speaking gazing in astonishment at this prodigy and threw our hats in the air and hurrahed.”

Dinosaurs were not yet the stuff of childhood legends. The term dinosaur, meaning “terrible lizard,” had only been coined in 1842, and by 1877 little was known about the creatures or just how mystifyingly large some of them had been.

Lake and Beckwith had stumbled upon a large treasure trove of dinosaur fossils. Their find would mark the start of a year of unparalleled dinosaur digs, resulting in the first identifications of a number of popular and important dinosaurs. Many of the bones at Canyon City and other major dinosaur dig sites discovered later that year would be studied and identified by one of science’s and Yale history’s most important, confounding and fascinating figures: O.C. Marsh.

Othniel Charles Marsh was the nephew of the wealthy banker George Peabody. It was at Marsh’s urging that Peabody donated the $150,000 to establish the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale. Marsh was the museum’s first director and one of its founding curators along with George Jarvis Brush (mineralogy) and Addison Emery Verrill (zoology). One of the most important scientists of the 1800s, Marsh also was one of the era’s most polarizing figures.

He famously clashed with Edward Drinker Cope, the other leading paleontologist of the day, over fossil finds in what became known as the “Bone Wars.”

“We don’t dwell on it, but we can’t not tell that story,” says Kissel, Peabody’s director of public programs, exhibitions and education. “Basically the rivalry between them kind of ruined both of them. It ruined their reputations and left them financially ruined. They were hell bent on ruining each other and they ruined each other in the process.”

But along the way, despite their sometimes childish feud, both men contributed much to science. After securing the fossils found by Beckwith and Lake in Canyon City, Marsh commissioned a dig at Como Bluff, Wyoming. He hired Lakes to work there. On July 26, 1879, Lakes wrote a telling journal entry: “Men came back with report of discovery of very big bones between quarries 8 and 9. Heavy thunderstorms hailstones fell the size of hens eggs. Telegraph wires broken.”

Out there in the hail and the thunder was one of the most spectacular dinosaur fossils human eyes would ever lay eyes on. The bones were shipped to Marsh, who named the huge, long-necked creature the Brontosaurus, meaning “thunder lizard.”

In 1903, paleontologist Elmer Riggs argued the Brontosaurus was not a new type of skeleton but was a type of dinosaur already discovered by Marsh a few years earlier called the Apatosaurus. The scientific consensus was that Riggs was correct, but for more than 100 years the term Brontosaurus continued to be used in defiance of what was viewed as the “proper” terminology. Society’s collective failure to forget the name Brontosaurus was likely for the best, as in 2015 new research concluded the Brontosaurus was different enough from the Apatosaurus to deserve its own name.

Regardless of what you call it, the Brontosaurus unearthed for Marsh is truly awe-inspiring. Long the centerpiece of the Great Hall at the Peabody, it is a striking skeleton that grabs your vision with the force of a lightning strike. Beyond its enduring visual appeal, the Brontosaurus at the Peabody is an earth-shaking find from an era of dinosaur discovery that helped redefine our understanding of these ancient creatures.
The First Scientific Illustration of a Giant Squid

“A terrible monster worthy of all the legends...”

In Portugal Cove, Newfoundland, a small fishing boat was attacked in 1873 by a real-life monster of the deep: a giant squid. According to the story, the boat’s occupants saw large tentacles reaching out of the water and wrapping around the boat. To save their ship they hacked off the tentacles, eventually selling them for $10 to the Rev. Moses Harvey of Newfoundland, an amateur naturalist fascinated by curiosities of the sea.

Soon afterward, another fisherman in the area found a dead giant squid in his nets. Having heard about Harvey’s interest in these creatures, he sold it to him. After displaying it in his living room for a time, Harvey sent it to Peabody zoologist Addison Emery Verrill in New Haven.

While Marsh searched for the fossils of animals of the distant past, his co-curator Verrill set his sights on animals still living, often animals that dwelled under the sea. During his career, Verrill, a native of Maine, and Yale’s first professor of zoology, published more than 350 papers and is credited with having described more than 1,000 species of animals in virtually every major taxon.

When Harvey sent Verrill the shipment, the existence of giant squids — which remain exceedingly rare — was not accepted. They were often fodder for legends and may have served as the inspiration for the kraken of Norse mythology. In his 1870 novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne describes a 25-foot giant squid as “a terrible monster worthy of all the legends about such creatures.”

Despite the poor condition of the specimen that arrived in New Haven, Verrill was able to use it to create the first accurate description and scientific illustration of the giant squid. Thus, Verrill helped move the creature of the deep from the realm of mythology to that of science. A life-size model of the squid hangs in the lobby of the Peabody museum today, where it serves as one of the first attractions seen by museum visitors.
Evidence of Evolution

“Your work … has afforded the best support to the theory of Evolution.”

Marsh was an early proponent of the idea that birds and reptiles (including dinosaurs) were evolutionarily linked. This theory went out of vogue in the early 1900s, but is today one to which the vast majority of experts subscribe.

In 1873, the concept received its strongest fossil evidence during one of Marsh’s Yale expeditions in Kansas. During that expedition, Marsh and his team discovered early specimens of Hesperornis (above) and Ichthyornis specimens, both ancient birds. Later that year, Marsh declared that the reptilian features of these two birds “does much to break down the old distinction between Birds and Reptiles.”

Others observers agreed with Marsh’s assessment of the fossils. Referencing Hesperornis and Ichthyornis, Charles Darwin said, “Your work on these old birds, and on many of the fossil animals of North America, has afforded the best support to the theory of Evolution, which has appeared within the last 20 years.”
The Scientific Discovery of Machu Picchu

“To go and see what lay beyond.”

It was one of the “lost” cities of the Incas, a remnant of a fallen civilization decimated by Spanish invaders in the 16th century. High up in the Andes northwest of Cusco, its existence was known only to the peoples who lived in the region for hundreds of years. That all changed in 1911 thanks to a Yale professor with an appetite for adventure.

Hiram Bingham first visited Peru in 1908. On that trip he had heard rumors of unexplored Inca cities and was stricken by the siren’s call of lost history. While observing the Vilcabamba mountain range he would later recall, “Those snow-capped peaks in an unknown and unexplored part of Peru fascinated me greatly. They tempted me to go and see what lay beyond. In the ever famous words of Rudyard Kipling there was ‘Something hidden! Go and find it! Go and look beyond the ranges — Something lost behind the ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!’”

Bingham’s return to Peru was funded by Yale students. In Peru he and his small team traveled by foot and mule from Cusco into the Urubamba Valley. There a local farmer told them about ruins on top of a nearby mountain. This farmer called the mountain Machu Picchu, or “old peak.”

The next day, in cold and drizzly weather, Bingham made the climb to the mountain’s ridge. There he met a small group of locals who showed him the rest of the way to the ancient city. Led down the final path by an 11-year-old boy, Bingham first set eyes on the intricate network of terraces that marked the entrance to Machu Picchu. Recounting the trip in National Geographic shortly after the expedition, Bingham wrote:

“Presently we found ourselves in the midst of a tropical forest, beneath the shade of whose trees we could make out a maze of ancient walls, the ruins of buildings made of blocks of granite, some of which were beautifully fitted together in the most refined style of Inca architecture. A few rods farther along we came to a little open space, on which were two splendid temples or palaces. The superior character of the stone work, the presence of these splendid edifices, and of what appeared to be an unusually large number of finely constructed stone dwellings, led me to believe that Machu Picchu might prove to be the largest and most important ruin discovered in South America.”

Bingham would go on to write a bestselling account of the expedition called Lost City of the Incas, and return several times to the city, excavating thousands of artifacts, including ceramics, tools, jewelry and human bones, most of which were sent to the Peabody Museum. These excavated objects and Bingham’s writings would help make Machu Picchu a household name and one of the world’s most iconic destinations — close to a million people visit it annually. Scholars would also learn much from the city about Inca civilization.

In 2010, nearly 100 years after Bingham first came upon Machu Picchu, Yale, facing a lawsuit from the government of Peru, agreed to send the artifacts Bingham had excavated back to Peru to be displayed in a museum there. As part of the agreement, Peru recognized that Yale University has been “a dedicated and worthy steward of these archaeological materials,” and both sides agreed the objects’ return would occur within the context of a long-term collaborative relationship centered on research and education.
The Age of reptiles Mural

“A vast dream, or hallucination.”

In the early 1940s, a 23-year-old Yale arts student named Rudolph F. Zallinger was hired for $40 a week to paint a mural on the wall of the Peabody’s Great Hall because then-director of the museum Robert E. Parr believed the gray, unattractive wall needed sprucing up.

In 1943, Zallinger began work on the mural that would become one of the masterworks of dinosaur-inspired art. Zallinger once described the difficult work of creating it as “like giving birth to an elephant.” But when it was completed 4½ years later in 1947, it was clear it was worth the effort.

Measuring 110 feet, it is one of the largest murals in the world and traces 362 million years of evolutionary history on earth. In 1949, the mural won Zallinger a Pulitzer, and Kissel says the mural has helped cement the Peabody’s reputation as the “Sistine Chapel of evolution.”

In House of Lost Worlds, Conniff quotes art historian W.J.T. Mitchell’s observation that in the Peabody’s Great Hall it seems to loom above “like a vast dream, or hallucination.” Mitchell adds that the mural is one of those images “that are instantly recognizable, as if we have always already seen them, as if they had always existed, like the anonymous animal cave paintings of Lascaux.”

In 1953, Life magazine put an image of the mural on its cover. Kissel says the Life cover and the magic of Zallinger’s work inspired a generation of children to study dinosaurs and become paleontologists.
The Raptor that Inspired Jurassic Park

“A fleet-footed, highly predacious, extremely agile and very active animal.”

The velociraptor of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park was born at the Peabody, as was the concept of the fast, agile, intelligent dinosaur.

Marsh and most paleontologists of his day, and through the first half of the 1900s, believed dinosaurs were slow, dim-witted, cold-blooded creatures that walked with the plodding awkwardness of Godzilla. But in the second half of the century, that image changed in large part thanks to John Ostrom, a paleontologist at the Peabody.

In 1964, while excavating in Montana’s Big Horn Basin, Ostrom saw a 3-inch-long claw protruding from the ground. The claw, as later excavations would reveal, belonged to a new type of dinosaur Ostrom named Deinonychus, a cousin of the Velociraptor. After studying the fossils, particularly the dinosaur’s foot, Ostram concluded the dinosaur was not the slow-footed creature of 1950s disaster films. Instead, he wrote it “must have been a fleet-footed, highly predacious, extremely agile and very active animal, sensitive to many stimuli, and quick in its responses.” Ostram also theorized that it was likely warm blooded, and thus had a quicker metabolism and could move much faster than researchers previously believed.

In addition to upending perceptions about dinosaur agility and metabolism, Ostrom’s new, more agile dinosaur eventually caught the attention of Crichton. While researching the book Jurassic Park, Crichton visited the Peabody and spoke with Ostrom, asking the professor about what he believed the creature could and could not do. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg would also speak with Ostrom, who died in 2005.

Though Crichton based his raptors on Deinonychus, he decided to call it the Velociraptor, which was the closest relative to what Ostrom had found and a creature that Crichton believed had a more marketable name. Ostrom told The New York Times that “[Crichton] said, ‘It’s more dramatic.’ And I said I recognize that most people don’t understand Greek.”

If more people did understand Greek, Deinonychus would be about as dramatic a name as you can get: after all, it means “terrible claw.”

The Yale Peabody Museum at 170 Whitney Ave., New Haven, will mark its 150th anniversary on Oct. 22. The David Friend Gem Hall will open Oct. 23. Admission to the museum both days is free.



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