About the Project

The identification of materials from Native American cultural objects to the species level contributes significantly to the documentation of museum collections, academic research, and self-determined, indigenous, and descendent community study.  Recently, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology has collaborated with other museums and indigenous groups to study the mammalian materials that are represented in museum collections.  These collaborations have contributed not only to a greater understanding of the objects being studied but also to cultural revitalization efforts.  Currently, the Peabody Museum is engaged in developing a new application of an analytical technique called Peptide Mass Fingerprinting (PMF).  This effort is partially supported by the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service.

There is a great deal of interest in the species-specific identification of materials used in cultural objects, but current methods using visual and tactile examination often lead to inaccurate results.  Oral histories and cultural traditions contribute to the context and initial ideas for identifying mammalian sources; however, the potential for observer error is significant, and results are problematic. Identification is especially difficult for gut and membrane materials, where distinctive features are often absent.

PMF is a biotechnology technique that allows accurate identification of mammalian materials through the analysis of collagen samples. Although the technique requires destructive sampling, the amount of material taken from objects is only a few tens of micrograms, which is consistent with micro-destructive sampling sizes routinely used in conservation.  Once collected, samples are subjected to an extraction/digestion protocol that produces a mixture of peptides, which is then analyzed by Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption/Ionization Time of Flight Mass Spectrometry (MALDI).  This analysis produces a mass spectrum containing characteristic marker peptides--a “peptide mass fingerprint”-- that can then be compared to reference spectra from known materials for identification. 

Collaborating with the Straus Center for Conservation at the Harvard Art Museums and the Harvard FAS Division of Science, the Peabody Museum is surveying skin, gut, sinew, and membrane materials in ethnographic objects from Alaska, the Northwest Coast (including Northern California) and the High Plains region. 

The current PMF reference library contains approximately 50 samples relevant to the mammals of coastal Alaska and the western United States.  This library will be expanded to encompass as many as possible of the mammals likely to be found in these areas.  Eventually this collaborative project will provide a further outline and understanding of cultural functions and culturally-based choices involving mammalian materials.

As the project continues, the research team will be posting results and relevant information.  The technique of PMF will be promoted as a routine method for the identification of proteinaceous materials found in museums. 


Small kayak model in the Peabody Museum collection. Copyright 2013 Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

This website and its contents are being developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.

Exhibit on Alaska’s Historic Objects Renewed. Copyright 2014 Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.