Penn Museum logo

American Section

The collections of the American Section are the largest of the Penn Museum and number approximately 300,000 archaeological and ethnographic specimens. The collections span the continents of North and South America from Alaska to Argentina, and document human habitation and history from the ancient past to the present day.

Collection History

More than half of the American collection is archaeological in nature, and much of the collection was acquired on more than 100 archaeological and ethnographic collecting expeditions initiated by Museum and University faculty and staff as early as 1895.

Objects of everyday life including weapons and tools, hunting and fishing equipment, boats, clothing, medicines, raw materials, musical instruments, ornaments, toys and games, house models, and ceremonial items are included. In addition to collections acquired through research, a large number of items have come to the Section through donation, and we continue to receive donations today. The American Section is actively collecting on a limited bases, primarily in North America and as opportunities arise. Due to the size of the collection, only a few of its highlights are mentioned below.

North America

The North American collections include approximately 120,000 archaeological specimens and 40,000 ethnographic specimens from Canada, the United States, and the Caribbean. Although the Museum was founded in 1887 to focus on the study of the civilizations of the ancient Near East, it was quick to incorporate the collecting of Native American cultures under the influence of Daniel Garrison Brinton, the first professor of anthropology in the United States. This effort began with modestly scaled archaeological excavations in nearby Pennsylvania and New Jersey by Charles C. Abbott and Henry C. Mercer in the 1880s and 1890s, and at Key Marco, Florida by Frank Hamilton Cushing in 1897. Over twenty ethnographic collecting expeditions between 1900 and 1926 soon followed.

The North American archaeological collections contain specimens from 45 of the 50 United States. Regions of particular strength include Alaska, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Texas. Highlights include collections from Alaska's northern-most locales of Point Barrow and Point Hope excavated from 1917-1919 by William Van Valin, and by Arthur Hopson at Barrow in 1929. In Alaska, Dr. Frederica de Laguna dug at Cook Inlet's Kechemak Bay from 1930-1932, in the Lower Yukon Valley in 1935, at Prince William Sound from 1933-1937 (jointly there with the Danish National Museum in 1933). De Laguna also conducted excavations in Southeastern Alaska's Tlingit region from 1949-1953. Archaeological excavations were conducted in Western Alaska's Norton Sound by Louis Giddings from 1948-1952, at Unalakleet by Bruce Lutz in 1968 and 1969, and at Cape Nome by John Bockstoce in 1971-1973.

The Museum conducted research in search of early man in the 1930s and 1940s. Collection holdings include those recovered in the 1930s by Edgar B. Howard and John L. Cotter at eastern New Mexico's Burnet Cave, Clovis, and Anderson Lake regions where excavations were sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania in collaboration with the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia from 1932-1937. The collections from Blackwater Draw are recognized as the Clovis Type-site. Penn's search for early man continued in Wyoming in 1940 and 1941 when Edgar B. Howard, Charles Bache, and Linton Satterthwaite excavated at the Eden Valley Finley Site.

The American Section houses the Hazzard-Hearst collection of Ancestral Pueblo archaeological materials from southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah, specifically Mesa Verde and Grand Gulch, respectfully. Ceramics and organic holdings from Mesa Verde were acquired by the Wetherill Brothers between 1889 and 1892 and from the Mancos Canyon region of Utah in this period as well. Much of this collection was exhibited at the 1893 Chicago Worlds Columbian Exposition before it came to Philadelphia.

Rare pre-contact Calusa Indian holdings from Florida were excavated by Frank Johnson in 1891 at Punta Rassa, also known as Mound Key, and by Frank Hamilton Cushing at Key Marco and Tarpon Springs in 1895 and 1896. To the north in New Jersey, Earnest William Hawkes and Ralph Linton excavated at Morrestown and Tickerton in 1915 and 1916. Davidson, Mason and Satterthwaite excavated at Lock Haven, Pennsylvania in 1929.

The North American ethnographic holdings number approximately 40,000 specimens attributed to approximately 200 tribes and organized within eleven geographic regions (Artic, Sub-Arctic, Northwest Coast, Plateau, California, Great Basin, Southwest, Great Plains, Southeast and Northeast). The strongest collections are those systematically created via study and collecting expedition in Alaska, the Northwest Coast, Southwest, Southeast, and Sub-arctic regions. Individual donations significantly contribute to the collections in many areas.

The Shotridge Digital Archive

The Louis Shotridge Digital Archive was created to make the remarkable Shotridge collection accessible to scholars, students, and community leaders interested in learning more about Southeastern Alaskan Native history and culture.

Penn Museum’s American Section developed this digital archive of its Tlingit collections acquired by Louis Shotridge. The Museum’s only indigenous Curator, Shotridge worked for Penn from 1913-1932. His goal was to preserve Tlingit history and art and he acquired exceptional collections for the Penn Museum. The digital archive makes Shotridge’s 500 objects, 3,000 pages of research notes, and 500 photographs available to our Tlingit and world audiences through a searchable website.

Supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), project partners include the Penn Library’s Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image (SCETI), the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, and the Alaska State Library.


Penn Museum's Mesoamerican collections include objects from Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica. Penn Museum has been actively committed to archaeological research and excavation in Mesoamerica since the end of the 19th century, and continues in the region today.

The Museum's first archaeological and ethnographic investigations in Mexico's Yucatan region took place in 1895 under the direction of Henry Mercer. In 1910 George Byron Gordon carried out archaeological reconnaissance in Yucatan and many expeditions followed in the next decade. Highlights from the region include Aztec ceramics excavated by Franz Boas at San Miguel Atzacapotzalco, Distrito Federal, Mexico in 1911; Linton Satterthwaite and J. Alden Mason's collections of Mexican figurines from Jonuta Pyramid, Tabasco excavated in the 1940s; and the results of Froehlich Rainey and Stirling's excavations at the site of Cerro de La Mesas, Mexico in 1960. The 1960 investigation used new electronic techniques including an earth resistivity apparatus, which indicated the presence of over 200 objects deep within the ground.

In 1912 Robert Burkitt excavated in the Highlands of Guatemala and began an association with the University of Pennsylvania Museum which lasted for ten years. Results of this decade-long association include archaeological materials from Alta Verapaz, Chipal, Coban, Kixpek, Quezaltenango, Ratinlixul, Rokuima, and Chama. His exceptional collection of Chama polychrome vessels, the only collection of this type with a secure history, is the subject of the Museum's newest traveling exhibition Painted Metaphors: Pottery and Politics of the Ancient Maya.

In 1930 Curator J. Alden Mason undertook an air reconnaissance of Mayan sites, and other field excavation campaigns soon followed. Excavation began in 1931 in Guatemala's northwestern corner at Piedras Negras by Mason and Satterthwaite, and resulted in a large number of collections placed on loan to UPM from the Guatemalan Government.

Again in 1940, J. Alden Mason undertook archaeological excavations at Panama's Sitio Conte in Coclé Province. From the tombs he recovered elaborate ceramics and gold. The 4,000 specimens are over 1,000 years old, and in 1988, became the subject of the traveling exhibition Beneath the Surface: Life, Death and Gold in Ancient Panama. Also from Panama, the American Section houses large collections from Chiriqui Province acquired by T.R. von der Leith, J. A. McNeil, and F.A. Stearns in the 1920s. The Museum has conducted many years of important research at Tikal in the Petén region of Guatemala; at Caracol in Belize; Chalchuapa, El Salvador; at Copan, Honduras; Quiriquá, Guatemala; and Xunantunich, Belize, though collections from these sites are not part of the Museum's holdings.

The American Section's ethnographic collections from Mesoamerica include strong collections of masks, ceramics, and textiles from Guatemala, and very small collections from Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. In Guatemala, Robert Burkitt acquired ethnographic ceramics, textiles, tools, hammocks, fans and gourds from the Alta Verapaz in the 1910s. The Museum houses the outstanding Lilly de Jongh Osborne collection of 19th and early 20th Century Guatemalan textiles, exceptional because of its complete outfits for men, women and children acquired systematically across different Guatemalan villages. This collection includes raw material and other objects and tools related to weaving. Ruben Reina studied the production of ceramics in Guatemala in the 1960s and 1970s, and collected ceramics and textiles from the region. The Section houses a large collection of Guatemalan masks amassed by James Moore in the 1960s.

South America

The Museum's South American collections are as varied as the regions from which they come - the arid coast of Peru, the Andean Highlands, and the tropical lowlands of the Amazon Basin. The collections include anthropological materials from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela.

The Museum's first South American expedition was carried out in 1895 by archaeologist Max Uhle in the Lake Titicaca Basin of Bolivia and Peru, and the results of these excavations are housed at the Museum. Uhle conducted subsequent pioneering excavations on the Peruvian coast at Ancash, Lambayeqye, and Lima, but most importantly, at the archaeological site of Pachacamac, in 1896. An important pilgrimage site with a broad temporal range, Uhle's excavations at Pachacamac yielded large collections of ceramics, lithics and well preserved organic remains including textiles, wood, basketry, shell, feathers, and other materials. Uhle inspired others to set out on their own archaeological and ethnographic field projects: the Amazon area in Brazil, Guyana, and eastern Peru, as well as to Venezuela, Colombia and the Andes.

With encouragement from Museum Director George Gordon, William Curtis Farabee conducted a pioneering expedition to the Amazon in 1913. For three years he explored and collected among the little-known tribes of the Amazon, Guyana, and eastern Peru, and conducted excavations on the Island of Marajo, at Santarem, and explored several small waterways once inhabited during prehistoric times at the mouth of Brazil's Amazon River in the State of Pará. His work resulted in a wealth of field notes, linguistic data, physical measurements, drawings, photographs, and specimen collections, both archaeological and ethnographic. Farabee returned to conduct additional work in Peru in the early 1920s and carried out archaeological investigations on the southern coast at Arequipa, Ica and Nazca. His excavations yielded large numbers of archaeological ceramics, textiles and other materials for the Museum.

In 1931, Vincenzo M. Petrullo began a series of expeditions to several parts of South America including Matto Grosso, the headwaters of the Paraguay River, and the Xingu River region in Brazil. Petrullo conducted both archaeological and ethnographic research in these regions, and recorded several previously unknown Indian groups. He conducted an expedition to Venezuela among Arawak and Guajiro speakers in 1934. His expeditions resulted in a large variety of objects ranging from bows, arrows, and spears, ceramics, amulets, and feathered headdresses. More recently, in 1996, the Museum enhanced this collection with a gift of 1,040 objects from Dr. Russell Greaves. This collection of Pumé objects from Venezuela (Yaruro) is composed of woven materials, cooking gear, men's subsistence gear, manufacturing objects, health related items, anti-lighting devices, ceremonial gear, objects related to drug use, and toys. The artifacts were collected by Greaves during two field trips for his dissertation research in 1990 and 1992/3. Almost all of the specimens were collected in trade, and complement Petrullo's earlier collections made among the Pumé in 1933.

The American Section's ethnographic holdings from South America are strongest in materials from Bolivia, Brazil, Guyana, and Peru. The Aymara, Quechua, and Yuracaré of Bolivia are represented in early collections acquired by Max Uhle and William Curtis Farabee. More than thirty indigenous tribes from Brazil are represented in ethnographic collections acquired by Farabee and Petrullo in the 1920s and 1930s respectfully. Twelve different indigenous groups are represented in the collections acquired in Guyana by Farabee in the 1920s. More than twenty five native groups from Peru are represented as well. In the 1960s Kenneth Kensinger conducted ethnographic research and made collections among the Cashinahua of eastern Peru along the Rio Curanja. Smaller collections represent some of the indigenous peoples of Argentina (Yahgan), Chile (Alacaluf, Mapuche), Colombia (Arhuaco, Choco, Goajira, and Kogi), and Ecuador (Jivaro, Tumaco, Saparo).

Penn Museum’s American and Conservation departments received a grant from IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) to conduct a conservation survey and rehouse the museum's collection of pottery and textiles from the site of Pachacamac, Peru. Pachacamac was a sacred center in the Andean region for more than 1,000 years and figures prominently in myth, oral history, and Peruvian identity even today. The 12,000-item archaeological collection was made in 1895–1896 and contains diverse and fragile organic materials preserved in the dry environment of the Peruvian coast. The rehoused pottery was moved closer to the Pachacamac textiles, which in turn was treated and moved into new custom cabinetry. The completed project will provide the museum with a prioritized list of recommended conservation treatment and rehoused materials that will be more safely accessible for class use, research, and community engagement.

Highlights from the American Section

The collections holds objects of everyday life, such as weapons and tools, hunting and fishing equipment, boats, clothing, medicines, raw materials, musical instruments, ornaments, toys and games, household utensils, and ceremonial items.

View Highlights