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Rare Artifact, Misidentified,Found In Museum Storage

Springfield Museums

The Springfield Museums will soon put on public display a rare anthropological treasure that had been misidentified and kept in storage for more than a century.  Officials  at the science museum in Springfield, Massachusetts announced the discovery today.

Officials at the Springfield Museums say they have authenticated an artifact in the permanent collection as a mid- 19th Century Tlingit helmet that likely belonged to a warrior for a tribe of the indigenous peoples in southeast Alaska.  There are fewer than 100 Tlingit war helmets known to be in existence.

Springfield Science Museum Director David Stier, who has worked on museum collections for almost 30 years, described the discovery as the find of a lifetime.

"It is one of the most thrilling moments for a curatorial person to find something like this."

The helmet, ornately carved from a single piece of dense wood with the head of a bird of prey on top, had been carefully stored out of public view since it came into the museum’s possession around 1899.  The source of the artifact is unknown.

" We don't know who gave it to us. We know it was cataloged around 1900, so it has been in the collections since then," said Stier.

The helmet was listed in the museum records as an “Aleution hat.” That label became suspect to the museum staff as they began to prepare a new display about the native peoples of the northwest Pacific coast of North America.  The Science Museum’s Curator of Anthropology, Ellen Savulis, contacted a colleague at the Alaska State Museum who identified the Tlingit helmet.

" We know the carved bird represents the lineage of the warrior who would have worn the helmet. We know it dates between 1800 and 1850, but that is about all the information we have."

The helmet would have been part of  the body armor made of wood and leather worn by Tlingit warriors up until the time firearms were imported into the region in the mid-1800s.  It then would have been relegated to ceremonial purposes.

Stier said he expects the helmet will attract a lot of attention from researchers and perhaps from the Tlingit tribes given the unknown ownership.  He said the Springfield Museums strictly adhere to the federal Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act.

" We will do whatever is the right thing. Naturally, we would like to keep and safeguard the helmet here in our collections."

The helmet will go on display at the museums in a specially designed enclosure on December 26th.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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