J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email

•••••••••••••••••

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

A Peek at Peale’s Mastodon

Earlier this month, Ben at Extinct Monsters shared a report on Charles Willson Peale’s mounted mastodon skeleton, now on exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

Ben wrote:
Exhumed in 1799 near the banks of the Hudson River and unveiled to the public on Christmas Eve, 1801, this was the very first mounted skeleton of a prehistoric animal ever exhibited in the United States. . . .

After Peale’s Philadelphia museum closed in 1848, the mastodon was sold and wound up at the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany. There it remained for over 170 years, largely forgotten in its home country, until SAAM senior curator Eleanor Harvey had the idea to include it in a new exhibition. . . .

I spoke to Advait Jukar, a Research Associate with the National Museum of Natural History, about his involvement with the mastodon. He inspected the skeleton in early 2020, shortly after it arrived in Washington, DC. As a fossil elephant specialist, Jukar was able to determine that the mastodon was an adult male, and that about 50% of the mount was composed of real, partially mineralized bone.

Fascinatingly, most of the reconstructed bones were carved from wood. This was the handiwork of Rembrandt Peale (Charles’ son), William Rush, and Moses Williams. Most of the wooden bones were carved in multiple pieces, which were locked together with nails and pegs. The craftsmanship is exquisite, and the joins are difficult to make out unless you stand quite close. The mandible is entirely wood, but the teeth are real. These teeth probably came from a different individual—one tooth on the right side didn’t fit properly and was inserted sideways!

The mastodon at SAAM differs from the original presentation at Peale’s museum in a few ways. The missing top of the skull was once modeled in papier-mâché, but this reconstruction was destroyed when the Landesmuseum was bombed during the second world war. It has since been remodeled in plaster.

While the mastodon was never mounted with real tusks, the mount has traditionally sported strongly curved replica tusks, more reminiscent of a mammoth. While Rembrandt Peale published a pamphlet in 1803 suggesting that the mastodon’s tusks should be positioned downward, like a pair of predatory fangs [shown above], it’s unclear if the tusks on the skeleton were ever mounted this way. At SAAM, the mastodon correctly sports a pair of nearly straight replicated tusks, which curve gently upward. 
The exhibit that includes this mastodon, which is actually about the scientist Alexander Humboldt, will be up at the Smithsonian American Art Museum only until 11 July.

No comments: