The Art of Killing: ‘Arts of War’ at Cambridge’s Harvard Peabody

Emilie Foster
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peabody 4To the cynic, humankind is, at its very core, drawn towards cruelty and brutality. Even before our ancestors mastered the art of metalworking we were inventing more efficient ways to annihilate those that might oppose or threaten us. Indeed, some of our most innovative creations, both scientifically and artistically, have evolved from warfare.

Left: Leather and wood armor, China. This example of armor of painted leather and wood was made by the Lolo, or Yi, people from China’s Sichuan Province near the Tibetan border.

However, there has always been a macabre fascination with creating beauty out of even the most brutal of weapons. Curator and archeologist Steven LeBlanc has put together a stunning and thought-provoking collection that illustrates this juxtaposition quite eloquently in the Harvard Peabody’s exhibit Arts of War: Artistry in Weapons across Cultures. LeBlanc specializes in the American Southwest and prehistoric warfare which makes his topic for this show no surprise. What is surprising though, is the contemplative atmosphere it creates within the viewer. It asks you to ponder the complex relationship humanity has with its tools of destruction, from the intimate hand wielded katana to the impersonal long range killing capacity of a bomb. Why do we give such reverence to objects that serve such a dark purpose? xxxxx

The exhibit itself is broken down into sections with articles categorized into weapon type. There are clubs, edged pieces, throwing weapons, as well as items of protection such as shields and armor. LeBlanc obviously wanted to illustrate how this common inclination, to embellish and fetishize objects of war, transcends time and place and does so to great success. The over 150 pieces represent every continent (save Antarctica perhaps) and span a timeline of 20,000+ years in the past up to the modern day. What they all have in commonpeabody 2 is the attention given by their creators to details outside of just their intended usage.

Right: Shield, Maasai, Kenya. The design of this shield is divided vertically into two equal parts. One half designates the tribal subgroup; the other half is decorated to commemorate the battle successes of the individual warrior.

Clubs were created with elegant gliding lines out of specially chosen pieces of wood and depict exquisitely detailed animals and spirits. Sword were augmented with precious stones, protected by elaborate scabbards. Shields communicated the bearer’s status and alignment. Some of this customization was practical as seen by the painting of shields for organization, but often it symbolized the user’s power and strength in battle. Some was believed to offer spiritual connection and protection from otherworldly beings. These were also tools of authority and find their way as symbols of rule up to the present. The idea of a scepter being indicative of authority evolved out of using maces and clubs in battle, and has peabody 7been utilized as a symbol of reigning power from the Pharaohs of Egypt, to Queen Elizabeth today.

Left:  Stone club head, Costa Rica. Throughout history and around the world stone mace heads were routinely carved into symbolic and fanciful shapes. Still heavy and functional, they might depict gods or other power symbols. 

The exhibit itself is robust without being overwhelming, despite the rather small space it occupies within the Archeology and Ethnology building. Designer Samuel Tager does an excellent job pacing the show, with areas of pause on more elaborate elements such as full suits of armor amidst the numerous weapons. The entrance and information board for the show evokes the feeling of stepping into a war torn city as you enter through an arch made of what appears to be a blown out stone wall studded with metal bolts. Essentially he has created an armory of the history of slaughter. For the typical visitor with a high level view and general knowledge of the past, the information presented is very adequate. The easy to digest plaques give just enough background on specific objects, while a broader approach is assigned to the descriptors of the overall category of weapon such as its evolution through time. For those with enough knowledge peabody 6 of ancient warfare and weaponry to be dangerous though, it can be slightly frustrating.

Right:  Alutiiq, Kodiak Island, Western Alaska. Spear-throwers and their accompanying spears, or darts, were used both for hunting and in warfare and their hand grips often very elaborately carved. 

To be fair, this is coming from someone who regularly participates in medieval reenactment and voluntarily binge watches historical documentaries; so take my criticism with a grain of salt. Not everyone has that background. I also attended this viewing with two male friends of mine (also in the Society for Creative Anachronism) who participate in simulated heavy combat, and they had a very interesting take on presentation. Phil Krzeminski, a fellow artist and history buff posited that it would be very helpful if the museum followed the current trend of presenting pieces in front of a mirror. This would allow the viewer to examine the article “In the round” as it were and gain greater understanding. The two ‘warriors’ with me were most interested in this being employed in the shield section of the exhibit, as they wanted to know what the grips or handles may have looked like and how that might have effected their performance. It would have been quite helpful for those viewers (a medieval re-enactor, for example) who might wish to replicate artifacts from history.

Below: Alutiiq, Kodiak Island, Western Alaska. Spear-throwers and their accompanying spears, or darts, were used both for hunting and in warfare and their hand grips often very elaborately carved.

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My favorite pieces were the section on Atlatls (spears or arrows launched from a long wooden arm or chucker, above) partly because I find the simplicity and accuracy of this weapon in knowledgeable hands astonishing, and partly because it’s just so much amusing to say “atlatl.” There are people within the SCA that still practice utilizing these weapons, and to see them in use first hand is like looking into civilization’s ancient past. These were some of the oldest pieces in peabody 9the show, some going back nearly 30,000 years.

Left: Kirabati armor, Pacific Islands. Body armor with neck guard; Gauntlet; Porcupine fish or puffer fish skin helmet; Shark’s tooth edged sword.

Coming in close second to these for favorite elements had to be the set of Kirabati armor, primarily for carrying a theme to completion. These Oceanic warriors brought their dependence on the sea into every aspect of their culture and their arms and armor were no exception. Multi pronged swords are edged with countless shark’s teeth and the helm atop the wearer’s head was made from the leathered hide of a large puffer fish. While comical to a modern outsider such as myself, this prickly decision offered more protection that it looks like with the added benefit of making the fighter look larger and supposedly, more fierce.

Overall, as an art and history enthusiast, I thought the show was quite well done. In equal measure there were moments of poignant serious reflection, and others were simply breathtaking presentations of artistry and skill. What is pivotal however, is that the viewer is exposed to a huge diversity of cultural artifacts, well beyond just the stereotypical Native American or Samurai warrior that most think of in the context of historical conflict. Oceania, the Pacificpeabody 5 Northwest, deep inland Africa, the Middle East, and more, are represented.

Right: Club, Nishga, Northwest British Columbia. Carved wood augmented with teeth.

Many of these cultures I knew little about, such as our puffer-clad champion and his people. This was also my first visit to the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, but certainly won’t be my last. The staff was extremely welcoming and interested in having me there to review the show and were great to work with.

If you’re at all interested in the subject of military history, weapons development, and artistic expression through tools, then I highly encourage you to check out this installation. It’s running until October 2017 so you have plenty of time to make a day of it.

By Emilie Foster, Contributing Writer

One Comment

  1. D. Dominick Lombardi January 27, 2016 2:16 pm

    Very thoughtful review. I like in particular the various angles taken on the exhibition and its complexities or lack there of, your suggestions on how to make it more user friendly for all levels of interest as well as the more personal insights you gave.

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