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Rare Tlingit war helmet discovered in Massachusetts museum archives

Laurel Andrews
The rare Tlingit war is carved from a single piece of hardwood. It sat in storage, misidentified as an "Aleutian hat," for more than a century in the Springfield Science museum archives.
Courtesy Springfield Science Museum
A sketch of Tlingit body armor by Tomas de Suria, with the Spanish expedition under the command of Malaspina, on the southern coast of Alaska near Yakutat, 1791.
Courtesy Alaska State Museum
Tlingit armor in the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Courtesy Alaska State Museum

A rare Tlingit war helmet from Southeast Alaska that sat misidentified in museum storage for more than 100 years was uncovered this autumn in Springfield, Mass. The helmet, one of fewer than 100 in existence today, could be worth millions. Now the valuable artifact is taking center stage in a new permanent exhibit in the western Massachusetts city.

Exactly how the artifact came under the museum’s auspices is unknown. It came to the museum in a “haphazard way, as (artifacts) did in those ways back in 1900,” Springfield Museums spokesman Matt Longhi said.

Records show that the object was accepted into its collections around the turn of the 20th century, Longhi said. The helmet was logged into museum archives simply, and incorrectly, as “Aleutian hat.”

The artifact has been sitting in storage ever since. It was brought out earlier this year as museum staffers began sifting through more than 200,000 items in the museum’s archives for a new display, “People of the Northwest Coast.”

“Lo and behold, we found ourselves a little masterpiece,” Longhi said.

The so-called “Aleutian hat” raised the suspicions of Science Museum curator of anthropology Ellen Savulis, who questioned whether the helmet, carved from a single piece of hardwood, truly originated from the treeless Aleutian Islands.

The museum contacted Steve Henrikson, curator of collections at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, in October for his opinion.

Henrikson replied: “This is a Tlingit war helmet, absolutely, no question!” according to a statement sent out by the museum on Wednesday.

Tlingit are the northernmost of the Northwest Coast Natives, with their roots in what is today Southeast Alaska. The traditional Tlingit lifestyle is centered around fishing and hunting marine mammals, and the culture is known for its highly regarded totem poles and ocean-going dugout canoes, according to the Arctic Science Center.

With Henrikson’s reply, museum officials were “shocked and overjoyed and thrilled, honored and overwhelmed,” Savulis said on Wednesday. The mix of emotions rose from the responsibility for “caring for such a precious artifact,” a charge Savulis said she does not take lightly.

Tlingit war helmets are rare. Henrikson said he was only aware of four that still exist in Alaska.

The helmet was carved in the early-to-mid-1800s and is in good condition, with just a few cracks. It is just the headpiece of full-body armor that Tlingit warriors used during battle. Henrikson has studied Tlingit body armor for decades. He is confident of its origin due to the style of the sculpture and the crest -- on this particular helmet, a bird -- that was used to identify the clan of the person wearing the helmet.

Helmets were usually made out of the hardest wood available. Sometimes a spruce burl was used, as the twisted grain makes it harder to split. Hemlock may have been used as well. And in the southern parts of the Alaska Panhandle, maple trees were available.

In contrast, Aleut hunting hats were often made from driftwood, were used for hunting, and were visor-shaped, Henrikson said. One “just didn’t see that from this part of Alaska.”

The first European explorers in Alaska noted the elaborate armor that Tlingit warriors would don during battle. Some accounts by Europeans say that armor would stop bullets, while other accounts say bullets would penetrate the armor. “Tlingits responded by adding layers of material to the body armor,” Henrikson said, in the same way that modern body armor is made using layers of Kevlar. Sometimes Chinese coins, exchanged in barter, were woven into the armor.

Between 1825 and 1850, use of the armor dwindled and faded, as the prevalence of firearms increased. The body armor “became more of a ceremonial thing,” Henrikson said, used during potlatches or other ceremonies.

While Henrikson is confident the helmet originates from southeast Alaska, he isn’t able to pinpoint the exact locale. The type of bird portrayed on the helmet is unknown, making clan identification difficult. The bird could be an eagle, a different bird of prey, or a bird of Tlingit myth, such as a thunderbird, he said.

The helmet also may have been carved by a prominent artist and commissioned by a clan in another community. These variables “really makes it hard to conclude anything definitively,” he said.

The helmet will be “something we keep on file in the back of our heads as we go through other photos,” to see if it can be matched up with any other historical data, Henrikson said.

The British Museum also has a Tlingit war helmet that may be related to the one in Massachusetts, Henrikson said. “The bird on it is strikingly similar to this one,” he said, and may have been carved by the same artist.

Better identification is still possible. Analysis of the wood or color pigments -- generally created with minerals from local deposits -- could help focus in on a specific region.

The Springfield Science Museum isn’t sure whether it will conduct tests on the wood at this time, however, citing concerns that the helmet remain in the best condition possible. Museum director Dave Stier is hoping other experts will come forward to help identify the piece once it goes on display next week.

At a 2008 auction in Connecticut, a similar Tlingit war helmet sold for $2 million. While artifacts tend to sell for hefty prices in the art world, it’s uncommon for the science museum to see such a highly valued artifact.

The helmet is a “cultural object but certainly considered an art form,” Stier said. “You don’t normally see that in the natural history world.”

Of course, auction prices vary, so the exact value of the piece is unknown. And for the museum, it’s almost irrelevant -- the artifact is “priceless,” Stier said. The helmet will now be kept under controlled lighting and humidity conditions and will take a leading role as part of its permanent display starting Dec. 26.

The Springfield Science Museum is one of five accredited Springfield Museums working together in a consortium in the western Massachusetts city. While the science museum’s strongest collection of Native American artifacts hails from the northeast U.S., Stier said the museums’ focus is shifting.

The museums hope to broaden their focus to represent a more diverse collection of cultures across the U.S. and world, Stier said, and work together, treating all five collections as one. “That’s the direction that we’re heading,” Stier said, one that will present “a lot of opportunities” for possibly unearthing more treasures in the future.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @Laurel_Andrews