By Courtney Esposito, Program Assistant, SIA/IHD
About a year ago, my research threw me into the papers of William Foshag. A mineralogist and geologist, Foshag worked as a curator for the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Mineral Sciences. Foshag was best known for his scientific studies of the newly formed Mexican volcano Paricutin. His papers are filled with sketches of cones, lava deposits, measurements of the growth of the volcano and examination of the minerals from the surrounding areas. While working through the collections I saw many of these wonderful notations, but then I stumbled across a folder of three notebooks that did not contain the same materials. To my amazement, I found minerals taped to the pages along with rubbings of carvings. Intrigued by the find, I put my other research to the side to uncover why these samples were in Foshag’s papers.
Notation of description of Type IV written by William F. Foshag, c. 1949. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 91-144, Box 2, Folder: Jade Types; Negative Number: SIA2011-0947.
It turns out that Foshag conducted an extensive survey of jade in Central America. Inspired by the Mesoamerican archaeology he saw in Mexico, Foshag wanted to search for the unknown source of jade in the New World. With the aid of a farmer, Foshag discovered a vast deposit of jade along the Metagua fault in Guatemala. He took samples and conducted research using X-ray diffraction patterns and refractive indices to categorize the Guatemalan jade as jadeitite, finding it to be similar to jade found in Burma. The jade was found in serpentine groupings (a group of common rock forming minerals) in the ground, and in his article “Chalchihuitl--A study in jade” in 1956, Foshag speculated that additional specimens would be found where the serpentine was in Central America. Foshag also took rubbings of the jade carvings and placed those in his notebooks, meticulously explaining the make-up of the type of jade used to create them.
Not only did Foshag collect the materials for scientific classification, he also carefully examined the history of the Aztecs, Mayans and Olmecs, to understand how the jade was used. This research helped him to classify the minerals by color and compound to distinguish what may have been used for medicinal purposes, tributes and tools. Foshag’s findings were the definitive works on Meso-American jade and were published in his "Mineralogical Studies on Guatemala Jade," in 1957.
|Margaret Moodey & William Foshag in the Department of Minerals of the U.S. National Museum, c. 1926. Smithsonian Institution Archives, RU 95, Box 17, Folder: 20; Negative Number: 2002-12183.|
This is the exciting thing about field notebooks. Inside each book are stories to be told, drawings to be seen and even the occasional specimens to find. They not only tell you what was found, but capture the methodology of the author and often his or her personal thoughts on the subject they are studying. To steal a line from a famous movie, field notebooks are like a box of chocolate -- you never know what you are going to get.