Celebrating the history and archaeology of Brown University and Providence, Rhode Island

Month: November 2016

Providence Buildings: The Athenaeum

Lena Milton

Scholarship and Stone: A Social and Architectural History of the Providence Athenaeum

“The object of this institution…is to provide the means for the universal diffusion of knowledge, of knowledge in its most extensive signification, among the citizens of Providence.”[i] Thus spoke Francis Wayland, president of Brown University and co-founder of the Providence Athenaeum, at the library’s founding on July 11, 1838. The demographics of library patrons and the city of Providence itself have changed since the 19th century, as has the library’s physical construction. However, all of the modifications made to the Athenaeum’s architecture since its founding reflect the library’s primary goal of dispersing knowledge to the people of Providence.

The story of the Athenaeum begins before the building itself, with the creation of the Providence Library Company in 1753. The company was started by elite families of New England, most notably Stephen Hopkins, member of the Rhode Island General Assembly, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a primary figure speaking against England preceding the American Revolution.[ii] The original collection imported from London, though modest, housed classics such as Homer’s Odyssey and More’s Utopia.[iii] By the 1820s, Providence had experienced a shift from trading to a mercantile economy, hugely expanding and diversifying the city.[iv] A new emphasis was placed on education in the 1830s, and a public high school was founded in 1838. In keeping with this theme of providing opportunities for self-improvement to a larger audience, the library expanded its collection as well as the diversity of proprietors of the library, which now included Irish and French, as well as merchants and craftsmen.[v] On January 25, 1836, the Providence Library Company officially merged with a preexisting competing library, the Providence Athenaeum, to form the modern day library.[vi]

The most significant advancement made by the Athenaeum was the acquisition of a grant to build a house for their ever-expanding collection. On March 9, 1836, Providence businessman and philanthropist Moses Brown Ives offered a plot of land and a donation on the condition that his donation was matched by subscriptions.[vii] Thus began the construction of the building on Benefit Street that houses the modern day Athenaeum. William Strickland, an architect from Philadelphia, was hired to design the building.

The Athenaeum, constructed primarily of large granite blocks, was built in Classic Greek style. The entrance boasts two Doric columns and a prominent pediment above the double doors, with a centered set of steps leading up, as can be seen in Strickland’s plans (Figure 1). The façade, as well as the interior of the building, is entirely symmetrical. This simple yet impressive architectural design is clearly influenced by neoclassical styles popular in America in the mid-19th century. Reminiscent of Classical buildings of antiquity, the building harkens back to Athens itself, a connection that was not an accident. According to the Athenaeum’s Annual Report, the purpose of the library was to provide “the choicest moral and intellectual influence” to “all classes” of Providence inhabitants.[viii] In fact, the board of the Athenaeum boasted, “There is no other mode in which access to so much knowledge and to such varied resources of intellectual gratification and improvement can be obtained at so cheap a rate.”[ix] Influenced by Providence’s growing focus on expanding education, the goals of the Athenaeum were very much in line with values of democracy and a celebration of morality and knowledge for which Athens was famed. The explicitly Roman name, the Athenaeum, as opposed to merely a “library,” also draws connections to the Greek and Roman Empires. This Classical building imparts upon library patrons that it is an important place dedicated to the pursuit of learning even before they have entered the building. To great fanfare, the building was officially dedicated on July 11, 1838.[x]

Figure 1 William Strickland, Providence Athenaeum, front elevation with first floor, upper floor and basement floor plans, 1836, 49.6 x 35.6 cm, Brown Digital Repository, accessed October 12, 2016, https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:703764/

Figure 1
William Strickland, Providence Athenaeum, front elevation with first floor, upper floor and basement floor plans, 1836, 49.6 x 35.6 cm, Brown Digital Repository, accessed October 12, 2016, https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:703764/

Any reconstructive changes of the building over the years were made only when the Athenaeum could afford the funding, whether through a donation or through a prosperous season. During the decade after founding, the library ran into problems that required expensive changes to be made to the building. The shelves overflowed, the ceiling was unsupported, and the roof, made of zinc rather than more expensive tin, leaked. After receiving a significant donation from merchant Cyrus Butler, the library found funding to perform these reconstructions. The Seventeenth Annual Report describes the changes made, including a new heating system, a reconstruction of the basement including creating a new reading room and more shelving, and new cast iron pillars to hold up the ceiling. [xi] More changes were made immediately following the Civil War, as Rhode Island’s economy was booming. In 1862, tables were added on the first floor and cupboards were added to better protect books from humidity. In 1873, a donation from Anna Richmond was used to build a Gothic granite fountain outside, still existing today, which says, “Come here everyone that thirsteth.” However, it took much longer to connect Pawtuxet water to the fountain, as is lamented upon in the annual report from 1873.[xii] The fountain can be seen on the left in a 1906 photograph of the building (Figure 2). Even without water, the fountain added Gothic glamour to the otherwise simple neoclassical design, and represents the nationwide shift in American fashion from neoclassical to more intricately decorated Gothic styles.

Figure 2 Athenaeum, Providence, R.I., 1906, glass negative, 8 x 10 in., Detroit Publishing Co., Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, accessed October 13, 2016, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994012189/PP/

Figure 2
Athenaeum, Providence, R.I., 1906, glass negative, 8 x 10 in., Detroit Publishing Co., Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, accessed October 13, 2016, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994012189/PP/

In the following century, changes to the building were made primarily in order to create more space for the library collection and to draw in new, younger readers. This focus on children and their place in society was in keeping with the Progressive Era concern with child welfare and nurturing child development.[xiii] In 1911, plans were begun to expand the lower level and to create a children’s room. Norman Isham, a prominent Federalist and Greek style architect, designed the expansion in 1914.[xiv] The Athenaeum’s other major construction project in the 20th century, designed by William Platner, was completed in 1978. The project has been described as a continuation of Isham’s addition, as it merely consisted of expanding the Athenaeum to the house next-door. (See Figure 3 for location of house in relation to the Athenaeum). The addition, which officially opened in 1979, included the Sayles Gorham Children’s Library, as well as a lecture room and a rare books section.

Figure 3 Insurance Maps of Providence, Rhode Island V. 2, 1899, 64 x 55 cm, Sanborn-Perris Map Co, Brown Digital Repository, accessed October 12, 2016, https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:213294/

Figure 3
Insurance Maps of Providence, Rhode Island V. 2, 1899, 64 x 55 cm, Sanborn-Perris Map Co, Brown Digital Repository, accessed October 12, 2016, https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:213294/

These three sections of the Platner addition are indicative of the varied role the Athenaeum plays in the Providence community today. The Athenaeum is much more than a library; as intended by its founders, it is a place that brings the community together through a love of learning, whether through children’s education, lectures, research or simply relaxing in the reading room. Nearly every expansion and construction project since the Athenaeum’s founding has centered around allowing the community to better access the “treasures of human thought,” as Francis Wayland phrased it, housed within.[xv]




[i] Francis Wayland, A Discourse, Delivered at the Opening of the Providence Athenaeum, (Providence: Knowles, Vose and Company, 1838), 4-5.

[ii] Jane Lancaster, Inquire Within: A Social History of the Providence Athenaeum Since 1753, (Providence: Providence Athenaeum, 2003), 8.

[iii] Ibid, 12.

[iv] Ibid, 37.

[v] Ibid, 48.

[vi] Ibid, 44.

[vii] Ibid, 49.

[viii] Providence Athenaeum, 14th Annual Report (Providence: Providence Athenaeum, 1848), 13-14, quoted in Jane Lancaster, Inquire Within: A Social History of the Providence Athenaeum Since 1753, (Providence: Providence Athenaeum, 2003), 40.

[ix] Providence Athenaeum, 31st Annual Director’s Report (Providence: Knowles, Anthony and Co. Printers, 1866), 9, accessed October 13, 2016, https://archive.org/details/annualreport2640prov.

[x] Ibid, 57

[xi] Ibid, 84.

[xii] Providence Athenaeum, 38th Annual Director’s Report (Providence: Knowles, Anthony and Co. Printers, 1866), 6, accessed October 13, 2016, https://archive.org/details/annualreport2640prov.

[xiii] Greer Martin, Children in Progressive-Era America, (Digital Public Library of America, September 2015), accessed October 13, 2016, http://dp.la/exhibitions/exhibits/show/children-progressive-era.

[xiv] Lancaster, 132.

[xv] Wayland, 9.



Lancaster, Jane. Inquire Within: A Social History of the Providence Athenaeum Since 1753. Providence, RI: Providence Athenaeum, 2003.

Martin, Greer. Children in Progressive-Era America. Digital Public Library of America. September 2015. http://dp.la/exhibitions/exhibits/show/children-progressive-era.

Providence Athenaeum. Collection of Annual Director Reports. Providence: Providence Athenaeum, 1861-1874. Accessed October 13, 2016. https://archive.org/details/annualreport2640prov.

Wayland, Francis. A Discourse, Delivered at the Opening of the Providence Athenaeum. Providence: Knowles, Vose and Company, 1838.





Object Biography: A Year in the Life of Brown’s Mutable Mace

Theo Koda

Blunt and brutal, the mace is traditionally seen as a weapon of war. But in other contexts it can be seen as a symbol of authority—perhaps through its original association with conquest. Brown University’s mace falls into this second category (Mitchell 1993). An intricate piece wrought in gold and brass, the mace weighs over twenty pounds and is 44 inches long (Simmons 2015; Brown University Website; Mitchell 1993). The mace is covered in script and symbols. At the top is a double urn—topped by a double eagle and ball. On the urn is the seal of the university surrounded by laurel leaves. The head of the mace itself depicts the coat of arms of both Great Britain and the United States, the seal of the Colony of Rhode Island, the seal of the State of Rhode Island, and two older seals that once represented Brown (Mitchell 1993; Simmons 2015). The staff is adorned with scallops and a ribbon with the names of former presidents and chancellors inscribed upon it (Mitchell 1993). The form of the object alone clearly indicates that this object is heavily laden with meaning. However, “objects become invested with meaning through the social interactions they are caught up in. These meanings change and are renegotiated through the life of an object” (Gosden and Marshall 1999: 170). Thus, the true scope of meanings for this mace cannot be understood without an appreciation of its wider contexts. This particular object is only brought out on certain occasions—inauguration, convocation, commencement, and anniversaries (Simmons 2015). An examination of such critical points in the life of this mace will reveal a portion of its mutable meanings.


Figure 1: The Head of Brown University’s Mace

            There is one singular moment that all things share—the point of creation. For this mace this occurred in 1928 (Mitchell 1993). At the time Brown was finally establishing itself as University with clout—becoming ever wealthier and more powerful (Simmons 2015). It had become an institution worthy of a material symbol of authority. The mace was commissioned by Mrs. George St. John Sheffield, designed by Robert Hall, modeled by Hugo Carlborg, and manufactured by the Gorham Company. Mrs. Sheffield subsequently gave it to the university (Mitchell 1993). This moment is crucial as, “gifts always maintain some link to the person or people who first made them and the people who have subsequently transacted them” (Gosden and Marshall 1999: 173). Through the giving of the mace Mrs. Sheffield permanently intertwined herself, and all who had a hand in its creation, with the biography of the mace. Through the inclusion of Brown’s past seals, presidents, chancellors, and national affiliations the mace acts as a material representation of what Brown was. Therefore the creators are not simply intertwined with some ceremonial object. Rather, they are linked with Brown and all its history—a history within which they have cemented themselves through the gifting of the mace. The mace acts as a symbol of their newfound material connection to the university. After this initial moment of creation and transition the mace entered into the role it has held since—as part of Brown’s ensemble of ceremonial regalia. As part of this assemblage it emerges to act and be acted upon for only a few occasions (Brown University Website).

The first of these is the inauguration of a new university president. At this event the president is presented with all their new regalia—although they do not hold on to the mace for long (Brown University Website). It is important to remember that the president may be a complete newcomer to Brown at this point. Gosden and Marshall claim that the fame of objects and the renown of people are mutually creating so that, “objects gain value through links to powerful people and an individual’s standing is enhanced through possession of well-known objects” (Gosden and Marshall 1999: 170). As part of Brown’s ceremonial regalia the mace would accrue the symbolic authority of all who carried and commanded its use in the past. Possession by the new president would immediately enhance their authority. The President’s first decision in their newfound position of authority is to determine who will have the honor of bearing the mace—it must be a faculty member who is also a Brown alumnus or alumna (Brown University Website). Just as they will assist in the determination of Brown’s path for the duration of their position they determine the path of the mace. As the mace is a representation of Brown and its history this first decision becomes a symbolic representation of the authority of the president over Brown. Following this ceremony the mace is put away until the mace is ready to welcome a new cohort of students through Brown’s doors.

This takes place at convocation. The mace is carried in procession—held by the mace-bearer at the fore of the presidential party (Simmons 2015). In this context it serves once more to establish authority. It highlights the upper levels of Brown’s hierarchy for new students. Visually stunning, the mace provides material evidence of who will serve as the leaders of the new cohort. Its position at the head of the procession of newcomers gives it a new meaning unique to the new students. It becomes a guide to this new strange place. It welcomes them to Brown and gives them direction. From the perspective of these students the symbols adorning the mace are likely completely alien, although they may become more familiar as they spend more time within Brown’s social sphere. But to the unexposed mind these unfamiliar symbols act as a representation of knowledge that will be gained through their attendance of the university. For many of these students this is the only time they will see the mace for a period of four years.

At the end of this period the mace reenters their lives at the commencement ceremony. In the interim these students seldom, if ever, see the mace as it is only brought out each year for convocation and commencement (Simmons 2015). This sequestration may serve to heighten the impact the mace has on this particular audience. It first appeared to guide them into the strange and new social sphere, and now it has emerged once again, but this time it leads them back out into the world. Kopytoff argues that singularization does not guarantee sacralization (Kopytoff 1986: 74). But this mace is not only a singular object to these students. It has had a role in two of the largest rituals in their lives. Through this association the mace becomes a sacred artifact. To these students the mace has become not just a symbol of authority, or a material representation of Brown’s history; it has become a marker of transitory periods in their lives. At the first transition it welcomes them, but at the second it takes on a slightly modified role. Certainly the mace still leads them for a period, but after exiting the Van Wickle gates the presidential party—regalia and all—pulls to the side and begins to applaud (Simmons 2015; Brown University Website). What once were distant leaders glimpsed only at the head of the procession are now visible to each student as they pass by and receive praise. The students are no longer followers, but new leaders who deserve acknowledgment. The mace thus indicates to these new graduates all they have accomplished in their time at Brown. In addition the graduates impart new meaning on the mace, as they become part of the history it represents.

These last two ceremonies illustrated the regular yearly lifecycle of the mace. But there are more irregular, sporadic ceremonies that center around it. One such ceremony can be found in Simmons’ final ritual of Brown—the anniversary (Simmons 2015). At Brown’s 250th anniversary the mace was put on display for an entire year in the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology’s exhibit “In Deo Speramus” (Simmons 2015). It was displayed with other symbols and ceremonial regalia. In this context it is no longer a direct symbol of authority. Nor is it a symbol of transition. Instead of being paraded and passed the mace is shut away in a display case. It becomes an object of scrutiny for all who attend the exhibit. Each year the mace accrues new meaning as more and more events and people are entwined with the history it represents. The display provides a time for reflection on all this history. It is consistently evolving as a repository of scholarly knowledge that can only truly be disseminated through frozen moments like this exhibit.

The mace’s biography is thus constructed of a repeating cycle of ceremonies interspersed with singular moments—like its creation and display. It has been shown that this lifecycle does not endow the mace with one singular meaning. Instead, a myriad of meanings are constructed based on the context of the mace’s use, and its relationships to those involved. After all, “biography is relational and an object biography is comprised of the sum of the relationships that constitute it” (Joy 2009: 552). This is not to say, however, that this biography is complete. Each year new relationships to this object are formed, and others modified. In addition, this biography focused on the more internal mutable meanings of the object. To those outside Brown’s social sphere the object certainly holds other meanings. When it comes to the biography of an active artifact it seems there will always be other positions to consider.

Works Cited

Brown University Mace. In Brown Univeristy: Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. Accessed October 30, 2016. www.brown.edu/research/facilities/haffenreffer-museum.

Gosden, Chris, and Yvonne Marshall. “The Cultural Biography of Objects.” World Archaeology 31, no. 02 (October 1999): 169-78.

“History of Brown’s Commencement.” Brown Univeristy. Accessed October 27, 2016. www.brown.edu.

“In Deo Speramus.” Address, Curator’s Tour of “In Deo Speramus”, Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Providence, October 26, 2016. June 09, 2015.

“Inauguration Traditions.” Brown Univeristy. Accessed October 27, 2016. www.brown.edu.

Joy, Jody. “Reinvigorating Object Biography: Reproducing the Drama of Object Lives.” World Archaeology 41, no. 4 (2009): 540-56.

Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” In The Social Life of Things, edited by Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Mitchell, Martha. “Mace.” Encyclopedia Brunoniana. Brown University Library, 1993.

Week 12: Data Entry

Theo Koda

The weather has finally turned, and for the past few weeks we have been processing our finds from the Moses Brown Site in the carriage house. We began by carefully cleaning the artifacts with a wet or dry toothbrush depending on the material we were dealing with. We did this over the course of two class periods while simultaneously noting any interesting details that were uncovered during the cleaning process. Throughout the process it was critical that the finds remained with their respective lots and contexts in order to facilitate accurate analysis in the coming weeks.

Today, 11/28/16, we started with a clean slate. Everything was brushed, dried, and placed into a fresh, clearly labeled context bag. The time was ripe for data entry—a tedious, but crucial step. Each of us brought our laptops and we inputted the data into a shared Google spreadsheet. We recorded the site name, date of excavation, excavators’ initials, recorder’s initials, trench, context, lot, total number of artifacts in the bag, number of artifacts of a specific type, any special finds, any joins found between finds, and any general notes.


The class looks over the newly inputted data for any mistakes.

Each person had their own bag and inputted their own data. Great care was taken to prevent an accidental mix-up with a neighbor’s bag—an incident that would have ultimately skewed our data and would impair the accuracy of our analysis. Overall, the digitization of our finds did not take long. However, after everything was inputted several errors were discovered. Some bags were mislabeled with missing dates, excavators, and incorrect trench numbers. These mistakes were resolved through a collaborative effort. We each examined our excavation diaries, and together were able to locate the information that would otherwise have been lost. This experience provided a perfect example of why we recorded our daily experiences on an archaeological excavation.

Once the data was recorded the spreadsheet was organized into two sections—one for each trench. Each section progressed from the earliest date of excavation to the latest. This enabled us to see how occurrences of specific types of finds varied based on depth in each trench. It will be a great help as we start to analyze and interpret our data. In addition the digitization of this data will enable any future researchers to quickly access and examine our finds. Although the process may not have been riveting, its importance is undeniable.

Processing Finds and Learning About Ceramics

Sean Briody ’19

We began our second day of processing finds in the lab – though this time, we had electricity! (Thank you, Brown facilities department.) We were able to make significant progress cleaning our objects, and finished cleaning all with about 40 minutes left in the class. After a thorough cleaning, we were able to connect many of the pieces as parts of a whole. For instance, a piece of plastic in one trench had broken off at some point from a piece of plastic we had recovered in the other trench and we were able to match them together. The same could be said for two pieces of ceramic found in the same trench.

In addition, there was a great abundance of “nice rocks,” (in the words of one student) because at the time of digging it was uncertain whether or not they were important. They don’t appear to be significant to our digs. However, there were many objects that were cleaned in order to determine what they were. I dry-brushed what I originally thought was just a rock, but after cleaning it was revealed to be a metal bolt; heavily covered in rust and dirt. Cleaning also uncovered potential cut marks on a rib bone, in addition to revealing that some pieces of slate that had been dug up were most likely roofing shingles.

Following the final cleaning, our class welcomed grad student Jessica Nelson as our special guest. She gave an insightful and informative presentation on the different types of ceramics throughout history, and what they look like once excavated. She also brought some examples of each different type from her own collections and from the Anthropology Department. It was extraordinarily helpful to examine them up close.

All in all, it was a successful day, and next week we will be able to further assess and draw our final conclusions regarding the digs.

Drawing Lesson: Week 10

Alok Panray

The dig progresses and we do too. Today, Monday 11/7 aside from digging and screening dirt and taking notes we also started to learn to make archaeological sketches. This involved a lot of planning and measuring.

Danielle and I sat ourselves in the MB4 trench with the grueling task of sketching the complex mosaic of rocks into a 20cm x 20cm makeshift grid sketched with ruler and pencil into a copybook. I was measuring. She was sketching. 

We laid out two measuring tapes spanning out the north side and the west side of the trench. The idea was to give the easting (number of cm away from the west edge of the trench) and the southing (number of cm away from the north end of the trench). This allowed us to use a Cartesian coordinate system to communicate the position of everything in our trench with each other.

I was to give her all the important points that she would need to sketch the contents of the trench. “Important” refers to the minimum number of points that would allow the sketcher to form a polygon on the paper that roughly corresponds to the shapes of the features in the trench which include rocks and bricks. The information was conveyed in the form of Cartesian coordinates. I would find a point, tell her which point it was and give the coordinates to it. This would allow her to place a point on the axes and eventually play connect-the-dots to fill in a 2D layout of what we saw in the trench.

The experience was overall instructive as a glimpse into what field archaeology really looks like in a professional setting. I would imagine that on many sites, the emphasis on sketching is a lot stronger than it was in our project. Hence it is a very important skill to practice and develop. The most important thing I take away from the lesson is that consistency is extremely important. The fact that we did not switch roles meant that we did keep some level of consistency on how the points were measured and how they were sketched.