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

Category: Object Biography

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.

Object Biography: Brown University’s Seal

Emma Byrne ’17

As technology has improved and access to college applications increases, college admission has become more and more selective every year. High school seniors submit their accomplishments and goals to the black box process of admissions in hopes of receiving acceptance from the institutions that have become continually more exclusive and more treasured in the public’s mind. The most selective schools represent themselves as timeless and boast “exceptional undergraduate instruction” and “richly historic” campuses (“About Brown University” 2015). The esteem that elite colleges and universities currently enjoy seems inherent to those attending now, but was actually carefully cultivated over the history of their development. For many, such as Brown University, it is the creation and strict control over images like the seal that have contributed heavily to the expanding spheres of recognition and admiration within which they operate. The function of Brown University’s seal has changed with the evolution of the University’s image and mission, but has always stood to represent Brown’s unified will.

In the Charter of 1764, which outlines the rules and logistics of the College of Rhode Island, later to be known as Brown University, there is mention of a “Publick Seal to use for all Causes, Matters and Affairs” (Catalogue 1911; 32). While this description of the seal seems rather vague in its determination of the seal’s function, it clearly highlights that the seal is to be used to signal official matters, denoted by the capitalization of “Causes, Matters and Affairs”, and that the seal is meant to provide a unifying image of the institution in the public sphere. The Charter also mentions that the College will “confer Degrees by Diplomas, and authenticate them with the Public Seal of the Corporation” (Catalogue 1911; 37). Both of these roles of the seal could be seen as socio-technic and ideo-technic functions as defined by Lewis Binford and discussed by James Deetz in In Small Things Forgotten, An Archaeology of American Life, as the seal takes on a ceremonious role in legitimizing formal proceedings, and socially unifies the College under a single image. The need for a succinct way to represent the College on tangible items such as diplomas could also be considered a technomic function, as it would be logistically difficult for the institution to convey a unified opinion otherwise, particularly as student and faculty numbers grew (Deetz 1977; 91-2).

Despite this proclamation in February of 1764, the first seal of the College was not commissioned until the second annual meeting of the College’s Corporation, which occurred in September of 1765 (Guild 1867; 61). One day before the meeting was held, the College had its first student enrolled, William Rogers, who would remain the only student for the next nine months (Bronson 1914; 35-6). Perhaps prompted by the existence of a student body, Reverend Samuel Stillman ordered the seal to be created (Guild 1867; 61) and for it to display busts of King George III and Queen Charlotte, the current rulers of England, facing each other in profile (Bronson 1914; 35). Encircling the seal is a motto in Latin which reads, “The Seal of the College in the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in America” (Annual Report 1906; 25). The seal was crafted in Boston, was made of silver (Bronson 1914; 520) and cost ten pounds and thirteen shillings, sterling (Annual Report 1906; 25). The choice of image clearly reflected both the College’s, as well as the Colonies,’ allegiance to England at the time. By displaying royalty on the seal, and producing the seal in silver, the College of Rhode Island was deliberately associating itself with an image of prestige and tradition, two ideals the College seems to have hoped to embody.

The first seal continued to be used until 1782, at which point the Revolutionary War had ended and the Colonies were no longer ruled by England (Bronson 1914; 76). This momentous event in American history also signified the need for a new image on the seal of the College of Rhode Island. At the annual meeting of the Corporation in 1782, a committee was appointed to “break the old seal of the College” (Guild 1867; 62). The breaking of the first seal seemed to be a symbolic way of rejecting Great Britain’s rule and also a functional way to ensure it would never be used again, either in error or as a deliberate statement. The same committee created to break the old seal was also ordered to commission a new seal, but this process was evidently delayed as a new committee was appointed at the following annual Corporation meeting to design a seal for the College (Guild 1867; 62). Unfortunately, due to the Revolutionary War, the College of Rhode Island was not well-financed, and so in President Manning’s letter to William Rogers in 1784, in which he asks Rogers to order the seal, he states, “The Treasurer has put a Note of 20 Dollars in my Hands, which I herewith inclose….as you know the Poverty of the College we rely on you to obtain [the seal] on the best Terms” (Bronson 1914; 520). The poor quality of this seal, which can be seen in its imprint, reflects the lack of finances of the College at the time (Bronson 1914; 521). The word Colony was changed to Republic in the motto on the border (Annual Report 1906; 26) to maintain accurate political wording and the image on the new seal was supposed to represent the Temple of Truth and had a telescope and book to symbolize existing knowledge and new discoveries (Simmons 2014). This image could be interpreted as the College changing focus from political allegiance to focusing on intellect and learning as intended, without losing the ideology of prestige and ritual. The functions the second seal seal served appear to be essentially the same as those previously assigned to the first seal, and it remains in Brown University’s possession today (Annual Report 1906; 26) as a valuable symbol of the University’s history and development.


The First Seal (Simmons 2014)

The First Seal (Simmons 2014)

Unlike the Revolutionary War, the renaming of the College to Brown University in 1804 did not provoke a prompt change in the University seal. The third and current seal was not commissioned until President Wayland realized in 1833 that in the process of renaming the University, updating the seal had been overlooked (Bronson 1914; 521). In 1834, the current seal was adopted and depicts a shield with four open, blank books separated into four quadrants by a red cross. Above the shield is a sun “rising amid clouds” and below is a banner with the motto “In Deo Speramus,” translated to “In God We Hope”. Bordering the seal are the words “Sigillum Universitatis Brunensis” (Guild 1867; 62). This image seems to keep with the second seal in emphasizing academia with the four books, which are rumored to represent Harvard, Yale, Cambridge and Oxford, four previously founded institutions of education and prestige (Kaplan 2012). This third seal, however, does incorporate a religious element with the motto “In God We Hope” and the red cross which is supposed to be the cross of St. George (Mitchell). The religious imagery is unusual, since Brown had from the start been less religiously rigid than other institutions founded in the same era. In the Charter of 1764, religious tests for members of the Faculty were rejected, and the governing board expressly made room for multiple denominations (Bronson 1914; 30-1). The sun could also be seen as an optimistic symbol for the future of the University, rising out of a cloudy and difficult past reminiscent of the financial troubles of the Revolutionary War.

The Second Seal (Simmons 2014)

The Second Seal (Simmons 2014)

The use of the third seal is much easier to trace, as it has been in official use for much longer than the first two seals, and continues to be used today. In the Catalogue of Brown University 1911-1912, when the Charter of 1764 discusses that the president and faculty of the school will be exempt from taxes, there is an update stating that in 1863 the General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island voted that members of the University should not be exempt for more than ten thousand dollars each and that the University’s corporation agreed to this. At the bottom of the passage, it states, “the Secretary of this Corporation is hereby instructed to file a copy of this vote under the seal of the Corporation and certified by himself in the Office of the Secretary of State, as proof of the consent of this Corporation thereto” (Catalogue 1911; 38). The language in this text proves that the seal continued to be used as an authoritative symbol that signaled official proceedings and a standardized visual of the University’s will.

The Third Seal (Simmons 2014)

The Third Seal (Simmons 2014)

In 1901, amidst a heavy building phase for the University, the wooden fence surrounding the Univeristy was replaced with iron and brick with a large gate at the College Street entrance to campus, named the Van Wickle Gates (Bronson 1914; 470). Atop the gates, the seal proudly fulfills its public duty of representing Brown University to the outside world, here in a more physical manifestation than most. At this point, the seal did not prove a prominence the University hoped others would associate it with, but rather reminded the public of the prestige the University had already attained. Much of the symbolism of the seal, as a valuable and meaningful image, comes from its singularization as Kopytoff defines it (Kopytoff 1986; 73). Since the seal is only allowed to be used to represent Brown University, it becomes singular and allows Brown to “assert [its power] symbolically precisely by insisting on its right to singularize” the seal (Kopytoff 1986; 73). To create an image and then prevent anyone else from using it is to assert authority over others and to construct a sense of exclusivity. The seal was, and continues to be, a reminder to those at Brown University of their privilege and good fortune for being able to attend the selective institution, and presents Brown University as desirable and powerful to the rest of the world.

In recent years, Brown University has taken advantage of new technology and heavily increased its digital presence. With this, it has been able to seriously increase the number of places where the official coat of arms from the seal can be seen. The coat of arms is featured on every page of the website, and a simplified version can even be seen as a little logo next to the website’s tab in a web browser. In addition, all online documents, emails and announcements from the university have the coat of arms visible somewhere.

Student groups on campus have also taken to repurposing the Brown University coat of arms for their own organizations. One example of this is the Brown Veg Society, which in 2014 made their logo the coat of arms with the top two books replaced with pictures of a chicken and a cow. In this way, many student organizations have used parts of the seal to associate themselves with the University, but have modified it visually to more accurately embody the purpose of their group. This new function of the seal represents an increased “sphere of exchange” for the image, as the University is allowing parts of the seal to be used in more contexts that are not directly related to University administration (Kopytoff 1986; 71). Despite the increased circulation of the coat of arms as a decoration, the University retains strict regulations on the seal, as the entire seal is reserved for “legal authentication of diplomas and other documents” (Mitchell). In this way, Brown University has allowed for the awareness of their image to spread via the coat of arms, but has maintained singularity for the seal itself, as the entire image operates within a very limited sphere of exchange with the continued purpose of authenticating documents.


Brown Veg Society Logo, 2014 (Simmons 2014)

Brown Veg Society Logo, 2014 (Simmons 2014)


The Brown University seal has undergone several physical transformations that are important markers of turning points in the University’s history and self-view. Some of the most important changes to the seal, however, are not physical, but rather functional. The image of the seal at all points in history has been tied to prestige and tradition, but the transition from having the seal only viewed by select members of the community on official documents to the widespread visibility atop buildings, on banners, and in digital media, has done more to change how people both within and outside the Brown community interact with the official image than any visual alterations. While the University controls the seal and how it may be used, it is important to consider the seal as an active object that instills feelings such as pride, anxiety, and disappointment in the people who encounter it under different circumstances. These emotions are what constitute the power of Brown University, and what permit the University to have authority as a governing body and formidable presence in society.



Works Cited


“About Brown University.” Brown University. Brown University, 2015. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

Bronson, Walter C. The History of Brown University, 1714-1914. Providence: U, 1914. 18 Aug. 2009. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Brown University. Annual Report of the President to the Corporation of Brown University. N.p.: Hammond, Angell, 1906. 28 Apr. 2010. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Brown University. Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Brown University. N.p.: H. H. Brown, Printer, 1911. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life. Garden City, NY: Anchor P., 1977. 7 July 2010. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Guild, Reuben Aldridge. History of Brown University, with Illustrative Documents. Providence, RI: Providence, Printers, 1867. 8 Jan. 2007. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Kaplan, Alexander. “Ra Ra Brunonia: The Seal — BlogDailyHerald.” Web log post. BlogDailyHerald. The Brown Daily Herald, 07 Mar. 2012. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Kopytoff, Igor. Teaching Collection (Anthropology / ANTH3022 / C25). N.p.: n.p., 1986. 64-91. Print.

Mitchell, Martha. “Seal.” Encyclopedia Brunoniana. Brown University Library, n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Simmons, William, comp. In Deo Speramus. 7 Mar. 2014. Exhibit. The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Providence.


Emma Byrne ’17