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Robert Burkitt excavation records

1102

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in our reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Summary Information

Repository:
University of Pennsylvania: Penn Museum Archives
Creator:
Burkitt, Robert James, 1869-1945
Title:
Robert Burkitt excavation records
Date [bulk]:
1913-1930
Date [inclusive]:
1903-1939
Call Number:
1102
Extent:
1.4 Linear feet (The collection is contained in 3 manuscript boxes. Correspondence is 16 folders; Catalogues and Reports are 14 folders; Photographs are contained in 16 folders; and 13 folders of Notes and Studies on Collection. )
Language:
English
Abstract:
Robert Burkitt lived and worked in Guatemala for most of his life. A graduate of Harvard University, he first traveled to Central America in 1894 with George Gordon as Gordon's assistant on the Fourth Coban Expedition. Burkitt became enamored with the culture and language of the Maya and never returned to North America. He traveled the countryside, corresponding with Gordon, and collecting items for the Museum under a loosely binding agreement with Gordon and later Horace Jayne. Burkitt's letters and catalogues are rich documents depicting the cultural, linguistic, topological, and historical features of the Guatemala Highlands. Burkitt wrote and worked from the areas of Chama, Chipal, Coban, Senahu, Chiantla, Chocola, and other areas of the Alta Verapaz region. He produced a detailed catalogue of his discoveries accompanied by photgraphs and drawings. Among Burkitt's discoveries is the Ratinixul Vase unearthed in 1923. His work was published in the Museum Journal in 1924 and 1930. Burkitt also wrote about the languages of the Maya, leaving an unfinished grammar and dictionary of the Kekchi language at his death in 1945.
Cite as:
[Item name]. Box [Box number]. Robert Burkitt excavation records. Penn Museum Archives. Accessed [Date accessed].
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Biography/History

Robert James Burkitt, born on January 18, 1869 in Athenry, County Galway, Ireland, was the son of Reverend Thomas Henry Burkitt and Emma Eliza Parsons. At age 14, due to economic conditions, he was sent to live with an aunt in Nova Scotia where he attended Dalhousie College. Burkitt took honors in mathematics there and enrolled at Harvard University to study mining. While he was known as a recluse among the Harvard students, Burkitt developed a friendship with George Byron Gordon based on their shared interests in engineering and their talents in drafting and art. Burkitt received his A.B. from Harvard in 1891.

Burkitt first traveled to Guatemala in 1894 as George Gordon's assistant on the Fourth Copan Expedition. In the five months of the expedition, Gordon instructed Burkitt in the basics of excavation. Gordon returned to Cambridge when the excavation was completed, but it is believed that Burkitt never returned to North America, becoming enamored of the culture and language of the Maya. In his early years in Guatemala, Burkitt visited the Kekchi-speaking Maya who lived in the Alta Verapaz. He wandered the countryside, visiting the Indian villages, learning the different languages and customs of the native people, and following native guides to sacred ruins. Burkitt never established a permanent residence in Guatemala, living with one group of friends or another. He rented an apartment in Guatemala City when business took him there, under his pseudonym, Mr. Brown.

Burkitt maintained a sporadic correspondence with his friend George Gordon who by 1910 was Director of the Free Museum of Science and Art (later renamed The University Museum). Burkitt had attained some recognition for articles on linguistics, "Notes on the Kekchi Language" having been published in American Anthropologist. Burkitt and Gordon entered into an agreement whereby Burkitt would devote a portion of each year to exploring and acquiring artifacts for the Museum for a monthly fee plus expenses. This agreement stood for many years despite attempts to get Burkitt to sign contracts and make changes to his highly eccentric style of work. Burkitt could be critical and prickly in his correspondence especially opinionated about the work of others on the Indian language and changes to his material when published.

Burkitt's letters and his Catalogue never fail to contain information on the folklore, ritual, crafts, and language of the Maya. The collection contains regular correspondence with George Gordon until Gordon's death in 1927. Burkitt then kept the Museum apprised of his exploits through letters to Miss McHugh, the Treasurer. When Horace H.F. Jayne took over as Director, Burkitt communicated with him. In addition to letters and records relating to shipments to the Museum, Burkitt kept extensive catalogue entries for each item accompanied by references to geography and the excavation process connected to their discovery. Photographs depict the sites, stages of excavation, and objects discovered. Many of the pictures are mounted by Burkitt. His own discoveries are accompanied by photographs of items purchased from collectors.

Burkitt discovered The Ratinlixul Vase, recovered in 1923. His works, published in the Museum Journal, included "A Journey in Northern Guatemala" in 1924 and "Excavations at Chocola and Explorations in the Highlands of Western Guatemala" in 1930.

Burkitt's interest in linguistics was ever present. He worked for many years on a grammar and dictionary of the Kekchi language; "investigating grammar in my own way". This work was not completed when he suffered a fatal stroke in 1945. Burkitt's papers were thought to be lost until Elin Danien, then Coordinator of Museum Events, visited Guatemala in 1985. Danien contacted relatives of Kensett Champney, a friend with whom Burkitt lived, and discovered that some early notebooks were indeed still in the family's possession.

Burkitt is buried in the British Cemetery in Guatemala City.

Scope and Contents

The Robert Burkitt Excavation Records consist of 1.4 linear feet of correspondence, catalogues and reports, photographs, and notes and studies on the collection. The records have been compiled from the material sent to the Museum by Robert Burkitt from his exploration and excavations in Guatemala during the years 1903 through 1939 and the work on the collection by J. Alden Mason. Notes on the collection by William R. Coe comment on Burkitt and the work of Mary Butler. an expert on the pottery of the region. Studies of the collection by students of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania are also included.

The correspondence from Burkitt to the Museum is arranged chronologically. His catalogue and reports contain catalogue numbers that are not chronological but are referenced to his letters. The photographs, numbered from 101 to 326 then 804 to 807 were divided into folders using the numbers. Mason's notes are undated but those from William R.Coe date from 1953. The studies on the collection are from 1977 and 1978. Mason's notes were divided into three folders, a notebook, a chart and chart notes, and notes on Chama. Coe's material was also divided into folders of notes, photographs, and drawings.

The first folder of Correspondence includes an index of the communications of Burkitt from January 30,1913 to September 30,1929 with notes by J. Alden Mason. Letters to George Gordon are in the next 9 folders. Burkitt did not write at regular intervals, sometimes only sending 4 letters in a year's time. His letter from November 15, 1913 is 139 pages long and is a travelogue of the "ruin region of Eastern and Middle Cuchumatans" with drawings and comments on the usefulness of existing maps of the area. Burkitt constructs a map for use after you reach San Cristobal when maps become "useless". Letters from 1914 and 1915 include communication from Coban, Senahu, San Cristobal, and Chiantla. Burkitt includes a large expense account and receipts for certified letters. He speaks of the difficulty getting mail out of the country and the new law which prohibits the shipment of archaeological objects. Burkitt worries about how to devise a scheme for shipping his findings. Included in the correspondence is a "sketch of the situation" of the Ruins of Payhil and the Ruins of Waysa.

Letters from 1916 and 1917 deal with a Kekchi fairy tale, the sun and the moon tale, and a plan for getting shipments to the Museum via Peten and Belize. A thirty four page letter contains a list of objects for the museum.

Communications from 1918 to 1920 include expenses, invoices, and shipping lists originating in Senahu, San Cristobal, and Verapaz. Burkitt also writes of the ruins near Chipal.

From 1921 to 1923, Burkitt wrote from Senahu, Momastenango, Chipal, Chocola, San Cristobal, and Verapaz. Photographs of Chama, the village of Saint Mark, Yolchonap and Payhil are from this period. The text includes a map drawn by Burkitt showing Kishpak, Roknima and area along the Chinoy River. There is writing about the Kanter Collection and revolutionary politics in the area. A portion of the catalogue from Chocola is included with refernces to 17 photos of items 101 to 117, profiles of objects and a map.

The letters from the period 1924 to 1926 are sometimes accompanied by responses from George Gordon which have been photocopied from Gordon's collection of letters. (see Letters G.B. Gordon-Burkitt, Special Collections, Bound Volumes, Letterbooks, G.B. Gorden) Burkitt writes of a list of photographs (118 to 127) and an installment of the catalogue from 804 to 811. Various official documents for items shipped to the Museum on 12/12/1924 from Belize are with this material. Burkitt's letter of 12/18/1924 comments on the difficulty he encountered in getting the shipment out of the country. The letter dated 3/29/1926 contains hand drawings of objects found on the Pacific slope at Saint Lucy Cotsumalwapa especially a large stone mill bowl. Burkitt writes of collections for sale in Kesaltenango and Guatemala City.

Burkitt learned of George Gordon's death in the next group of letters from 1927. Contained with this group is a newspaper account from the Diario de Centroamerica, demanding the return of "our monoliths" especially those from Piedras Negras.

Letters from 1928 and 1929 are written from Chocula, Belize, Pansos, and Senahu and concern diggings and the purchase of antiquities from Hector Montano.

Burkitt was visited by J. Alden Mason in 1930 and this is noted in the communications from 1930 to 1932. Burkitt wrote from Polo Gordo, Cuidad Guatemala and spoke of work on Monte Alto. In this group, Burkitt learned that the museum would continue his work under Horace Jayne's direction and that his articles had been published by the Museum. Burkitt complained about the quality of the article published and labeled the drawings "a forgery" in a letter from 1931.

The last group of letters spans 1933 to 1939 and originate in Ciudad Guatemala and Belize. Burkitt has left off digging at Saint Vincents on the Pacific slope and moved to the Atlantic side to the caves and ruins in the basin of the River Caabon. Burkitt appears to be worried about security, sending a telegram, "don't communicate until advised" and a letter about rumors the government was opening mail from the Museum.

A separate folder was created for a correspondence from Robert Burkitt's father J.H. Burkitt to the Museum dated 1915. Reverend Burkitt sought information about the whereabouts of his son.

The Catalogues and Reports of the Robert Burkitt excavation records contain descriptions of all of the items sent to the Museum from the Guatemala sites. It is preceeded by a "checklist of numbers and provenience", "catalogued 9/10/1926 J.A.M.." The first folder of the catalogue contains Burkitt's comments on his description style. All entries in this folder are hand-written in phonetic English. The notes are in good condition and accompanied by small, exquisite drawings of the items. Divided into three columns on each page, the first column contains the number assigned by the museum, the second, the number of the item assigned by Burkitt in numerical order, and the third a description of the item. The first portion of the catalogue consists mostly of pottery. Burkitt often writes several pages of information about an object or region. For example, the first group of entries contains information on Chocola including its area, resources, climate, and detailed accounts of the work on the mounds.

Later entries are type-written in the same phonetic style. For these entries, Burkitt makes use of hand-drawn maps of the area and drawings of the arrangement of the mounds and graves in it. He includes rubbings of fragments, carvings, and pots found. Burkitt refers to the number of the photograph in the collection which corresponds to the item of the dig.

The last folder in this series contains a typed draft of "Explorations in Western Guatamala" published in the Museum Journal, XXI, No.1.. A note from "L.S." indicates that the first three pages of the 52 page manuscript are "missing".

The original photographs of Robert Burkitt are contained in envelopes or mounted by Burkitt on heavy paper with notes and encased in mylar. They fill seven folders. The photgraphs of the countryside tend to be small and grouped in envelopes. Pictures of the objects are usually mounted. Burkitt meticulously referenced the photos to the text of the catalogue. In addition, the negative numbers are provided on the back of many photographs. The photographs depict the regions of Chocola, Kixpek, Ratinixul, Belize, Quatsoltenango, San Vicente, El Castillo, Alta Verapaz, Aintun, the Sayte River region, Coban, Xolchun, and Kuchumata, among others. In addition to objects found by Burkitt, there are also photographs of items from the Kanter Collection, part of another "private collection in Polo Gordo", and the collection of Henry Kummerfeldt. Photographs numbered 288 to 326 are from the two "bound" sets of Burkitt's material. Some photos are also marked as "published in Journal". Four folders contain photographs related to Burkitt's correspondence with George Gordon in July, October, and November 1913. One folder of these photographs is undated. Material published in the Museum Journal in 1918 and 1930 are contained in a separate folder, with negatives for only a few. The negatives, in envelopes, may reflect a need for conservation assessment.

Notes and Studies on the Collection are contained in eight folders. The first folder, by J. Alden Mason, was divided into three, containing a small notebook and an untitled paper on the collection. The second, includes an chart made by Mason which has been folded and is possibly in need of conservation and a "chart digest". Notes on the items from Chama are in the third folder with comments on the vault, blackware, and excavation notes. These notes are not dated.

William Coe's notes are contained in one folder and dated, "circa 1953". The notes relate not only to Burkitt but also Mary Butler, a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania who was an expert on the pottery of the Maya Indians of Guatemala. Coe describes and lists the catalogue numbers for items from Chama, Chipal, Tambor, Kixpek, Chihuatal, and Ratilixul. Also contained in this folder are mounted photographs of mounds, labeled by city and mound. The mounted drawings of pottery discovered in Guatemala are believed to be part of Mary Butler's work. Many of the drawings are numbered and are from Chipal and Chama. A separate "analysis" of a "small tubular object"(# 11258) by A.E.Parkinson is also contained in this folder.

The folder, "W. Coe Anthropology Class: Studies of Burkitt and Butler" is next. It contains hand-written course notes, "Excavations in the Guatemala Highlands" and papers by Julie C. Benyo, Karen Miller, and Barbara Magid. The papers deal with the sites at Tambor, Kixpek, Chama, Chicun, San Pedro Carcha, and an analysis of Mary Butler's excavations and work in Guatemala. Site diagrams are present for the San Pedro Carcha area.

A group of papers written for classes dealing with the Burkitt Collection are contained in the next five folders. Most are from 1977 and 1978. The first paper by Julie C. Benko is a senior honors thesis entitled, "Kixpek, El Quiche, Guatemala: A Preliminary Study of the Excavations and Ceramics".

The next folder holds the three-part paper by Edward M. Schortman, "The Burkitt Excavations at Chama; A Preliminary Report", "A Preliminary Form Classification of the Pottery of Chama"; and "A Second Approximation".

"The Robert Burkitt Skeletal Collection from the Highlands of Guatemala" includes an appendix which is a "Description of the Skeletal Material by Catalogue Number". This work is authored by Diane Z. Chase, Janet M. Monge, and Stuart A. Eldridge.

Three papers deal with "Studies of Butler Excavations". Karen Miller wrote of "Barrio of San Pedro Carcha". "Excavations at Chama-Chicun" does not contain an author's name. Barbara H. Magid authored "Preliminary Site Report: San Pedro Carcha, Torres, Potrero, and Morales".

Administrative Information

Publication Information

University of Pennsylvania: Penn Museum Archives,  August 2009

Finding Aid Author

Finding aid prepared by Jody Rodgers

Use Restrictions

Although many items from the archives are in the public domain, copyright may be retained by the authors of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law. The user is fully responsible for compliance with relevant copyright law.

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Controlled Access Headings

Form/Genre(s)
  • Card catalogs
  • Correspondence
  • Photographic prints
  • Photographs
Personal Name(s)
  • Burkitt, Robert James, 1869-1945
  • Butler, Mary, 1903-1970
  • Gordon, G. B. (George Byron), 1870-1927
  • Jayne, Horace Howard Furness, 1898-1975
Subject(s)
  • Archaeological expeditions
  • Archaeology--History
  • Excavations (Archaeology)
  • Maya language

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Collection Inventory

Correspondence, 1903-1939 (Bulk, 1913-1930) . Sixteen folders in Box One.

Box

List of letters to Robert Burkitt.

1

Robert Burkitt to George Gordon (1 of 10), 1904-1913.

1

Robert Burkitt to George Gordon (2 of 10), 1913.

1

Robert Burkitt to George Gordon (3 of 10), 1914-1915.

1

Robert Burkitt to George Gordon (4 of 10), 1916-1917.

1

Robert Burkitt to George Gordon (5 of 10), 1918-1919.

1

Robert Burkitt to George Gordon (6 of 10), 1920.

1

Robert Burkitt to George Gordon (7 of 10), 1921-1923.

1

Robert Burkitt to George Gordon (8 of 10), 1924.

1

Robert Burkitt to George Gordon (9 of 10), 1925.

1

Robert Burkitt to George Gordon (10 of 10), 1926.

1

Robert Burkitt to George Gordon and Miss McHugh, 1927.

1

Robert Burkitt to Miss McHugh, 1928-1929.

1

Robert Burkitt to Horace Jayne and Miss McHugh, 1930-1932.

1

Robert Burkitt to Horace Jayne and Miss McHugh, 1933-1939.

1

Letter of Rev. J.H. Burkitt (father of Robert Burkitt), 1915.

1

Catalogues and Reports, 1913-1930 (Bulk, 1913-1930) . Fourteen folders in Box Two.

Box

Catalogue numbers 1 to 99 (1 of 12).

2

Checklist of numbers and provenience.

2

Catalogue numbers 100 to 200 (2 of 12).

2

Catalogue numbers 201 to 331 (3 of 12).

2

Catalogue numbers 332 to 623 (4 of 12).

2

Catalogue numbers 624 to 786 (5 of 12).

2

Catalogue numbers 787 to 803 (6 of 12).

2

Catalogue numbers 804 to 811 (7 of 12).

2

Catalogue numbers 812 to 962 (8 of 12).

2

Catalogue numbers 962 to 1090 (9 of 12).

2

Catalogue numbers 1091 to 1109 (10 of 12).

2

Catalogue numbers 1110 to 1115 (11 of 12).

2

Catalogue numbers 1116 to 1154 (12 of 12).

2

Typed Draft of "Explorations in the Highlands of Western Guatemala", 1930.

2

Photographs, 1913-1930 (Bulk, 1913-1930) . Sixteen folders of photographs, some published. One folder of negatives, some in need of conservation..

Box

Photographs 101 to 156 (1 of 8).

2

Photographs 157 to 203 (2 of 8).

2

Photographs 204 to 243 (3 of 8).

2

Photographs 244 to 261 (4 of 8).

2

Photographs 262 to 287 (5 of 8).

2

Photographs 288 to 326 (6 of 8).

2

Photographs 804-1 to 804-24 (7 of 8).

2

Photographs 804-25 to 807 (8 of 8).

2

Photos relating to letters of Robert Burkitt to George Gordon (1 of 4), 1913.

2

Photos relating to letters of Robert Burkitt to George Gordon (2 of 4), 1913.

2

Photos relating to letters of Robert Burkitt to George Gordon (3 of 4), 1913.

2

Photos relating to letters of Robert Burkitt to George Gordon, undated (4 of 4).

2

Museum Journal.

2
Negatives.
2
Box

Maps and plans.

2

Notes and Studies on Collection, 1953-1978 (Bulk, 1953-1978) . Thirteen folders in Box Three..

Box

Notes on the collection J. Alden Mason (1 of 3).

3

J. Alden Mason notes (1 of 3), 1953-1978.

4

J. Alden Mason notes (2 of 3), 1953-1978 (Bulk, 1953-1978) .

4

J. Alden Mason notes (3 of 3), 1953-1978 (Bulk, 1953-1978) .

4
William R Coe notes on Burkitt and Butler (1 of 3), 1953. 0.2 linear foot.
Box

William R. Coe Notes on Burkitt and Butler ( 2 of 3), 1953 (Bulk, 1953) . 0.2 linear foot.

3

William R. Coe Notes on Burkitt and Butler (3 of 3), 1953 (Bulk, 1953) . 0.2 .

Box 3

Kixpek, El Quiche, Guatemala, 1977 (Bulk, 1977) . 05 linear foot.

The Burkitt Excavations at chama; A Preliminary Report, 1977 (Bulk, 1977) . 05 linear foot.

The Robert Burkitt Skeletal collection from Highland Guatemala, 1978 (Bulk, 1978) . 05 linear foot.

William Coe Anthropology Class Studies of Burkitt and Butler, 1977 (Bulk, 1977) . 05 linear foot.

Notes and Studies on the collection, 1953-1978 (Bulk, 1953-1978) . 0.1 linear foot.

J. Alden Mason Notes, 1950 (Bulk, 1950) . 0.1 linear foot.

William R. Coe Notes on Burkitt and Butler, 1953 (Bulk, 1953) . 0.1 linear foot.

Senior Honors theses, 1977-1978 (Bulk, 1977-1978) . 0.1 linear foot.