Exec’s Blog: A Funny Thing About Water Chestnut…

Okay, there’s not much funny about water chestnut, especially if you’re a swimmer and its seedpod is sticking out of your foot, you’re a fisherman and its just eaten another $5 lure, or you’re a lakeside landowner and your luxurious shangrila has just dropped $50,000 in value because the water’s unusable. But consider the sculptural power and tactile magnetism of this otherwise murderous seedpod.

I found this humdinger (it’s almost 2″ from point to point) in Belleville Pond, in North Kingstown, RI, in October when I went to confirm the first ever sighting of water chestnut in Rhode Island. Yup, removed from its watery context, it sure looks like it comes from space. Or maybe it’s a buffalo effigy carved from bark by some ancient race? Sounds preposterous?

After I got back from the pond, I sat with the seed pod on my desk trying to put my finger on the feeling that I’d seen this creepy thing somewhere before. Some prior encounter had left an unshakable impression. In my head, in fact, I actually had a picture of myself tapping it and trying to decide if it was a thin layer of copper over wood, or perhaps something else. But where WAS I in the picture?

About twenty four hours later it hit me: in a previous life, in which I had been researching the history of the Haffenreffer Museum’s archaeological collections, I had found a strange, unrecognizable object wired to a wooden display panel among scores of readily recognizable prehistoric stone tools. Now I remember thinking at the time, “It’s in a museum collection assembled by Rudolf Haffenreffer as a tribute to the cultural achievements of American Indians. Is this some weird buffalo effigy? It has horns. Could it be copper, now heavily patinated, laid over a wooden form?” In the end I dropped the question and illustrated the whole display board in the catalog for my 1994 exhibit on Rudolf Haffenreffer (see Gregg, 1994, fig III-1–p. 134).

Now you can just imagine the person, around 1920, probably some handyman on the Haffenreffer farm, who was charged with wiring up an appropriate museum display out of a shoebox full of arrowheads and other stuff. Using the idiom of the day he dutifully imposed the expected scientific orderliness on the points, scapers, awls, and knives. But he was certainly stumped by the water chestnut seed he found among them. Like many, many archaeologists before and since, he punted and wired it up in the top middle of the board, where it is undoubtedly displayed as a “ritual object,” central to the otherwise comprehensible material world arrayed around it, but to outsiders fundamentally mysterious.

Museum records say the lithics on the board are from a “Bigelow Collection” (Haffenreffer didn’t do much hands on collecting, instead buying the collections of farmers and amateur archaeologists). We are pretty sure the collection was in the museum and wired up before 1923. Most of the lithics are cataloged as either from the Fall River, Massachusetts, area or from Missouri. Unfortunately the seedpod is not cataloged and we know nothing of its origin. Water chestnut was introduced into the U.S. in the mid- to late 19th century in the Boston area so it is certainly plausible that it is local. If it were from Rhode Island it would pre-date the next occurrence, in Belleville Pond, by almost a century.

Some good papers on the effects of water quality on lakeside property values:
Halstead, J.M., J. Michaud, S. Hallas-Burt, and J.P Gibbs. 2003. Hedonic analysis of effects of a nonnative invader (Myriophyllum heterophyllum) on New Hampshire (USA) lakefront properties. Environmental Management 32(3): 391-398

David W Gregg, The Archaeological Collection, pp. 134-165, in Shepard Krech III, ed., 1994, Passionate Hobby: Rudolf F. Haffenreffer and the King Philip Museum, Bristol, RI: Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University.

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