Museum exhibit about the ‘Mysterious Dr. Glidden’ opens Saturday

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20th century amatuer archaeologist remains controversial

Story and photo From Catalina Island Museum

In November of 1922, an archaeologist named Howard Carter drilled a small hole into a stone wall that appeared to be an entranceway into an ancient Egyptian tomb.

He peered into the darkness, aided only by the light of a candle. When asked if he could see anything, he replied famously: “Yes, wonderful things.”

He had found the 3,000 year-old tomb of the young pharaoh, King Tutankhamen.

20th century amatuer archaeologist remains controversial

Story and photo From Catalina Island Museum

In November of 1922, an archaeologist named Howard Carter drilled a small hole into a stone wall that appeared to be an entranceway into an ancient Egyptian tomb.

He peered into the darkness, aided only by the light of a candle. When asked if he could see anything, he replied famously: “Yes, wonderful things.”

He had found the 3,000 year-old tomb of the young pharaoh, King Tutankhamen.

It was the most intact pharaonic tomb ever discovered, and during the next several years, Carter brought to light thousands of ancient Egyptian artifacts, including the magnificent funerary mask and sarcophagus of the king himself.

It was a linchpin moment in the life of Ralph Glidden, a self-described archaeologist who had worked since 1915, excavating Native American sites in the interior of Catalina Island, and who serves as the subject of an exhibition, opening on Saturday at the Catalina Island Museum, entitled “The Strange and Mysterious Case of Dr. Glidden.”

Glidden had uncovered hundreds of Native American burial sites and his excavations had been reported in newspapers across the United States.

But by the time of Carter’s discovery, Glidden’s work had begun a slow slide into obscurity, and he was faced with dwindling support from foundations.

Carter’s Egyptian discoveries caused a surge in popularity for archaeological exploration into ancient civilizations, and Glidden, hungry for respectability, pounced on the obsession.

Hoping that public attention would help him win back funding, he attempted to draw a parallel between his own work and that of Carter’s. Fueled by interviews with Glidden, the L.A. Examiner asked: “How old are the American Indians? Did they exist with a civilization rivaling that of ancient Egyptians?”

Glidden himself proclaimed: “The discoveries I have made are little short of remarkable, in the judgment of scientific men. This work could rival Egypt.”

 The attempt did little good, and by the late 1920s, Glidden was desperate.

Then, suddenly, he made a stunning discovery.

He announced, in 1928, the excavation of a magnificent, austerely beautiful soapstone urn. Excavated at Empire Landing, this massive urn weighed 138 pounds and, without question, represented one of Glidden’s most extraordinary discoveries.

But Glidden was not convinced that the urn alone could stimulate the kind of intense public attention he desperately needed to continue his research.

He spun a sensational tale about his discovery.

Newspapers across America reported the account.

Glidden reported that when he found the urn it contained the skeleton of a small girl sitting upright, her fingers clenching its brim.

Placed in a circle around the vessel were the bodies of sixty-four children, interred in tiers four deep, with each small head touching one another.

Less than five feet below these children was the skeleton of a gigantic man that measured seven feet, eight inches tall.

A spear had penetrated the man’s ribcage and was left in place.

Speculation abounded about the meaning of the burial.  Many believed the small girl inside the urn was of royal lineage.

The burial was a strange, royal funerary rite.

Others suspected an epidemic swept through the island that killed many children, and the large male may have been sacrificed to appease the gods.

But, curiously, Glidden could never provide evidence of the elaborate and bizarre burial.

Although he often took a large number of photographs documenting his excavations, only one photograph exists of the uncovering of the urn, and this provides no evidence substantiating his claim.

The urn today is one of the most treasured objects in the permanent collection of the Catalina Island Museum.

It will be on view in the exhibition that opens Saturday: “The Strange and Mysterious Case of Dr. Glidden.” The exhibition will run from May 11 through Sept. 29, 2013 and can only be viewed at the Catalina Island Museum.

Opening reception

The opening reception for “The Strange and Mysterious Case of Dr. Glidden” will be held Saturday, May 11 from 3:30 to 7 p.m., immediately following the museum’s Silent Film Benefit.

Tickets are free for members of the museum and $10 for the general public.  The Catalina Island Museum is Avalon’s sole institution devoted to art, culture and history.

The museum, its digital theater and store are located on the ground floor of Avalon’s historic Casino and are open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call the museum at (310) 510-2414 or visit CatalinaMuseum.org.

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