Iroquois Medicine Face
Testing and Decontamination
In 2009, the Rochester Museum & Science Center (RMSC) was awarded a second National Park Service grant to address possible chemical contamination of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) medicine faces in its collections. The project was a collaborative effort between RMSC staff, representatives of the Cattaraugus Reservation, and representatives from the Haudenosaunee Standing Committee.
As a result of this project, the RMSC and the Haudenosaunee community have:
Tested 120 medicine faces for organic and inorganic contamination
Developed a standard that can be used in the future so that X-ray fluorescence (XRF) results can be used in place of chemical swabs in testing ethnological objects
Trained RMSC staff and Native American representatives on screening and detection of contaminants and safe and appropriate remediation techniques
Refined the long-range plan to test and treat NAGPRA-related objects in the RMSC collections
Updated RMSC procedures related to ongoing object testing and decontamination
Used the internet to communicate with tribal communities and the general public about this project
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's)
Why would museum collections be
could be on collections objects?
objects are affected by contamination?
What are the
effects of object contamination on humans?
decontamination recently become a priority?
What can museums
do about object contamination?
Why does this
decontamination project focus on Haudenosaunee medicine faces?
How did the RMSC test
and treat wooden medicine faces for contamination?
What were the
results of testing?
How did the RMSC
treat the medicine faces for contamination?
Why would museum
collections be contaminated?
From the 1700's through the 1990's, museums and private collectors commonly used potentially poisonous chemicals to treat collections objects. Some chemicals were used as preservatives to prevent collections from deteriorating over time. Other chemicals were used as pesticides to prevent insects and rodents from damaging collections.
Additionally, some hazardous chemicals are found naturally in the earth. Some object contamination may be a result of the original manufacturing process, such as the historical application of certain pigments and lead glazes or the use of heavy metals in the manufacture of glass beads, gold, and felt hats and clothing.What contaminants could be on collections objects?
Heavy metals like mercury and arsenic, and their many derivative compounds, were commonly used as preservatives in museums as well as common households. Around 90 different types of pesticides have also been identified in treatments used by museums. Sometimes chemicals were used alone in powder form, but other times they were combined with other chemicals or compounds and used as solutions or soaps. Many different recipes were used, and the recipes often varied with each application. Objects may have been sprayed, brushed, dipped, or rubbed with chemical contaminants.What collections objects are affected by contamination?
Organic materials (i.e. things that were once living) were most often treated with chemicals because they are most likely to deteriorate over time and to be damaged by pests. However, the practice was so common that it often was not recorded, especially not on the individual object level. It was also common to apply toxic chemicals to storage cabinets, display cases, and specimen mounts. This practice made it possible for cross-contamination to occur.
Like most museums worldwide, the incomplete nature of the RMSC's records makes it impossible to know what objects have been treated with hazardous chemicals without testing them for contamination.What are the effects of object contamination on humans?
The presence of a poisonous chemical on an object does not necessarily mean that it is toxic. The type and amount of the chemical present are important factors in determining its health risks. Other factors that affect the toxicity of a chemical include the way it enters the body, the age of the affected individual, and the health condition of the individual.Why has decontamination recently become a priority?
Museum personnel across the country did not become widely aware of problems relating to object contamination until the late 1980's. The issue became more serious after the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990. This federal law provides a process for museums and Federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural itemshuman remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimonyto lineal descendants, and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. NAGPRA includes provisions for unclaimed and culturally unidentifiable Native American cultural items, intentional and inadvertent discovery of Native American cultural items on Federal and tribal lands, and penalties for noncompliance and illegal trafficking.
When Native American tribes made it known that they may wear, handle, or use repatriated museum objects in other ceremonial ways, the issue of object contamination became an important safety concern. The RMSC is working closely with Native American communities to respond to NAGPRA. The RMSC strives to test and treat NAGPRA-related items for contamination so they are safe to handle and use.What can museums do about object contamination?
Once a museum is aware of possible object contamination, it can take steps to manage this problem. Managing possible object contamination should involve surveying any potentially affected areas and collections, testing individual objects for the presence and amount of contamination, creating guidelines for safe handling and use of contaminated collections, and educating anyone who might handle these objects about contamination issues. Museums should also make sure that they follow federal and local requirements for handling and disposing of hazardous material. Other resources for dealing with these issues include local health and environmental agencies, research scientists, and other museums that have already been through this process.
The RMSC began to address possible object contamination issues related to its collections in 2007. The 2007 NAGPRA Consultation/Documentation grant project was a first step toward testing and treating RMSC collections that might be affected by contamination. That project resulted in the establishment of guidelines for testing and treating wooden medicine faces along with safe standards for the presence of certain chemicals. For more information about that project, click here.
The 2009 NAGPRA Consultation/Documentation grant project builds on the work completed in the 2007 project. An additional 120 wooden and cornhusk medicine faces have been tested for contamination. As part of this project, the RMSC also developed a standard for X-ray fluorescence (XRF) testing which will allow the XRF methodology to be used in place of chemical swab testing for certain contaminants.
Further information about the problem of contamination of museum
collections is available through the following links:
National NAGPRA Special Topics
Bibliography on Use of Biocides in Museum Collections
Decontaminating Sacred Objects of the Haudenosaunee
Pesticide Contamination: Working Together to Find a Common Solution. The Current State of Affairs.
Preserving the Trust: The Pesticide Residue Project at the Museum of Anthropology
Testing for Pesticide Residues in the Public Program Collections at the Royal B.C. Museum
Ongoing collaboration between Native American groups and the RMSC involves the loan of RMSC collections objects to source communities for use. One collection for which this is especially true is the Haudenosaunee medicine faces, making this collection a priority for decontamination. The Haudenosaunee Standing Committee on Burial Rules and Regulations has also requested the decontamination of Haudenosaunee medicine faces, resulting in the prioritization of this collection for testing and treatment.
The RMSC is committed to test and treat the medicine faces in a way that is both non-destructive to the objects and honors tribal custom, which dictates that medicine faces be treated in a special way.How did the RMSC test and treat the medicine faces for contamination?
Complete reports on the procedures used in both the 2007 and 2009 projects to test and treat medicine faces in the collections of the RMSC are available as downloadable pdf documents:
In summary, the 2007 project used a non-destructive sampling technique to test the medicine faces. This technique involved wiping the surface of the medicine faces to create samples. The samples were then tested for the presence and amount of arsenic, mercury, and chlorinated pesticide residues. Surface wipe samples were also collected in the storage vault and a nearby hallway to compare background levels of contamination with those present on the medicine faces.
The 2009 project used the same chemical swab testing technique as the previous project to test the medicine faces for chlorinated pesticides, mercury, arsenic, and lead. The 2009 project also used a portable X-ray fluorescence (XRF) instrument to screen all objects for the presence of arsenic, mercury, and lead. The results from the chemical swab testing were compared to the results from XRF testing to determine if the XRF methodology is as effective in detecting small amounts of these elements. The XRF method cannot be used to test for organic compounds, so only chemical swab testing was used to detect the presence of chlorinated pesticides.What were the results of testing?
In summary, an initial 94 wooden and cornhusk medicine faces were selected from the list of objects subject to NAGPRA for testing. As no significant level of contamination was observed, resources reserved for mitigating contamination and retesting the objects were used to screen an additional 26 medicine faces. All objects underwent screening for lead, arsenic, and mercury using the XRF, and 97 of these objects were also tested using chemical swab analysis.
In total, 48 medicine faces were found to be free of detectable levels of arsenic, mercury, lead, or organic contamination (chlorinated pesticides). The other 72 medicine faces were found to contain lead. Of the medicine faces containing lead, three were also found to contain pesticides at a low level; one was also found to contain arsenic at an elevated level; and one medicine face was also found to contain mercury at an elevated level.
Results from the X-ray fluorescence (XRF) testing were comparable to results from the chemical swab analysis for the presence of arsenic, mercury, and lead. From these results, project participants determined that XRF testing is an accurate, efficient, and cost-effective alternative to chemical swab analysis for detecting contamination due to arsenic, mercury, and lead. The combination of the two methods reduced the cost and time required to complete this project while providing the necessary non-destructive test methods desired by the Tribal Representatives.How did the RMSC treat the medicine faces for contamination?
The 48 medicine faces that were free of arsenic, mercury, lead, and chlorinated pesticides require no further action before they are repatriated. Since all objects were screened in the same manner, it is likely that the 72 medicine faces that tested positive for lead, arsenic, or mercury were contaminated by materials used in their construction.
Seventy-two medicine faces tested positive for lead. Given the age of the objects, the lead observed on the front of the objects was probably due to the paint formulation. Lead observed on the unpainted inside of objects was likely transferred from the painted front through normal handling. These objects may be handled and/or worn with notification of the presence and potential hazard of lead paint. It is highly recommended that the traditional practitioners consider the application of a new coat of paint on existing paint surfaces. This will reduce the transfer of lead residue from the painted outside surface to the inside surface.
Three of the medicine faces containing lead were also found to contain pesticides. The pesticide levels fell into a healthy range for human exposure, however, so no further action is recommended to address the pesticide contamination.
Two of the medicine faces containing lead were also found to contain detectable levels of mercury or arsenic. The medicine face that tested positive for arsenic was observed to have a high amount of arsenic on the hide of the horsehair. As arsenic was commonly used in the preparation of hides, the contamination on the inside of the medicine face was likely transferred from the horsehair through normal handling. It is recommended that the horsehair be removed and analyzed separately to confirm if it is the source of the arsenic. If confirmed as the source, reuse of the hair is not recommended. The remaining portions of the object should be cleaned using a technique such as the Surface Active Displacement Solution (see complete report for details). Given the level of arsenic present, this may be done by either the traditional practitioner after repatriation or with support from the RMSC prior to repatriation.
One medicine face was observed to have elevated levels of mercury and lead on both the inside and outside. Given the age and red color of the medicine face, it is likely that vermillion (mercury-sulfide pigment) was used to enhance the color of the paint and that this is the source of contamination. It is recommended that traditional practitioners consider the application of a new coat of paint on the front of the medicine face to minimize the additional transfer of contaminants. It is recommended that the inside be cleaned using a technique such as the Surface Active Displacement Solution (see complete report for details). Given the level of contamination, this may be done by either the traditional practitioner after repatriation or with support from the RMSC prior to repatriation.
The RMSC continues to work with the Native American communities to address these issues.
For more information on acceptable exposure levels for heavy metals, see:
Native American Consultants: Peter Jemison and Ansley Jemison
Peter Jemison is a member of the Seneca Nation and a Faithkeeper from the Cattaraugus Reservation. Jemison worked with the Project Director and Research Consultant/Chemist on a regular basis to develop a work plan; select the objects to be tested; attend meetings to review project progress; and periodically discuss next steps. Jemison is also a liaison to the Seneca Nation, who appointed the Chemist's Assistant to help in handling the medicine faces. Jemison also consulted with the Seneca Nation and kept them informed of the progress made.
Ansley Jemison is a Seneca from the Cattaraugus Reservation and a member of the Seneca Nation. For this project, he assisted the Chemist in testing the medicine faces for contamination through chemical swab analysis and XRF testing.
Research Consultant/Chemist/Trainer: Peter Reuben
Peter Reuben is of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation, Snipe Clan. He graduated from Buffalo State College (SUNY) with a Master in Arts-Chemistry where he performed novel multi-step organic synthesis of environmental contaminants for fundamental cancer research at the Great Lakes Center for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. Since 2002, he has been a Research consultant focused on developing sampling and mitigation methods for contaminated repatriated sacred objects. He has worked with the Tribal Historic Preservation Offices of the Seneca Nation of Indians and Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, the Haudenosaunee Standing Committee on Burial Rules and Regulations, the Seneca-Iroquois Nation Museum, and the Rochester Museum and Science Center. He has also been an invited participant at workshops on pesticide contamination organized by the Smithsonian Institution Museum Conservation Institute, U.S. National Park Service and Canadian Conservation Institute.
Reuben provided training and oversaw the sampling and treatment of medicine faces; reviewed sample data; and generate required reports/communications as needed. He also assisted in performing object condition surveys.
Conservation Scientist: Jane Sirois
Jane Sirois is a Conservation Scientist at the Analytical Research Laboratory, Canadian Conservation Institute. Her responsibilities on the project were to work with project staff to conduct the conservation survey of the medicine faces and determine the best non-destructive methodologies for testing and treating them.
Volunteer Assistants: Cole Reuben and Jaden Parker
Cole Reuben and Jaden Parker are both Seneca from the Tonawanda Seneca Nation. The two 12-year-olds came in with Cole's mother, Rebecca Parker, and her two sisters to see examples of Haudenosaunee beading made on the Tonawanda Reservation as part of a WPA-funded project in 1935-1941. Some of the medicine faces were being tested on the same day, and they all were interested in seeing how the testing was done and participating using the XRF. Cole enjoyed the training and asked to come back a second time to work with Peter Reuben.
Rebecca Parker describes what the experience meant to Cole:
As a mother, I couldn't be happier about his experience at RMSC. I have tried many activities with my children, his interest in sports and music and other activities have come and faded with time. His experience in the 2009 NAGPRA project has had a profound effect on the way he looks at the world. Cole recognizes that the responsibility to preserve our culture belongs to all generations. He often lectures our family by saying, "We need to step up and spend more time learning our ways, or soon there will be no one left to learn from."
By having been given the opportunity to assist Peter Reuben on the XRF testing, Cole feels he has contributed to our community by bringing back part of our history, our culture, and our religion. Cole is committed to a lifetime of learning our culture. He spends most of his free time researching our history and studying our language. He has also taken on the responsibility of caring for two of the masks returned to our community. Cole hopes to become a chemist one day...like Peter Reuben.
Thank you for giving him the opportunity to have this experience!
Project Director: Adele DeRosa, NAGPRA Coordinator/Collections Manager
Project Advisor: George McIntosh, Director of Collections
Online Content Developer: Kathryn Murano, Registrar
For further information about this project, please contact:
Adele DeRosa, NAGPRA Coordinator/Collections Manager
firstname.lastname@example.org • 585-271-4552 x302
Funded in part by:
This material is based upon work assisted by a grant from the Department of the Interior, National Park Service, and the National NAGPRA Program. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Interior or the National NAGPRA Program.
The service shall have a royalty-free right to republish any published material generated by this grant.
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