Bernard Lowy’s Mushroom Mystery

Emily working on Lowy’s materials

Bernard Lowy’s Mushroom Mystery

Author: Emily Pelesky, Museum Studies Intern at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation – Fall 2018

Fascinated by botany and the personal connections within the field, Rachel McMasters Millers Hunt amassed a unique collection of historical botanical writings and artwork. Seeking a home for this educationally and artistically valuable collection, the Hunts chose the Carnegie Institute of Technology (Carnegie Mellon University) in 1961. The collection has grown and diversified with time and is still accessible to researchers, as well as producing publications and exhibitions.

As an intern in the archival department of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, I had the unique task of caring for and re-foldering botanist Bernard Lowy’s papers. As an anthropology student, I am interested in the study of the human past. In particular, I am fascinated by humans’ relationships with their environment, which naturally includes the flora that surrounds them. When presented with some choices of botanists by my supervisors, Lowy’s Mayan research stuck out. In reading through Lowy’s documents, including personal notes and correspondence, I learned about his work in Guatemala with Mayan mushroom stones. These artifacts (dating from approximately 1500 B.C. to 900 A.D) are effigies of mushrooms carved from volcanic rock. With much of Mayan culture lost, Lowy and a network of other researchers with whom he corresponded closely, sought to understand the purpose of these artifacts. This involved intensive research including referring to Mayan codices and taking linguistic approaches. Lowy and his colleagues concluded that mushroom stones are evidence of an ancient cult surrounding hallucinogenic mushrooms. 

In handling Bernard Lowy’s collection, I was able to watch this research play out across time and space. The development of these researchers’ conclusions was clear, and I felt their excitement as they relayed new information across the world. My internship at the Hunt Institute taught me the importance of archiving as a means of preserving the stories behind scientific discoveries that can get lost in favor of research conclusions. Not only are their conclusions important, but their processes, failures, and collaboration as well. This was one of Rachel Hunt’s principles in her collecting and I witnessed its continued realization in the Hunt archives. 

Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

  • Academic Interns
  • Undergraduate Work
  • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh