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F. Marse Ferrel, Jr. – Young Scholar and Collector
By Richard Michael Gramly
I wish to put on record a remarkable group of books, notes, photographs, posted letters, and ancient Meso-American artifacts that was offered at auction in September, 2009, on eBay by S. Gochenaur – a seller from Newark, Delaware. The group had been purchased by Gochenaur at a household sale in Newark, and had belonged at one time to F. Marse Ferrel, Jr. – formerly of San Salvador, El Salvador and Chatham, Virginia. Most of the paper goods dated to 1935-1941; in addition, there were a few xeroxed articles from archaeological journals of the 1960s and 1970s that related in substance to the older materials. I organized Marse Ferrel’s archive by year and studied its contents. The results of this exercise are presented below:
F. Marse Ferrel, Jr. was born on September 9, 1924. His mother, Marguerite, may have been a native of Chatham, Virginia, which lies in the rural central part of the state. For awhile Marse and his mother may have lived in Birmingham, Alabama, but by 1935 Marguerite had remarried. She and Marse joined her new husband, Claudio S. Whitehead, in San Salvador. Claudio worked for one (or more) tobacco companies in Central America. Judging by surviving correspondence (for example, Figure 1), Mr. Whitehead was most closely associated with the firm of Cigarreria Morazan in San Salvador; however, he also did some business with Tabacalera Hondurena in San Pedro Sula.
Jump link: Figure 1.
Claudio Whitehead appears to have been interested in antiquities and archaeological monuments in Guatemala prior to his marriage to Marguerite. This fact is apparent from his personal copy, dated 1933 on the flyleaf, of J. Antonio Villacorta and Carlos A. Villacorta’s 384-page work Arqueologia Guatemalteca (1930). Later, it appears, he passed this reference work to his stepson Marse. Famous Mayan sites with temples and stelae, such as Quirigua and Tikal, are described by the Villacortas. Judging by photos in Marse’s own album (Figure 2), Claudio took Marguerite and Marse to visit some of these same sites. An useful guide for visiting these places would have been Jose Valle’s 182-page handbook entitled Guatemala para El Turista (1929), which also was owned by Claudio Whitehead. Scenic highland towns like Chichicastenango in Quiche Province were not omitted from the Whiteheads’ itinerary; in his album Marse mounted many photographs of “Chichi’s” famous market and its Indian vendors selling colorful huipils (blouses) and other articles. It is likely that during the 1930s some shops in town sold prehistoric antiquities (to the right visitor!) just as we know they do now. At some point the Whiteheads acquired two small, genuine stone sculptures known as kamahuiles, which commonly occur in Quiche (see Figure 3). These figures, which attain a height of 30 cm (12 inches), are thought to date to the Olmec era – the first and second millenia BC. Their upright posture with hands on the abdomen recalls the Mezcala/Chontal stone figures from south-central Mexico (Throckmorton 1991), to which they may be related.
Jump link: Figure 2. and 3.
On a visit to Quirigua the Whiteheads and companion tourists were entertained by costumed Indian dancers wearing finely carved wooden masks (as shown in several photographs within Marse’s album). Guatemalan Indian masks are valued even today as souvenirs; however, to my knowledge there is no publication about them that can compare to Donald Cordry’s classic work Mexican Masks (1980).
Perhaps the dancers, sensing the keen interest of the Whiteheads in vestiges of the glorious Mayan past, offered for sale the extraordinary stone mortar shown in Figure 4? The mortar has been sculpted as a frog with a deep grinding cavity in its back. Black, tarry drippings adhering to sculpture’s side and undersurface suggest that it had been used more recently as an incense burner. Copal incense cakes, neatly wrapped in packages made of banana leaf are still sold in Guatemalan Indian markets (see Figure 5). One would have expected the masked performers at Quirigua to have burned incense during ritual observances and to have preferred a true antique for a burner.
Jump link: Figure 4. and 5.
Marse included a photograph of the mortar in his album (Figure 6). It must have been collected before 1937/38.
Jump link: Figure 6.
Marse’s budding interest in Mayan language and culture, and particularly in Mayan calendrics and writing, was noticed by his Salvadoran friends. In May, 1936, Marse was given the book Gramatica del Idioma Cachiquel by Senora dona Carmen V. de Luzo. It is apparent that Marse, then an intelligent, thoughtful young teenager, had learned to read Spanish, but he may have found this study of Quiche Mayan language authored by the 18th century (?) ecclesiastic Fr. Carlos J. Rosales to have been “heavy going”!
The Whiteheads resided in San Salvador until late 1937 or early 1938. During that period Marguerite gave birth to Marse’s brother, Joe – a healthy, happy baby who was delivered at a small clinic in town. Judging by the many photos of Joe and captions in Marse’s album, he was loved and welcomed by his big brother. Marse had plenty of friends his own age while living in El Salvador; some were foreigners like himself but others came from good local families. Despite his solid social contacts, schooling may have been a problem, especially for a quick-witted fellow like Marse. There would have been the need to groom him for assuming a position in genteel Virginia society. It is evident (again, from photos in Marse’s album as well as from long letters written to Marguerite from Marse’s grandmother in Virginia) that Marguerite took her older son’s education and future seriously. A “proper” secondary school education meant returning to Virginia.
In 1938 Marse began to attend Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham. Figure 7 is a photo of him from this period but without an uniform. Hargrave Academy is still operating, but posted records of its alumni are unavailable for 1941/42 when Marse would have graduated.
Jump link: Figure 7.
While attending Hargrave, Marse Ferrel continued to develop his interest in Maya inscriptions and calendrics. He wrote to Peabody Museum, Harvard, Tulane University, and Carnegie for price-lists of scholarly works about the Maya. He purchased several “classics,” now rare – among them Ernst Forstemann’s Commentary upon the Maya Manuscript in the Royal Public Library of Dresden (1906), A Maya Grammar by Alfred M. Tozzer (1921), and The Reduction of Maya Dates by Herbert J. Spinden (1924). Marse’s notebooks are filled with his calculations of Maya Long Count dates taken from stelae at archaeological sites in Guatemala that his family had visited. All these monographs were among the archive that I purchased from S. Gochenaur in 2009.
Pages in the rear of Marse’s photo album are filled with images of the family plantation in Virginia with its wide pastures, white fences and rows of tobacco plants. Maguerite is shown in riding habit on the back of her favorite horse, which might have been a jumper used for fox-hunting. Interesting to note, among the artifacts that Marse owned (Figure 8) is a hunt horn. This massive horn is unique as one side is covered with a band of Mayan-like figures and glyphs neatly drawn with black ink and in-filled with thinly applied yellow, orange and red pigments! Marse was a skilled draftsman; undoubtedly it is his work. Perhaps it was intended as a gift for his mother and a showpiece for their home.
Jump link: Figure 8.
After graduation in 1941 or 1942 Marse may have entered military service. It was a dark era for men of his age, but he appears to have survived and maintained a casual interest in Maya calendrics – as proved by xeroxes of articles appearing in archaeological journals dating to the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps he remained in governmental service, eventually retiring to the state of Delaware, which (I am told) offers certain tax advantages to retirees. Had WWII not intervened, who knows but Marse Ferrel, Jr. may have become a senior scholar in Mayan studies at some museum or university? Forks in the road of life are many and sometimes we are free to travel only a less-favored path.
Rosales, Fr. Carlos J.
Spinden, Herbert I.
Tozzer, Alfred M.
Villacorta, J. Antonio and Carlos A. Villacorta
Figures accompanying F. Marse Ferrel, Jr. – Young Scholar and Collector.Jump Back
Figure 1. 1935 letter from Managua, Nicaragua, to Cigarreria Morazan where Claudio Whitehead, stepfather of Marse Ferrel, worked. Marse saved scores of such covers and appears to have been a stamp collector.Jump Back
Figure 2. Photograph of page from Marse Ferrel’s photo album showing stone stelae and another monument covered with glyphs from the site of Quirigua. His family appears to have made a made a trip to this famous site in 1936 or 1937.Jump Back
Figure 3. Two kamahuiles from Quiche, Guatemala, owned by Marse Ferrel, Jr. The larger one is soapstone and is 9.5 cm long; the smaller is harder chlorite shist and measures 4.5 cm in length. Their backs are plain. Such small sculptures are thought to belong to the period of the Olmec archaeological culture.Jump Back
Figure 4. Remarkable mortar of greenstone in the form of a frog, Olmec archaeological culture, Guatemala, originally photographed by Marse Ferrel in 1937. Sides, top, and base have tightly adhering, black drippings – likely burned copal. Length = 15 cm; width = 10.5 cm; height = 5.5 cm; weight = 1.5 kg. The dimensions of the grinding cavity are 6.5 cm (diameter) and 4 cm (depth).
Figure 5. Discs of copal (resin) wrapped in a banana leaf from a modern Maya Indian market in Guatemala.Jump Back
Figure 6. Photograph from Marse Ferrel’s photo album showing remarkable frog effigy mortar collected by the Whiteheads.Jump Back
Figure 7. Photograph of F. Marse Ferrel, Jr. taken while he was a student at Hargrave Military Academy, Virginia (1938-1941).Jump Back
Figure 8. Hunt horn of massive cow horn covered with Mayan-like figures and glyphs – perhaps made by Marse Ferrel as a present for his mother Marguerite Whitehead. Length over the curves = 23.5 inches (59 cm).
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