Caves are the Coolest!

A few weekends ago, I took a quick trip outside of New Braunfels and visited the Natural Bridge Caverns, a living, growing cave system in the middle of Texas.  Our very knowledgeable tour guide took us underground and showed us just what amazing things can happen under our feet.  So…let’s all learn about what grows in a cave!!!

Cave formations, or speleothems, come in a wide variety of shapes-all dependent upon how they are formed.  The predominating formations in the Natural Bridge Caverns are flowstoneand dripstone. 

Most of us are familiar with dripstone in the forms of stalactites and stalagmites.  These two terms are very similar, and it can be hard to remember which one comes from the top of the cave, and which one grows up from the floor.  Here’s an easy way: Stalactites hold on tight to the ceiling, while stalagmites might one day reach it! 

Other kinds of dripstones in the cave are columns, helictites, and soda straws.  (Tip-NEVER touch anything in the caves because the oils and acids on our skin repel water, and thereby kill the cave formation!  Don’t be a cave-killer.)

My favorite example of flowstone in the caves was a formation called the Diamond River.  Most times, moving water deposits small amounts of the minerals it dissolved on its trip down through rock layers.  However, if the water perhaps is moving slowly, it will deposit more of its mineral wealth; the latter is what makes the Diamond River so sparkly!

My second favorite formation is a kind of flowstone.  When deposits flow into thin sheets, it is sometimes called a Cave Curtain, or Cave Drapery.  When a cave curtain has various light and dark layers…it is called Cave Bacon!  (It is so named because of its resemblance to its pork-y counterpart.)

 Cave Bacon!

On a related note, the temperature in the caverns is a seemingly-lovely 70 degrees. HOWEVER, the relative humidity hovers around 99%-making it feel closer to a stuffy 80 degrees.  This level of humidity has an interesting side effect…on the guano (bat droppings).  The bats that deposited the guano lived in the caves QUITE some time ago, so there is no smell.  BUT the moisture in the caves keeps the guano in the same condition is was when it came out of the bats over a thousand years ago, i.e. it never dries out.  In some spots, it is even up to five foot thick!!!  So watch where you step…
It is amazing to see the things that Mother Nature can produce when left to her own devices.  If you have a hearty hankering for more naturally-formed goodies, you should come on down to the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals and see how beautiful geology can be!

We heart local photographers

On Valentine’s weekend, the Museum hosted a meetup in conjunction with Wikipedia Loves Art – a world-wide, museum-based, photo scavenger hunt organized by the Brooklyn Museum. It’s a take-off on Valentine’s Day that shares the love among photographers on Flickr, anyone who’s ever used Wikipedia (read: everyone) and museums across the globe.

Forty photographers showed up to hunt all over the Museum for photographs needed to illustrate Wikipedia articles. Their images are flooding into the Houston Museum of Natural Science pool on Flickr – and they are stunning! (Seriously, go check them out.) A few people stayed after for this quick snapshot – but there were many others who donated their time to help Wikipedia. A huge thank you to everyone who was there!

Thank you to all of our Wikipedia Loves Art rock stars!
Bottom row from left to right (click on their names to visit their photostreams):
Paul, Jean, Erin,
Stephanie, Laurie, Gwen, Deji
Second row from left to right: Unknown, Stephen,
Cortney, Sandy, Gini
Photo Credit: The Amazing Sarah G

It’s not too late to participate in Wikipedia Loves Art! You can read information about the contest here as well as the Museum’s photography guidelines – be sure to submit your photos before Sunday!

The Siege of Masada: Piecing Together the Puzzle

Our guest blogger today, Jodi Magness, Ph.D., holds a senior endowed chair in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A noted archaeologist, she has spent a lot of time working at Masada, the location of a famous siege during the First Jewish-Roman War. In conjunction with our current special exhibition, The BIrth of Christianity: A Jewish Story, she will explore the significance of this event in a lecture at HMNS on March 9: Masada: Last Stronghold of the Jewish Resistance Against Rome.

Masada and Dead Sea
Creative Commons License photo credit: heatkernel

The ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus ended his monumental, multi-volume account of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (the Jewish War) with the story of a mass suicide at Masada.  According to Josephus, some 960 Jewish rebels holding out on top of Masada – the last stronghold to remain in Jewish hands after Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 C.E. – chose to commit suicide rather than surrender to the Roman troops besieging the fortress.  It is because of Josephus’ story of the suicide, which includes a speech allegedly given by the rebel leader Eleazar ben Yair, that Masada became a symbol of Jewish resistance and the modern state of Israel.

However, Yigael Yadin’s 1963-65 excavations atop Masada failed to turn up conclusive evidence of the mass suicide.  In fact, the archaeological evidence from Masada can be interpreted either as proving or disproving the mass suicide story, depending on how one evaluates Josephus’ reliability as an historian.  For example, a group of inscribed potsherds (ostraca) found at Masada, including one bearing the name “ben Yair,” might be the lots drawn by the rebels prior to committing suicide or could simply be food ration tickets.  Most likely, some rebels committed suicide while others were killed or surrendered to the Romans and were taken captive.

Roman encampment_1465
Creative Commons License photo credit: hoyasmeg

However, archaeology sheds valuable light on other aspects of the Roman siege of Masada, which was conducted in the winter-spring of 72/73 or 73/74 C.E. and probably lasted no longer than 2-3 months.  The Roman siege works, including eight camps that housed approximately 8000 troops and a circumvallation (siege) wall, still are clearly visible encircling the base of the mountain.  In June-July 1995, I was privileged to co-direct excavations in the Roman siege works at Masada, together with Professor Gideon Foerster (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Dr. Haim Goldfus (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev), and Mr. Benny Arubas (Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

We focused much of our attention on Camp F, which is located on the northwest side of the mountain and housed about half of the Tenth Legion (with the other half in Camp B at the eastern foot of Masada).  Our excavations brought to light low stone walls over which the Roman troops pitched leather tents.  The floors of the tent units were covered with broken potsherds; altogether we recovered 240 kilograms (about 530 pounds) of pottery.  The overwhelming majority of the pottery belongs to local types of storage jars, a finding that sheds light on the provisioning of the Roman troops during the siege. 

Because Masada is in the desert, supplies (mainly food and water) were likely brought in skins, bags, and woven baskets from other parts of the country, transported overland on pack animals or on small boats across the Dead Sea.  Upon reaching the camps at Masada, the supplies were emptied into large ceramic jars for storage.  The jars protected the contents from dampness, insects, and vermin. Most of the soldiers probably prepared and consumed their food using utensils in their individual mess-kits.  However, the commander seems to have dined in style, judging from delicately painted bowls with eggshell thin walls found in his tent unit, which were imported from nearby Nabataea (southeast of the Dead Sea).

For me, archaeology is not a means of validating (or negating) personal faith and beliefs.  Instead it is a means of recovering and understanding the past, often one potsherd at a time, as in the case of Masada.  These potsherds are pieces of a puzzle which enable us to reconstruct part of a picture that was otherwise lost.

For more information on Masada and the Jewish resistance, hear Jodi’s lecture at HMNS on March 9th. For more information on our distinguished lecture series, click here.

Can’t get enough Judeo-Christian history?
Attend one of our upcoming lectures
Check out this video with the curator.
Go behind-the-scenes to discover how the exhibit was built.

Genghis Khan Invades HMNS – This Friday

Genghis Khan is back – with a vengeance. He’s popped up in a best-selling book, an award-winning movie – and now, a world premiere exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

During his life, Genghis Khan conquered more of the globe than any other man – including popular favorites Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. His fame and repute lasted for centuries: in The Canterbury Tales‘ longest story, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote of him –  

This noble king was called Genghis Khan
Who in his time was of so great renown
That there was nowhere in no region
So excellent a lord in all things.
He lacked nothing that belonged to a king
As of the sect of which he was born
He kept his law, to which he was sworn.
And thereto he was hardy, wise and rich
And piteous and just, always liked;
Soothe of his word, benign and honorable,
Of his courage as any center stable;
Young, fresh and strong, in arms desirous
As any bachelor of all his house.
A fair person he was and fortunate,
And kept always so well royal estate
That there was nowhere such another man.
This noble king, this Tartar Genghis Khan.

Compare this admiring portrayal to Genghis Khan in modern (OK, 80’s) pop culture. Or, what we think we all “know” of him – as the cunning barbarian who spread terror across Asia.  

In reality, Genghis Khan was also the brilliant architect of one of history’s most advanced civilizations. Though he was raised in a climate of brutal tribal warfare, he forbade looting and torture. Though unable to read, he gave his people a written language and a sophisticated society, with fair taxation, free trade, stable government, and freedom of religion and the arts.

Now, you can discover the real Genghis in our newest special exhibition, opening Friday – the largest-ever presentation of 13th century treasures related to his life. More than 200 spectacular artifacts will be on display, including the first-ever printing press and paper money, imperial gold, silk robes and sophisticated weaponry of the world’s most visionary ruler and his descendants.

Plus – we’re giving away cool stuff. Check out the exhibition web site for details on how to enter the “Conquer Your Fears” giveaway, and learn more about exhibition-related events. Hope to see you there!