About Dirk

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

D-Day, Part II: “We will accept nothing less than full victory”

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a three-part series exploring the history and significance of D-Day as we approach the 70th anniversary of the battle. Click here to read part one. For information on D-Day: Normandy 1944, the 3D film now showing in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre, please visit us online.

General Dwight Eisenhower speaking with paratroopers, June 5 1944 (Image Wikimedia).

General Dwight Eisenhower speaking with paratroopers, June 5, 1944 (Image: Wikimedia)

“I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!” – General Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 6, 1944. 

With these words, General Dwight D. Eisenhower ended his message to the troops as they headed for the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6th, 1944. 

Once the decision had been made at the Trident Conference to open a second front and invade Western Europe, preparations needed to be made to ensure the mission’s success. This involved deciding when and where to land, devising measures to deceive the Germans, and working out all the logistics to make these plans work.

As to the “where,” the German High Command assumed that the Pas de Calais in Northern France was the likeliest place for an Allied invasion. This was not unreasonable. At 21 miles, it marks the shortest distance between German-held territory and Allied-held territory. To put things in perspective, this distance of 21 miles is slightly less than the length of the causeway across Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans.

The Germans looked at this spot as a jumping off point for their own invasion of England. One photo shows German officers, including Herman Goering, standing on the beach at Pas de Calais, looking at the white cliffs of Dover. That was as close as they would ever get.

German officers standing on the beach at Pas de Calais, looking at the white cliffs of Dover

 

Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana. The city of New Orleans is visible to the south of the lake. The causeway is the straight line crossing the lake, covering a distance equal to that between Calais, northern France and Dover, England. (Image: Wikimedia)

Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana. The city of New Orleans is visible to the south of the lake. The causeway is the straight line crossing the lake, covering a distance equal to that between Calais, northern France and Dover, England. (Image: Wikimedia)

The Allies selected Normandy for various reasons. It had good beaches, which were protected from western gales by the Cotentin Peninsula, or Cherbourg Peninsula. While it was further away from England than Pas de Calais, Normandy was also not the place where the Germans expected the landings to happen. The beaches in Normandy remained within easy reach of fighter airplanes, guaranteeing that there would be sufficient air cover to protect the troops when they hit the beach. By 1944, the German air force was no longer as powerful as it once had been.

As to when to invade Normandy, the Allies relied on tides, available moonlight, and good weather. Coming in with full knowledge of the tides would allow the boatmen of the landing craft to get close enough to the beach, while still being able to avoid the extensive belt of beach obstacles. In 1944, it was determined that optimum conditions would exist toward the end of May.

Once a “where” and “when” were decided upon, it became necessary to deceive the Germans. An operation this size could not remain hidden. The Allies decided that the best course of action was to make the Germans look the wrong way. The Allied deception plan – known as “Operation Bodyguard” — employed various schemes to mislead the Germans.

Inflatable tank, used during Operation Bodyguard. (Image Wikimedia).

Inflatable tank, used during Operation Bodyguard (Image: Wikimedia)

Fake infrastructure and equipment (including inflatable replicas of tanks and vehicles) was used to simulate non-existing army units. Radio traffic was generated to reinforce that impression, with messages exchanged among these make-believe units. Well known military figures, most famously General Patton, were also part of the deception plan. General Patton took on a high visibility profile in Southeast England, the area where the non-existing First United States Army Group was supposed to have set up camp. Ghost armies would continue to play a role during the remainder of the war.

The Allies also made use of diplomatic channels, double agents and other very creative ruses to leak tidbits of information to deceive the Germans into believing the main invasion would happen anywhere but Normandy, and that any action there would be part of a diversion and nothing more. Eventually, after an agonizing delay because of bad weather, the invasion was launched. D-Day was underway.

Wave after wave of airborne units had gone in ahead of the main body. Their job was to secure bridges, and secure the flanks of the invasion area. The invasion area was 50 miles wide; a mind-boggling distance roughly equal to what separates Houston from Galveston, or Washington, D.C. from Baltimore.

American, British, Canadian and other Allied forces came ashore that day facing a well-entrenched enemy. For more than a year, Marshal Rommel had been in charge of fortifying the mainland against an invasion they knew would come one day. A huge workforce had been employed to build strong points from Norway to the border with Spain — a distance of about 1,500 miles. A giant German version of the French Maginot line, these fortifications were named the Atlantikwall.

Fortified coastline of German-occupied Europe, known as the Atlantikwall, shown in green. (Image Wikimedia)

Fortified coastline of German-occupied Europe, known as the Atlantikwall, shown in green (Image: Wikimedia)

From 1943 to 1944, bunkers, observation points and gun emplacements were constructed at a feverish pace. Among these fortifications was a series of bunkers and gun emplacements at a location called Pointe du Hoc, a rocky promontory overlooking Omaha Beach. Allied intelligence surmised that these strong points sheltered huge 155 mm artillery pieces which, it was feared, could wreak havoc on the landing beaches. These guns had to be neutralized, and the U.S. Army Rangers were selected to do the job.

Pointe du Hoc bunker, remains of charred ceiling beams, evidence of the intense fighting that took place here. (Photo Dirk Van Tuerenhout).

Pointe du Hoc bunker, remains of charred ceiling beams, evidence of the intense fighting that took place here (Photo: Dirk Van Tuerenhout).

Intense fighting ensued. Bunkers were attacked with all available weapons, including flamethrowers as well as naval artillery. Much to their surprise, the Rangers established that the artillery, thought to have been in the emplacements, had been moved inland. They were able to locate and destroy them, as well as a huge ammunition dump nearby. In doing so, they saved a lot of lives.

Pointe du Hoc. US Ranger monument. (Photo Dirk van Tuerenhout)

Pointe du Hoc, U.S. Ranger monument (Photo: Dirk van Tuerenhout)

The commanding officer of the Rangers was Colonel James Earl Rudder. He was wounded during the attack, but survived and eventually became the sixteenth President of Texas A&M University. Among the huge armada of ships firing at the German fortifications was the USS Texas. She sailed up and down the coast, firing at Pointe du Hoc as well as the coastal guns defending the port of Cherbourg. Some of the Rangers wounded during the Pointe du Hoc operation were treated on the USS Texas.

By the end of the day, Allied forces had become sufficiently entrenched on the Normandy coast. It would take another year before the “1000-year Reich” came crashing down. That part of the story will be covered in the third and final blog on this topic.

D-Day Normandy 1944 now showing in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre

D-Day Normandy 1944 now showing in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre

The Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Wortham Giant Screen Theatre is now showing D-Day: Normandy 1944.  The film is running exclusively at HMNS in the Houston-Galveston area through November 11.

Click here to read the next in this series, D-Day, Part III: “We are coming by day and by night”

Local support is provided by Gallery Furniture and IBERIABANK.

D-Day, Part I: What happened in the years preceding the Normandy landings

June 6, 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of France. By 1944, World War II had raged for almost five years in Europe. It took another year of bitter fighting before it was all over. The Allied invasion, dubbed “Operation Overlord,” was the result of a decision made the Trident Conference in Washington in May 1943.

Before we talk about the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany, let’s step back and look at the origins of the conflict. Between 1939 and 1940 Germany occupied Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Italy joined Germany in its attack against France. By the beginning of July 1940, only the United Kingdom was resisting the Nazis. In the East, a secret pact between Germany and the Soviet Union resulted in Poland being wiped off the map and its territories occupied by both German and Soviet armies.

German plans to invade the British Isles involved the extensive use of the Luftwaffe in the famous Battle of Britain.  From July 10, 1940 to October 31, 1940 the skies over England were filled with swerving and dodging airplanes. In the end, the British were victorious and the intended German invasion was cancelled. Prime Minister Churchill famously remarked, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few,” in his tribute to the pilots who served in the Royal Air Force.

Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister during WWII (Library of Congress, Reproduction number LC-USW33-019093-C)

Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister during WWII (Library of Congress, Reproduction number LC-USW33-019093-C)

In September 1940, Italy, using its own colony of Libya as a springboard, invaded British-controlled Egypt. They failed to make headway, forcing the Germans to intervene on the side of their allies. In February 1941, the Afrika Korps landed in Northern Africa and soon pushed as far as the border with Egypt. It would take a massive effort involving British and American forces to defeat Rommel; the first step was a successful landing in North Africa. 

Among the U.S. naval forces supporting the landing was the USS Texas. She broadcasted a message from the President – in French – aimed at the Vichy forces forces in North Africa, urging them not to resist. The broadcast was met with mixed success.

The Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942 saw the first large-scale use of U.S. troops against German forces. It took until May 1943 before the North Africa campaign came to a successful conclusion.

General Rommel in North Africa, 1942 (Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-786-0327-19)

General Rommel in North Africa, 1942 (Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-786-0327-19)

General Rommel, who had been given the nickname “Desert Fox” by the Allies, was recalled to Berlin before the final collapse of German forces in Africa. He eventually reappeared in Western Europe, tasked by Hitler to fortify the French beaches against an Allied invasion.

In June 1942, the Axis forces invaded the Soviet Union; it took them to the gates of Moscow, but not any further. A brutal winter and fresh Siberian troops first stemmed the tide — and eventually turned it.

The summer of 1943 marked more Soviet success in repelling the invaders from their territory. The Western Allies invaded Sicily and eventually the Italian mainland. A tenacious German defense kept the Allies from making quick progress. On June 4, 1944, Rome was finally liberated. Two days later, the invasion of Normandy gets underway.

Advertisement for D-Day Normandy 1944.

Advertisement for D-Day Normandy 1944.

The D-Day invasion came after many months of preparation and often bloody training exercises. After a brief delay because of inclement weather, a huge invasion force consisting of hundreds of thousands of men crossed the English Channel on their way to France.

The preparations of this invasion and the subsequent 100 days of fighting in northern France are chronicled in a new Giant Screen-sized documentary, D-Day Normandy 1944. Narrated by Tom Brokaw, this 43-minute film blends a variety of cinematographic formats. Archival images, CGI renderings and animation help a modern audience understand how this landing changed the course of history.

Entrance to the Ranger Monument at Pointe du Hoc, Normandy, France. (Photo Dirk Van Tuerenhout)

Entrance to the Ranger Monument at Pointe du Hoc, Normandy, France. (Photo by Dirk Van Tuerenhout)

The invasion of Normandy involved a particularly daring and bloody operation at Pointe du Hoc, a rock cliff 100 feet high on which Allied intelligence was convinced the Germans had installed several large pieces of artillery.

Click here to read the next in this series, D-Day, Part II: “We will accept nothing less than full victory”

What this operation entailed, who participated and how it ended will be the topic of a second installment related to the D-Day Normandy 1944 documentary, showing in our Giant Screen Theatre starting May 23

Local support provided by IBERIABANK.  

Are we there yet? Dr. John Kappelman discusses Africa and the human evolutionary journey at HMNS

In the history of mankind, there have been three major migrations: two of these happened a long time ago, and one (of the “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” type) happened in our own lifetime. 

evolution astronautAbout 1.8 million years ago, hominids we call Homo erectus ventured outside Africa, wandering into Europe and Asia. Our own species evolved in East Africa around 200,000 years ago. About 50,000 years ago, Homo sapiens followed in Homo erectus’ footsteps, with significant numbers leaving Africa. Eventually they crossed Asia and made it all the way into the Americas.

Homo erectus model displayed at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany in 2007 (Image Wikimedia)

Homo erectus model displayed at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany in 2007 (Image from Wikimedia).

 On July 20, 1969, Homo sapiens marked another milestone, with the first step on the Moon. Today, we have a permanent presence in space, albeit it on a very limited scale. We have come a long way indeed.

Long before Homo erectus left Africa, other bipedal creatures roamed Africa. Among these was Australopithecus afarensis, a hominid first discovered in Ethiopia. In 1974, Donald Johanson and his team uncovered a well preserved specimen who was nicknamed Lucy, and shortly afterwards also Dinkenesh. 

AL 288-1, Australopithecus afarensis. Also known as “Lucy” or “Dinkenesh” (Image by Viktor Deak).

AL 288-1, Australopithecus afarensis. Also known as “Lucy” or “Dinkenesh”
(Image by Viktor Deak).

Lucy and her species have been the subject of many scientific studies. However, when she traveled to the United States for the second time in 2007 (the first time was in 1975, to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History), she underwent a scientific procedure never before applied to her: for 10 days, she resided on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, where she underwent a high resolution CT scan.

The scanned data was handed over to the government of Ethiopia and Mamitu Yilma, director of the National Museum in Addis Ababa. The successful completion of Lucy’s scan meant that the specimen is now safely archived in digital format — one of the reasons behind the scanning.

A small but dedicated team participated in the scanning project in Austin: 

Members of the scanning team included (from left) Ron Harvey, conservator, Lincolnville, Maine; Alemu Admassu, curator, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia;  John Kappelman, UT Austin; and Richard Ketcham, UT Austin.  The team used the ultra high-resolution Xradia MicroXCT scanner (background), for some of the scans.

Members of the scanning team included (from left) Ron Harvey, conservator, Lincolnville, Maine; Alemu Admassu, curator, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; John Kappelman, UT Austin; and Richard Ketcham, UT Austin. The team used the ultra high resolution Xradia MicroXCT scanner (background), for some of the scans.

Dr. John Kappelman has had a long-standing relation with the Houston Museum of Natural Science. He was one of many scientific advisors to the curator of anthropology when the exhibit featuring Lucy was prepared. His own research into human evolution is the topic of an upcoming presentation at the museum.

To find out if we are “there yet,” come listen to Dr. Kappelman on Tuesday, May 13 at 6:30 p.m.

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
The First Big Trip – Are We There Yet? Africa and the Human Journey
John Kappelman, Ph.D.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014, 6:30 p.m.
Click here to purchase advance tickets.

This lecture is cosponsored by Archaeology Institute of America – Houston Society as part of its 2013-2014 Innovations series.

The Pecos pictographs: River rock art shows why Texas is an archaeological oasis

Quick: What do Texas and France have in common?

Actually, I should rephrase that: Who do Texas and France have in common?

The answer? Dr. Jean Clottes, a leading French prehistorian.

It makes sense that a Frenchmen would love his country, but what is Dr. Clottes looking for in Texas? It turns out the answer is down to earth: rock art. In Dr. Clottes’ opinion, Texas rock art ranks right up there with rock art in La Douce France.

Anyone interested in rock art is most likely familiar with the famous painted prehistoric caves in France and Spain. Sites like Altamira and Lascaux are household names in the world of art history. Dr. Clottes has been heavily involved and invested in the study and preservation of Lascaux Cave. We were very lucky to have him as a speaker at the museum recently. He elaborated on cave art in general, and Cosquer cave in particular. Earlier in the day, he took a group of art history students from the University of Houston through an exhibit on Lascaux cave, currently at the Museum. He regaled us with stories about his own work at the cave. He patiently addressed recent newspaper reports of “another Lascaux” that allegedly exists near the original Lascaux cave.

What brought him to Texas, though, was rock art — to be more precise, rock art from the Lower Pecos. This art has been studied extensively, among others, by the Archaeological Institute of America, the Rock Art Foundation, SHUMLA and, of course Dr. Clottes and his Texas colleagues.

On Feb. 7 and 8, HMNS organized a trip to the Lower Pecos area to see this wonderful rock art. SHUMLA staff members Andrew Freeman, Jeremy Freeman, and Vicky Munoz led a group of 25 people to see two sites: White Shaman and Painted Shelter.

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HMNS travelers listen to Jeremy Freeman and Vicky Munoz at the White Shaman rock shelter.

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L to R: Vicky Munoz (adjusting her cap), Andrew Freeman, Jeremy Freeman.

Even though we were on the Texas-Mexico border, there was a thin coating of frost on the windows of our van. As the day progressed, however, we enjoyed a beautiful blue sky with plenty of sunlight.

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“Severe winter conditions” in Del Rio, Texas.

Our first stop was Seminole Canyon State Park, located 9 miles west of Comstock on U.S. Hwy. 90, just east of the Pecos River bridge. In North America, this is an area with a long history of human presence. The park’s website informs us that:

“Early man first visited this area 12,000 years ago, a time when now-extinct species of elephant, camel, bison, and horse roamed the landscape. The climate at that time was more moderate than today and supported a more lush vegetation that included pine, juniper, and oak woodlands in the canyons, with luxuriant grasslands on the uplands. These early people developed a hunting culture based upon large mammals, such as the mammoth and bison. No known evidence exists that these first inhabitants produced any rock paintings.”

Over time, climatic conditions changed, and humans had to adapt. Some 7,000 years ago, the landscape looked much like today.

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Landscape looking toward the Pecos River with modern bridge crossing. With the exception of the bridge, this is what early Texans would have seen as well.

There is a reason why archaeologists and art historians are drawn to this area. One can find more than 200 pictograph sites here; they contain rock paintings ranging from single images to caves containing panels of art hundreds of feet long.

This is where we visited the White Shaman site. This is a rock shelter, rather than a cave. It contains a pictographic panel measuring four by eight meters (about 13 by 26 feet). The panel depicts more than 30 anthropomorphic (human-shaped) figures. Some of these are impaled, some are even shown as skeletons. We also saw zoomorphs (animal-shaped figures): red deer, all impaled. Finally, our guides pointed out images that defy interpretation, such as more than 100 dots, occurring all over the panel. A serpent-like figure divides the panel in two. Crenelated lines are present as well.

The name of the rock shelter, White Shaman, is derived from the white figure appearing in the center of the panel.

The name of the rock shelter, White Shaman, is derived from the white figure appearing in the center of the panel.

This rock art, commonly dated back to the Middle Archaic, about 4,000 years ago, is among the oldest known in North America.

After a delicious barbecue lunch, we went on to visit a second rock art site — this one on private property. After a bumpy ride, we got to see Painted Shelter.

Painted shelter, which has water at its base.

Painted shelter, which has water at its base.

Known since at least 1937, the art here shows human figures (including one with a bow), as well as animals (deer-like figures, a bird, and a catfish).

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This is Painted Shelter, showing representations of deer-like animals as well as two human figures, one of whom is holding a bow.

The Pecos River rock art has been studied for many years. As early as 1849, Captain C. French reported on Indian paintings he saw near the mouth of the Pecos River. In the 1930s, a systematic effort to record and study Pecos Rock Art started. These efforts continued into the 1950s. The construction of Lake Amistad spurred on further research in the 1960s.

The role of museums in the scientific study of ancient Texas, and subsequent dissemination of scholarly knowledge, should not be underestimated here either. In the early 1980s, the Witte Museum in San Antonio brought together archaeologists, paleobotanists, art historians, and anthropologists to investigate the lifestyle of the ancient inhabitants of the Lower Pecos region. Rice University started their Pecos Project around the same time, drawing on different fields of study to help decipher Pecos art. By the late 1980s, it was possible to date rock art using AMS technology, an advanced form of radiocarbon dating.

Recently, one person has been in the forefront of Pecos Rock Art research: Dr. Carolyn Boyd. Since her graduate student days in the 1990s, she has spent most of her career exploring and studying rock art. Author of Rock Art of the Lower Pecos, Dr. Boyd is currently working on a new publication. On Feb. 25, she will give a lecture on her latest research at HMNS. For more information, click here.

Until Mar. 23, you can also come see our exhibit Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux. If you are interested in early expressions of art from both the Old and New World, make sure you catch both events.