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.

Museum curator thanks his inspiration: a sixth-grade history teacher

As a museum curator, I have the pleasure of working with lots of volunteers. Most of them are students who are interested in archaeology, anthropology and museum careers. This time of the year, as graduation nears, there is an uptick in requests to come visit with me and ask for information and advice. “How did you become a museum curator?” is a question I hear often. “How long do you need to study?” is another one. One of the first things I bring up is that finding employment in anthropology is not easy. However, it is possible. Moreover, I ask my visitors to suggest one field of study where one would be guaranteed a job upon graduation. I can think of only very few.

Van den Bossche, Gaston

Gaston Van den Bossche, a man who made a difference with his students.

The first question – How does one become a museum curator? – has many answers, I am sure. In my case, there was one elementary school teacher who made a difference, now 44 years ago, to be exact. The sixth and final year in elementary school, my class had a teacher who loved history. He loved the city we lived in too, and it just so happened that city had a very long history.

As the year went by, he organized us into groups and assigned various projects. One involved painting a bird’s eye view of what our hometown would have looked like in the Middle Ages. That required research. It also entailed getting covered in paint as we worked on that assignment. Eventually two different canvases were finished. Much to our delight, they were hung in the entrance to the library. In another assignment, we were divided into five or six groups, each named after a Medieval guild. Some of us were the “coopers” or barrel makers, others the “tanners,” “bakers,” etc.  We were given assignments. To get the answers, we had to visit museums and churches, observe and ask questions. It made us interact with the past, and made this past come alive. It became part of what I got interested in. All because of a teacher.

As time went by, that sixth grade class went on to graduate. I found myself continuing down this path of “studying old things.” This took me from a university in Belgium to a U.S. institution in New Orleans, always pursuing the study of these “old things.” Over the years, that meant studying Roman and Greek history, some Egyptian history, and ultimately the art, archaeology, and history of American cultures, especially the Maya.

Photo by Robin Merrit

Photo by Robin Merrit

I have been very blessed to find a job, and to find myself working at a museum, where I now teach visitors, young, old and anyone in between. Sharing what you have learned about a culture that happens to be the topic of an exhibit is a joy. It is very rewarding to see the light come on in a child, when they “get it.” I love hearing visitors say to each other “I did not know that…” as they walk out of an exhibit. I am indebted to my old teacher for this sense of awe. It never left him. I hope it will never leave me.

Sadly, I recently received news that the man who sent me on my quest, and created that spark in me, had passed. Reason for sadness? For sure. Another reason to keep guiding people as much as possible, and maybe, just maybe, make a difference with one or two people? Absolutely. Next time you see a teacher at a reunion, and you know they made a difference in your life, say so. Give them a hug. They deserve it.

In search of the first settlers of the Americas, scientists keep finding surprises

The genus Homo, to which we belong, was the first to leave Africa and explore the world. Homo erectus, one of our ancestors, explored Asia and Europe as early as 1.8 million years ago. However, one huge landmass was left unexplored by these early humans: the Americas. Humanity did not reach this part of the globe until our own species, Homo sapiens, had evolved. We got there very late. Exactly how late is still a hot debate topic. However, once there, we spread rather fast across the landscape. To put things in perspective, it took these early pioneers a mere few thousand years to inhabit North, Central and South America; Ancient Egyptian history covers about the same amount of time.

What makes this dispersal across the landscape so remarkable is that these first Americans had to adapt to a wide range of landscapes, natural resources and climates. Their success in doing so reflects a great intellect and adaptability. Did they take in their new surroundings with a sense of awe and wonder? We will never know for sure, but I have a feeling they did. These earliest inhabitants of the New World did not have a name; archaeologists generally refer to them as Paleoindians, meaning “Ancient Indians.”  


This is a blog on one of the oldest known Paleoindians and her contemporaries.

Imagine a cave, a dark, damp and foreboding cavern forming an underground labyrinth more than a mile long. Some ten thousand years ago, in what is now Mexico, a young girl entered this cave. Most likely Naia was searching for water.

Yucatán does not have surface rivers, and people get water from caves or sinkholes. She never left. Welcome to Hoyo Negro, or Black Hole, the final resting place of one of the oldest known inhabitants of the Americas. Hoyo Negro is one of many cave complexes found on the Yucatán Peninsula in southern Mexico. The presence of stalagmites in Hoyo Negro tells us that the cave was dry at one point. 

Dirk Settlement Americas 1

Map showing location of the Yucatán Peninsula.

Most of this peninsula is composed of limestone, which easily dissolves in water. Over time this leads to the formation of extensive cave systems, a phenomenon known as karst formation. Because of this, the peninsula is riddled with caves. Quite often, the roofs of these caves have collapsed, resulting in a sinkhole, or cenote.

Hoyo Negro is part of a larger system that is now completely flooded. In 2007 members of the Proyecto de Espeleología de Tulum (PET) discovered the cave. Their exploration was part of a three-year concentrated effort to map the underwater caves of the Ejido (township) of Jacinto Pat, some 20 km (about 12 miles) north of the city of Tulum, on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. What they found surpassed their wildest imagination.

Dirk Settlement Americas 2

Quintana Roo (seen in red) is one of three Mexican states that make up the Yucatán Peninsula.

Dirk Settlement Americas 3

Map showing the location of Tulum in the state of Quintana Roo.

At one point in their dive, the divers entered a huge cavern and noticed that their lights did not illuminate the opposite walls of this space. It was as if their lights got swallowed up by this huge “black hole,” and that is where the name of this cavern came from. As they reached the bottom of this huge space, they found the remains of an adolescent girl. As is tradition in anthropology, this prehistoric individual received a nickname, Naia.

Together with Naia’s well preserved remains, the divers found those of now long extinct animals dispersed throughout the cavern. Among these prehistoric animals were giant ground sloths, gomphotheres, saber-toothed cats, bears, pumas, peccaries. About ten thousand years ago, sea levels were about 300 feet lower than today; because of this, these animals could walk through the cave in search of water or refuge. Some never left.

Dirk Settlement Americas 5

Cross section of the cave system of which Hoyo Negro is part.

How long ago did Naia enter this cave? The associated prehistoric megafauna had become mostly extinct by 13,000 years ago. Dating of the calcite that had encrusted her bones yielded a date of 12,000 years ago. Naia lived sometime between 13,000 and 12,000 years ago. At the time of writing, scientists are attempting to sequence Naia’s nuclear DNA in an attempt to better understand her relationship to other Paleoindians.

Naia was not the only person living in the Yucatán. As mentioned earlier, archaeologists refer to the earliest presence of humans in the Americas as the Paleoindian period. These were the true pioneers, arriving from Asia, as genetic studies show, penetrating a new world full of unknown plant and animal life, the latter encompassing mostly impressive megafauna. Paleoindians were Stone Age people, skilled in stone tool making. They eventually populated all of the Americas.

Our understanding of these earliest settlers has slowly expanded since the first stone tools were found embedded in the bones of extinct animals. In November 1932, a road crew working in eastern New Mexico unearthed a jumble of ancient giant animal bones. The following summer, Edgar B. Howard, an archaeology research associate at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, started a field project in that area. He encountered “matted masses of bones of mammoth,” and mixed in with the bones were slender, finger-long spear points—Clovis points, as we know them today. Wisely, Howard left them in place. Over time archaeologists found more sites with Clovis points, around 1,500 by 2011. Only in a small number of cases did the Clovis points appear in association with animal remains. It appears that the Clovis people were mostly gathering and fishing.

We are left with a lot of questions. Clovis points are unevenly distributed across the landscape.  Archaeologists have found more of them east of the Mississippi than west of that river. In the west, there are other stone tools made, generally referred to as Western Stemmed projectile points. Some of these seem to pre-date Clovis points, others are contemporary with them. What are we dealing with here? Who were these people? We cannot say for sure.

What the Western Stemmed projectile points have made clear is that there were humans here before Clovis points were made. Initially highly controversial, this presence is now widely accepted. One of the sites where pre-Clovis materials has been found in large quantities, is the Debra L. Friedkin site in central Texas.

Map showing the location of the Debra L. Friedkin site in central Texas.

Map showing the location of the Debra L. Friedkin site in central Texas.

This site is located in Central Texas, about 250 meters downstream from Gault, another famous Paleoindian site. Archaeological investigations, undertaken by Texas A&M University’s Center for the Study of First Americans, uncovered layers dating to Late Prehistoric, Late Archaic, Early Archaic, Paleoindian, Folsom, Clovis and the pre-Clovis horizons. The latter, known by its local name as the Buttermilk Creek Complex, dates to between 15,500 and 13,200 years ago. It pre-dates Clovis technology, which starts around 13,100 years ago, ending by 12,800 years ago. This makes it the “oldest credible archaeological site in North America,” according to Dr. Michael Collins.

More than 15,000 stone artifacts were retrieved, all of them made from Edwards chert, found in abundance in Central Texas. The majority of these artifacts consisted of the waste generated by stone tool making; only a very small number has been identified as tools. Moreover, these tools are small in size and lightweight, consistent with a highly mobile lifestyle. A small nodule of polished hematite was also retrieved. While thus far only stone tools have been found, some of these have wear that reflects use on both soft and hard materials. This raises the possibility that organic (and thus perishable) materials were also part of this assemblage.

Current thinking among archaeologists is that the Pre-Clovis people visited Buttermilk Creek to exploit the locally available chert, making stone tools and doing some animal butchering and/or wood working before moving on.  The techniques used to manufacture stone tools are seen as precursors to later Clovis technologies.

The last word on Paleoindians has not been said or written. There will always be new discoveries that help us better situate and understand these forbearers of modern American Indians. One wonders what they would make of our attempts to make sense of their lifestyle. What did we get right? Where did we go wrong?

Although Clovis points are no longer in use, they remain a symbol of this human sense of awe and wonder. It is doubtful that the Paleoindians realized they were moving ever deeper into a new continent. It is certain that they represent the final phase in human dispersal across our planet. It does not stop there, however. In December 1990, when the space shuttle Columbia launched, Commander Vance Brand took with him a ten thousand-year-old Paleo-Indian spear point that had been discovered on Colorado’s eastern plains. One wonders what the thundering liftoff of a NASA space shuttle might have looked like through the eyes of the earliest Americans, and what the next ten thousand years holds for human exploration of space in the solar system and beyond.

For those who read this before Nov 12, 2014, and are interested in knowing more, come listen to a lecture on Naia by Dr. Dominique Rissolo at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. This lecture is presented by the Archaeological Institute of America, Houston.

Anyone who is interested in reading more about this topic, can peruse a wide offering of academic publications, including those of the Center for the Study of First Americans at Texas A&M University.

D-Day, Part III: “We are coming by day and by night”

Editor’s Note: This is part three 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 and here for part two. For information on D-Day: Normandy 1944, the 3D film now showing in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre, please visit us online.

Landing craft approaching the beach at Normandy. June 6, 1944 (Image Wikimedia)

Landing craft approaching the beach at Normandy, June 6, 1944 (Image: Wikimedia).


Soviet soldiers hoisted their banner on top of the Reichstag in Berlin.


Less than a year separate these two images. On June 6, 1944, the Allies invaded France; on May 2, 1945, Soviet soldiers hoisted their banner on top of the Reichstag in Berlin. For the Allied armies advancing on Berlin, these intervening 11 months were anything but a cakewalk.

In France, German defenders stubbornly resisted the invasion. Hedgerow country in Normandy, known as the Bocage, offered them shelter and hiding places. It was only after an enterprising individual had equipped the front of a tank with sharp steel spikes that it became possible to drive though the hedges and overwhelm German defenses.

hedgerow_cutter_for_Allied_tank_Normandy_1944Under the command of General Patton, U.S. armored units broke through the German lines and raced toward Paris. The city was liberated on August 25, 1944. Antwerp, an important port city in Belgium, was liberated on September 4. Soon, much needed supplies were offloaded on its docksides. An attempt to rid the Netherlands of its German occupiers was only partially successful, as the Allies literally aimed for a “bridge too far.”

While armored units advanced over land to the German heartland, there was an equally ferocious battle being fought in the sky. British and American bomber forces leveled German cities and the factories in a determined effort to cripple Germany’s ability to wage war. This strategy, started in 1942 on a massive scale, continued up to a few days before the fall of Berlin. The quote at the top of this blog post comes from leaflets (and radio broadcasts) aimed at the German people. They warned:

“We are bombing Germany, city by city, and ever more terribly, in order to make it impossible for you to go on with the war.  That is our object.  We shall pursue it remorselessly. City by city; Lübeck, Rostock, Cologne, Emden, Bremen, Wilhelmshaven, Duisburg, Hamburg — and the list will grow longer and longer. Let the Nazis drag you down to disaster with them if you will. That is for you to decide.  We are coming by day and by night. No part of the Reich is safe. People who work in [factories] live close to them. Therefore we hit your houses, and you.”
 – Pamphlet dropped in Germany by the RAF, Summer 1942.

On the eastern front, Soviet troops continued their march westward. German resistance crumbled. The appearance of advanced technology, especially jet-powered airplanes, came too late and in insufficient numbers to make a difference. V-weapons, meant to exact revenge on Allies cities such as London and Antwerp, caused great loss of life. They did not, however, reverse the fortunes of war for Germany.  

The aftermath of a V2 rocket hitting London 1945 (Image: Wikipedia)

Christmas 1944 did not bring peace; a last gasp German offensive into the Ardennes region of southern Belgium resulted in the Battle of the Bulge. A German demand to surrender received a famous one-word answer from Brigadier General McAuliffe: “NUTS.”

By now German units were fighting on their own soil, in the east against Soviet forces nearing Berlin, and in the west against Allied forces occupying the industrial Ruhr area on their way east. Soviet and American forces eventually encountered each other at a crossing over the Elbe river. As they penetrated deeper into Germany, Allied soldiers liberated thousands of concentration camps. Evidence of the Holocaust became widely known abroad.

Soviet troops captured Berlin, sustaining and inflicting horrific losses. On April 30, 1945, Hitler committed suicide. Two days earlier, Benito Mussolini had been captured and killed in northern Italy. On May 7, 1945, Germany unconditionally surrendered and the war in Europe was officially over. All over Europe and the U.S. people celebrated Victory in Europe (VE) Day.

May 8, 1944 issue of Stars and Stripes. (Image Wikimedia)

May 8, 1944 issue of Stars and Stripes (Image: Wikimedia).

Hostilities were not yet over. In the Pacific theater, the war against Japan continued. Two atomic bombs dropped on Japan brought the bloody conflict to an end some three months after peace came to Europe.

As far as Europe is concerned, one can confidently say that the D-Day invasion marked the beginning of the end for the Third Reich. Forced to fight on two fronts, Germany ran out of men and material.

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.

In honor of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, on Friday, June 6 we’ve added additional screenings of D-Day: Normandy 1944 (at 5:00 p.m, 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.) in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre.

Thanks to a generous donation from Gallery Furniture, all military personnel (active duty and veterans) can see D-Day: Normandy 1944 for free.

We’re also starting our Take Two series this month in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre beginning Friday, June 6 with a showing of Saving Private Ryan (8:30 p.m.) and on Friday, June 13 with The Longest Day (7:00 p.m.).

Local support is provided by Gallery Furniture and IBERIABANK.


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.