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From distinguished lecturers to scientific scholars to visiting curators to volunteers to leaders in their respective fields, we often invite guest authors to contribute content to our blog. You'll find a wealth of information written by these fascinating individuals as we seek to expand your level of knowledge with every post.

Learn Hieroglyphics When You Become a Volunteer Docent at HMNS!

by Gillian Callan

Egyptian hieroglyphs. Once thought to be magic writings that contained the secrets to life, they were deciphered by Thomas Young and Jean Francois Champollion in the early 1800’s. What mysteries did they contain? For the majority of the visitors to the Hall of Ancient Egypt, the glyphs are still a mystery – a bunch of squiggles with pictures of animals interspersed. But for the HMNS Hieroglyph Study Group, they are a chance to learn and practice the language of ancient Egypt.

hieroglyphs at the louvre

Egypt fascinated me from early childhood, but I thought I would never get to study or visit Egypt (I did visit nine years ago, and it was fantastic!). So I thought about what I could learn about Egypt without a degree or a plane ticket. I decided that I would learn hieroglyphs. Mark Collier and Bill Manley wrote a book called How to read Egyptian Hieroglyphs. From them, I learned the basics. Then about four years ago, I met a fellow HMNS volunteer who was also interested in hieroglyphs. Another year passed and another volunteer joined HMNS and mentioned that he was also interested in hieroglyphs and asked if we could start a study group. And that’s how we got started.

In order to make our study time worthwhile to the museum, we tasked ourselves with translating as many of the inscriptions in the Egypt hall as we could. To date, we have completed seven of the longer inscriptions and started on several more. The inscriptions fall into two categories: formulaic writings and hymns. The formulaic writings are offerings to the gods. While they follow a set format, we usually find something different in each of them. The hymns are much more difficult. Poetry in any language is harder to interpret than prose, and Egyptian hymns are no different. It also helps if you understand something of the culture of ancient Egypt.

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Hieroglyphs on the coffin of Ankh-Hap. His name appears in the lower left-hand corner of this photo.

While our translations have not been published to the volunteer website, we did create a flip book with useful translations from objects in the hall. In the flip book, we included a translation of Ankh-Hap’s name on his coffin. Ankh-Hap is the mummy owned by HMNS. We found the name of Gemshuankh (aka the Jolly Green Giant) on his coffin, but then he got renamed to Ankhemma’at, so we revised his translation. We located Ptolemy’s cartouche on the replica Rosetta Stone. (We even located it in Demotic and Greek!) By the way, all the cartouches on the Rosetta Stone belong to Ptolemy V, Epiphanes – no Cleopatra, no wives’ names, just Ptolemy. The idea behind the flip book is that someone working or giving a tour in the hall can take the flip book out of the touchcart (there is one book in each cart) and take it to an object in the hall and show visitors appropriate glyphs and what they mean. One of my favorites is to show the bird in Bakenrenes’ name, followed by the rest of her name. It is repeated several times on the cartonnage coffin and visitors get a kick out of being able to recognize the glyphs.

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The coffin of Bakenrenes. Hieroglyphs appear in the yellow bands across the coffin.

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A close-up of the bottom band.

Egyptian hieroglyphs are not a phonetic script, nor are they picture writing. They are a complex combination of phonetics, picture writing and “syllables”. They can be written left to right, right to left and in columns that also have either a left/right or right/left orientation. The favored direction was right to left. But on coffins, the glyphs were written from head to foot. Writers of hieroglyphs also, on occasion, used shortcuts. They fitted the message into the space available and left out what they could, making it difficult at times to read the message correctly. Kind of like today’s usage of text shortcuts like LOL (laugh out loud) or BTW (by the way).

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The HMNS Hieroglyph Study Group meets every Sunday in the Volunteer Library around noon. Our current members are Gillian Callen, John Cochran, David Santana and Scott Brown, all HMNS volunteers. I also teach basic hieroglyphs to willing volunteers. Last summer I taught a three-day session on glyphs including grammar and sentence structure. While I am self-taught and by no means an expert, I can introduce you to the basics and give you a feel for the ancient Egyptian language. These classes are only open to HMNS volunteers and staff. So, if you are interested, find out about becoming a volunteer and then you can sign up for a class. Then when you walk through the Hall of Ancient Egypt, those squiggles will jump out at you and make at least a little bit of sense. Happy translating!

Editor’s Note: Gillian is an HMNS volunteer docent.

On Display in the Museum Store from Los Matachines De Durango

by Marina Torres

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With the opening of the Virgen de Guadalupe exhibit in December 2015, it was important to create a display to reflect the religious figure and the culture. Unfortunately for my oldest sister, she had to undergo knee surgery and would not be able to participate in the Virgen de Guadalupe festivities. However, this led her into letting us borrow and showcase the Matachine skirt she wears for the ritual dance in honor of the Virgen de Guadalupe.

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Catrina Display located in the Museum Store.

Los Matachines de Durango is a group of danzantes, line dancers sometimes called soldiers. A group of approximately 25 to 30 people perform for the Virgen De Guadalupe each year on Dec. 12, her birthday along with multiple dates around Christmas time. They practice throughout the year to make up new steps for the dance and to teach new dancers who join the group.

Matachines De Durango.

Matachines De Durango.

Key elements of the costume consists of the Naguilla, the skirt with the image of “La Virgen de Guadalupe” emblazoned on it, with carrisos, small flutes that create noise while the group dances. The Guaje, similar to a maraca, is carried with the left hand of the danzante and used as a percussive musical instrument to mark time during the dance. The Jara, similar to a wooden bow, is used in the choreography as the instrument that signals the dancers to start dancing or when the Monarca will change a step. Lastly, a red bandana symbolizes a crown.

Naguilla.

Naguilla.

Guaje and Jara used in the choreography.

Guaje and Jara used in the choreography.

The ritual dance is led by the Monarcas, the captains which consist of three danzantes who stand at the head of the files and coordinate during the dance. El Viejo, the Grandfather, is the dance character who provides order and sometimes comedy in the group, and the dancers look to El Tamborero, the person who plays the large drum and makes up the main dance music for the matachines, to know when to start.

Monaracas.

Monaracas.

El Viejo.

El Viejo.

El Tamborero.

El Tamborero.

Danzante honoring La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Danzante honoring La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Guests adoring the Virgen de Guadalupe shrine.

Guests adoring the Virgen de Guadalupe shrine.

Choreography.

Choreography.

Danzantes lined up.

Danzantes lined up.

The Monarca leads and signals the dancers when to start and they all start with honoring La Virgen de Guadalupe. Once the dancers greet and honor La Virgen, the Monarca signals the guests to pass through the lines to also honor and greet her. Once everyone greets La Virgen de Guadalupe, the Monarca signals the danzantes to begin their performance. Each choreographed dance takes between two and four minutes and each one represents a prayer. Each full performance may last from 30 to 60 minutes. This depends on the hostess who requested the Matachines to dance and how much time they want the performance done. During the performance, El Viejo will do his part in keeping the guests entertained with some dance jokes. After the hostess informs the Monarca that the celebration is at an end, the Monarca signals the danzantes to do the last honoring of La Virgen de Guadalupe in order to say goodbye for now and to keep watching over everyone who was there for the celebration.

Come watch the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Association perform a special Mother’s Day procession in honor of the Holy Mother with music, dancing, elaborate costumes and Aztec feather headdresses this evening at 6:30 p.m.

Editor’s Note: Marina is the Visual Manager for the Houston Museum of Natural Science Museum Store.

This Mother’s Day, Honor Her with Color and Music at the HMNS Processional of Guadalupanas

by Ruth Cañas

Mother’s Day is a celebration honoring the mother of the family, motherhood, maternal bonds, and the influence of mothers in society.

The modern American holiday of Mother’s Day was first celebrated in 1908, when Anna Jarvis held a memorial for her mother at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, W.V. Following her mother’s death in 1905, Anna Jarvis conceived of Mother’s Day as a way of honoring the sacrifices mothers made for their children. Her mother had been a peace activist who cared for wounded soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War and created Mother’s Day Work Clubs to address public health issues. Jarvis wanted to honor her mother by continuing the work she started and to set aside a day to honor all mothers.

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation designating Mother’s Day as a national holiday to honor mothers, held on the second Sunday in May. This year, Mother’s Day is Sunday, May 8.

CEREMONIAL CUSTOMS

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Courtesy Niall Crotty

While Mother’s Day is celebrated throughout the world, traditions vary depending on the country. In Ethiopia, families gather each fall to sing songs and eat a large feast as part of Antrosht, a multi-day celebration honoring motherhood. Thailand celebrates Mother’s Day in August on the birthday of the current queen, Sirikit. In the United States, Mother’s Day continues to be celebrated by presenting flowers, cards and other gifts. Mexico celebrates Mother’s Day on May 10. Flowers are a must, and the day is also filled with music, food, celebrations, and often a morning serenade of the song “Las Mañanitas” from mariachi singers.

THE MOTHER OF MEXICO, EMPRESS OF THE AMERICAS

“Am I not here, I, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything more? Let nothing else worry you, disturb you.”

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Wikimedia

In 1531, Mary appeared to San Juan Diego, a humble indigenous farmer and laborer, at Tepeyac near modern-day Mexico City and asked him to build a church in her honor at the top of Tepeyac Hill, the site of a former Aztec temple dedicated to the goddess Tonantzin. She miraculously left her image on his tilma (a type of cloak), which he presented to the Spanish archbishop as proof of her request which is still on display at the Basílica de Guadalupe, one of the most-visited shrines in the world. Since then, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe has been a symbol of faith, unity and mercy for people all over the world.

COMMEMORATING MOTHERS

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Courtesy Michele Whisenhunt

Sunday, May 8, the Houston Museum of Natural Science is celebrating Mother’s Day and honoring the Virgen of Guadalupe with a special evening Guadalupan procession with the Our Lady of Guadalupe Association Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. As president, Pablo Guzmán was instrumental in creating an event that is bound to delight audiences of all ages. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Guadalupan procession is the cross-cultural mix of pagan and religious influences featuring elements that demonstrate the great love and devotion for the Empress of the Americas.

Joyous music including everything from mariachis to drummers to singing groups dressed in white and brass bands.

Bearers of bannersicons, treasure, homemade art, statues and other eye-catching items.

Scents provided by flower bearers, censers of incense, and roses.

Skilled performers, such as indigenous dancers known as matachines, marchers, and folk dancers.

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Courtesy Michele Whisenhunt

Special costumes of revelers dressed in Aztec regalia, adorned with feather headdresses and rattles on their ankles, carrying drums or feather shields. Girls dressed to imitate the Virgin of Guadalupe, many wearing red and green attire to resemble the flag of Mexico where Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to St. Juan Diego.

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Courtesy Michele Whisenhunt

We hope you will join us in honoring motherhood with a spectacular experience! Click here to buy your tickets or call 713.639.4629.

FURTHER READING:

History of Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day Celebrations Around the World

Our Lady of Guadalupe

San Juan Diego

Words Spoken by Mary at Guadalupe

Editor’s Note: Ruth is Program Manager in the Adult Education department of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Under a Gold Blanket: Discovery Guide Tours Famed Mine in Minas Gerais

by “Cretaceous” Chris Wells

The City of Ouro Preto, “Black Gold”. It was the largest City in Latin America for a while in the 18th Century, during the Brazilian gold rush. Today the city is famous around the World for it’s preserved, Baroque Architecture.

The city of Ouro Preto, “Black Gold.” It was the largest City in Latin America in the 18th century during the Brazilian gold rush. Today the city is famous around the world for its preserved Baroque architecture.

Brazil is a beautiful country, but not in the same way as the Florida Keys, Hawaii, or Aspen. Everywhere in Brazil you have a wonderful dichotomy between the grotesque and the graceful. The entire country is like an impressionist painting — up close you see sloppiness and imperfection, but if you stand back, all of the colors and textures come together to create a stunning portrait, a portrait based in reality, not contrived. Throughout my July 2015 trip through the state of Minas Gerais, in the mountainous interior of Brazil, I had been awed by the natural beauty of the country, and also with the artificial splendors. I was always amazed by what people who have so little can create with what they do have.

The scenic train ride to the city of Mariana, where the mine museum was. Minas Gerais is famed in Brazil for its natural beauty

The scenic train ride to the city of Mariana, where the mine museum was. Minas Gerais is famed in Brazil for its natural beauty.

I was basking in the adrenaline and the charm of exotic travel, but the grotesque crept back into my perception as I sat in a rickety old mine car, suspended above the mouth of a mineshaft on a track with a forty-five degree slope. The rusted mining equipment and dilapidated offices and supply sheds had blended nicely with the mountainside when I first viewed them from across the valley during the train ride over, but up close it was less than dazzling. The only thing keeping us from sliding hundreds of feet into the earth was a steel cable hooked up to a winch probably as old as my grandfather. There were no seat belts in the cart, and the angle of the tracks was so steep, I had to press my feet against the seat in front of me to keep from sliding off. There were no other people visiting the mine — it was only Fernanda and I — and I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a sinister reason for that emptiness. I was a bit nervous as the little old lady manning the craft announced in Portuguese that we were about to descend, but then the buttons were pressed, the car slipped slowly and smoothly into the darkness and it wasn’t that bad.

he entrance to the mine. Until only a couple decades ago, miners would make this descent every day.

he entrance to the mine. Until only a couple decades ago, miners would make this descent every day.

The trip down was noisy. The wheels of the cart screeched against the steel tracks, and every once in a while the cart would jump on a connection between two rails and snap back down loudly. The sound would bounce off the solid stone walls around us and pound our eardrums. The shaft was dark. Lamps, bare bulbs budding from a ragged wire that crept like a vine along the walls of the shaft, emitted a honey-colored glow that lent the place a very intimidating and volcanic atmosphere. But it was actually quite cool down there. The earth insulated us from the sun up top; we were no longer subject the conditions on the surface.

Our descent into the earth, in a simple old cart that used to ferry the miners down to their work.

Our descent into the Earth in a simple old cart that used to ferry the miners down to their work.

Beside us, embedded in the rock walls of the mine, ran a sliver of milky white quartz. The shaft followed it until we reached the bottom of the mine. At the bottom, the path flattened out and the rails ended. Men were laboring with shovels, loading rocks into a pile for transport back to the surface. The mine was not active anymore; these were simply employees of the museum that owned the mine clearing debris for the safety of the guests. Their store-bought, not-too-dirty clothes belied their fortunate position as men who did not permanently work in a mine. Still, they looked tired and unhappy, and generally ignored our presence, which I don’t blame them for. I have often said that I can do physical labor or customer service, but not both.

Milky-white bands of quatz running through the stone walls of the mine.

Milky-white bands of quartz running through the stone walls of the mine.

The vein of quartz that we had followed down was thicker at the bottom of the shaft.  Here it became apparent that it was not just a small sliver of quartz we had seen, but a thin cross-section of an entire layer blanketing the Earth for who knows how far in every direction. Originally, it would have formed as a flat layer, but like a massive, restless sleeper, the Earth had shrugged its silvery blanket during bouts of tectonic activity. The quartz layer had been folded into the Earth’s crust, resulting in a slumped, angled descent beneath the surface. This is why the mine goes so deep. It follows the descent of the quartz vein. The Portuguese had mined near the surface in the 18th century, but with their limited technology, they didn’t go very deep. The shaft we visited was dug much more recently.

Bands of quartz, along with other minerals, lined the walls.

Bands of quartz, along with other minerals, lined the walls.

The mine wasn’t a quartz mine. The reason this vein was so important is that very often gold is found in quartz. Down in the mine, we could see no gold, but it was there, trapped in the quartz. The mining companies had cleared the shafts with explosives, creating a maze of passages spreading in all directions. To keep these shafts from collapsing under the millions of tons of sediment above, they left columns of rock standing, like pillars in an Egyptian temple, throughout the galleries. Like the walls of the mine, these pillars had diagonal layers, alternating between rock and quartz, like a layered cake. In these columns, quartz and gold still rested, impossible to get to without collapsing the mine.

At the Bottom of the mine, passages like this one meandered in every direction. There were some passages that went deeper, but those had been flooded.

At the bottom of the mine, passages like this one meandered in every direction. There were some passages that went deeper, but those had been flooded.

And although the gold itself was invisible, pyrite (fool’s gold) was everywhere, so in places the mine shafts really did look like they were covered in gold. There were also tourmaline and garnet, a menagerie of natural splendor, though none of them were of gem quality. The good stuff would have been plucked out and sold. Museums around the world buy specimens from Minas, even our museum. A notable portion of the pieces in our Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals came from the region. Our hall is what inspired me to travel there in the first place. Our great collection of gold does not come from Minas, but like the mine I visited, our gold was found in quartz veins. We have a wonderful, natural gold “sculpture” called “the dragon,” a sliver of gold that actually looks like a rearing reptile with spread wings. We have other pieces of gold in all sorts of abstract, contorted shapes as well. Since gold doesn’t grow (unfortunately), the way it acquires these weird forms is by being trapped in quartz. As the quartz grows, it manipulates the gold inside into all sorts of interesting shapes. So originally our gold was trapped in quartz crystals, and was extracted by dissolving the quartz in a mild acid that does not harm the gold. A similar process is used to extract gold from quartz in mines like the one I visited.

My girlfriend and I.

Fernanda and I, overlooking the valley.

Editor’s Note: “Cretaceous” Chris is a Discovery Guide for the Houston Museum of Natural Science.