HMNS changed the way I think about Earth, time, humanity, and natural history

After 90 days working at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, here’s the verdict:

I love it here!

Through research required to compose and edit posts for this blog, I have learned about voracious snails, shark extinction, dinosaur match-ups, efforts to clean up ocean plastic pollution, Houston’s flooding cycle, a mysterious society in south China, and the inspiration for the design of costumes for Star Wars.

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Look at the size of that T. rex! My love for the Houston Museum of Natural Science began with an affinity for dinosaurs.

I’ve learned about many, many other things, as well, and I could feasibly list them all here (this is a blog, after all, and electrons aren’t lazy; they’ll happily burden themselves with whatever information you require of them), but the point of this blog is to excite our readers into visiting the museum, not bore them with lists.

Coming to the museum is a grand adventure, and it’s my privilege to be here every day, poking through our collection and peering into the the crevices of history, finding the holes in what humanity knows about itself and speculating about the answer. That’s what science is all about, after all. Learning more about what you already know. Discovering that you’ve got much more left to discover.

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As a writer, I identify with the oldest forms of written language, like this tablet of heiroglyphs. You can even find a replica of the Rosetta Stone in our collection!

When I took this job, I was a fan of dinosaurs and Earth science. I could explain the basic process of how a star is born and how the different classes of rock are formed. Igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary. Now, I can tell you which dinosaurs lived in what era and the methods paleontologists use to unearth a fossilized skeleton. I know that a deep-space telescope owes its clarity to a mirror rather than a lens, and I can identify rhodochrosite (a beautiful word as well as a fascinating mineral) in its many forms. And there are quite a few.

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Rhodochrosite. My favorite mineral. Look at that deep ruby that appears to glow from within, and it takes many other shapes.

I have pitted the age of the Earth against the age of meteorites that have fallen through its atmosphere and have been humbled. The oldest things in our collection existed before our planet! How incredible to be that close to something that was flying around in space, on its own adventure across the cosmos, while Earth was still a ball of magma congealing in the vacuum of space.

Time is as infinite as the universe, and being in this museum every day reminds me of the utter ephemeralness of human life. It advises not to waste a moment, and to learn from the wisdom of rock about the things we will never touch. Time and space reduce humanity to a tiny thing, but not insignificant. Our species is small and weak, but we are intelligent and industrious. We have learned about things we don’t understand from the things we do. The answers are out there if you know where to look for them.

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Everything turns to stone eventually, even this gorgeous fossilized coral.

I was a print journalist for three years, and I am studying to become a professional writer of fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. (Don’t worry. It’s a low-residency program. I’m not going anywhere.) I am a creator of records of the human experience, according to those two occupations, and in some ways I still feel that as the editor of this blog, but there is a difference.

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This epic battle between a sperm whale and a giant squid recalls scenes out of Herman Melville.

Here, rather than individual histories — the story of one person or of a family or of a hero and a villain — I’m recording our collective experience, our history as a significant species that participates, for better or worse, in forming the shape of this world. We were born, we taught ourselves to use tools, we erected great civilizations, we fought against one another, we died, those civilizations fell. We have traced our past through fossils and layers of rock and ice, we have tested the world around us, and we have made up our minds about where we fit into the mix.

We are a fascinating and beautiful people, and through science, we can discover our stories buried in the ground, often just beneath our feet. To me, this is the real mission of our museum. To tell the story of Earth, yes, but to tell it in terms of humanity. In the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, we wonder what makes certain minerals precious to us when they’re all spectacular. In the Morian Hall of Paleontology, we trace the fossil record back in time and wonder how things were and could have been had dinosaurs not gone extinct. In the Cockrell Butterfly Center, we connect with the little lives of insects, compare them to our own, and fall in love with our ecosystem all over again. In the Weiss Energy Hall, we learn how life and death create the fossil fuels that now power our society. We find both ingenuity and folly in the values of old civilizations in the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas.

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These chrysalises, a powerful symbol of personal growth and change, teach a lesson in natural cycles and big beauty in tiny places.

I have often wondered how we justify placing a collection of anthropological and archaeological artifacts under the heading “natural science.” Why don’t we consider our institution more representative of “natural history?” In my first 90 days, I think I’ve found the answer. It’s not just about the story of humanity; it’s about the story of the science we have used to learn what we know.

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The Houston Museum of Natural Science, including the Cockrell Butterfly Center, is truly one of a kind.

Our goal at HMNS is to inform and educate. To challenge your assumptions with evidence and bring the worlds and minds of scientists to students and the general public. It’s a grand endeavor, one that can enrich our society and improve it if we pay attention.

A ticket to the museum isn’t just a tour through marvels, it’s a glance in pieces at the story of becoming human. After 90 days here, by sifting through the past, I feel more involved in the creation of our future than I have ever been.

And that feels pretty great.

News from the trenches: Diggers make significant discoveries at Sanxingdui

Archaeology is a profession that requires patience, persistence, and luck. In fact, a great deal of luck seems to be a prerequisite to make a great discovery; some of these involve kids and dogs. We are fortunate to know about the Lascaux caves because of a boy and his dog. A similar scenario led to the discovery of a new hominid fossil, Australopithecus sediba, near the Malapa cave in South Africa. The famous Chinese terra cotta warriors were found by farmers digging a well. The first artifacts at Sanxingdui were discovered by a farmer, as well.

Fairly recently, some eighty-five years after the initial discovery of the site, interesting new finds at Sanxingdui have been announced.

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According to recent reports, archaeologists discovered a portion of the northern wall at Sanxingdui. The northern part of the wall would have run along the Jian River, according to this site map. (Image licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

Archaeologists have discovered what may be a section of the north wall at Sanxingdui. In addition, three tombs were found. A well preserved human skeleton was uncovered in one of these. It was dated to the Neolithic, well before the Sanxingdui site was occupied. As far as we know, human remains dating back to the actual Sanxingdui – Jinsha timeframe have only been discovered at Jinsha.

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Vice Premier Liu Yongdan, who visited the Houston Museum of Natural Science on June 21 2015. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of State from United States)

The complete lack of known written sources at Sanxingdui and Jinsha continues to hamper our understanding of this amazing and sophisticated culture. In her recent visit to the exhibit China’s Lost Civilization: The Mysteries of Sanxingdui at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Vice Premier Mme. Liu Yongdan said this was indeed the biggest obstacle to our appreciation of the culture. She expressed hope that ongoing research would eventually uncover such information, a development which would bring Sanxingdui out of the shadows of prehistory and into the light of history. Discoveries like these can only strengthen China’s submission of the site as a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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.

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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.

Sanxingdui: China’s lost civilization revises history

When you walk through the limited engagement collection of artifacts from China’s Sanxingdui (pronounced “sahn-shing-dwee”), or “three stars mound,” you feel an immediate connection to a looming unknown. Where these artifacts were discovered is clear enough, as is when they were created, but by whom, why and how are questions still puzzling archaeologists.

The artifacts, large, strange, and beautiful, with a verdant tarnish on the ancient bronze, depict human forms with large eyes, protruding pupils, and pointed ears. If these items were a direct imitation of the people who created them, they were an odd culture indeed.Bronze Head with Gold Mask copy

The relics were discovered in 1986 when a group of Chinese construction workers accidentally broke into the underground pit where the items had apparently been broken and dumped, yet another enigma. Were these items created with such meticulous effort sacrificed? If they were, then why? Archaeologists found a second pit nearby. Though research on artifacts from the Sanxingdui culture had continued since 1929, this monumental discovery was the find that caused historians to revise their ideas of the development of Chinese culture.

The items in both pits, Bronze Age masks, statues and charms, date back to about 1800 BC, but there is no information to reliably link Sanxingdui to the culture that existed contemporaneously in the Central Plain 1,200 miles to the northeast on the Yellow River, thought to be the birthplace of Chinese civilization. No writing was buried with the artifacts, and ancient texts make no mention of Sanxingdui.

More puzzling is the level of craftsmanship in the artifacts. The materials used to make the items reveals technology “that seems to arise out of nowhere,” to quote placard information. The Sanxingdui culture created huge figures like the eight-foot-tall statue that may depict a god or a shaman and the large masks that may have been attached to columns or walls.Standing Figure

Along with their size, some of the items were created using advanced techniques such as piece mold process casting and soldering, different from those used in the Central Plain, yet no foundries have been discovered. Even if these people had the knowledge to make the bronzes, where did they get the tools to manufacture them? Stranger still, after 500 years, the culture vanished for reasons unknown.

Archaeologists discovered a few answers in 2001 at Jinsha, where they unearthed artifacts depicting the same metallurgy and conception of the human form as those at Sanxingdui. The figures from Jinsha are much smaller, but they show the same standing or kneeling postures, tight clothing, almond-shaped eyes, braided hair, and hand positioning. Radiocarbon dating found these artifacts were made 500 years after the rise of Sanxingdui. Perhaps no more than a mass migration is to account for their abrupt disappearance, but then why did they leave?

Archaeologists have concluded that the Sanxingdui culture must have existed alongside other Bronze Age cultures, trading techniques and perhaps other information. Whereas historians believed China grew from a central birthplace, the revision of history tells a story of multiple centers contributing to the development of Chinese civilization.mask with protruding eyes

Limited Engagement: Come see the story for yourself at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. China’s Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui is now on exhibition through Sept. 7.

Behind-the-scenes Tour: Join us for “The Bronzes of Sanxingdui” Tuesday, May 19 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets $37, members $27.

Distinguished Lecture: Dr. Liu Yang, curator of Chinese art at the Minneapolis Institute of the arts, will visit the HMNS to present “Unmasked: Mysteries of the Ancient Shu Kingdom and its Bronze Art” to shed further light on the artifacts from the Sanxingdui culture. Tuesday, June 2, 6:30 p.m.