Educator How-to: Teach archaeology with edible excavation

It’s time, once again, for our monthly Educator How-To! Today we’ll help you teach kids to keep track of what they find — just like an archaeologist does.

Archaeologists keep careful records, as do all scientists. One important way to keep track of their work is by mapping where each artifact is discovered. Show your students how to plot artifact locations onto a grid with this tasty activity!

• Large chocolate chip cookies with lots of chips
• Toothpicks – 1 box
• Waxed paper sheets
• Cookie grid
• Markers
• Masking tape
• Ziploc baggies – 1 per child

Screen shot 2012-07-26 at 7.40.37 PMA printable cookie grid just for you


1. Tell the students that they are going to be excavating a chocolate chip cookie. And just like a real archaeologist, they must record where each “artifact” is found. In addition, they must be as careful as possible to get each “artifact” out of the “dig site” with the least amount of damage.

2. Supply each student with a cookie, a piece of waxed paper, a toothpick, a pencil, and a cookie grid worksheet.

3. Students should carefully draw a grid on their cookie using a black marker. It should match the grid on the worksheet cookie as closely as possible.

4. Students should then carefully excavate the “artifacts” out of the cookie trying to cause as little damage to the “artifact” (the chips) or the “dig site” (the cookie).

5. When they retrieve an “artifact,” they must assign it a number and plot it on the cookie grid. When an “artifact” is removed, it should be put on a small piece of masking tape and numbered.

6. Give each child a baggie to put all of their “artifacts” in.

7. When the time is up for this activity, count each child’s “artifacts” and look at the condition of their “dig site” to determine the most successful archaeologist for the day.

While we are working with cookies here, we do not advise eating the dig site or munching on your priceless artifacts — extra cookies are recommended!

August Flickr Photo of the Month: Terra Cotta Warriors!

Houston Cougars

There are some amazing photographers that wander the halls of HMNS – as well as the areas surrounding the Museum in Hermann Park. When we’re lucky, they share what they capture in our HMNS Flickr pool. Each month, we highlight one of these photos here on the blog.

This month, we’re featuring a photo from Arie Moghaddam, known as Houston Cougars on Flickr, who is a regular attendee of the Museum’s Flickr meetups. This photo is from the meetup we held in our Summer 2009 exhibition, Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor.

Why would we feature an image that’s celebrating it’s 2nd birthday? First: we’re thinking a lot about the Terra Cotta Warriors lately – since we’ve just announced a new exhibit featuring these wonders of the world!

Warriors, Tombs and Temples opens April 1, 2012!

The upcoming exhibit  includes 200 incredibly preserved ancient works of art featuring newly-discovered artifacts unearthed from imperial, royal and elite tombs and from beneath Buddhist monasteries in and around the capital cities of three great dynasties – as well as four of the famous life-size Terra Cotta Warriors!

And, second: it’s a great image with a unique perspective on the original exhibit. Arie shared a few words about what inspired it:

As for what inspired me to take the picture (aside from you being nice enough to invite us), of all the pictures I took I think this one best captures the essence of the exhibit since it combines the statue, cross bow, and armor in a logical order which any emperor would be pleased to have in his necropolis.

Inspired? Most of the Museum’s permanent galleries are open for photography, and we’d love for you to share your shots with us on Flickr, Facebook or Twitter. Check out the HMNS photo policy for guidelines.

Terra Cotta Warriors was a temporary exhibit, and photography was restricted outside of special Flickr meetup opportunities. Follow our posts in the HMNS Flickr pool for announcements about upcoming events.

The Scythians [Ancient Ukraine]

Traditionally we can divide mankind’s past into two parts: before and after writing, or, prehistory and history. There is, however, a third period, which characterizes the transition from one to the other. Occasionally we may know of cultures through texts written by a third party. Such is the case for the Scythians.

In this blog, I will review our sources for the study of Scythian culture. These include archaeology and text materials. We will start our acquaintance with the Scythians through the results of dirt archaeology. Toward the end, the reader will see the remarkable accuracy – keeping in mind their antiquity – of Greek writings on Scythian culture. Throughout the blog, I will refer to objects on display at our current exhibit, ДРЕВНЯ УКРАЇНА (Ancient Ukraine) – Golden Treasures and Lost Civilizations, to illustrate these points.

Archaeology has been our main source of information on nomadic people in general.

The Scythians in particular appear to have roamed across an expansive part of Asia into parts of Eastern Europe. In the summer of 2006, archaeologists discovered the mummified remains of a Scythian individual in Mongolia. Until then, the conventional wisdom among archaeologists was that Scythians lived and roamed in an area west of the Altai Mountains.

This discovery proved them wrong.

Compare these two maps, each representing the areas where Scythians were once thought to have lived, and consider how far we have come since Herodotus first wrote about the Scythians.

World map - Herodotus
Modern rendering of Herodotus’ worldview, with a reference to where the Scythians once lived.
Modern map of the Scythian realm
Modern map of the Scythian realm.

Over the last two and a half centuries Scythian artifacts primarily come from burial mounds, or kurhans.

In some cases, looters ransacked the tombs they knew were inside these mounds, leaving only few discarded objects for archaeologists to find. On happier occasions, archaeologists were able to investigate kurhans that had not been damaged yet. Hundreds of these kurhans have now been excavated and the discoveries published (Piotrovsky, 1974: 26-31).

With a sample this size, it has become easy for archaeologists to identify patterns. The size of the burial mounds reflects the importance of the individuals buried inside. The presence of servants buried alongside with the deceased, as well as the richness of the grave goods all supports this notion. In anthropological terms, we are looking at a stratified society, a society composed of multiple social layers, with unequal access to resources.  Horses, so important to nomadic people like the Scythians, are widely represented in art. We also find countless horse skeletons, buried alongside their master in the kurhan.

The Scythians roamed far and wide and their interactions with other cultures are also reflected in their grave goods. Greek cities along the Black Sea coast of Ukraine traded with the Scythians. A ceramic vessel on display in our current exhibit is of Greek design and is decorated with an image of an octopus.

Greek Amphora
Greek amphora with octopus design on temporary
display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
(Image courtesy of the Foundationfor International Arts and Education,
Bethesda, Maryland, the Government of Ukraine and the Museum
of Cultural Heritage PLATAR.)

It appears that wine and seafood was known (and appreciated) by more than just the Greek population along the Black Sea.

Ancient Greek Colonies of the Northern Black Sea
Greek cities, such as Olbia, located along the shores of the Black Sea, traded with the Scythians.

The Scythians and Persians also knew of each other.

This awareness of the other resulted in trade, exchange of ideas and art forms, as well as outright hostilities and protracted warfare. Among the more peaceful expressions of this back and forth between these two cultures, one could point to Persian-inspired drinking horns, or rhytons, two of which are on display at the museum.

A Persian-inspired gold drinking cup on display at the Houston Museum of
Natural Science. (Images courtesy of the Foundation for International
Arts and Education, Bethesda, Maryland, the Government of
Ukraine and the Museum of Cultural Heritage PLATAR).

We know of very few Scythian permanent settlements.

There is Bilsk, (also known as Bel’sk), a large fortified settlement on the banks of the Vorskla River. Earthen Ramparts some 33 km (or 20 miles) in length enclose an area of 4,000 hectares (almost 10,000 acres). Within this fortified area, there were two additional, smaller fortified sections with an area of 72 and 62 hectares. Modern reconstructions show it with palisades.

Another fortified city, tentatively identified by some as the Scythian capital, is Kamenka (Rolle, 1980: 119). Kamenka occupied about 12 km2 (more than 4.5 square miles) with an area of 900 hectares (or more than 2,000 acres) with an acropolis and extensive metal works (Kristiansen, 1998: 279).

I outlined at the beginning of this blog that there are cultures which we know of courtesy of descriptions left by third party authors. We do not know of any Scythian authors, very likely because there may not have been any. Yet we do have lengthy and interesting descriptions compiled by a well known Greek historian and overall great storyteller, Herodotus.

Here is one of Herodotus’ passages on the Scythians:

The Euxine Sea, where Darius now went to war, has nations dwelling around it, with the one exception of the Scythians, more unpolished than those of any other region that we know of. For, setting aside Anacharsis and the Scythian people, there is not within this region a single nation which can be put forward as having any claims to wisdom, or which has produced a single person of any high repute. The Scythians indeed have in one respect, and that the very most important of all those that fall under man’s control, shown themselves wiser than any nation upon the face of the earth. Their customs otherwise are not such as I admire. The one thing of which I speak is the contrivance whereby they make it impossible for the enemy who invades them to escape destruction, while they themselves are entirely out of his reach, unless it pleases them to engage with him. Having neither cities nor forts, and carrying their dwellings with them wherever they go; accustomed, moreover, one and all of them, to shoot from horseback; and living not by husbandry but on their cattle, their wagons the only houses that they possess, how can they fail of being unconquerable, and unassailable even?

In describing this non-Greek culture, Herodotus resorts to a rather common Greek sentiment. He describes them as “barbarians,” elaborating that he cannot find many redeeming traits among Scythian culture. Herodotus scholars identify both areas of congruence between archaeology and Herodotus’ writings as well as areas where there is dissonance. For example, there is overlap between what Herodotus wrote about the kurhans and what archaeologists have subsequently unearthed. However, Herodotus appears misguided when it comes to where he locates the kurhans, limiting them to a much smaller area than where they have been found and investigated by archaeologists (Hartog 1988:3 – 11).

These are sentiments to keep in mind as you walk through the exhibit.

What is left of this culture is still largely seen through the filter of grave goods, with very little in terms of text material and settlement archaeology to provide context. Imagine a future historian writing a book about the first 250 years of US history limited to information gathered at Civil War cemeteries. There is a lot more to the picture. Undoubtedly future archaeological projects will fill in these blanks. In the meantime, do come see the exhibit. After September 5, you will have missed the boat.

Hartog, François
1988 The Mirror of Herodotus. The representation of the other in the writing of history. Translated by Janet Lloyd. university of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles

Kristiansen, Kristian
1998 Europe Before History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York

Piotrovsky, Boris, et al.
1974  “From the Lands of the Scythians: Ancient Treasures from the Museums of the U.S.S.R., 3000 B.C.–100 B.C.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 32, no. 5

Rolle, Renate
1980 The World of the Scythians. Translated by F.G Walls from the German Die Welt der Skythen. University of California Press, Berkely and Los Angeles

The Silk Road: A Timeless Story

This blog entry deals with our current Secrets of the Silk Road exhibit. It connects several topics, all related to our current exhibit. We start with the stars at the center of the show: people, and the history of their presence in the region. Next topic: the stuff we humans carry with us and eventually leave behind. We all know that the amount we accumulate in our lifetime can be quite considerable. Can the same be said about the ancient inhabitants of the Tarim Basin?  We end with some observations about the museum aspect of putting an exhibit like this together.

Topic One: the people along the Silk Road and the history of human presence in the region.

Human presence in this part of the world goes back thousands of years; if one were to include earlier human ancestors, we can extend that time frame to hundreds of thousands of years, when Homo erectus lived in China. Interesting as this great antiquity of human presence in Asia might be, the time frame covered in this exhibit starts a “little” later.

The title of our current exhibit is “Secrets of the Silk Road.” I find it interesting that historians have come up with start and end dates for the Silk Road. They argue that the year 138 BC marked the beginning of the Silk Road. For almost a millennium and a half afterward, the land-based Silk Road was a conduit along which people, objects, languages, customs, and religions moved around. According to historians, by 1368 AD the land-based Silk Road withered away. Soon thereafter, the so-called Maritime Silk Road picks up where the other one left of.

Anyone interested in maritime history, and especially maritime archaeology, will know the there is an excellent program at Texas A&M University. It will therefore not come as a surprise that a Chinese underwater archaeologist, trained in Texas, was instrumental in raising a ship dating back some 800 years. It plied its trade as part of this Maritime Silk Road. (As an aside, the early 15th century also saw massive fleets of exploration leave China, a topic explored in a wonderful National Geographic exhibit a few years ago.)

While we can marvel at the certainty with which historians pinpoint the start and end of the Silk Road’s existence, we should not forget that modern humans (as opposed to Homo erectus mentioned earlier) were migrating from west to east and vice versa almost 2000 years before the Silk Road officially opened. These mummies found in Xinjiang cover a broad range of phenotypes, another way of saying that some look more Caucasoid and others more Mongoloid or East Asian. About 400 mummies are known today. Most of them are in the museum in Urumqi, others can be seen in smaller regional museums in the Tarim Basin.

That makes the observation made earlier about the time frame of the Silk Road and the precedence of the mummies doubly interesting. Not only do we know of people following a pathway that eventually will become the Silk Road, most of the known mummies also do not look like the ethnic Han Chinese we associate with the area known today as modern China.

Uyghur man.
Image courtesy of Victor H. Mair

Add to that mix the story of the Uyghur population and their claim that the Tarim Basin mummies are their ancestors. That claim has now been proven to be incorrect. The Uyghurs, on the other hand continue to hold fast to that belief, scientific evidence notwithstanding.

Lately, there was more media buzz about the origins of the Uyghur people. Newspaper and magazine articles published during the month of November 2010 highlighted suggestions that the physical appearance of some Uyghurs could be due to the fact that they are descendants of Roman POW’s that were brought to the region. Green eyes, long noses and even fair hair, all fuel speculation that some Uyghurs have European blood.

However, scholars like Dr. Maurizio Bettini, a classicist and anthropologist from Siena University, dismissed the Roman legion theory as a ”fairytale.” He told La Republica: ”For it to be indisputable, one would need to find items such as Roman money or weapons. Without proof of this kind, the story of the lost legions is just a legend.”  Medical scientists have concurred with this assessment, after an analysis of Y chromosome material. And so we have another interesting story that gets relegated to the category of myth.

Can’t see the video? Click here: Secrets of the Silk Road: Genetics.

Topic Two: the artifacts left behind by the people.

During the countless millennia that people have been moving through this region, as well as settling in this region, they have left lots of material clues behind. This helps us in many ways to reconstruct what they were doing, even where they came from. At the same time, for every question answered, there a ten more questions raised.

 A 1000-year old wonton on display

Archaeologists have long known that people bury their dead with all kinds of gifts. They might reflect people’s daily occupation, they might be mementos of the family they left behind; sometimes there was food left with the deceased. We have some of these food items on display.

Having trouble imagining what a 1000 year-old wonton looks like? Come see it at the museum. The act of placing food in the tomb was intentional. Sometimes, however, objects are preserved accidentally. Consider this: we are all familiar that sometimes people use newspaper to pad their shoes, to make them fit more easily. It appears that sometime during the middle of the 7th century AD, this was also practiced in the Tarim Basin. We have on display, a U-shaped document, containing a list of names of households and their property in Xizhou Prefecture. Even though the document was cut to size, historians were still able to extract a good bit of information from the document.

 Household declaration of Gaochang County, Xizhou Prefecture
Can’t see the video? Click here: Secrets of the Silk Road: The Exhibition.

Topic Three: how does one put all of that together in an exhibit?

  Dr. Victor H. Mair

As with all museum exhibits, it takes a long time to prepare for exhibits like these. Our current exhibit was put together by the staff at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California. They were the ones who reached out to Chinese museums and develop the storyline.

One of the leading scholars in the field, Dr. Victor Mair, associated with the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, put together the catalogue.

When Dr. Mair visited Houston, he marveled at the care that went into the exhibit. We have, for example, an equestrian statue on display. It shows a well to do woman traveler wearing a broad-rimmed had. There is a veil hanging from the rim of the hat. This statue, veil included is more than a 1000 years old. Dr. Mair complemented the diligence and care shown by all museum specialists in packing and displaying such a fragile item. I could not agree with him more.

 Equestrian statue