Trust but verify: Was an artifact in our new Hall of Ancient Egypt made from a meteorite?

Back in a June issue of the HMNScoop (our weekly e-newsletter that you should totally be subscribed to, ahem), we told you about an exciting discovery made amongst the artifacts in our new Hall of Ancient Egypt: we suspected that one of them was made from a meteorite!

So we put it to the test. A simple magnetic test, that is. To see if this figurine of a human head, on loan from Chiddingstone Castle in the UK, contained any meteoric iron.

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We turned to our in-house experts to verify or debunk the assertion: Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout, our Curator of Anthropology, and James Wooten, our Planetarium Astronomer (and the voice behind your monthly stargazing reports here on BEYONDbones).

The verdict?

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Sorry, folks.

Don’t believe everything that you read, because those scrawled words aren’t telling the truth. The object wasn’t magnetic, and it wasn’t made out of a meteorite, either. Bummer.

But now we know, right?

Lions and zebra and black rhino, oh my! Join HMNS on an African safari next November

There are some things you just can’t see in your own backyard, or even at the Museum — so our entertaining and informative curators David Temple and Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout are bringing a group to Tanzania in November 2013.

The unique eco-system of the Ngorongoro Crater, the vast savannahs of the Serengeti, the forest and grassland near the shores of Lake Manyara, and the renowned anthropological and geological sites at Olduvai Gorge are must-see wonders of east Africa included in this HMNS-exclusive trip.

Herds running across road.HR.RM

This two-week trip includes safaris to superb areas for seeing giraffe, zebra, elephant, hippo, tree-climbing and black-maned lion, black rhino, wildebeest, impala, flamingo, warthog, baboon, and many other species of African wildlife. All are guaranteed a window seat for wildlife viewing in a 4×4 with photo roof. You will also visit the site where the roots of modern man were unearthed by Mary Leakey and a Maasai village.

Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout, HMNS curator of anthropology, curated the human evolution section of the new Hall of Paleontology along with numerous special exhibitions, including Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia. He has a special interest in this trip as Africa is the cradle of humanity. Tanzania’s Rift Valley has yielded important early human fossils, landmarks in the evolution of mankind. “We are all descendants of these early Africans. Visiting Tanzania will be a return home for all of us,” Dr. Tuerenhout says.

Maasai Men Jumping 6.HR.RM

David Temple, HMNS associate curator of paleontology, curated the Museum’s new Morian Hall of Paleontology and possesses a wide knowledge base of the evolution of mammals and modern African wildlife. “Tanzania is a perfect destination to learn of the great creatures of the past and witness the great creatures of the present,” he adds. Temple also holds a special interest African history, culture and economic development.

Lioness & cubs in Crater.HR.RM

Space is very limited. For complete itinerary, pricing and registration, click here and mark your calendar for our informational session March 19.

The Emancipation Proclamation is coming to a museum near you.

There is a very brief window of opportunity, from Thursday, Feb. 16 to Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012, to see the original Emancipation Proclamation on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Currently the museum is hosting an exhibit on the Civil War, entitled Discovering the Civil War. This exhibit, organized by the National Archives of the United States, went on display in Washington, DC to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the start of the war. It is now touring and Houston is the third stop on the tour.

Emancipation Proclamation Display
Emancipation Proclamation at HMNS!
Thursday, Feb. 16 – Tuesday, Feb. 21 ONLY
9 am – 9 pm

The premise of the exhibit, aside from remembering the Civil War, is simple and straightforward.

Since 150 years have gone by, nobody alive today has any personal recollections of the war. The question then becomes: “Where would one go in order to learn more about the Civil War?” One of the most logical answers is to go to the enormous collection of Civil War materials stored at the National Archives. Anyone interested in this topic will be glad to know that extensive portions of the Archive’s Civil War holdings are accessible online.

At the Houston venue, the topic of the Civil War is covered in three different ways, all part of one large exhibit. The largest footprint is taken up by the National Archives display. This is the traveling portion of the show, entitled Discovering the Civil War. One can see documents and photographs related to issues like the reasons for the war, raising an army, resigning one’s commission, letters home, medical care (or lack thereof), and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. The other two sections do not travel and will be on display in Houston only.

Discovering the Front Line: Highlights from the Nau Civil War Collection takes the storyline into the realm of three dimensions. Here the visitor can see an extensive selection of uniforms, weapons, photographs, drawings, a very rare Confederate medal and other Civil War memorabilia from the John L. Nau collection. What struck me the most in this part of the exhibit is a display of a small Bible with a bullet hole in it. One can see the point of entry as well as the point of exit, on the side of the book. It is very likely that the owner survived being shot.

A small third component dedicated to the history of a Union warship, the USS Westfield, closes out the exhibit.

Originally a Staten Island ferry, the Westfield was acquired by the US Navy to serve in the West Gulf Blockading squadron. The ship took part in the attack on New Orleans, bombardment of the ports of Indianola and Port Lavaca ending up sinking on January 1, 1863 during hostilities blockading the port of Galveston.

The main portion of the exhibit, however, is the story of the Civil War as told through documents held at the National Archives. Within the array of documents, the one with the greatest historical importance would have to be the Emancipation Proclamation. Most visitors will get to see a copy; those who make it during the few days outlined above, will get to see the real thing.

While the Proclamation on display was signed on January 1, 1863, about six months earlier, in July 1862, President Lincoln read his “preliminary proclamation” to his Cabinet. On September 22, 1862, after the Union victory at Antietam, the President announced that if the rebels did not end the fighting and rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebellious states would be free.

On December 30, 1862, work started on the final draft of the document.

The draft President Lincoln worked with on December 31 is considered the final draft. The principal parts of the document are written in the President’s hand. This final draft also shows an early version of “cut and paste,” as two paragraphs from the Preliminary Proclamation were clipped from a printed copy and pasted on to the final draft, in order to “save writing”.

In the early afternoon of Thursday, January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the document and by late afternoon the document was ready for transmission to the press (including the Washington Evening Star) and others. By about 8 PM, the transmission of the text over the telegraph began. From this point forward, the Civil war had the dual purpose of preserving the Union and ending slavery.

The original Proclamation normally resides in the National Archives in Washington, DC. The document is five pages long; initially all of these pages were tied with narrow red and blue ribbons, which were attached to the signature page by a wafered impression of the seal of the United States. Most of the ribbons remain, as do parts of the seal.

Emancipation Proclamation
Emancipation Proclamation at HMNS!
Thursday, Feb. 16 – Tuesday, Feb. 21 ONLY
9 am – 9 pm

What exactly did the Emancipation Proclamation mean?

It is perhaps easier to say what it did not do: it did not end slavery in the nation. Specifically, it did not set free slaves in those areas where the United States could not enforce the Proclamation.

In other cases, local laws and decisions had already set some slaves free. New Mexico repealed its slave code in December 1861 (Foner, 2010: 204). In 1862 the District of Columbia freed the slaves within its jurisdiction; the Proclamation did not make a difference either way in the District either.

What the Proclamation did make possible was for “such persons of a suitable condition [to be] received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service”.

President Lincoln recognized that it would take a Constitutional Amendment to abolish slavery.

This ended up being the Thirteenth Amendment. The Senate debated and passed this Amendment on April 8, 1864. The House of Representatives, however, initially rejected it. President Lincoln then took a more active role and suggested that the Republican Party include in its platform a plank calling for the abolition of slavery. The House of Representatives finally passed the Thirteenth Amendment on January 31, 1865. On February 1, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln signed a Joint Resolution submitting the proposed Amendment to the states. On December 18, 1865, Secretary of State William Seward issued a statement verifying the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

“It actually came to us.”

When the document was displayed at the Henry Ford Museum, thousands of people lined up to come see it. What impressed a young visitor the most was this: “It actually came to us. That we did not have to go all the way to Washington DC to see it. It came to us.”

I am sure that sentiment will be shared by our visitors – young and old – as they take in this historic document.

Reference
Foner, Eric
2010 The Fiery trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York.

Le Monde des Aztèques [The World of the Aztecs]

This blog entry is different from any of the ones I have ever written before.

It contains a book review and commentary on the current state of book reviews in the US. 

A while back, I was asked by a friend and former museum colleague to review a French-language book on the Aztecs. I agreed, read the book, wrote the review and then started looking for a place that would accept it. And that is where things went awfully awry. Between my reading and reviewing of the book and the day I am writing this, about two years have passed. Granted, I have not been pursuing this project on a daily basis, but I have been pretty persistent about finding an outlet for this review. As I have not been successful, I am posting it onto the museum’s blog. This is a first; I hope to follow up with more such reviews.

Drama angle
Aztec calendar stone
Creative Commons License photo credit: gorriti

I am not the only one who has noticed this “book review crisis.” As it happens, Dr. Michael Smith, an archaeologist working on Aztec sites, professor at Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change and a prolific author has made the same observation. He has blogged on this topic on several occasions, like here, here, here and here.

You get the picture. There is a problem out there in the world of publishing. So, here it goes. You will get the book review first, followed by details on the book itself.

Le Monde des Aztèques is a collaborative volume.

Danièle Dehouve is affiliated with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and the Université de Paris VIII. She has written several books on Mexico, most recently, Offrandes et sacrifices en Mésoamérique. Anne-Marie Vie-Wohrer is also affiliated with the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. She specializes in central Mexican writing systems and has authored Xipe Totec, Notre Seigneur l’ écorche, étude glyphique d’un dieu aztèque.

Each of the authors wrote about half of the volume. Danièle Dehouve contributed six chapters, dealing with the history of the Aztecs, the city and its king, the calendar, the day count, the concepts of time and space in Mesoamerica and bloody rituals. Anne-Marie Vie-Wohrer penned chapters on the Aztec pantheon, worldviews, man in the world, pictographic manuscripts and the writing system.

An introductory chapter sets the stage, defining the concept of Mesoamerica and outlining the physical and cultural geography of this region. The authors link past to present when they mention that out of the hundreds of indigenous languages that existed before Contact, there are more than fifty that have survived until today. In a nod to research conducted in South American rock shelters, human presence in the Americas is set to 33,000 BC, a date that most specialists in the field still find hard to accept.

The chapter on Aztec history addresses topics such as the origins of the Aztecs, how to read Aztec documents, the empire at the time of contact. Information related to the excavations at the Templo Mayor includes discoveries made up to the year 2006.  In the chapter on the city and the king, Dehouve teases apart the fabric of Aztec society. Starting with the office of the ruler, the author covers nobility, warriors, judges, priests, traders and artisans and farmers.

Quetzalcoatl
Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Jami Dwyer

Three chapters deal with the calendar and the perception of space and time all contain common threads: our fragmentary understanding of these aspects of Aztec society is due in large part to the fragmentary nature of our sources.  The author does provide an easy to follow discourse on what could be a difficult matter to comprehend. The author also very effectively uses illustrations to help clarify her points, for example on p. 119, where the tonalpohualli calendar is discussed. One detail slipped though the cracks however, on p. 96, where the location of the Maya site of Copan is incorrectly listed as Guatemala; that site is just across the border in Honduras.

In her final chapter, dealing with bloody rituals, Dehouve argues that one ought to approach this subject from the Aztec point of view. This reviewer believes that references to the scholarly work by Eric Taladoire and Ted Leyenaar with regard to the Mesoamerican ballgame would have made this section more complete.

Anne-Marie Vie-Wohrer starts off her section with a discussion of Aztec deities.

The chapter has three parts, with detailed discussions of what we know about these gods. Illustrations from colonial-period documents are used with great effectiveness.  The following chapter deals with the creation of the world. Again, the use of illustrations allows the reader to follow the story in two complementary formats. For example, the author reviews the first page of the codex Fejervary-Mayer in multiple segments; each of these steps is accompanied by an image of the codex highlighting the very topic discussed in that portions. In the chapter on the creation of humans, Vie-Wohrer points out that there are many versions of the creation story and that some of them are contradictory.

In the final two chapters, Vie-Wohrer covers materials very familiar to her: pictographic manuscripts and writing systems. Those who are interested in these topics will find the references to the holdings at the Fonds Mexicain at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France very interesting. We can all agree with the sentiment expressed by the author regarding the tragic loss of so many prehispanic documents during the conquest and early colonial days.

This is a lavishly illustrated book on Aztec culture. Although there are many more topics on the Aztec world one could write about, I found the chapters well-written and well-illustrated. The bibliography presented at the end of the book presents a good starting point for those interested in things Aztec. One final remark, because the volume is written by two very qualified French researchers, one gets insights that occasionally differ from those offered by North American counterparts (be they Mexican or American). In order to appreciate these contributions, a working knowledge of French is a must. Sadly, this reviewer has noticed that all too often, this is missing among North American researchers.

Publication details:
DANIELE DEHOUVE, ANNE-MARIE VIE-WOHRER. 2008. Le Monde des Aztèques. Rineuve, Paris. 336 pp., ISBN-978-2-914214-51-3.
Book reviewed by Dirk Van Tuerenhout, Curator of anthropology, Houston Museum of Natural Science.
One can find more information on this book here and here. Just like the volume, these reviews are written en français.

Zut alors.