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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Egyptian Nefertiti replica ends in a bust: ‘Ugly’ statue brews social media storm

A mini controversy has just broken out in social media about a rather ugly new rendering of the famous Nefertiti bust. The original bust, currently on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin, is one of the most iconic pieces of Egyptian art, recognized as easily as King Tut’s gold mask. It was not a surprise, therefore, that Egyptian authorities recently decided to erect a larger-than-life replica of the same bust at the entrance to the city of Samalut, to honor her memory.

This effort ended in – pardon the pun – a bust in its own right. The image, which only bears a very superficial resemblance to the original, has caused a storm in Egyptian social media, attracting worldwide attention. While the original bust is very well known, the story of its discovery is perhaps less well known. Nefertiti’s bust was discovered in the ruined workshop of the sculptor Thutmose on December 6, 1912 by a German archaeological team.

Bust being handed over to German archaeologist

Presentation of the Nefertiti bust shortly after discovery in 1912. (Left to right: Hermann Ranke, Paul Hollander and Mohammed es-Senussi)

Although the bust is uninscribed, Ludwig Borchardt, the dig director, immediately realized who was represented: the tall blue crown with uraeus serpent must belong to the queen. “No use describing it, you have to see it” he wrote.


Handwritten note by Ludwig Borchardt on the discovery of the bust. Aside from a quick sketch, it contains the remark “No use describing it, you have to see it.”

The Egyptian government gave the bust, and other finds, to the German expedition at the end of the season, according to a custom of the time, known as “partage.” It was not until ten years later, after World War I, that the bust was put on display in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. The reaction was immediate: Nefertiti became an icon and the Egyptian government demanded her return, claiming that she had been allowed to leave the country by subterfuge. The matter remains unresolved to this day, and Nefertiti has survived two world wars in Berlin.

Nefertiti was the principal wife of the New Kingdom pharaoh Akhenaten (ca. 1350 – 1335 BC). Akhenaten tried to revolutionize Egypt, outlawing the worship of a host of gods, headed by Amun, the king of the gods. In their place he proposed the worship of the Aten, the sun-disc that gave life to the world. He moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes to a virgin site 250 miles to the north. This new capital he called Akhetaten (“horizon of the sun disc”), the modern site of Tell el-Amarna. Akhenaten’s changes did not find favor, and after his death the site was abandoned by his successor – the more familiar Tutankhamun – as the capital moved back to Thebes. Amun had restored the status quo.

A new religion required a new artistic style to express itself. Set against earlier Egyptian objects, Amarna art can appear more naturalistic, softer and more intimate. Images of Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti, and their six daughters were the icons of this new creed, and Amarna was filled with sculptor’s workshops producing decoration for the city. The bust of Nefertiti, with its unusual shape, was probably a model used to define and standardize images of the queen.

The latest update on the “controversy” tells us that the Samalut bust is to be replaced with a statue of a peace dove. So all is well that ends well.

The original bust continues to attract huge throngs of tourists in Berlin. A museum quality replica of the same bust, manufactured by highly talented artists at the Neues Museum, has been on display in the Hall of Ancient Egypt at the Houston Museum of Natural Science since 2013. She looks forward to seeing you there.


Her Majesty awaits your visit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Discover new secrets of ancient Egypt with guest lecturers

This week, more than 400 folks interested in all things ancient Egyptian are making their way to Houston for the 66th Annual Meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt. Running from April 24 to 26, this is the first year the conference is being held in Houston, and perhaps it has something to do with the beautiful new Hall of Ancient Egypt at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

HMNS is excited to host a public three-part lecture featuring leading Egyptologists Dr. Salima Ikram, Dr. Josef Wegner, and Dr. Kara Cooney, who are in town for the ARCE conference. At the museum, each expert will give an update on his or her latest research project.-o6cwMJsxKVXL0Xx6UZa2Dl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVvK0kTmF0xjctABnaLJIm9

You don’t have to be an academic to attend the lecture, or to register for the meeting. ARCE welcomes all fans of ancient Egypt, novice to authority. The lecture will be held Wednesday, April 22 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $18 to the public and $12 for HMNS members.

Online registration for the ARCE meeting is now closed, but on-site registration at the DoubleTree Hilton Downtown Hotel will remain open from April 24 through the end of the conference.

Read on for more details about HMNS’s guest Egyptologists.


Divine Creatures, Animal Mummies Providing Clues to Culture, Economy and Science f3638a_3053bb27e037f77cbc56ea0f4b110a8c.jpeg_srz_305_260_85_22_0.50_1.20_0
by Salima Ikram, Ph.D., American University in Cairo

Animal mummies were amongst the least studied of Egypt’s treasures. Now scholars are using them to learn about ancient Egyptian religion, economy, veterinary science and environmental change. The world’s leading expert on animal mummies and founder of the Animal Mummy project at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Dr. Salima Ikram, will present the different kinds of animal mummies and explain what we can learn from them.




Secrets of the Mountain-of-Anubis, A Royal Necropolis Joe_Egypt
by Josef Wegner, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

The ongoing Penn Museum excavations has recently identified a royal necropolis at Abydos. A series of royal tombs located beneath a sacred desert peak, the Mountain-of-Anubis, belong to over a dozen pharaohs include Senwosret III and the recently identified king Senebkay. Dr. Josef Wegner will review the latest findings from the necropolis that spans Egypt’s late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1850-1550 BCE).




21st Dynasty Coffins Project, Recycled Coffins Offer the Socioeconomic InsightKara_Cooney_examines_Egyptian_coffin_
by Kathlyn (Kara) Cooney, Ph.D., UCLA

Dr. Kara Cooney will give an overview of the 21st Dynasty Coffins Project which studies the amount of “borrowing,” or reuse, a given coffin displays during this period of turmoil and material scarcity and seeks to contribute to the understanding of socioeconomics in ancient Egypt. Equipped with high definition cameras and working in cooperation with museums and institutions in Europe and the United States, Cooney takes her research team to investigate, document and study coffin reuse in the Third Intermediate Period. The data acquired will be compiled into a comprehensive database available to Egyptologists everywhere.

Beyond #BeardGate – What else has happened to Tut?

Museum displays, labels, and blogs provide an excellent way for us to look beyond the headlines and get to grips with the full picture. While the hubbub surrounding #beardgate has died down, I’ve kept thinking about it. In my last blog, I included a picture of Tutankhamun’s mask without its beard, photographed during the 1920s. I meant it as a reminder that, whatever happened during the news-grabbing re-attachment of the beard, it wasn’t ‘snapped’ off. The mask was displayed without its beard in the Cairo Museum for over a decade.

Egypt Blog Beard 1937

Courtesy R. Hölzl

A friend then sent me a photograph taken in the museum by her grandfather in 1937. Mask at top, beard lying below. But what’s the lump on the bottom left? It’s part of a collar of gold and faience beads that had been attached around the neck of the mask.

Egypt Blog Mask and necklace

Burton photograph p0750a Copyright Griffith Institute, University of Oxford

Here you can see the collar (and beard) in position on the mask as the mummy lies in the coffin. If you look closely at the mask today, you can still see the holes punched on either side of the neck to fix it in position. The collar itself is still displayed detached from the mask. It took fifteen years or so for the beard to make it back on to the mask, but the collar has still not been re-attached. Egyptologists are naturally conservative people, but this takes some beating. When the mask was taken abroad on tour in the 1970s, the exhibition catalog says that the necklace was removed from the mask for display “to reveal the neck.” Slim and elegant though Tutankhamun’s neck is, I don’t find this very satisfactory. Should we consider replacing it and restoring the mask to what it really was like?

Like most questions Egyptologists ask, this isn’t expecting a yes/no answer. It’s looking for more information.

Tutankhamun’s collar, with its flat disc-shaped beads, is a costlier example of the same type of necklace (shebyu for the Egyptians) as you can see in the Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Courtesy Chiddingstone Castle

Courtesy Chiddingstone Castle

For non-royals, shebyu necklaces were marks of honor, royal gifts for good service. Receiving the ‘gold of honor’ was an event that merited being carved or painted on your tomb walls; when the mummy of the architect Kha, now in Turin Museum, was x-rayed, his shebyu necklace could be seen still proudly around his neck (along with some serious gold hoop earrings).

For the king, the shebyu had a slightly different function: it emphasized his divinity and union with the gods – the same thing that the rituals of mummification and burial were designed to achieve once he died. It’s not surprising that the shebyu collar was an essential component of Tutankhamun’s burial, since wearing it showed that the dead king had successfully joined his fellow gods for eternity. I wonder if the reason Howard Carter could remove the necklace easily when he extracted the mask was because it was meant to be put on as part of the funerary rites that activated Tutankhamun’s mummy. What we now think of as a permanent fixture on the mask may have been intended for ‘performative’ use.  Perhaps the opening of the mouth ritual that activated statues and mummies needed extra components when carried out on a royal mummy?

We now see the mask first off as an icon of Egyptian culture, or a masterpiece of Egyptian art. For the craftsmen and priests who made it and installed it on Tut’s wrapped mummy, however, it was just one piece of a jigsaw of objects, spells, smells, and gestures that gave the dead king magical protection and kick-started his afterlife.

Tutankhamun’s burial equipment, from the mask – beard, necklace and all – to the three coffins, stone sarcophagus, and gilded wood shrines surrounding them, was never made to be seen. It was made to do a job: to transform his body into something eternal, divine, and protected. Alter one part of this arrangement and perhaps the job would be sabotaged.

Given this, there’s no single ‘right’ or ‘original’ way for Cairo Museum to display Tutankhamun’s mask and burial equipment, nor for us to display our Egyptian material at HMNS. What we can do in museums is to look after the objects in our care and make them accessible to anyone who is interested. We can keep thinking about what they may have meant to the people who made and used them, and how we can convey this in displays and labels (and, now, blog posts). Every so often, new interpretations and new objects allow us to change the way we view and display our collections.

And this is the long lead in to say that we will be making some changes to the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS. By the start of March, we’ll have added some new objects and tweaked our labels – and we look forward to hearing what you make of the changes.

Finally, if you’re interested in finding out more about Tutankhamun’s burial, and more generally what wrapping, mummification, and burial meant to the Egyptians, here are two suggestions for further reading. The first is the Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation website, run by the Griffith Institute at Oxford University. The Griffith houses the Tutankhamun excavation archive, and has placed most of this online. You can read transcripts of Howard Carter’s notes, and see the excavation photographs taken by Harry Burton. To see how the mask related to Tutankhamun’s mummy, follow this link and browse the ‘object card’ section for object number 256 (the unwrapped mummy) and its hundred-odd sub-divisions.

The second is Unwrapping Ancient Egypt, by Christina Riggs (full disclosure: Dr Riggs taught me at university). Christina looks at what it meant for the Egyptians to wrap things up – to make things and then carefully hide them away under layers of cloth – and what it has meant for us, in the last two hundred years, to unwrap and display them.