13 Freaky finds at HMNS

Tentacles, bodies and skeletons, oh my! No matter how beautiful or how vital to the history of natural science and life on Earth, some things are just a little freaky. Check out this short list of our top 13 strange, weird and scary artifacts housed in the permanent halls of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

13. Stone hands


Sculptor Harold van Pelt carved this hand from a solid block of a special mineral. The sculpture is an exact replica of his wife’s hand.

12. Stone skull


Pelt also carved this, a life-sized replica of the human skull, identical to the real thing inside and out. That includes the brain case. The jaw is removable from the skull.

11. Cambrian sea creaturescreep09

They’re soft and squirmy and have strange, meat-eating mouthparts. These guys aren’t around anymore, but you can get up close and personal to these models based on fossils discovered in Cambrian rock layers. Watch a CG video of them swimming in action alongside trilobites and orthoceras in the Morian Hall of Paleontology.

10. Fossilized sea scorpion pincerscreep06

Sea scorpions didn’t always get this big. But when they did, their claws were brutal! Sea scorpions were the apex predator in the Cambrian seas, with a poisonous stinger and these toothy pincers. These in our collection measure about six inches long. Imagine getting pinched by those puppies!

9. A shark that could swallow an elephantcreep07

Megalodon, the largest shark to have ever existed, could swallow platybelodon, a mastodon ancestor, in a single bite. Good thing they’re extinct, or whole ships might go missing.

8. Stuffed bird specimensCreep02

Our preserved specimens of extinct, rare and modern life can be a fascinating walk through taxonomy and the diversity of life on earth. But they’re still treated skins stuffed with cotton. In these specimens, cotton holds the eyes permanently open.

7. Feeding lion


The glass eyes of this preserved lion seem to challenge all who pass. And the severed leg lets us know he means business. What can you say? Life’s hard on the savannah. Keep it real.

6. Floating model orthocerascreep05

This prehistoric mollusk was an ancestor of the modern squid and octopus. In Cambrian rock, their numerous conical shells make this one of the most successful species of the era. And this model, looming overhead, calls to mind that Lovecraftian god of the apocalypse, Cthulhu. (Click the link for Google images if you’re not cool enough to be familiar…)

5. Wall of skullscreep08Nearing the end of the fossil record we find a who’s who of hominids. Homo erectus, australopithecines and Neanderthals included. But it’s pretty disconcerting to stroll around the corner and be confronted by a skull collection of human ancestors staring you in the face.

4. The mummy of General What’s-His-Name


Better than hominid ancestors are those famously well-preserved Egyptian mummies that draw crowds from around the world. This one was a man said to have been a general of the New Kingdom Pharaoh Thutmose III, dating back to 1450 BC. Now that’s an old corpse.

3. The mummy of Neshkhons


I find it more creepy that we know who this body actually was for some reason. Don’t you? This is the mummy of the noble lady Neskhons, who lived during the 21st Dynasty of Egypt, between 1070 and 945 BC. Like many mummies, she was discovered with her most important organs preserved in canopic jars, not including the brain, of course. To ancient Egyptians, the brain was some worthless head-goop.

2. Disembodied head


This mummified head was discovered with a gold-leaf mask, its eyes painted on the outside looking up to the heavens in a symbol of reverence for the gods. The head dates back to between 200 BC and 100 AD.

1. The Aztec god of human sacrifice

creep01In pre-Columbian Mexico, the Aztec empire stretched for thousands of miles with modern-day Mexico City at its heart. Millions were sacrificed to the god Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (pronounced tlah-wheeze-call-pan-teh-coot-lee) at the top of the Templo Mayor, the great temple in the middle of the city. Sacrifices were beheaded at the top of a tall flight of steps, and the skulls rolled hundreds of feet down to the city floor. The Aztecs believed the sacrifices kept their food and water plentiful, but the scare tactics also made them the most powerful empire of their time.

Come see the freakshow before Halloween, or come in costume to Spirits and Skeletons Halloween night!


Cat Imposter: Guess what x-rays reveal about our feline mummy ‘fake-out’

In Cairo, I’m out of touch with what’s shown on TV, but I always know when something about Egypt has been broadcast. On slow news days, Facebook, Twitter, and my work email all light up with inquiries.

In May, there was a mini-boom in Egyptian interest following a BBC programme  on animal mummies. The headlines promised to reveal an ancient ‘scandal’ – who wouldn’t be intrigued by this?

Mummified animals – most typically cats and small birds with beautifully patterned and decorated wrappings sometimes buried in wooden or metal containers – are some of the most recognizably ‘ancient Egyptian’ objects in museums. They encapsulate two of the biggest modern clichés of ancient Egyptian culture: the Egyptians’ love of death, and their weird animal-headed gods. Add to this the fact that a lot of them are small enough to transport easily. No wonder most museums have them on display. And we’re no exception at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Cat mummy3

Animal mummies, statues, and containers, Hall of Ancient Egypt, HMNS.

The ‘scandal’ the BBC referred to was that only a third of the animal mummies studied and scanned by a research project contained the ‘right’ remains at all, with exterior wrapping and interior contents matching up. Another third contained partial remains – body fragments rather than a single intact body – and the last third contained nothing at all inside.

While the study cited is the most recent, and one of the most thorough, investigations into animal mummies, its results are no great surprise. Researchers have long known that the insides of animal mummies can be surprising. Prof. Salima Ikram, touched on this at a recent lecture at HMNS, and an updated edition of her book on the topic is coming out later this summer.

There are some other things that one could say about the ‘scandal’ of the empty mummies, but now I’ve got a question to ask: what’s inside our funny mummy?

Cat mummy 1

Photo Courtesy Michael C. Carlos Museum

We received this cat mummy on loan from the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University. On the ouside, it’s a fair example of the medium size of cat mummies – which tend to come in small, medium, and large – and has an unusual piece of blue-bordered linen among its wrappings (and a rather disappointed look painted on its face). So far, so good.

When the mummy was x-rayed, however, it became clear that the tidy outside wasn’t matched by a tidy inside. Rather than a cat skeleton, you can see that there’s a large broken bone at the bottom end, and a mass of something at the ‘top’ end.

cat x ray

© Emory University Hospital, courtesy of the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University

We’ve got our own ideas about what made up the ‘cat’, but before we reveal them we’d like to open it up and crowd source some identifications. What’s your best guess? Let us know what you think the cat mummy was actually made of and enter it into the comments below.

Editor’s note: Tweet your guess to HMNS or post below, and we’ll mention the winner in Tom’s next blog.

Human Evolution: The Year 2010 in Review (Part 2)

Make sure you check out part one of my blog, published two weeks ago.

Teeth came up in another story in 2010. Researchers were quoted as saying that modern humans, traditionally thought to have evolved roughly 200,000 years ago in East Africa, now might be 400,000 years old. In addition, they may have evolved in Israel rather than Africa. Twice as old and not from Africa, was the message spread by the media. The evidence? A few teeth found in Qesem Cave.

However, a word of caution is in order here. What was reported in the media was not what the scientists had said. In fact, they had implored the members of the press not to engage in hyperbole and present hypotheticals as proven facts. They were ignored. Someone called the media on this and chastised them for engaging in “science by press release.”

DNA made the headlines several times this past year.  In August scientists announced that they had decoded famous ice man Oetzi’s genome. This is interesting in itself; it would be even more interesting if we could compare his genetic makeup with the genome of the Tarim Basin mummies.  Such a genome has not been decoded yet, so we will have to wait. Imagine, however, the potential such a comparison would present to evaluate the origins of these Caucasoid mummies.

Oetzi the Iceman: as exhibited in Museum Bélesta (Ariège), France;
reconstruction of his equipment. Photo by: Gerbil

What lessons can we draw from all this?

First, it seems that a lot of trailblazing research is now based on minute amounts of evidence, a finger bone here, and a few teeth there.

Second, the fact that we are dealing with minute amounts of information does not detract from the importance of the scientific contributions these data have made.

Third, some of the data are microscopically small. Size notwithstanding, DNA and DNA analysis have become a very valuable component in retracing human origins.

I would like to end with an observation and a comment.

In March 2010, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History proudly opened its doors on the completely renovated David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. It is a wonderful exhibit, sharing with millions of visitors the scientific basis of our understanding of human evolution.

On display for the first three months were three original fossils, one Cro-Magnon and two Neanderthals. Their presence was announced with great pride in the original press release.  A review by a leading US newspaper stated:  “Because of the fragility of human remains, only a handful of actual fossils are on display, diminishing the sense of wonder the real thing always inspires.”

Interestingly, the reference to the original fossils was missing in other (presumably later) online versions of that same announcement. Instead, we only find a reference to “a display of more than 75 skulls (exact replicas).”

Here is a photograph as it appeared in the media (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin), showcasing two of the three original skulls on display.

Treasured Neanderthal and Original Cro-Magnon
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ryan Somma

The caption read :
“Fossil skulls of La Ferrassie Neanderthal, left, and Cro-Magnon, that are on a three-month loan from the Musée de l’Homme in France, are seen in the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington. Scientists think DNA analysis of Siberian genetic material may have revealed yet another branch of the human tree.”

In an age where the human attention span seems to be measured in minutes, let alone days or even years, it is good to remember that in 2007, there was another original fossil on display in the US. The venue was the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The original fossil involved was that of Lucy.

In a very savvy media campaign, several leading paleoanthropologists engaged in variations of an ad hominem attack, and used rather unfortunate language to refer to the museum, as well as the curator of the exhibit.

The scientists who opposed Lucy going on display all invoked the same document, a 1998 statement drafted by the International Association for the Study of Human Paleontology. The second resolution in this document declares:

“We strongly recommend that original hominid fossils should not be transported beyond the country of origin unless there are compelling scientific reasons which must include the demonstration that the proposed investigations cannot proceed in the foreseeable future in the country of origin.”

Less than three years after invoking this document, the National Museum of Natural History now finds itself doing the very same thing it once so vehemently opposed. Moreover, an internet search in the days following the opening of the new hall in Washington failed to identify any criticism by the same individuals who in the previous case had brought out the big guns. As the first anniversary of the hall is just around the corner, still not a word of criticism has been uttered.

As someone once said: “Isn’t that special?”

Of Chinese mummies, and a relative of a famous German WWI fighter pilot

While I was reading up on the archaeology of the Tarim Basin for our new exhibit, Secrets of the Silk Road, I kept thinking of “the artist formerly known as Prince.” Why? What in the world does he have to do with 4000-year old mummies? The answer is simple. There is one aspect he and the Xinjiang sites have in common: they have an awful lot of names. Over the years, sites have been named in various languages, English, Chinese and Uyghur; occasionally they have also been named after individuals. Anyone interested in this subject matter may at first be very confused by these multiple names.

 Sven Hendin

Let me start out, however, with a much simpler explanation about the origin of the expression Silk Road. The term Silk Road is the English translation of the German “Seidenstrasse,” a term coined in 1877 by Freiherr Ferdinand von Richthofen. This German geologist and uncle of famous World War I fighter ace, Manfred von Richthofen, chose silk to symbolize the trade items that made it from China to the Mediterranean and this term has been used ever since. Ferdinand von Richthofen’s legacy extends beyond contributing the terms Silk Road; one of his students was a Swede named Sven Hedin. Sven became a very accomplished student of the Tarim Basin history, as we shall see below.

Scientists have been able to collect and study to some degree about 500 mummies (Mallory and Mair 2000, pp. 179 – 180). We know that the remains of thousands of people were buried in the desert in the course of several millennia before the arrival of the Han Chinese in the region. Some of these individuals remain at rest, others have been found by looters and their tombs were ransacked in a futile attempt to find treasure.

The mummies have been found in various cemeteries in the Tarim Basin. In the next paragraphs, I will review some of these burial places, concentrating on those where mummies with Caucasian features have been found.

One of the two mummies currently on display at the museum is known as the “Beauty of Xiaohe,” named after the Xiaohe cemetery. The Xiaohe cemetery goes by several names. In 1934, Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman reached a site in the Lop Nor area; this settlement contained a cemetery on a hill marked by wooden posts. (An example of this burial arrangement is on display at the museum as well.) The site was close to a river bed, which Bergman named Xiaohe, or “Small River.” The cemetery itself got several monikers, starting with “Ördek’s necropolis,” after a Uyhgur guide by that name who had discovered the site in the 1910s, while working for the above mentioned researcher, Sven Hedin. Researchers established that the settlement and the associated cemetery belonged to the Gumugou culture, also known as the Qäwrighul culture. Another “beauty” found in the region, a mummy known as the “Beauty of Loulan,” also belonged to this culture (Romgard, 2008, p. 13).

After its initial discovery, the Xiaohe site drifted back into anonymity. It was rediscovered in 2000. A Chinese translation of Bergman’s book (Bergman, 1939) became available in 1997. It brought the site to the attention of Chinese scientists, who were able to re-discover the site (Romgard, 2008, p. 20, n. 38).

 Hedin with Folke Bergman on Hedin’s final expedition, 1934
© The Sven Hedin Foundation

The Xiaohe cemetery contains the largest number of mummies ever found at a single site (Romgard, 2008, p. 20). A total of 167 tombs were excavated, many of them containing mummies with clear European features. The earliest graves date back to ca. 2000 BC (Romgard, 2008, p. 21). The presence of woolen garments is a good indicator of very early links between West and East, as sheep did not exist in early China (Romgard 2008, pp. 21-22).

Northeast of Lop Nor, near the oasis town of Hami, archaeologists encountered a small number of mummies of Caucasian origin at the Yanbulaq cemetery. Eight out of a total of 29 examined human remains were identified as such (Romgard 2008, p. 22). This cemetery, dated back to the Bronze Age as well, contains further proof of western cultural traits moving from west to east. The presence of people of Caucasian extraction, as well as woolen knit-ware and mud brick architecture spread eastward to the Tarim Basin and then China (Romgard 2008, p. 22).

Qäwrighul Cemetery, located close to Bosten Lake in the Tianshan Mountains, is part of the Chawuhu culture (Romgard, 2008, pp. 15- 16, 23-24). It dates to 1000 – 400 BC. Human remains encountered here display a mix of Caucasian and Mongoloid features. The people who were buried here lived in an area that served as a passageway between the eastern parts of the Tarim Basin and parts further northwest. Similarities in material culture between this culture and areas in Siberia and Kazakhstan imply that migrations occurred in this part well before the official opening of the Silk Road (Romgard, 2008, p. 24).

The idea that some of the basic building stones of civilization came from the west into China did not receive a universal welcome among Chinese scholars. As late as December 1999, Chinese scholars argued that the reverse had happened, that prehistoric cultures from China had gradually advanced to the West (Romgard 2008, pp. 29 – 30). However, the pendulum is now swinging in the opposite direction, and acceptance of western influences on the genesis of Chinese culture is growing (Romgard 2008, pp. 30-32).

Scientists now feel confident enough to state that “the idea of a European entry either directly from the West or from the steppe cultures in the north is [today] the prevailing theory (Romgard 2008, p. 33).

In the course of more than a century, explorers have mapped sites in the Tarim Basin; they published their findings and then there was a long hiatus. Both World Wars impeded research, and the civil war in China following WWII made any scientific efforts in that part of the world impossible to pursue. It was only after China opened to the West, and travel to the Tarim Basin  became easier, that progress was made once again. The translation of research journals from European languages into Chinese rekindled that effort as well. One wonders what the next century will bring.


Bergman, Folke, 1939. Archaeological researches in Siankang. (Reports from the Scientific Expedition to the North-Western Provinces of China under the Leadership of Dr. Sven Hedin. The Sino-Swedish Expedition. Publication No. 7), Bokförlags Aktiebolaget Thule – Stockholm.

Mallory, J.P. and Victor H. Mair, 2000
The Tarim Mummies. Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West. Thames and Hudson, London.

Romgard, Jan, 2008. Questions of Ancient Human Settlements in Xinjiang and the Early Silk Road Trade, with an Overview of the Silk Road Research Institutions and Scholars in Beijing, Gansu, and Xinjiang. Sino-Platonic Papers, Nr. 185.