Labor Day! Fun For The Long Weekend At HMNS

Monday is Labor Day – and you know what that means, right?

LONG WEEKEND.

In case you’re wondering how to fill the long hours between Friday afternoon and Tuesday morning, here’s a list of the top ten weekend experiences you can have with the family at HMNS all weekend long.

That’s right – we’re open MONDAY! Because we’re here for you. 

10. Come And Take It!

A look at the stunning variety of fascinating artifacts from Texas’ rich history, that is.

Come And Take It
The Come And Take It Cannon!
See a full set of photos from the exhibit on Flickr

Texas! The Exhibition closes at 5 pm on Monday, Sept 5 – so don’t miss your last chance to see Santa Anna’s spurs, Davy Crockett’s violin, the Davis Guards Medal and many other objects from a huge swath of Texas history – from prehistoric cultures to the Spindletop oil gusher.

Preview the exhibit with our blog series on Texas History! (And see how you can win free tickets to see the exhibit closing weekend!)

9. Ramble through Borneo with Orangutans

And while you’re at it, explore Tsavo with young elephants.

Born To Be Wild
The cuteness! See it this weekend in Born To Be Wild 3D at HMNS!

Born To Be Wild 3D is a fascinating, entertaining and heart-warming film chronicling the efforts of two pioneering women to save orphaned animals.

Time Out New York says “The kids will squeal with delight.” We think you probably will, too.

8. Discover The True Meaning of Mayan Prophecies 

2012: Mayan Prophecies
2012: Mayan Prophecies in the HMNS Planetarium

Worried about 2012? Explore the Mayan culture in this new planetarium film. Learn why Dec. 21, 2012 will be just another day, but the Mayan culture’s true contributions to civilization are unique and fascinating.

7. Solve A Crime!

If watching CSI makes you think you think “I could do that!” – this exhibit is for you! Study fingerprints, chromatographs, DNA, insect lifecycles, tire marks, hair analysis, thread comparison, and handwriting analysis to catch the culprit!

Crime Lab Detective opens at the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land on Saturday, Sept. 3!

6. Watch A Butterfly Enter The World!

Cockrell Butterfly Center

Our butterflies flit through a three-story, glass enclosed rain forest habitat – and it’s a showstopper of the large-scale variety. But you shouldn’t miss the Hall of Entomology on the upper level – where you can watch butterflies emerge from their chrysalides daily. It’s a quiet moment of tranformation, rebirth and wonder that everyone should experience.

5. Discover a Modern-Day Dragon

Think all dragons breathe fire? Some just flash it – including The Dragon, one of the world’s most famous mineral specimens.

The Dragon | HMNS Mineral Hall

It just so happens to be part of our collection – on permanent display in the Hall of Gems and Minerals, along with literally hundreds of the world’s finest gems and minerals. Hundreds. 

4. Develop An Intense Desire To Wear This.

Ancient Ukraine Exhibit at HMNS
Preview the entire exhibition in this set of photos on Flickr.

If you’ve followed our advice on #4, you’ve likely whetted your appetite for gold. And our Ancient Ukraine exhibition (closing Sept. 5!) could be called: Gold! Oh, And Some More Gold. (Except that it also features fascinating artifacts made from many other materials, from the entire 6,000 year history of Ukraine.)

Get an idea of what you’re in for in our curator’s blog series on Ancient Ukraine.

3. Spend Saturday With The Stars!

George Observatory

Long weekends are the perfect time to make the long drive out to our George Observatory. It’s an hour outside Houston, but that means light pollution is at a minimum – and stars are at a maximum.

If you’ve never been, you will marvel  at the number of stars you can see with the naked eye – and the astronomical detail you can view through our Gueymard telescope, one of the largest in the country that’s available for public viewing.

The Observatory is open every Saturday night from 3 – 10 pm. Get Directions and information on Admission.

2. Explore Two Continents

Hall of the Americas

Our Hall of the Americas features cultures from the Inuit in Alaska to the Inca of Peru – go on an expedition through hundred of years of American history and over 2 continents this weekend!

1. Take The Science Fun Home!

The HMNS Museum Store has a metric ton of science ideas and activities to take home – and your purchases always support our science educational programs! Grab the Pocket Starfinder for your Big Bend camping excursion, take the Encyclopedia of Texas Shells on a seashore expedition, or identify what’s fluttering around your own backyard with the Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas Guide.

From a Galileo Thermometer to track the summer heat to a Dinosaur Hunter Field Canteen, we’ve got everything you need to close out the summer right!

Here’s to a great long weekend – hope to see you here at HMNS!

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.

Rhyton
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.

References:
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
.

Ancient Ukraine: The Middle and Late Bronze Age

In my last blog on Ukraine, I discussed the Bronze age as defined by archaeologists and focused on the Early Bronze Age as it pertained to the Ukraine. Today I focus on the Middle and Late Bronze Ages. You can read my previous blog here.

The Middle Bronze Age: the Catacomb culture (2800 – 2500 BC)
The origins of the Catacomb cultures go back to 2800 – 2700 BC. The earliest Catacomb culture graves are located in the steppes north of the northern Caucasus and in the Don valley. Over a period of two to three centuries, the Catacomb culture spread west throughout the entire Pontic region, as far as the mouth of the Danube River.

The Catacomb culture is known for its sophisticated bronze weapons, tools and ornaments. There are great similarities in material culture between the area in the northern Caucasus and the steppes. These include bronze pins and medallions

 
Examples of bronze weapons, Catacomb culture (2800 – 2500 BC)

Wagon burials continued in the Catacomb region for exceptional people. In the Ingul valley, west of the Dnieper, as well as in the steppes north of the Caucasus, some Catacomb graves contained skeletons with clay death masks applied to the skull.

The Catacomb economy emphasized pastoralism.  One grave near Tsa-Tsa, south of the Volga, contained no less than forty horse skulls, placed in two rows (Anthony 2007:325).  This presence underscores the importance of the horse at that time. We might also be looking at a funeral feast, where the forty horses may have yielded about 8,000 kg of meat, enough to provide 4,000 individuals with 2kg of horsemeat each. Such a culinary peculiarity is much frowned upon on these shores today, but not so much in other parts of the world, where horsemeat is still considered a delicacy. 

The Late Bronze Age in Ukraine: the Srubnaya culture (1800 – 1200 BC)
The Srubnaya culture or timber-grave culture was present in an areaextending from the Ural Mountains in the east to the Dnieper River in the West. There is good evidence that the Srubnaya people were participants in a trade network extending beyond their own territory. The Late Bronze Age saw a tremendous increase in trade throughout the Eurasian steppes. As one of the archaeologists working in the area put it:

“The Late Bronze Age (LBA) was a period of unprecedented intercultural expansion and trade in the Eurasian steppes. Rich copper deposits in the steppe zone were mined more intensively than before. Ornate bronze weapons and ornaments created by steppe metal smiths were adopted from China to Eastern Europe. Chariots diffused through the steppes to China, the Near East and Europe.

Settlements became much more substantial and archaeologically visible, particularly in the northern steppes. For the first time, a chain of related cultures with similar economies and ritual practices extended from the Carpathians to the Tien Shan.” 

 
 Bronze sword (10th – 8th century BC), engraved with pictograms (seen in detail on the right).

There are objects in the exhibit that point to ideas, perhaps even objects reaching Ukrainian territory all the way from the Far East. Visitors can see a bronze sword, dating to the 10th to 8th century BC, engraved with pictograms. These are similar to pictogramscreated in Zhou Period China during the eighth to third centuries BC. 

What we might have on display is material evidence of the Silk Road that connected east and west, a series of trade routes that would have taken people through the Tien Shan mountain passes. The knowledge of using pictograms may have taken this route from east to west. One wonders if perhaps the sword itself traveled that route.

The Bronze Age in Ukraine was a period of major changes, both in terms of environment, as well as technological breakthroughs. People became more and more connected to a wider world, one that brought new ideas as well as greater dangers. This trend will continue into the Iron Age, a topic for the next blog.

Interested in learning more? Make sure to check out our new exhibition Ancient Ukraine, now open.

References

Anthony, D.
2007 The Horse, the Wheel and Language. How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.

Shislina, N.
2001 Eurasian Steppe Nomad. In Encyclopedia of Prehistory: Europe, Vol. 4. Edited by P.N. Peregrine and M. Ember, pp. 1240138. Human Relations Area File, Inc.

Discover Ancient Ukraine! [PHOTOS]

Five Things You Might Not Know About Ukraine:

1. It was at the center of Kyivan Rus, which during the 10th and 11th centuries was the largest and most powerful state in Europe.

2. At 603,550 square km, it’s only slightly smaller than Texas.

3. Ukrainian tradition dictates that it’s capital city, Kiev, was founded by Vikings.

4. It boasts this stunning castle, which you can now eat Italian food in.

5. Stunning artifacts from Ukraine’s long – as home to one of the world’s oldest recorded cultures – and rich history are currently on display here at HMNS, in our new, two-part exhibition, Ancient Ukraine: Golden Treasures and Lost Civilizations.

Just how stunning? I am so glad you asked. We’ve just posted a new Flickr set that gives you a sneak peek into this fascinating exhibition.

Ancient Ukraine Exhibit at HMNS
The Glory of Ukraine: Sacred Images from the 11th to the 19th Centuries
The Glory of Ukraine: Sacred Images from the 11th to the 19th Centuries
Ancient Ukraine Exhibit at HMNS
Ancient Ukraine Exhibit at HMNS

Want to see more? Check out new Flickr set and visit the museum to experience Ukrainian history for yourself!