Learn Hieroglyphics When You Become a Volunteer Docent at HMNS!

by Gillian Callan

Egyptian hieroglyphs. Once thought to be magic writings that contained the secrets to life, they were deciphered by Thomas Young and Jean Francois Champollion in the early 1800’s. What mysteries did they contain? For the majority of the visitors to the Hall of Ancient Egypt, the glyphs are still a mystery – a bunch of squiggles with pictures of animals interspersed. But for the HMNS Hieroglyph Study Group, they are a chance to learn and practice the language of ancient Egypt.

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Egypt fascinated me from early childhood, but I thought I would never get to study or visit Egypt (I did visit nine years ago, and it was fantastic!). So I thought about what I could learn about Egypt without a degree or a plane ticket. I decided that I would learn hieroglyphs. Mark Collier and Bill Manley wrote a book called How to read Egyptian Hieroglyphs. From them, I learned the basics. Then about four years ago, I met a fellow HMNS volunteer who was also interested in hieroglyphs. Another year passed and another volunteer joined HMNS and mentioned that he was also interested in hieroglyphs and asked if we could start a study group. And that’s how we got started.

In order to make our study time worthwhile to the museum, we tasked ourselves with translating as many of the inscriptions in the Egypt hall as we could. To date, we have completed seven of the longer inscriptions and started on several more. The inscriptions fall into two categories: formulaic writings and hymns. The formulaic writings are offerings to the gods. While they follow a set format, we usually find something different in each of them. The hymns are much more difficult. Poetry in any language is harder to interpret than prose, and Egyptian hymns are no different. It also helps if you understand something of the culture of ancient Egypt.

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Hieroglyphs on the coffin of Ankh-Hap. His name appears in the lower left-hand corner of this photo.

While our translations have not been published to the volunteer website, we did create a flip book with useful translations from objects in the hall. In the flip book, we included a translation of Ankh-Hap’s name on his coffin. Ankh-Hap is the mummy owned by HMNS. We found the name of Gemshuankh (aka the Jolly Green Giant) on his coffin, but then he got renamed to Ankhemma’at, so we revised his translation. We located Ptolemy’s cartouche on the replica Rosetta Stone. (We even located it in Demotic and Greek!) By the way, all the cartouches on the Rosetta Stone belong to Ptolemy V, Epiphanes – no Cleopatra, no wives’ names, just Ptolemy. The idea behind the flip book is that someone working or giving a tour in the hall can take the flip book out of the touchcart (there is one book in each cart) and take it to an object in the hall and show visitors appropriate glyphs and what they mean. One of my favorites is to show the bird in Bakenrenes’ name, followed by the rest of her name. It is repeated several times on the cartonnage coffin and visitors get a kick out of being able to recognize the glyphs.

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The coffin of Bakenrenes. Hieroglyphs appear in the yellow bands across the coffin.

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A close-up of the bottom band.

Egyptian hieroglyphs are not a phonetic script, nor are they picture writing. They are a complex combination of phonetics, picture writing and “syllables”. They can be written left to right, right to left and in columns that also have either a left/right or right/left orientation. The favored direction was right to left. But on coffins, the glyphs were written from head to foot. Writers of hieroglyphs also, on occasion, used shortcuts. They fitted the message into the space available and left out what they could, making it difficult at times to read the message correctly. Kind of like today’s usage of text shortcuts like LOL (laugh out loud) or BTW (by the way).

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The HMNS Hieroglyph Study Group meets every Sunday in the Volunteer Library around noon. Our current members are Gillian Callen, John Cochran, David Santana and Scott Brown, all HMNS volunteers. I also teach basic hieroglyphs to willing volunteers. Last summer I taught a three-day session on glyphs including grammar and sentence structure. While I am self-taught and by no means an expert, I can introduce you to the basics and give you a feel for the ancient Egyptian language. These classes are only open to HMNS volunteers and staff. So, if you are interested, find out about becoming a volunteer and then you can sign up for a class. Then when you walk through the Hall of Ancient Egypt, those squiggles will jump out at you and make at least a little bit of sense. Happy translating!

Editor’s Note: Gillian is an HMNS volunteer docent.

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Explore Movie Monsters this Summer with All-New Special FX Camp

When I was a kid, I lived a couple of years in Singapore. There, at the time, the media was somewhat censored, so your TV viewing options on a Saturday afternoon were limited. Consequently, I have seen the 1981 film Clash of the Titans approximately 60 times. It was on the approved media list, apparently.

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This cinematic masterpiece was produced by Ray Harryhausen, who was known for his special effects techniques well before CGI. What made his techniques fun was the use of stop-motion animation. This made things that would not have otherwise been possible suddenly within the realm of possibility and gave inspiration to some of today’s most famous directors such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton.

 

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For those of you born more recently, Monsters, Inc. threw back to the original Harryhausen. Think you can remember the reference? Here’s a photo of Harryhausen while you think about it…

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Time’s up! “Harryhausen’s” was the name of the restaurant that Mike and Cecelia were canoodling in before Scully and an uninvited Boo interrupted their dinner. Did you get it right?

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This summer, we will be introducing a new generation to the wonders of monster movie magic with a new camp called Monster Movie Maker. Campers will spend part of the day discovering the myths surrounding some of our favorite monsters and doing a little myth-busting with some science experiments; they will also learn the art of stop-motion animation as they create some monster movies of their own. Here are two non-monster related stop motion videos I made for practice.

Finally, they will spend the last part of the day learning some tips and techniques for monster transformation. Check out HMNS’s very own Kelsey, who was transformed from a regular gal to a sassy vampire. As the week progresses, so will the transformations. By the end of the week, campers will be working on applying prosthetics as part of their makeup magic.

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Got a camper between ages 10 and 12, doesn’t have a latex allergy, and wants to come create with us? Click here and sign up for camp! There are only a handful of spots left!

Are you a grown-up who is too old for camp, but still wants to come play monster? Check back here in October. We will be posting some tutorials for some of the simpler monsters make-overs.

Already a monster but want to up your game? We will be offering some Monster Make-Over Classes for some of the more complex monsters this fall. Look for the September-October Museum News, the blog in September or the e-blasts in October for more information.

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No Bones About It: Forensic Workshop Provides Evidence for an Awesome New CSI Summer Camp

At the Houston Museum of Natural Science, we understand the value of education, as it is an integral part of our overall mission. The value placed on education extends to museum employees as well. Whether through offering CPR training to employees or encouraging participation in continuing education in disciplines in which they are already trained, there is always opportunity for growth. I benefited from this forward-thinking mindset in April. Let me tell you a little bit about this amazing opportunity.

I participated in the Forensic Anthropology and Skeletal Recovery workshop presented by the Forensic Science Center. This 40-hour experience was spent learning to identify bones as human or animal, creating biological profiles using skeletal remains, and recovering buried remains along with associated evidence. In addition to furthering my education, I was able to meet some interesting people, like my new friend pictured here.

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Forensic anthropology is the application of anthropology to criminal investigations. The forensic anthropologist is often called in to help in the recovery of skeletal remains and to create biological profiles using bones to help identify an unknown individual. Let me tell you a little bit about how it works.

First thing’s first — if what looks like a bone is found, whether it could be something else must be determined. There are a surprising number of things that look like bone. Even anthropologists can be fooled from a distance. Below is a picture taken on my trip to Saudi Arabia; the item is about the size of a half dollar.  At first glance, I thought it was bone, but on closer inspection, I decided it was not. It is most likely a piece of coral, fashioned into a circular shape many years ago, by human hands. So, not bone . . . still cool. I can live with that.

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The fact that it was found next to the piece below, which is absolutely bone, made it much more likely to assume the above piece was bone as well.

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Once you determine the specimen is a real bone, you need to find out if it is human or from some other type of animal. This is harder than you might think. All mammals have the same skeletal template. This means all mammals have all of the same bones, in approximately the same places. However, the morphology of the bone, which is its shape, and how the bones relate to each another, differs between humans and other animals. Bone is classified as human or not by considering its size, shape, and structure. 

We examined two tables filled with all kinds of bones, both human and other. What an amazing experience! You can read about identifying human bone, but you really don’t get a feel for the process until you’ve had the opportunity to touch them and hold them in your hands. Check out one of the tables, filled with long bones.

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Ok, great, let’s assume the bone we’ve been talking about is real and it’s human. Now what? Well, we need to establish what elements of the skeleton are present and how many individuals are associated with the burial. This is done by laying the bones out in the order you would find them in a living person. This is called the anatomical position. When done, you will know what parts are missing and it also allows the opportunity to scan each bone for trauma.

Turns out that laying out a skeleton isn’t too hard, until you get to the ribs (and hands and feet, but we weren’t required to do that). My partner and I get points for being clever. We discovered a number on the side of each rib. This made things go much faster! What can I say? I’m competitive. Given time, we would have gotten it right without the help of numbers; I say work smarter, not harder.

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The next question — are the remains modern or ancient? Police will not be interested in an ancient Native American burial, but they will be interested in any human remains less than 50 years old. Whether bones are ancient or modern can often be determined by associated artifacts. Cell phone? Most likely modern. Pottery shards? A good bet it’s ancient.

The next order of business is to identify the person to whom the skeleton belongs. This is done by creating a biological profile, which includes the estimated age, sex, ancestry, and stature of the individual. Knowing this information helps investigators narrow the amount of potential candidates from the missing persons database. When possible matches are found, dental X-rays or unique identifiers such as healed fractures or bone abnormalities are used to make a positive identification.

Next, we reviewed how to determine probably ancestry and sex using the skull, and then worked with a variety of specimens of varying ancestry, both males and females. This particular skull was a real challenge.

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Some were a little easier.

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And some skulls were as interesting as they were simple to identify. Check out this awesome specimen. It was modified into a teaching aide. Sections of bone were removed and then replaced with hinges so they could open to reveal substructures and close to observe surface structures. Notice where a portion of the jaw was removed to illustrate the root structure of the teeth. Absolutely fascinating!

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Later we took a field trip to the crime scene house where they train law enforcement personnel. So cool! We worked on surface recovery of skeletal remains in the yard surrounding the house. This included gridding out the entire crime scene into one-meter squares using stakes and string. Then we got busy documenting the scene using photography and sketches.

After the initial preparations, we cleared the entire area of grass and debris. This was quite an undertaking, but I did discover three .22 shell casings because of our careful work. Our skeleton was rocking some awesome boots, as you can see below.

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The last two days we spent on the recovery of skeletal remains from a clandestine burial. This is hard work! The first step was to find the grave using a probe to penetrate the ground looking for disturbed soil. Disturbed soil is more loosely packed than undisturbed soil, making the probe slide easily into the ground. Once located, we gridded out our work space, removed grass and debris, and collected surface evidence. Pink flags indicate the likely outer limits of the burial site.

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It was then time to move a ton of dirt, a little at a time. All dirt was sifted, after removal, to collect evidence that may have been missed during excavation. Precise measurements were taken for anything found associated with the burial. It could be tedious at times, but it really got exciting when things started to turn up! We found our skeleton about four feet down. That’s a lot of digging when using a hand trowel, a paint brush, and bamboo skewers!

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I’m excited to put my new training to work as I prepare brand new forensic science Labs-on-Demand classes and a brand new CSI camp experience for Xplorations Summer Camp 2017. It will be amazing for students to be able to interact with real bones and engage in the kinds of processes used by practicing forensic anthropologists!

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Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 5/23-5/29

Last week’s featured #HMNSBlockParty creation is by Makinley (age 9): 

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Want to get your engineering handwork featured? Drop by our Block Party interactive play area and try your own hand building a gravity-defying masterpiece. Tag your photos with #HMNSBlockParty.

Memorial Day Weekend Hours:
HMNS – Hermann Park – May 27-30: 9:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
HMNS at Sugar Land – Monday, May 30: 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Lecture – Lunar Exploration, A Captivating Science by David Kring
Tuesday, May 24
6:30 p.m.
A compelling case can be made that exploration of the Moon is the shortest and least expensive route to a fundamental change in our understanding of our origins. The capability being developed with NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew vehicle provides the nation with an outstanding opportunity to reinvigorate its space program beyond low-Earth orbit. A decade-long series of studies have identified the best landing sites and traverse routes to maximize scientific return in missions that could be conducted throughout the 2020s. The lunar farside and specifically the Schrödinger impact basin is the highest priority target.
This program is sponsored by The Lunar Planetary Institute.

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