Thursday, May 3, 2012

Learning More About the Mummified Arm

     Last Thursday I took a field trip of sorts, to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.  Forensic anthropologists Doug Owsley and Kari Bruwelheide from the NMNH very graciously offered to do some testing on our museum’s mummified arm.  I was very excited to make the trip, because it has been several years since I’ve visited the NMNH and also because I’m eager to learn more about the arm. 

I packed the arm in an acid-free box, with plenty of ethafoam and acid-free tissue to protect it and to prevent it from shifting in the box during the trip. I also tied the lid onto the box to prevent the arm from falling out. It was raining that day, so I also took along a plastic bag to cover the box if necessary. Fortunately, the rain held off until I got into the museum.

     While waiting near the museum’s entrance to meet Kari, one of the museum’s visitors glanced at the box I was holding and asked if I’d brought donuts for everyone.  I wonder what his reaction would have been if I’d shown him what was really inside the box?!

The National Museum of Natural History building. As you can see by all the buses parked in front, it was a very busy day for them. And no, I wasn’t carrying the arm down the National Mall! I actually took this shot after we left the museum.

     Kari escorted me up to her lab and we spent a few minutes examining the arm.  She confirmed that it came from a young person.  I gave her the history we had for it, and promised to forward any additional information I could find.  She answered a few questions I had about the arm, and told me about a few of the tests they might be able to do on it.  At the very least, it is destined for an X-ray and a CT scan.  There are other tests which may be done which could tell us what chemicals were used to preserve the arm, and even possibly in what part of the country its owner lived.  I’m sure that after we receive all the test results I will have another blog post for you!

Kari and I discussing the arm.

     Kari offered me a tour of her lab, which I was very happy to accept!  It was fascinating.  They have bones which were discovered at the Jamestown Settlement – these are 400 year old bones which still have stories to "tell"!  They also have remains from criminal cases.  I have to admit that seeing the one that was obviously of a small child was sobering.  Still, it is amazing to see the amount of information they can obtain from these bones.

Here’s the lab - my favorite part of the trip!

     Next, it was recommended that I view the Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th Century Chesapeake exhibit there at the museum.  It mainly it focuses on remains found at Jamestown, Virginia and St. Mary’s City, Maryland, and what was learned about the colonists lives. 

The image of the man at the entrance to the exhibit changes from a colonist to a modern man as you walk past it.   I tried to capture the effect by getting a shot in which he appears to be wearing half of each outfit.
That handsome fellow in the red shirt standing in front of the panel is my husband, who couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the museum!

     Again, it was fascinating to see what they’d been able to learn from the bones, and to see how they were able to make these discoveries.  If you’re in the area, it is well worth the time to visit this exhibit!

I'm always looking at exhibits and displays at other museums to get ideas. I really liked the way they displayed the skeletons. The display looks clean and simple - there aren't complicated mounts involved to keep the bones in place, yet they are still easily visible from every side. I thought it had a lot of visual interest and impact. 

     Testing on the mummified arm may take a few months, so I will have to wait patiently for the results.  In the meantime, I’ll be looking into some options for displaying it.  Since it is associated with the Battle of Antieam, we hope to have it on display by this September, in time for the 150th anniversary of the battle.  I'm looking forward to having more of its "story" to share when we display it.

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