Sunday, January 9, 2011

Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17-Century Chesapeake

Where: National Museum of Natural History, 2nd Floor

When: through February 2011

Note that the closing date on this may be misleading! All the online sources I check indicate that this will be on display until February 2013, but I happened to be wandering around the museum one day, after seeing something else, and noticed a large sign giving directions to the show, giving an ending date of this February. I decided to see it now, rather than miss it entirely, and I'm very glad I did.

This exhibit is very large, and probably warrants two lunch time excursions. The first part of the exhibit, which could easily take one lunch time all on its own, concerns the field of forensic anthropology in general. These scientists can examine bones and teeth to learn about a person's death, but also about their life. They have used the bones found in the Chesapeake region to learn about that society in the 1600s and 1700s.

Bones, it turns out, are unique, like fingerprints. Sculptors can put flesh on bones, enabling law enforcement to identify victims by working with forensic anthropologists. It reminded me of the way medical professionals and artists worked together in the Body Inside and Out exhibit I saw last month. In addition, surgical implants can be used to identify people, as they are all marked with manufacturers' codes. Nice to know that if I ever disappear for so long that the only thing left is my skeleton, the police will be able to identify me by my ankle pin!

The second part of the show shows how forensic anthropologists have used these techniques to get information about the people who were early settlers of the Chesapeake region. They've been able to identify Captain Bartholomew Gosnard, an important if little-known figure in American history. Scientists have discovered the settlement at James Fort, where most of the people died during what they called the "Starving time,"1609-1610. The lives of these early settlers were incredibly hard, and their bones show it. One boy, who died during an attack, would most likely have died shortly thereafter in any case, as a result of an abscessed tooth. Truly a reminder that we are lucky to live in a time when penicillin is readily available!

Finally, the skeletons of Dr. Grover Krantz and his Irish wolfhound, Clyde are on display, per the doctor's wish. Odd as it is to believe, their skeletons have been placed in a way that makes them seem happy to be together - as if they are continuing to enjoy each other. (No, I'm not a lunatic - I know that skeletons do not have feelings. Whoever set up the display just did a really good job.) At the end of the exhibit is an actual working forensic anthropology lab. If you had a lot of time available, and this exhibit is probably worth an entire morning or afternoon, you could ask questions of the scientist on duty and learn even more about bones.

Verdict: Very interesting, but requires more than one lunch hour to truly appreciate the entire exhibit. If it's really going to stay up until 2013, you could spread this out over several months (years, even) in order to see it all.

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