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Written in Bone National Museum of Natural History

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FC: Written in Bone: Forensic files of the 17th Century Chesapeake | A Docent Led Tour

1: The NMNH is currently showing an exhibition called Written in Bone: Forensic files of the 17th century Chesapeake. It is based on the use of modern technology in the archaeological excavations of St. Mary’s City in Maryland, and the original Jamestown settlement in Virginia. Each was a prominent city in the history of the early colonies and each was subsequently abandoned, with the exact location of the settlement lost in the shuffle of history. The two sites were rediscovered in the 1980s and Smithsonian scientists headed the archaeological projects using both traditional techniques and new technology to track the lives and deaths of the earliest western settlers of the Chesapeake region.

2: This exhibition was envisioned as a multimedia presentation from the start, with physical displays, short informative movies throughout the exhibit and an accompanying web presence that could be accessed via handheld smart phones while in the exhibit or used as an additional resource. At the end of the exhibit is a forensic anthropology lab where visitors can visit several stations that allow them to work as scientific investigators. Many of the same tools and information that is available to real investigators are available to visitors and they can work their way through the identification of remains by using these tools. Docents are well versed on the specifics of the cases and often can add material that seems unavailable elsewhere and most are very willing to share most enthusiastically.

3: The Smithsonian has committed to making the objects in their museums accessible for schools, families and educators. Anderson et al(2006) recommend pre and post visit experiences and materials. The online component of the Written in Bone exhibit, for example includes an educator manual, lesson plans, a web-comic, The Secret in the Cellar, forensic case files of different bodies in the exhibition, and a primer on how bones grow and change throughout life and after what can be learned from the bones after death. Additionally , the online dropdowns and suggested links give a fair amount of specialized and background information. It cannot be assumed that the audience seeks an Internet exhibit option from each museum, but the addition of technology can add a great deal to the exhibit. I feel that the Written In Bone exhibition accomplishes this and other goals in a well balanced way.

4: Recreation of a modern Forensic Lab

5: Such an exhibit requires that visitors be brought up to speed on what they are about to see, and how the information was gained, so the first segment focuses on the human skeleton and what can be learned from studying it. Further in there is a modern case study of a recent murder that was solved using forensic pathology techniques. The case is then made via signage, displays and video clips, that the same techniques that were used to identify bones and to determine the effects that life in the new colonies had on people. The entire exhibit challenges the visitor to see life as it was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while simultaneously presenting the people as similar to people today, The facial reconstructions do an amazing job of making these long dead settlers, servants and slaves come alive as real people with real lives.

7: The main developers of the exhibition were curators Douglas Owsley and Karin Brewelheide. Both are forensic pathologists who were involved in the excavation and subsequent identification of many of the remains from both sites. Both are also involved in modern day forensic investigations at the Smithsonian and in conjunction with law enforcement agencies. Short movies throughout the exhibit the use of such varied technologies as ground penetrating radar, spectrographic bone analysis, fiber optic cameras and facial reconstruction, that are used to identify human remains. The effect is to take the dry dead bones and rediscover the lives that were led and lost in the early history of the Chesapeake region. The main visitor groups addressed are explorers and hobbyists(Falk 2009).

8: Conditions of burial, positioning, and even the materials involved give information about the ethnicity, social position and even birthplace of the person. | Docents complete a 6 week training course on engaging visitors as well as on the science of forensic anthropology and history of the Maryland and Virginia colonies

9: As the docent guides us through the exhibit there are constant reminders that the knowledge gained from the excavations and subsequent study of skeletal remains were the most reliable data, as written accounts are invariably biased, and often leave out the regular folks that truly built the region. In certain cases written accounts are validated, while other displays allow the group leader to expand upon the history of people who have been ignored in written media of the time; indentured servants, slaves, and native Americans. Their stories are discovered primarily from physical remains, artifacts and conditions of burial.

10: Docents share the personal stories of what life was like for those who settled in the Virgina and Maryland colonies

11: Efforts were made from the very beginning to humanize the remains and to help visitors to see that these were real people from various backgrounds, each with a story to tell. In the hundreds of years since they died, those voices were silent, and only through forensic science are the bones able to speak. The host engages visitors from the beginning witb questions that can be answered by examining the objects and tableaux and wraps up with additional information that can be gleaned from skeletal remains in the forensic lab.

12: A true to life example of the use of forensic anthropology to identify a man dead over 400 years.

13: In 2003, archaeologists announced the discovery of the remains of a high-ranking male colonist who was buried ceremoniously just outside the 1607 James Fort site at Historic Jamestowne,Virginia. Using forensic science the remains were identified as Captain Bartholomew Gosnold In 1605, he planned the Jamestown Colony with Captain John Smith and obtained an exclusive charter from King James for the Virginia Company to settle Virginia. Smith credits Gosnold as the prime mover of the colonization of Virginia. Gosnold was captain of the Godspeed, and one of the six members of the original governing council that designed James Fort. Gosnold, a former privateer, discovered and named Massachusetts’ Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard in 1602, and captained one of three ships that carried settlers from England to Virginia in 1607. He died three months later, at age 36.

14: References Anderson, David, James Kisiel, and Martin Storksdieck. "Understanding teachers perspectives on field trips: Discovering common ground in three countries." Curator 49 (July 2006): 365 - 386. Falk, J.H. (2009). Identity and the museum visitor experience. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc. NMNH Written in Bone Website http://anthropology.si.edu/writteninbone/

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Mike Murphy
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  • Title: Written in Bone National Museum of Natural History
  • The NMNH is currently showing an exhibition called Written in Bone: Forensic files of the 17th century Chesapeake. It is based on the use of modern technology in the archaeological excavations of St. Mary’s City in Maryland, and the original Jamestown settlement in Virginia. Each was a prominent city in the history of the early colonies and each was subsequently abandoned, with the exact location of the settlement lost in the shuffle of history. The two sites were rediscovered in the 1980s and Smithsonian scientists headed the archaeological projects using both traditional techniques and new technology to track the lives and deaths of the earliest western settlers of the Chesapeake region.
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  • Published: over 5 years ago

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