Friday, July 16, 2010

Visiting a Bone Detective

If you recall, we worked on a cemetery up in Aberdeen a few months back and recovered some remains. As part of the project, the remains were being sent to Dr. Doug Owsley at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History.

(image from

Doug Owsley is the forensic anthropologist at the museum. In his work he has been called in to help with some of the country’s most notorious crime scenes and tragedies—Branch Davidians, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Pentagon after 9/11. At Jamestown, VA, and St. Mary’s City, Md, Doug has been working to uncover the lost stories of the men and women who settled in these early colonial outposts. His exhibit, "Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th Century Chesapeake" details some of this work.

On Wednesday, the GAC crew visited the museum to transfer the remains found at the cemetery in Aberdeen to Dr. Owsley and were treated to a tour of the facilities of the Anthropology Department.

Our tour started with Dr. Owsley's assistant, Kari Bruwelheide, showing us some of the forensic files they are working on and explaining some of the tools and procedures used in identifying human remains as well as how they ended up in their laboratory.

On our way into the museum we ran into one of our volunteers, Phil Angle. What a surprise! For those who don't know, Phil worked at the museum for over 30 years in the Division of Birds. After our visit with Kari, Phil took us on a tour of the bird collection. There we were introduced to some of the museum's finest bird specimens including a very large ostrich, ivory bill woodpeckers, emperor penquins, birds of paradise and many others!

Once we were done there, Dr. Owsley took us further into the depths of the museum to the mummy room! I must say, this was my favorite part of our tour. There we got a first hand, up close and personal look at a few Egyptian and Peruvian mummies along with some shrunken heads from South America.

We also got a look at some cast-iron coffins which weigh in at around 300 pounds when they are empty! Jim had mentioned these to us when we were excavating the cemetery and we were all relieved that we didn't encounter them!

After we were done with the behind the scenes tour Doug took us through the Written in Bone exhibit and pointed out some of his favorite parts and then left us on our own to explore it.

Written in Bone examines history through 17th-century bone biographies, including those of colonists teetering on the edge of survival at Jamestown, Virginia, and those living in the wealthy and well-established settlement of St. Mary’s City, Maryland. Some of the highlights include sections on bone disease, a forensic anthropology lab, facial reconstruction, medical instruments of the 17th century, lead coffins, forensic cases, and lots and lots of bones! The exhibit runs through January 6, 2013 at the Museum of Natural History and is an absolute must see for everyone!

It was a great opportunity for all of us and we all had a great time. A big thank you goes out to our hosts, Doug Owsley, Kari Bruwelheide, and Phil Angle!

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