Table of contents
In a room featuring silver plates, wooden furniture with ceramics on top, and a black pot hanging in a fireplace, a wax figure of a person wearing a beret and red and green kilt holds a book with one hand and touches an object on the mantle with the other.

In Defense of Museums

In response to news of ethical violations by museums, a curator reflects on the past and future missions of such institutions.
A large furry, horned animal stands on grassy terrain with a forest behind and airborne dust surrounding it.

Why Store 41,000 Bison Bones?

An archaeologist explains why a museum keeps so many bones from the Jones-Miller site, an ice age bison kill on the North American plains.
Under a blue sky, a row of several wooden beams protrudes out of a large wall of cobbled sandstones.

The Astounding Origins of Chaco Canyon Timber

In a nearly treeless desert, Ancestral Puebloans built Great Houses with more than 200,000 massive log beams. Where they got the wood has long puzzled archaeologists.
A close-up photograph features a sculpture depicting a person wearing a headwrap and dress leaning on a tombstone at a gravesite etched with the numbers “1941–1945.”

When Life Imitates Art in Ukraine

Photographs from Russia’s war on Ukraine dissolve an archaeologist’s fondness for a Soviet-era sculpture.
A light-brown cross section of a tree shows narrow and wide tree rings.

Tree Rings Are Evidence of the Megadrought—and Our Doom

Scientists are using dendroclimatology to investigate megadroughts in the western U.S., and the trees are telling a disturbing tale.

Two Pioneering Female Archaeologists

Hannah Marie Wormington and Cynthia Irwin-Williams grew up in a time when women were banned from some anthropology classrooms, yet they forged successful careers and set examples as supportive and inspiring leaders.
A black-and-white photograph shows the profile of a Black person on a horse in an open space.

A Hidden Figure in North American Archaeology

A Black cowboy named George McJunkin, who died 100 years ago, found a site that would transform scientific views about the deep history of Native Americans in North America.

The Blockbuster Exhibit That Shouldn’t Have Been

Museum curators have occasionally embellished archaeological finds with compelling but questionable stories. Consider the Field Museum’s "Magdalenian Girl."
A collection of tall, thin wooden statues of different heights rests against a wall.

Do Stolen Sacred Objects Experience Culture Shock?

Ancestral memorials from Kenya called vigango have been stolen and sold as "art" around the world. An anthropologist working to return them wonders what the spirits experience when they are displaced.

How Museums Can Do More Than Just Repatriate Objects

It is beautiful when museums go beyond returning objects toward “propatriation”—collaborating to commission new objects for display.
Mesa Verde Ancestral Puebloan - Stone axes used by Ancestral Puebloans left distinctive jagged marks on wood, as seen on this beam end from a tree cut down around A.D. 625.

The Phantom Forests That Built Mesa Verde

For years, archaeologists working in Mesa Verde National Park have been looking for evidence of where Ancestral Puebloans harvested the thousands of trees they used to build their elaborate cliff dwellings.
do twins share soul - The author and his twin pose with ère ìbejì on display at a 1967 Field Museum exhibition.

Do Twins Share a Soul?

An anthropologist—and identical twin—grapples with different cultural understandings of twinship.
archaeology marijuana - Commercial marijuana products in the U.S. have proliferated since recreational use has been legalized in 11 states.

An Archaeology of Marijuana

How did cannabis—a plant humans have been using for more than 10,000 years—become so vilified in the U.S.?
wildfire archaeology - The first poster of Smokey Bear, the U.S. Forest Service’s now famous mascot for forest fire suppression, appeared in 1944.

Wildfire Archaeology and the Burning American West

Archaeologists in New Mexico are pioneering surprising research methods—involving tree rings, pottery, and blasts of light—to explain why wildfire suppression doesn’t work.
Total hip replacement surgeries, using titanium parts such as those shown, have become a routine medical procedure.

Two Surgeries, 800 Years Apart

An archaeologist’s hip surgery prompts him to reimagine the experience of a Puebloan woman who survived a terrible fall centuries ago.

A Curator’s Search for Justice

One museum’s saga of returning stolen vigango statues to Kenya reveals how repatriating sacred objects is both the right thing and a very hard thing to do.
history of masks

The Masked Man

A history of masks reveals how humans have used them to hide, disguise, transform, and protect themselves.
radiocarbon dating

The Scientific Sorcery of Radiocarbon Dating

An archaeologist explains why figuring out an object's age is harder than you think.
panic buying coronavirus

Why We Buy Weird Things in Times of Crisis

With COVID-19 making its way around the United States, people are emptying stores of toilet paper. Archaeology throws a light on other bouts of odd consumer behavior.
Sensory deprivation tanks purportedly help floaters enter a deeply relaxed state.

What the Cacophony of Modern Life Taught Me About Noise in the Ancient World

After floating in a sensory deprivation tank and visiting Dave & Buster’s, one archaeologist ponders our ancient ancestors’ soundscapes.
In this undeveloped section of Rio Rancho Estates, New Mexico, roads have been cut, but virtually no homes have been constructed for decades.

A Tale of Two Ruins

New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon showcases magnificent structures that were built on ingenuity. By contrast, the state’s Rio Rancho Estates was built on fraud.
Stela 3 from Caracol was on display at DMNS but is currently in the museum’s basement.

What Do Monuments Reveal About Their Makers?

An archaeologist ponders memorials—from the Monti gate to the Taj Mahal—and finds clues about the reasons people want to be remembered.
stone age myths - Stone Age hominins probably also used wood and other materials to make tools, as in this diorama from the National Museum of Mongolian History.

Stone Age Myths We’ve Made Up

Commonly held views of ancient history are often colored by what survives in the archaeological record—and by cultural biases.
A young visitor at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science's virtual reality arcade experiences a simulated tour through space.

What Would Leonardo da Vinci Think of the Future?

On the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, an archaeologist and curator imagines the inventor and artist teleported to our time.
fat acceptance

Who Decided It Was Bad to Be Fat?

Westerners have long shunned obese people, and this attitude now pervades much of the globe. Was this always the case?
Zuni artist Ronnie Cachini works on his painting in his studio.

What Google Maps Don’t Show You

The long history of Native American tribes is nowhere to be found on modern maps. So the Zuni decided it was time to create their own kind of cartography.
A wide shot features a collection of artifacts on tables with four additional floors towering overhead. A crowd of people gathers in a line in the background.

The Skeletons in the Museum Closet

Can natural history museums justify their collections of human remains?
These are the caves where many of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947.

How Do We Know Which Historical Accounts Are True?

For many years, scholars believed oral history was no more accurate than mythology. It turns out they were wrong.
These well-preserved ancient sandals came from Tularosa Cave. For an idea of their size, the center one is about 24 centimeters long.

Why Are Some Caves Full of Shoes?

An archaeologist explores how shoes have embodied our identities through the ages.
This astrological calendar—found circa 1900, in Uruk, Iraq—was created by the Sumerians, who probably devised the world’s first linear calendar around 3000 B.C.

Is Cyclical Time the Cure to Technology’s Ills?

We can continue our obsessive, harried pursuit of new technology, or we can relax and enjoy life more—but we can’t do both.
ancient roman bathrooms - To ancient Romans, the practice of sitting on a shared toilet in an open room full of people was entirely ordinary.

What Did Ancient Romans Do Without Toilet Paper?

An archaeologist explains what ancient Roman bathrooms were like. Hint: It involved a long stick and a bucket of vinegar.
embalming culture - Cremations are sometimes conducted on funeral pyres, which range from simple piles of wood to beautiful, elaborate structures. The one pictured here was built for an important Buddhist holy man in northern Thailand.

The Weird, Wild World of Mortuary Customs

Embalming is just one among the world’s wide variety of funeral practices, and in a sense it’s as ordinary as any other. Then again, it’s pretty strange.
Members of the Hopewell culture obtained materials from across North America.

Transcontinental Travel—2,000 Years Ago

People who were part of the Hopewell culture ventured far and wide to obtain large quantities of raw materials.
Tree ring dating - Wooden beams used in ancient structures in the Mesa Verde region, such as this one examined by the author in June 2007, hold clues about the area’s previous residents.

How Archaeologists Uncover History With Trees

Tree-ring dating helps answer questions about pre-Columbian life in the Mesa Verde region.
Peace Medals

Were Peace Medals the Price of Loyalty?

Among gifts, the peace medal is one of the most coveted—and complex.
Uncirculated Carson City, Nevada, Morgan dollars were made available for purchase in the 1970s.

The Surreal World of Money

Without the material value of a literal coin, we are left to trust in the symbolic relationships that give meaning to money.
Folsom site - A Folsom spear point was discovered between the ribs of an extinct species of bison—but was it really proof that humans had killed the animal?

Why the Famous Folsom Point Isn’t a Smoking Gun

Scientific findings tend to be provisional. That’s a good thing.
Folsom point - A flash flood in 1908 exposed this profoundly important archaeological site near Folsom, New Mexico.

How the Folsom Point Became an Archaeological Icon

Scientific discoveries usually involve many people working over long periods of time. But they are generally worth the wait.
Prison art - “Prisoners,” a sculpture by Vasily Konovalenko, depicts the harsh reality of Soviet labor camps during Joseph Stalin’s rule.

Capturing the Art of Imprisonment

The faces of Soviet-era prisoners in a famous sculpture speak volumes about the brutal circumstances that millions experienced under Joseph Stalin. But what of prisoners today in the U.S.?
The Many Hands shirt was created around 1910 by Bessie Black Horn to commemorate the “multiple handshakes” that Chief Daniel Black Horn had with European dignitaries.

The Many Hands Shirt: Reuniting a Family and an Heirloom

Sometimes objects in museum collections lead to a lot of conflict. In the best cases, though, they give rise to mutual respect and gratitude.
Dendrochronologist Henri Grissino-Mayer and colleagues study the tree rings in the Karr-Koussevitzky double bass. Their analysis ultimately determined that the instrument was built much later than previously thought.

A Double Bass, Tree Rings, and the Truth

Growth rings in wood can be used to date some surprising objects—even stringed instruments.
The Huey helicopter has become one of the most widely recognized military vehicles of all time.

The Sound and Fury of the Huey Helicopter

History has produced a lot of famous war machines, but only a few of them have become icons.
Clovis point

A Relic of the Past Soars Into the Final Frontier

An astronaut brought an ancient Clovis point to the space station. What object would you choose to send into space?

The Revolutionary Genius of Neanderthals

Our often-ridiculed ancestors were capable of abstract thought. They deserve some respect. Exhibit A: Neanderthals' Levallois technique.
silk road

The Silk Ribbon of Highways

What do 53-foot shipping containers and Bactrian camels have in common? Not much at first glance, but dig a little deeper and you find some surprising similarities.
culture time

The Long Count

How we memorialize significant events says a lot about our cultural view of time. Consider the Chief White Horse Winter Count.
A baseball cap can say a lot about someone, including the person’s social identity and status. How Trump wears his signature hat, for example, communicates a certain message to appeal to voters.

The Way Trump Wears His Hat

Donald Trump’s simple fashion statement speaks volumes.
Tupilaq, a malevolent spirit-monster known to Indigenous people in Greenland, can employ different guises in order to wreak vengeance on behalf of its creator.

Spirit-Monsters and the Curse of the Chicago Cubs

What do a figurine from Greenland, a burning desire to win, and one man’s plot to overcome a goat's curse have to do with the World Series?
In Ohio in the early 1920s, archaeologists excavated a beautifully stylized effigy hand that was made from a single sheet of mica.

Is a Hand Wave a Universal Greeting?

Whether across the expanse of thousands of years or alongside a river, the hand wave is a gesture that holds social meaning. But has it always been used as a positive greeting?

Forget Not the Mighty Zipper

Velcro might appear to be victorious, but the zipper, a 100-year-old invention, arguably still reigns in both familiar and unexpected places.
It would be hard to guess, but this arrangement of bamboo sticks and cowrie shells makes up a map of the ocean and the greater Marshall Islands region.

Lost or Found? A Stick Chart From the Marshall Islands

Long before Siri, GPS, and well-worn road atlases, mariners relied on ancient, time-tested navigational tools such as stick charts.
Moscow Route

How Did We Ever Live Without GPS?

GPS is everywhere these days, but if it suddenly disappeared all would not be lost: We’ve been making cognitive maps for eons.
The archaeological record tends to preserve stone tools rather than perishable remains, such as this split-twig figurine found in Dolores Cave, near Gunnison, Colorado.

Did Women and Children Exist in Prehistory?

Mother Nature doesn’t play fair when it comes to the preservation of archaeological remains. Should we study gender archaeology?
Tree-ring cores, like this one collected at Mesa Verde, can provide accurate and precisely dated information about an archaeological site.

HH-39: Why Good Science Doesn’t Need Eureka Moments

The development of tree-ring dating offers a great example of why good science often takes time.

The Right to Own Living Memorials

Hundreds of memorial statues stolen from Kenya and Tanzania have ended up in U.S. museums. Should the principle of informed consent be applied to (apparently) inanimate objects?

Skeleton Sex Pots

An unusual container produced by the Moche civilization of Peru raises many questions about their society—and our own views of sex.
Vasily Konovalenko’s Martin Luther King in Sapphire was sculpted from the world’s largest known black sapphire.

Martin Luther King Jr., in Sapphire

When it came to carving the likeness of the immortal Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the world's most valuable sapphire, there was no room for error.
This Acheulean hand ax was collected in 1960 in Saudi Arabia, and is now held by the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. It is almost perfectly symmetrical, about the size of an adult’s hand, and made of a rough quartzite. Developed in the Stone Age, the Acheulean hand ax is one of the most durable technologies the world has ever seen.

The World’s Most Sustainable Technology

The Acheulean hand ax is one of the most beautifully designed tools ever produced. And it's by far the most sustainable technology in human history.
blackhawks racist

Confessions of a Blackhawks Fan

Can an anthropologist who loves hockey embrace his team’s race-based mascot?