Archive | June, 2013

Mummies of the World at OMSI

14 Jun

For those in the Portland, Oregon area, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) is opening a new exhibit called Mummies of the World today. I’ve been visiting OMSI since I was a kid and enjoy taking my own kids these days. It’s great to see an archaeological exhibit get top billing there! Here’s OMSI’s description of the exhibit:

“Mummies of the World is the largest exhibition of mummies and related artifacts ever assembled. This compelling collection, presented with reverence and dignity, includes ancient mummies and important artifacts from Asia, Oceania, South America, Europe, as well as ancient Egypt, dating as far back as 6,500 years.

A fascinating mix of old and new, this never-before-seen collection bridges the gap between past and present with contributions from 20 world-renowned museums and organizations across seven countries.

Embark on a journey into the extraordinary world of mummies and mummification. Through modern science, engaging interactive and multi-media exhibits featuring 3-D animation, explore how mummies are created, where they come from and who they were. Using state-of-the-art scientific methodology, discover how modern science enables researchers to study mummies through innovative and non-invasive ways, offering unprecedented insights into past cultures and civilizations.

What secrets do mummies hold about the past…and what clues do they bring us for the future? A journey awaits as we unravel their mysteries” (

Mummies of the World will be at OMSI through the summer (June 14th-September 8th).

Responsible Popularization and the History Channel

11 Jun

I like to use the term “responsible popularization” for quality anthropological/archaeological public education materials. Sure, popular media sometimes have to simplify complex topics. They skim over the minute details that fascinate professional researchers. Sometimes we wish popular articles or TV documentaries would phrase things a little more accurately. But their job is to create a compelling narrative that will draw a wider audience to the wonders of scientific research. Combining accuracy with entertainment can be a daunting challenge; too much data and it’s boring, too much exaggeration and it becomes misleading, or even pseudoscientific. Balancing these necessities is what makes responsible popularization, responsible, and not just popular.

Why is the History Channel obsessed with conspiracy theories?

An article published at today called “Why is the History Channel Obsessed with Conspiracy Theories?” by Alex Seitz-Wald highlights the dangers of trying too hard to be popular. I often recommend the Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel, PBS,, and others as reasonably reliable sources of accurate (though popularized) information. In recent years, I haven’t been comfortable recommending the History Channel, whose sad decline Mr. Seitz-Wald describes very well. They still occasionally do history (even good history), but it’s interspersed with pseudoscientific nonsense. Viewers shouldn’t have to constantly question whether what they’re watching is supported by generally accepted, peer-reviewed research or “for entertainment purposes only.”

What do you think? If you were running a network, what ideas would you have for responsibly balancing ratings and reality?

20 billion-year-old dinosaurs?!

10 Jun

Well, that’s what I get for complaining.

Geological time is so vast that we, as creatures that live only about 100 years or so, struggle to comprehend it. One unfortunate effect of this is our tendency to compress the past into a hazy, mysterious “prehistory” in which humans and dinosaurs coexisted mere thousands of years ago. In reality dinosaurs and our earliest hominin ancestors are separated by about 60 million years! And that is why archaeologists, who study the human past, don’t dig dinosaurs (even though dinos are really cool).

Human-dinosaur interactions are so common in pop culture (toys, games, TV, etc.) that I barely notice anymore. But today I saw something that truly surprised me. If you look closely at my two-year-old son’s pajamas, you’ll see that they feature a dinosaur print with the words “20 billion years ago.”


I guess that’s progress; instead of compressing prehistoric time, they’ve extended dinosaurs back beyond the age of the earth (4.6 bya) and even the universe (13.7 bya)!