It’s been a summer of traveling for me: Virginia, Florida, and California, all within the span of a few weeks.  Just a few days ago, I visited the La Brea Tar Pits with a couple of friends of mine.  I think the tar pits are sort of obligatory for paleophiles who visit L.A.  

It’s got to be the most famous fossil site in California, if not on the West Coast as a whole.  It’s also a very recent site, as far as fossil deposits go.  Most of the specimens from La Brea date from about 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, give or take a few millennia.  In geologic time, that’s practically yesterday, and much, much more recent than the terrible lizards that really interest me.  Dinosaurs first appeared around 230 million years ago, and flourished until the K-T extinction event killed off the non-avian dinos 65 million years before the present.  (I say non-avian because scientists now consider birds to be advanced theropod dinosaurs, the same group that includes the big carnivores.  T. rex is actually more closely related to a parakeet than to Triceratops.)  While checking out the exhibits at La Brea, I couldn’t escape the notion that all this stuff was really new.

Now, here’s the weird thing.  A few weeks ago, as you may recall, I was in Jamestown.  I’m fascinated by seventeenth-century colonial history, but my foremost historical interest is the American Revolution.  As an aspiring early Americanist who spends most of his time studying the end of England’s American empire, the founding of Jamestown seems almost like the Big Bang to me.

But when you consider that anatomically modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years, 1607 isn’t that long ago.  Indeed, it’s not even particularly early in the history of European adventurism in the New World.  The Spanish had been making their mark in the Americas for more than a century when the English started building their fort on the banks of the James River.  And four hundred years is hardly worth noticing compared to the gulf of time that separates us from the animals that roamed Rancho La Brea in the Pleistocene.

When I was standing within the reconstructed palisade of Jamestown’s fort a few weeks ago, I was thinking like an aspiring American historian, and it was like being present at the creation.  At La Brea, on the other hand, I was wearing my dino aficionado hat, and those 40,000-year-old mastodons, sloths, and saber-toothed cats seemed like they’d been around just a few moments ago.

History classes tend to reinforce these skewed perspectives of time.  The world history survey is ostensibly in the business of teaching students what humans have been up to during our tenure on this planet, but most of human existence gets covered in the first lecture or two.  The rest of the course is about human history since the end of the Neolithic.  In other words, we devote only one class meeting to something like 98% of humanity’s past.

The American history survey distorts time, too.  The first half zips through thousands of years’ worth of pre-Columbian history in about an hour of lecture, and then spends months on the few hundred years between Columbus and the end of Reconstruction.  The second half devotes the whole semester to less than a century and a half.  There isn’t really any sense to the way survey courses split American history in two.

The way we define fields of specialization makes no chronological sense, either.  There was twice as much time from Roanoke to the Rev War as there was from the Rev War to the Civil War, but both Roanoke and the Rev War are the business of early Americanists.  The Civil War?  That’s for those nineteenth-century historians.

The passage of time defines what historians do, but I don’t think we’re any more astute than a random person on the street when it comes to conceptualizing time accurately.

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In Civil War ordnance news…

…things are still turning up and going kablooie, even in the Pacific Northwest:

On April 22, members of the U.S. Army’s 707th Explosive Ordinance Disposal Company left their base on a mission to detonate a very unusual object.

Construction crews had discovered an Absterdam Type 2/3 Projectile in Ilwaco, Washington. This type of explosive artillery shell dates to around the time of the American Civil War.

The round sat undisturbed until being discovered more than a century-and-half later. It may sound strange, but this happens more often than you might think.

Capt. Shawn McMickle, the soldiers’ company commander, said that he’s responded to three Civil War-era explosives since he’s served with the Army in the Pacific Northwest.

The same thing happened at LMU when I was an undergrad.  Some guys were digging a water line and unearthed something like fifteen Civil War-era shells near an old dorm building.  To make a long story short, an EOD team came down from Ft. Campbell, dug up the whole cache, took them behind the basketball arena, and a massive BANG! ensued.

Oddly enough, the shells turned up right across from the museum.  The campus is practically within sight of Cumberland Gap, which changed hands four times during the war, so I suppose we shouldn’t have been too surprised.  But it was still a shock to find live shells buried just a stone’s throw from our galleries, with their Civil War weapons sitting dormant and harmless in glass cases.  One look at the EOD guys’ gear reminded you what we too often forget: those objects were meant to wreak havoc on human bodies.

Speaking of buried Civil War artifacts, two guys just got a hefty fine and two years of supervised release for pilfering a Hotchkiss shell in southeastern Tennessee.  Let this be a reminder to all you knuckleheads to let sleeping ordnance lie.

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The park is open

Abraham Lincoln was such a Shakespeare aficionado that the quality of a production didn’t affect his enjoyment of it.  “It matters not to me whether Shakespeare be well or ill acted; with him the thought suffices,” he reportedly said.

With Jurassic Park films, the thought generally suffices for me, too.  My attitude is that any Jurassic Park film is better than none at all.  I liked The Lost World; I even liked the much-maligned JPIII, although it didn’t “bookend” the franchise in the way that the first films complemented one another in scale and scope.  I just love the franchise and delight in seeing dinosaurs on the big screen.

The question for me going into Jurassic World, then, wasn’t whether I’d enjoy the film.  I was pretty sure I’d get a kick out of it.  The only question is whether the movie would “suffice,” or whether it would be the follow-up we’ve all wanted it to be.

I got my answer Thursday night.  “Awesome” is a word that suffers from overuse, but in this case it’s warranted.  It’s Hammond’s dream realized on a massive scale, followed by a well-oiled thrill ride that bounces along from one high-adrenaline scene to the next, and it comes as close to capturing the original movie’s sense of wonder as any film I’ve seen in the last fifteen or twenty years.  It’s got enough of that sense of nostalgia to gratify longtime fans of the franchise, but it’s not so captive to its own history that it fails to carve out a place of its own.

Indeed, where it harmonizes with the other installments in the series is not in self-conscious references with a wink and a nudge at the audience—although there are a few of those moments, and they work—but in a more general congruence of structure and theme.  The franchise has always been about two things: the paradox of mankind’s powerlessness to cope with the consequences of his own power, and families, whether the creation of surrogate families (as in the first film) or the strengthening and reconstitution of biological ones (as in the second and third installments).  Jurassic World plays on both themes in a way that’s consistent with the other three films, but with enough innovation to put a new spin on things.

Of course, it isn’t the thematic issues that draw most people to these films.  Ask most moviegoers what Jurassic Park is all about, and they’ll tell you that it comes down to the dinosaurs.  Ironically, it’s with regard to the animals that most of my fellow dinosaur buffs have criticized Jurassic World.  Whereas the original film made headlines for tapping into the spirit of the “dinosaur renaissance” that reinterpreted the terrible lizards as active, warm-blooded, and birdlike, the fourth installment is a little behind the times.  We now know that many theropod dinosaurs—including Velociraptor—were feathered, which only underscores how correct many of the interpretations reflected in the first movies really were.  Jurassic World, however, adheres to the franchise’s internal canon rather than the scientific one.  Indeed, with regard to Velociraptor, it represents a step backward, since one of the raptors in JPIII sported a set of quills on its head in a nod to recent discoveries of feathered dinosaurs.

Normally I’m a stickler for accuracy in movies, and I would’ve preferred a little fluff on the raptors just for science’s sake.  In fact, the original novel provided the perfect rationale for such an adjustment; Wu points out that his lab produces the dinosaurs in “versions” along the line of new software releases to correct for defects in the cloning process.  Still, I’m not nearly as bothered by Jurassic World‘s leathery raptors as I probably should be.  For one thing, the franchise’s raptors were never accurate to begin with.  Velociraptor was a tiny animal; if you ran into a live one, its head would barely reach your thighs, although those teeth could still deliver a nasty bite.  (The raptors in the movies are closer in size to a close relative named Utahraptor, the largest member of the dromaeosaur family.)  And while I agree that feathery raptors in a major motion picture would’ve made for a good public education opportunity, I suspect that the hubbub over the film’s non-feathered dinos has gotten the word out to many of the people who would’ve been surprised had Jurassic World stuck to the science.

But the main reason I’m willing to give Colin Trevorrow and the other filmmakers a pass is simply because I can overlook a great many historical and scientific inaccuracies if a story is told well, and Jurassic World is a great ride.  It’s not a flawless film; it doesn’t have the same flair for deftly handling the scientific and moral aspects of the story with the same wit as the original.  But it’s a return to the franchise’s glory days—a big, bold, breathless adventure story that made me feel like the kid I was back in 1993.  My absolute favorite moment in the film came near the very end, a moment that rectified what I thought would be my biggest complaint about something that had been lacking, a scene perfectly engineered to have fans of the series leaping out of their seats and shouting for joy.  Up until that moment the film had been a home run, but that scene absolutely knocked it out of the park.  That’s as specific as I can get without giving the whole thing away, so suffice to say that Jurassic World saves the best for last, and when the credits rolled, all I wanted to do was go back and take the whole ride over again.


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The continuing threat to the Princeton battleground

Here’s an update on the ongoing preservation issue at Princeton.  You might recall that the Institute for Advanced Study’s initial plan to build faculty housing on land adjacent to the battlefield got shot down because it encroached on a local drainage.  

The institute later received approval for a revised building plan, but preservationists claim the planned construction still threatens land involved in the battle.

Now comes news that an archaeological survey on the site found artifacts associated with the battle, supporting the preservatonists’ argument that the land in question is historically significant.

The fact that archaeologists hired by the institute itself have noted the historical importance of the ground ought to indicate that putting buildings there is a bad idea.  But it looks like the institute is moving forward anyway.

If you’ve been to Guilford Courthouse, you’ve seen the impact that encroaching development can have on a Rev War battlefield, and how much harder it is to understand and interpret sites that are suffocated by buildings.  Americans deserve to have the places where their country was born kept whole.

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Take the Jurassic World Challenge and support paleontology

A couple of days ago I finished reading An Agenda for Antiquity, Ronald Rainger’s book on the eminent naturalist Henry Fairfield Osborn and his career at the American Museum of Natural History.  It was Osborn who turned the AMNH into one of the world’s leading institutions for vertebrate paleontology.

He was never a field man, he delegated much of the nitty-gritty work of research to his subordinates, and many of his ideas about evolution were off the mark.  But as an administrator, a museum showman, and an intellectual who grappled with big questions, he left behind a tremendous legacy, the magnitude of which is apparent when you walk through those magnificent fossil galleries on the AMNH’s fourth floor.  (Incidentally, Osborn was also a master at coming up with awesome dinosaur names; he’s the guy who christened Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor, probably the two coolest scientific monikers in the history of zoology.)

Osborn’s background was critical to his success at the AMNH.  He came from a wealthy New York family, and he was connected to some of the richest and most influential Americans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  These connections enabled him to raise the money needed to mount expeditions, prepare specimens, build galleries, and publish research.  In Osborn’s day, vertebrate paleontology depended heavily on private donors.

It’s dependent on them still.  A lot of people assume that paleontology must be a lucrative business, since dinosaurs are so wildly popular.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.  Compared to scientific fields with more immediately practical applications, paleontological research is woefully underfunded.

That’s one of the reasons why I heartily endorse David Orr’s idea over at the paleoblog Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs.  Check it out:

I call it the Jurassic World Challenge. If you’re buying a ticket for the movie, it’s a fair bet that you also have that much money to give to the people who bring prehistory to life in the real world. Think of it as a matching fund, crowdsourced. See the movie, do some good. The official rules:

  • Donate the equivalent of your Jurassic World ticket price to paleontological research
  • Spend the equivalent of your ticket price on the wares of an independent paleoartist

Of course, you don’t have to pick one or the other. Buy some art, give some money to a research effort, enjoy the movie. I also put together a graphic to help spread the word, in before and after flavors. You are free to disseminate these far and wide! Take it and post it on your blog or other social media channels.

If you plan on seeing Jurassic World—or if you’re like me and plan on seeing it many, many times—consider a donation to paleontological research and the production of paleoart.  If you’re unsure about exactly where to send your money, Orr’s blog post has a list of some current research projects and independent paleoartists.  You might also check with your local natural history museum or university to see what dino-related things they’ve got going on that could use your support.

The folks who study and reconstruct ancient animals have made my life exponentially more joyful.  If you’re as excited as I am about Jurassic World, they’ve probably made your life more joyful, too.  Let’s show them a little gratitude.

By Ben Townsend from Blacksburg, Virginia (File:Velociraptor Wyoming Dinosaur Center.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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Jamestown Settlement’s new museum is excellent

One of the things I really wanted to do while in the Historic Triangle was see the new museum exhibit at Jamestown Settlement.  Technically, the exhibit isn’t that new; it opened in time for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding.  But it was still under construction last time I was there, so I’m going by NBC’s logic.  If I haven’t seen it, it’s new to me.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, Jamestown Settlement is distinct from “Historic Jamestowne,” the NPS-run site of the original colony that we visited in the last post.  JS is a living history museum next door to the historic site, operated by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and the Commonwealth of Virginia along with Yorktown Victory Center. The old JS museum was extremely impressive, so I had really high hopes for the new exhibits.  I wasn’t at all disappointed.  They really knocked it out of the park.  The new galleries merit a good half-day of touring on their own, besides the reconstructed Powhatan village, colonial fort, and ships that make up the rest of the site.  I spent about four hours inside, and probably could’ve stayed longer.  You can’t take pictures in the galleries, so I don’t have any pics, but you can see some of the artifacts by clicking here.

The tour starts with an introduction to the three cultures that collided in colonial Virginia: American Indian, English, and African.  Museum figures, reconstructed dwellings, and artifacts offer a glimpse at the material cultures of these three groups, their religious beliefs, their forms of government, their languages, and the ways they earned a living. You then move on to early modern Europe’s maritime development and the motives for English colonization, including a look at the investors who made up the Virginia Company.  You’ll meet some of the most important figures in Jamestown’s early history, check out the types of things the first colonists brought with them, and get a glimpse at a couple of items supposedly given to Pocahontas on her visit to England.  Interactive maps demonstrate the spread of white settlement and the loss of Powhatan territory over the years.

The sections on Virginia’s development into a plantation society are particularly strong.  The exhibit covers the emergence of the tobacco colony, the importance of Atlantic trade, the changes in Virginia’s government, and the impact of the shift toward slave labor on African material culture.

Whereas the exhibits at the NPS site focus on excavated objects, the JS galleries’ strength is seventeenth-century Anglo-American furniture, art, and personal belongings.  I had no idea that the foundation’s artifact collections were so extensive, but there are hundreds of original items on display.  The galleries feature audiovisual elements and immersive environments, too, but each gizmo and set piece serves a purpose.  You don’t get the gratuitous overuse of technology and effects for their own sake that mar some big-budget exhibits.  The museum strikes a good balance between original objects and interpretive artistry.  You can walk along a ca. 1600 English city street, step inside a Powhatan home, and look around the bedroom of a wealthy planter, but there are plenty of exhibit cases full of original objects.

My favorite piece of audiovisual gimmickry is in the first gallery, where handsets allow you to hear spoken dialects similar to those of the Powhatans, Africans, and English who made up seventeenth-century Virginia’s population.  (By the way, if you think Jamestown’s English settlers sounded like modern-day Shakespearean thespians, you’re in for a surprise.)

The exhibit is so comprehensive that any visitor who spends a few hours inside should get a pretty solid overview of Virginia’s seventeenth-century history and its larger Atlantic setting.  Whether you want to see artifacts, experience some modern museum showmanship, or get a grounding in the subject matter before heading over to the NPS site, you’ll get your money’s worth.

Now I’m even more excited to see what’s in store when the foundation’s new museum opens at Yorktown next year.

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A walk in Jamestown

For the last post, we took a stroll around the place where England’s American empire came to an end.  Just a short distance away, at the other end of the Colonial Parkway, is the place where it started.

If you haven’t been to Jamestown since the 400th anniversary, you’ve missed out on a lot.  Last week was my first visit in a long time, and they’ve added so much stuff that it almost seemed like a different site.

The visitor center exhibit is packed with archaeological materials…


…the fruit of many years’ worth of excavations, which are still ongoing.  (Check out this nifty interactive map for info on what they’ve found so far.)


In addition to the visitor center displays, there’s a new museum in the park called the “Archaearium,” which sits atop the site of the statehouse.


You can see the statehouse foundations through glass windows in the Archaearium floor.


Excavators found these items inside one of the fort’s wells, and the exhibit designers mounted them in a way that illustrates their positions in situ.  It’s pretty neat.


The most powerful exhibit in the Archaearium is a gallery with the remains of some of Jamestown’s dead, including “Jane,” a girl of about fourteen whose bones bear the traces of cannibalism.  Photography is forbidden in that part of the museum, but you can get some more info on Jane here.

The Tercentenary Monument is still there…


…along with the site’s only remaining seventeenth-century structure, a church tower.


The current church alongside the tower is a 1907 reconstruction, but seventeenth-century foundations are visible inside.


There’s also a partial reconstruction of one of the earlier churches, a “mud and stud” building erected within the original fort walls in 1608.  John Rolfe married Pocahontas on this site in 1614.


John Smith gazes out across the James River…


…while Pocahontas stands near the reconstructed fort with arms outstretched in what looks like a gesture of welcome.  Hardly the most accurate depiction of what Powhatan’s daughter would have looked like when Jamestown’s settlers first encountered her, but still a nice piece of commemorative sculpture.


Historians long thought that the site of the original, triangular fortification built by the first settlers was lost to the river.  As it turned out, that wasn’t the case.  The original fort site was right there near the church tower the whole time, although erosion carried away any traces of one of the corner bastions.  Cannons mark the site of the other two.  Only one of the bastions pointed inland; the others faced south toward the river, since the first settlers were more worried about Spanish ships than marauding Indians.


What should have concerned them more than either were disease and starvation.  Crosses mark some of the early burials in and around the fort, bearing testimony to the fact that, in its first years, Jamestown—whatever else it eventually meant for the history of America—was above all else a deathtrap.


The colony eventually outgrew the triangular fort and expanded eastward along two streets beside the river.  Walking trails take you past the reconstructed foundations of some of these later buildings.


Near the park entrance are the remains of the glasshouse, one of many failed attempts to make the colony profitable before tobacco took off.


In a reconstructed glasshouse nearby, interpreters demonstrate seventeenth-century glass-blowing techniques.


Jamestown has the highest concentration of critters per acre of any historic site I’ve visited.  Geese enjoy hanging out by the river…


…and turtles are pretty common, too.  I met this fellow taking a stroll beside the fort site.


I also ran across herons, lizards, a muskrat, a deer, and bugs…lots and lots and lots of bugs, especially on Island Drive, where so many flying insects pelted the car windows that it sounded like driving through a hailstorm.


It’s a little ironic that Jamestown is teeming with life today, given that so many of its settlers went to an early grave.



Filed under Archaeology, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites