My “Funny Bones” project (introduced here) relates to peculiar bones in a few animals that can be found in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s holdings. I’m also interested in how these equivalent bones appear in human beings, as well as how the museum treats their human holdings (which is certainly different in some ways from how it treats animal remains, and similar in other ways).

I had the privilege of visiting the museum’s offsite Section of Anthropology to take pictures relating to human remains held in the museum’s collection. Anthropologist Deborah Harding kindly showed me around, pulling out specimens of interest and answering all my questions frankly. I’m very grateful that she accommodated my request for this project!

The Section of Anthropology is in a nondescript building whose exterior betrays nothing of the more than a million pieces of human history carefully catalogued, ordered, and preserved inside.

Get buzzed in through a windowless door, sign in with the friendly guard, and head up some very red steps sharing a hallway with a workstation, and you’re on your way. The second floor holds much of the anthropological collection.

Ms. Harding had pulled out some full-scale X-rays of a museum-held Egyptian mummy; these were taken in the 1920s as part of the museum’s study of the mummy. This child suffered from macrocephaly, and as a result Ms. Harding explained it was not possible for the Egyptian priests to remove its brain through the nose after death. Instead, they punched a hole in the back of the skull, which shows on the X-ray as a deep cranial fracture.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History acc. no. 4698. This X-ray is “supporting documentation” for the specimen.1 Sharing the same table were some very beautiful tie-dyed African fabrics which had been purchased in the 1950s.

There was also a more modern X-ray image of the same mummy, showing essentially the same image at the same scale, but with a very different appearance. I actually found the older image more legible, but I’m not a radiologist of course so I don’t know which is actually a more useful picture.

Finally, the mummies themselves. They are in large wooden boxes on a shelf at the end of the hall, labeled with their accession numbers and some notes accounting for the periodic maintenance that must be done on their storage materials.

Why are they not in their sarcophagi? Because, Ms. Harding explained, the sarcophagi are on display in the museum mounted vertically, and there’s no reason to keep the mummy inside in a position of stress standing upright, which could damage it. So the mummy’s new home is inside a glossy white wooden crate with brass handles on a shelf in a concrete building in Pittsburgh. (Crossing the Styx it’s not, but hey, we’ve got three rivers to best that one.)

Acc. no. 1. Not a typo! This is the mummy that started this entire museum’s anthropology collection.

Acc. no. 22,266-4, sharing a shelf with a woven basket.

Unless specimens are very large and need special accommodations (like the mummies above), they’re all stored in these unassumingly labeled rows of tall white locked cabinets.

Open the door and there are sliding shelves filled with treasure. Some of the oldest objects known to have been crafted by human hands. And, in fact, some preserved human hands are on the shelf as well. Ms. Harding asked me not to photograph the body parts themselves, but the box (acc. no. 3677-1) in this image, for instance, contained some human remains.

Ms. Harding was happy to show me the resting places of the museum’s ancient Egyptians, but she preferred not to show me any Native American remains, nor the boxes that those remains are stored in, and not even the outside of the cabinets that those boxes are stored in. The whole subject is simply very touchy politically.

But what, I asked Ms. Harding, is the difference between the remains of ancient Egyptians and those of Native Americans? To me, they are both parts of people who have died, but the museum’s disposition towards them is very different. Her answer is fairly straightforward: there are no Egyptians demanding the return of their relatives for proper burial. There are Native Americans who are making that demand, and though there is a lengthy legal process to verify the claims and transfer the remains, the museum generally respects the requests it receives. (So I’m told.)

Here, then is an image of the type of cabinet that will be holding the museum’s specimens of Native Americans’ remains, once the collection is relocated there from a temporary location. It’s the closest image to the remains that Ms. Harding would allow me to photograph.

Thanks again to Deborah Harding for allowing me in to photograph the normally off-limits specimens held in the fascinating Section of Anthropology.

  1. Ms. Harding explained that the X-rays were not themselves accessioned; they are “supporting documentation” for the mummy, accession number 4698, which is the actual historical object of interest. Of course the X-rays themselves are also unique and have historical value, but they’re ultimately just supporting players in the mummy’s show.