Inside the Peabody Museum: September 2011

New Lecture Series: Trash Talk, The Anthropology of Waste

photo by d'arcy normanGarbage, trash, waste, rubbish, discard, refuse, detritus, cast-off, junk, dross, debris, litter, rubble, dregs, leavings: everything we have that isn't consumed will eventually become rubbish and be thrown away. But what is rubbish, how do we define it, manage it, think about it? Where is "away"?

Researchers from fields as disparate as urban design, philosophy, and contemporary art are grappling with these issues as a practical problem, an ecological problem, an economic challenge, an idea, a risk, or a source for creativity. Join us as we Talk Trash this fall. September features two lectures: Garbage: Learning to Unsee, about the cost of not truly seeing our waste and and what might happen if we were to reconfigure our perception so that garbage becomes visible; and Rags, Bones, and Plastic Bags: Trash in Industrial America, about  the history of our nation's trash. Look for the trash can icon on our calendar for lectures and other activities in this series. (Photo by D'Arcy Norman.) 

From an Old Kingdom Cemetery Next to the Giza Pyramids

jaw from Giza Western Cemetery

Next to the famous Pyramid of Khufu in Giza lies the Western Cemetery. In the early 20th century, George Reisner led excavations sponsored by the Peabody Museum, Harvard University, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, of underground burial tombs (mastabas) built for elite members of the Old Kingdom's Fourth-Sixth Dynasties. The Peabody Museum now cares for more than 70 ancient Egyptians from Giza. None were mummified like the more famous residents of ancient Egypt.

This summer, Peabody Museum intern and Harvard student Sasha Rohret examined the skeletal remains to assess age, sex, and any trauma or nutritional stress indicators.

"Age and gender tell us the values of the population," says Rohret. "For example, there were periods when no women were buried at the site--only men who were heads of families were buried. But in later periods women started to show up in the cemetery. We also see more young men during periods of warfare. We learn a lot about the socioeconomic and political aspects of the society when we know age and gender."

Rohret found there were particular challenges in studying these Egyptian individuals. Usually skulls and pelvic bones are good indicators for both age and sex, but some of the male skulls were very similar in shape to the female skulls. As a result, Rohret relied more heavily on the pelvic bones for determining sex. She found that about 60% of the individuals are male, and 40% are female.

Teeth can be very useful in determining age, but for many of these Egyptians--buried around 2700-2100 B.C.--teeth showed signs of wear advanced beyond their years. Rohret explained, “An Egyptian scholar, Frank Leek, discovered the source of the wear was sand particles in ancient bread, a dietary staple. It caused many young people to have teeth that appeared much older." So again, Rohret depended more heavily on age indicators from pelvic bones. About 20% of the individuals in this group died before reaching the age of 20 years, while about 40% were between 20–39 years of age, and about 40% were older than 40 years of age.

Rohret will continue her research this fall for her senior honors thesis in Archaeology. She plans to focus on the individuals that show evidence of trauma and nutritional stress. Working with the extensive Giza Archives (, Rohret will be able to map the location of individuals within the Western Cemetery and examine spatial relationships with regard to age, sex, and health of individuals.

Q: How Do You Play an Ancient Bone Flute? A: Very Carefully.

bone flute

Summer intern and flute player Marissa Glynias was intrigued by the ancient flutes of animal bone from Peru in the Museum's collection. She wondered, would the Museum allow her to play some flutes, to hear their sound as their makers once did?

Museum conservators worked with Glynias to devise a way to protect the flutes while allowing her to play.  First, they choose flutes based on the instruments' stability and potential to produce sounds. Next, the team developed handling guidelines using museum best practices for preserving artifacts. Each flute was protected with plastic, allowing Glynias to blow across the opening to produce sound, without ever touching her mouth to the instrument.

"I’m going to continue using the Peabody collections for my thesis," says Glynias. "I’m really excited. In the fall I’m going to make some replicas, probably using bird bones, or maybe mammal bones. How long does it take to hollow them out? What happens when you put the holes in the wrong place?"

Listen to Glynias play three different Peruvian flutes by clicking on the picture above.


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September 8

1:30 pm

Harvard 375 logo

Opening Ceremony

Harvard Yard Archaeology Project

Free in front of Matthews Hall, Harvard Yard
Rain or shine


September 8-October 27


1-4 pm

Harvard 375 logo

Archaeological Excavation

Harvard Yard Archaeology Project

Free in front of Matthews Hall, Harvard Yard (weather permitting)

September 15

5:30 pm

trash talk lecture

Trash Talk Lecture

"Garbage: Learning to Unsee"


Sept. 17

Noon-4:00 pm

Family Program

Family Fun Saturday Cacao (Chocolate) Clues

Free with Peabody Museum admission.


September 22

5:30 pm

trash talk lecture

Trash Talk Lecture

"Rags, Bones, and Plastic Bags: Trash in Industrial America"
Susan Strasser, Richards Professor of American History, University of Delaware

September 24

9 am-5 pm

Smithsonian Museum Day

Special offer: Free admission for two people all day with Smithsonian Museum Day ticket. Download your ticket here.