Museum PR Announcements News and Information

National Museum of Natural History presents Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th-Century Chesapeake

National Museum of Natural History presents Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th-Century Chesapeake an exhibition on view through Jan. 6, 2014.

The exhibition, which tells the stories of early-American colonists through modern forensic anthropology, archaeology and historical research, is one of the most popular and longest-running temporary exhibitions in the museum’s 100-year history.

Originally slated to be on view for two years, the exhibition’s display was extended for an additional three years following overwhelming interest from the public. During its five-year run, “Written in Bone” has attracted nearly 9 million visitors, including more than 680,000 students. Thirty-seven Forensic Friday events and nearly 400 classes held at the Forensic Anthropology Lab engaged more than 20,000 guests, giving them the unique opportunity to work with forensic experts to solve mysteries using crime-scene investigative techniques. The Forensic Anthropology Lab, an educational space for visitors and students, served more than 500,000 visitors before closing July 31.

“‘Written in Bone’ was an incredible opportunity to explain our field to the public by highlighting the wealth of information that can be learned from the human skeleton,” said Doug Owsley, division head for physical anthropology at the museum who co-curated the exhibition with colleague Karin Bruwelheide. “We were able to address subjects relevant to contemporary life—from health and nutrition to criminal investigations. It was particularly fun to apply the latest advances in skeletal research to the study of Colonial American history.”

The 4,800-square-foot exhibition illuminates what life was like for the earliest English and African settlers in the Chesapeake region through nine informative sections and a 600-square-foot Forensic Anthropology Lab. “Written in Bone” incorporates 340 objects, artifacts and human bones from the museum’s collection and loans from more than 20 archaeological organizations and museums, including the premier archaeological sites of English Colonial America, Jamestown, Va., and St.

Mary’s City, Md. These human remains and objects were brought together for the first time to tell the story of how early colonists in the Chesapeake region lived and died 400 years ago. Highlights of the exhibition include the skeletal remains and artifacts from five “Colonial Cold Cases,” three rare lead coffins that held members of the Calvert family—the founding family of Maryland, five stunning facial reconstructions based on actual skulls and two true-to-life-size figures clothed in appropriate historic garments. A special exhibit, “Jane,” was added to “Written in Bone” in May 2013 and features a facial reconstruction of a 14-year-old girl whose remains confirmed the presence of survival cannibalism in historic Jamestown during the deadly winter of 1609-1610 known as the “starving time.”

Select objects from the “Written in Bone” exhibition will continue to be on display after January 2014 in the National Museum of Natural History’s new education center opening in fall 2013, Q?rius, while other loaned objects will be returned to various museums and organizations. The exhibition will have a continued Web presence after it closes through its award-winning “The Secret in the Cellar” interactive Webcomic, which lets users solve an authentic forensic case of recently discovered 17th-century remains. Learn more at