Monday, February 16, 2009

Visiting Miss Lucy

So, today Janice, her kohai Patti, and I met up down at the Pacific Science Center to see a v. old relative -- the 'Lucy' exhibit (there through March 8th). We've been to the old World's Fair grounds before, of course (usually for the Cat Show or Antiquarian Book Fair), but this was my first time in the Science Center. The waterpark area was nice, with the human-powered waterwheel and archimedes screw being my favorite of the hands-on displays (the two-ton ball suspended on water you could easily move with a push of your hand was nice too, but we now have one just like it opposite the library in Kent). I'd never seen an Imax film before, so we watched their documentary on the Nile, which unfortunately turned out to be about an attempt to ride down the river from its source in Lake Tana all the way down to Alexandria. The nature footage was wonderful, but I'd hoped there'd have been more pharaohs and less paddling through rapids. The reed boats seen briefly at the beginning immediately captured my attention, having been an enormous fan of Heyerdahl's Ra Expeditions back in the day; also striking were the images of Meroe (the royal tombs of Nubia), which I'd read about but not seen.

After the film, it was time to get in line for the Lucy Exhibit. There was a good crowd but not an overwhelming crush of people, which helped. We decided to eschew the audio-tourguide in order to focus on things at our own pace, though as usual the people standing around listening to them got in the way somewhat. Most of the exhibit had nothing to do with Lucy or hominids but instead was a presentation of Ethiopian culture. The most striking things here were, hands down, the rock-cut churches and a trio of memorial statutes. The former were vast churches created by starting at ground level and digging down, removing all the rock outside the area you've decided will be the church's outer walls, and stopping when you've created a cruciform church made out of one single huge piece of rock, set in the huge cavity in the earth you've created all around it -- so far as I could tell, it's entered from the top (the flat roof). Never seen anything like that before. The memorial posts, by contrast, were v. simple, but v. creepy: long wooden branches or slender trucks with a face carved on one end and the bottom left natural, stuck up like posts in the ground. Some of the icons (triptychs and the like) were also interesting because while some of the figures in them looked Ethiopian, a surprising number seemed caucasian, at least to my inexpert eye. Perhaps it was simply a case, like anime, where the figures look differently to viewers from different cultures.

When at last we did reach the 'Lucy' part of the exhibit, it was well worth it. First there was a long row of cases centered in an inclined aisle going up, with a hominid skull in each case. While v. impressive to see, these turned out to be casts, not the originals. They did have an interesting hominid family tree up on one wall, which I was glad to see included homo florensis (the newly discovered 'hobbits' of Indonesia), and it was nice to be able to pick up and compare some fossil skull casts at one table. The real thing however was waiting in the next and final room, with the forty-plus bones laid out reverently on black velvet on a flat table. Oddly enough, while viewing them I strongly had the sense of being present at a human burial.* A nearby cast in an upright case showed all the pieces assembled as they'd be on an intact skeleton, while another upright case showed their 'artist's reconstruction' of what Lucy might have looked like in the flesh.

I'm glad I went. I'm unlikely ever to find myself at the museum in Ethiopia where these bones are usually displayed, and it would have been worth a longer trip than just to Queen Anne hill to be able to spend time with this fascinating fossil in that final room. I was reminded of our visit to the Burke about a year ago (or was it two?), which holds another famous human skeleton, Kennewick Man. But that one's not on display, or at least wasn't then, back when the 're-bury-it' lawsuits were still going on. On the way out we passed through the inevitable museum shop, which had an interesting array of books on human fossils and related subjects which I ended up passing on because I couldn't settle on which one to get. I did pick up some Ethiopian tea ('Black Tea, Cardamom, Cloves, Cinnamon, Orange'), which sternly instructs the brewer to serve it with honey, not sugar ('Sweeten Only with honey as cane sugar is not part of the traditional Ethiopian diet'). I made up a pot tonight and it's quite good. I was surprised to find that it has whole cardamom seeds, not the grounds stuff, and chopped up bits of cinnamon bark as well, not the powered stuff we usually get; they'd also been generous with the cloves (there were about eight cloves in the double-teaspoon or so of tea leaves I used to make the pot). I was careful to pass up the Ethiopian cookbook they had for sell, prominently displayed everywhere in the museum shop, since the only time I've gone out to an ethnic restaurant where I found the food absolutely inedible was an Ethiopian restaurant. No doubt I was simply unlucky, but it's still an experience I'm unwilling to repeat.

And now, back home, drinking my Ethopian tea, I've dug out Johanson & Edgar's FROM LUCY TO LANGUAGE, a huge coffee-table sized book I picked up at Wheaton ten years ago that has full-sized photographs of almost all the important fossil hominid skulls. I hadn't known the 'ardipithecus' genus, and I see that when my book was published they only knew of one species for it (A. ramidus). I'll have to look about for a suitable update to Johanson & Edgar . . .


*Janice, for her part, was startled to see that they'd written on some of the actual bones -- just inventory numbers to keep track of individual artifacts, no doubt, but still . . .

1 comment:

Vinny said...

I am so jealous!

The revised FLTL is definitely worth the coin.

Happy 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Charles Darwin!

PS: HM are putting "Sigurd" out in May!