Skip to main content

The Q? Blog

Teens Explore Forensic Anthropology in 'Mystery at Yorktown Creek'

by Nicole Webster -- Aug 27, 2015
A woman wearing glasses and blue gloves holds up two human skulls. Teenage students watch in the background.

Nicole Webster is the School Programs Coordinator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. She develops, evaluates, and facilitates...

Q?rius volunteer Victor Guerrero shows students a human jawbone during the "Forensic Mysteries: Mystery at Yorktown Creek" school program. Photo by Jennifer Renteria, Smithsonian.
Q?rius volunteer Victor Guerrero shows students a human jawbone during the "Forensic Mysteries: Mystery at Yorktown Creek" school program. Photo by Jennifer Renteria, Smithsonian.

Erosion along a creek bed in Yorktown, Va., exposed something startling: a human skeleton! Scientists excavated the bones to prevent them from being washed away and destroyed, then brought them to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to be analyzed by our forensic anthropologists. Who was this person, when did he or she live, and what can we learn about his or her life? Our scientists used forensic techniques to answer these questions; now your students can do the same in the “Forensic Mysteries — Mystery at Yorktown Creek” school program.  

Photo of Q?rius educator Nicole Webster instructing students in the "Forensic Mysteries - Mystery at Yorktown Creek" school program. Photo by Jennifer Renteria, Smithsonian.During “Mystery at Yorktown Creek,” a 60-minute, staff-led program, students follow in the footsteps of the Museum’s forensic anthropologists, Dr. Doug Owsley and Kari Bruwelheide. As they are introduced to the case, students learn that there is so much more to forensic anthropology than what they see on television. The Museum’s forensic anthropologists not only study skeletons from forensic cases, but also remains from historic and prehistoric populations. Studying skeletons of the past can tell us more about the lives of past populations and fill in the gaps of recorded history by letting the peoples of the past, both known and unknown, tell their stories. “Mystery at Yorktown Creek” invites students to investigate questions of the past that were left behind centuries ago.

Photo of a student peering at a bone during the Forensic Mysteries: Mystery and Yorktown Creek school program. Photo by Jennifer Renteria, Smithsonian.Using Forensic Tools
Working together in groups, students employ forensic tools and techniques to study the human bones and artifacts found with the skeleton. Students handle and analyze the actual bones excavated from Yorktown and conduct their investigation by comparing them to specimens from the Museum’s vast collection of more than 30,000 skeletons. During their investigation, students gather data to determine the skeleton’s sex, stature, pathologies, and age at death. They also look at other scientific and cultural clues unearthed during the excavation. By piecing together this information, students work together to hypothesize who this person was, when he or she lived, and what his or her life might have been like.

After completing the program, students have told us, “I want to do this. This is the cool part of science.” Teachers are also enthusiastic, with one commenting, “This program is so interactive. It’s incredible how much the students get to see and do!”

“Mystery at Yorktown Creek” is just one of six exciting, hour-long, staff-led programs we offer in Q?rius and a favorite among students and teachers. All Q?rius school programs are designed for grades 6 through 12 and aligned to standards. School program registration is now open for the 2015-2016, so explore all of our offerings and register your group today!


Program Details: "Forensic Mysteries — Mystery at Yorktown Creek" is a free, staff-led school program created for Grades 6-12. It is designed to keep students on task for 60 minutes. Subject areas: Anthropology, Forensic Science.

How to Register: We offer onsite school programs Monday through Friday. To register, go to the school program registration page, choose your date and time, click the "Sign Up" button, and on the registration form select the "Forensic Mysteries – Mystery at Yorktown Creek" program.

Categories: School Programs