ADVERTISEMENT

Archaeologist Ed Fleming is part of a team at the Science Museum of Minnesota whose job is to preserve and interpret the 1.75 million artifacts in the museum’s collection.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

About the Science Museum of Minnesota

Address: 120 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul.

Hours: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Wed., 9:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Thur.-Sat., 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun.

Admission: $10 children ages 4-12, $13 adults

Origins: Founded in 1907, the St. Paul Institute of Science and Letters quickly attracted thousands of gifts from interested St. Paulites. Fossils and other natural history specimens as well as American Indian artifacts were offered as early gifts. The most momentous of these came from a local couple enjoying an exotic vacation overseas. In 1925, they shipped the young museum its now-famous mummy, directly from Egypt.

Signature draws: The 3,000-year-old mummy remains the museum's most iconic piece. Another showstopper is a complete Triceratops skeleton, the world's largest, which was discovered in Montana by staff paleontologist Bruce Erickson in 1961.

Hidden treasures: Once upon a time, a quirky little museum lived among the quaint galleries and coffee shops of St. Anthony Main in Minneapolis. The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices featured a cluttered array of antiquated medical equipment, including the circa-1900 Kellogg Vibratory Chair and the 1930s-era Psychograph, which measured the bumps on people's heads. That 300-piece collection was bequeathed to the Science Museum in 2002. The questionable medical devices now reside in the fourth-floor Collections Gallery, not far from the mummy.

Gift shop: Located in the museum lobby, the gift shop specializes in science-themed games, books and mementos. It also stocks Science Museum of Minnesota logo T-shirts, key chains and other souvenirs.

Food options: The Science Museum has three on-site dining options, all very handy for families. Get coffee and baked goods from Java Lab. Fill up on salads or pastas at the slightly more sophisticated Elements Café. If the kiddies are along, look to the menu of hotdogs, sandwiches and, yes, ice cream at Chomps. Or, simply head for the Irish restaurants and pubs on nearby West 7th Street.

Website: www.smm.org

Buried treasure at Science Museum

  • Article by: CHRISTY DeSMITH
  • Star Tribune
  • May 1, 2012 - 5:47 PM
Ed Fleming opens the aluminum cabinet and allows his guest to lean in for a peek. "This is the so-called Thunderbird pot," says Fleming, curator of archaeology for the Science Museum of Minnesota. "It's probably my favorite piece here." It's also one of the many hidden treasures in the museum's vault that the public rarely, if ever, gets to see.

Created by local American Indians more than 700 years ago, the Thunderbird pot is a large ceramic vessel about the size of a soccer ball. It's veined with faint cracks where it has been professionally pieced back together. Among its swirl of faded designs, the distinct drawing of a bird emerges to the foreground. "It's unusual because it's a figurative representation rather than an abstraction," notes Fleming.

The Thunderbird pot was unearthed during the 1960s from a pre-colonial American Indian village near Red Wing, Minn. It has lived in the museum's 10,000 square foot, climate controlled vault ever since. "I'd like to get this on the floor because it's such a great piece," Fleming said.

Like any museum, the Science Museum of Minnesota employs a small team of curators such as Fleming. Their jobs entail preserving, promoting and interpreting the 1.75 million artifacts in museum's sprawling collection, including the Thunderbird pot.

Unlike the typical museum, however, the museum's curators have an additional responsibility: They're supposed to help populate the galleries. That is, they conduct original research and fieldwork that eventually shows up in public exhibits.

The most significant contributions have been made by 79-year-old staff paleontologist Bruce Erickson. He started working at the museum in 1959, when the dinosaur collection was pretty paltry.

"They basically told him, 'Go out and get a dinosaur,'" said Fleming.

Within two years, Erickson had done just that -- he unearthed the museum's crowd-pleasing triceratops, still one of the largest and most complete specimens in the world, from northeastern Montana in 1961.

Erickson later discovered the museum's jaw-dropping diplodocus skull, now on display in the Dino and Fossil Gallery. More recently, he discovered the skeleton of a mammoth near Albert Lea, Minn., which visitors can see in the new Future Earth exhibit.

Fleming, 41, has made a few discoveries of his own. For example, he helped excavate and analyze the Cross Site, another pre-colonial American Indian settlement in Minnesota. A few of his findings are displayed in the Mississippi River Gallery.

A native of the Midwest, Fleming is particularly fascinated with sites such as these in the Mississippi River Valley.

That's why he prefers the Thunderbird pot over, say, ancient Peruvian textiles or Etruscan bronze.

In the pre-Colonial era, "the Red Wing area was a point of interaction," said Fleming. "It was intensely occupied, especially between 1100 and 1350."

Many of Fleming's predecessors shared his interest in the area. During the 1950s, in fact, researchers from the Science Museum were involved with excavating a Mississippi River site called Spring Lake. Knives, bottles and pipes -- these findings were collected but never analyzed by staff scientists. So Fleming and his team have finally started combing through the Spring Lake findings piece by piece.

So far, they've discovered that Spring Lake was settled for a longer period than originally thought. "The bow and arrow showed up in this area in about 700 AD or so," said Fleming.

Then again, Fleming has dated a few of the site's pottery fragments to the Oneota period, about 900 to 1600 AD.

When can the public finally meet with these discoveries from Spring Lake? Look for a new display in the Mississippi River Gallery sometime in the next year, said Fleming. Meanwhile, he has recorded his observations and insights on a special Spring Lake blog. Check it out at www.smm.org.

Christy DeSmith • 612-673-1754

© 2014 Star Tribune