Dr. David Hunt never earned the Archaeology merit badge. It wasn’t released until 1997 — long after Hunt earned the Eagle Scout award — so he never got the chance.
You could say he’s more than made up for it since.
Hunt is collections manager for physical anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
On Sunday, he gave up an afternoon off to take the Report to the Nation delegates into his world. Walking past signs that read “staff only,” the delegates learned that the majority of the museum’s collection isn’t on public display.
“The exhibit space is one-quarter of the collection,” he told them.
Then he showed them what he meant.
Hunt walked them down a hallway lined with towering cabinets, each full of artifacts. They turned into the lab where Hunt does his day-to-day work. He showed them a collection of bones, neatly arranged on a large wooden table, that come from Avery’s Rest, an archaeological site in Delaware that was the 17th-century plantation of Capt. John Avery.
Hunt, clearly in his element, fielded questions from the highly interested Scouts.
“I see the skulls are cracked. Do you piece them together before analyzing them?” asked Dan Ta, an Eagle Scout from California.
“Yes,” Hunt responded.
“Is it OK to touch the skull?” Dan asked.
“Sure. It’s just bone.”
Dan went for it as Hunt continued.
“See this hole in his teeth?” Hunt asked, pointing to a perfectly round gap in the skull’s teeth. “Any guesses what that’s from?”
After a few theories, Hunt explained that this person had smoked clay pipes, and the constant use had worn away a hole in his teeth.
Neel Dhanaraj, an Eagle Scout from New Hampshire, saw a lesson there.
“And that’s why we don’t smoke,” he said, drawing laughs from the room.
A tale to tell
Bones tell a story, but the picture isn’t revealed right away. Instead, Hunt and his team must piece together clues to create a window into the past.
By studying the bones, Hunt can determine a person’s physical ailments and even his occupation and cause of death.
As Hunt explained the process, Edward Abraham, the National Venturing President, was intrigued.
“This is a lot cooler than the anatomy class I took in high school,” he said.
Hunt has worked for the Museum of Natural History since 1990, and he was drawn in by “the ability to derive a synopsis of the life of prehistoric humans from their remains,” he told Smithsonian magazine in 2000. “It’s all a big jigsaw puzzle.”
Sometimes the mysteries Hunt unlocks have a tragic story behind them.
Hunt works with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to identify the remains of children. Drawing on knowledge he has gained studying thousands of skeletons and skulls, Hunt is able to determine the gender, approximate age and ethnicity of the subject.
Hunt has also helped identify bodies after disasters, including the Oklahoma City bombing.
“You don’t want to say the work is satisfying, that sounds kind of weird, but I feel I need to return something to the community with my specialized training,” he told Smithsonian. “Hopefully, my work will help connect people with missing loved ones.”
2015 Report to the Nation
Read more coverage from the 2015 Report to the Nation, happening Feb. 27 to March 3, 2016, right here. And see more photos here.
Photos by Michael Roytek and Randy Piland.