Remains of the day

Q&A/Penn Museum’s keeper of physical anthropology talks about scanning mummies, making molds of Neanderthals and why human babies are born so small and helpless.

“I’m one of those people who have crazy loves and I have a love for everything about evolution.”

Janet Monge

Janet Monge spends Sunday mornings running ancient skulls through the CT scanners at HUP. Her efforts could help answer questions about human evolution.

Janet Monge says she can’t imagine having just one job. That’s good, because this anthropologist and longtime Penn Museum staffer holds down at least three. As well as overseeing the Museum’s physical anthropology collection—in museum speak, she’s the “keeper”—she also teaches in the Anthropology Department and runs a casting program that stores more than 3,000 molds and casts from every phase of human evolution.

On top of that, Monge partners with former Museum director Jeremy Sabloff to bring in Native American college students every spring to gain research experience working with the collections.
Trips to make molds of fossils and bones take her away from her office, and out of the U.S., for weeks at a time, and even when she’s back home her schedule is hardly conventional: Many Sunday mornings find her hard at work in the Radiology Department at HUP, running human and chimpanzee skulls through their CT scanner. Her goal is to get around 10,000 specimens scanned, creating a massive virtual archive for use by researchers around the world.

For the last year or so, Monge has also been working with Alan Mann, former curator of the Museum’s Physical Anthropology section, on a major exhibit, “Survivor: The Place of Humans in the Natural World” slated to open at Penn Museum in 2007.

Q. I love the idea of you running 7,000-year-old skulls through the CT scanner at HUP. How did you get them to agree to that?

A. For years we worked with a Penn radiologist who helped us out with radiographs. Then he retired and the person who came on board, Nick Bryan, the head of radiology and an M.D., was very interested in scanning ancient objects so he had asked if we could bring one of our mummies over one Sunday morning when there weren’t any patients. And he did a CT scan on it and did a presentation to the board of trustees of HUP.

Q. So they weren’t just doing you a favor.

A. Right. Now one of the fellows in the craniofacial surgery unit is interested in a very rare condition you can see in children … where you have premature fusion of cranial sutures so the head becomes quite lopsided. They have very few cases that they see clinically because most are treated ... but they wanted to look at its progress in untreated people and we have this whole database.

Q. How does it work practically?

A. As many Sundays as we can, we load up a rubber cart with bubble-wrapped skulls and like a well-oiled machine we move them in and out of the CT scanner. They’re immediately burned onto a CD so we don’t have information transfer problems. On a Sunday morning between about 7 and 10 a.m. we can probably do 60 specimens.

Q. And you’ve been scanning mummies, as well as skulls?

A. Primarily we’ve been doing Peruvian mummies but we’d like to do our Egyptian mummies as well. We have a size constraint. The device you have to move the object through is not that narrow, but when you have 75 layers of padding on you it can be a little difficult.

Q. You’re also the museum’s principle moldmaker. From what I’ve heard it’s quite a specialty. What makes it so challenging?

A.All moldmakers will tell you it really takes a long time to do molds well. If you look at any object in the world virtually all that are made out of plastic are injection molded. They’re designed so casting and molding are relatively easy. They don’t have any tight corners, for example. If it’s a skull, though, you can’t take it apart so you have to be able to figure out how to mold a very complicated piece without damaging it. It takes a lot of skill to know what kind of tension you can put on a fragile bone. You have to be super-careful about how you do it. I’d even say after 30 odd years of doing it I still have a lot to learn.

Q. What was your most challenging mold-making project?

A. I would say a site called Krapina in Croatia. There are 900 Neanderthals there. Most sites have one to 10 at the most. Over the course of a bunch of years beginning in 1978 we molded the whole collection in trips ranging from two to four weeks or so. They’re very fragile … just even touching them, bits of bone can come off, so we spent a lot of time trying to consolidate the pieces so they were relatively stable. It’s a tedious kind of process. It’s a mental challenge, too. Often when I mold with Alan [Mann] we’ll talk about the piece for a week. “D’you think that would pull off of there?” “What would you do with that part?” It can take forever.

Q. You must be very patient.

A. You have to be super patient. Everyone around here says that’s one of my greatest assets. It’s nerve wracking too, because if you break anything it’s really bad.

Q. What are you working on right now?

A. Right now we’re making a whole lot of specimens for the “Survivor” exhibit because we want people to be able to touch things—a whole chimpanzee skeleton for example.

Q. Give us a sneak preview of that exhibit.

A. It’s an idea exhibit. We’re basically trying to draw out some core central themes and make that into some kind of tangible that people will be able to understand. We wanted to make people think about it as more something that was in their lives whether or not they realized it.

Q. Give me an example.

A. Childbirth and all the problems associated with that are uniquely human, so it seemed a good place to send a hook. Virtually no other animal has such a difficult time giving birth. With humans what happens is we produce essentially an extra uteral fetus and that’s why our kids come out with this big huge head and wee teeny little body. They can’t pick themselves up and have no neuro muscular control. [In the exhibit] we explain that over the course of the evolutionary history of humans there has been essentially a selection for increase in brain size … but because we have a vertebrate pelvis and we’re trying to squeeze this big brain out of it our evolutionary compromise is that we have babies with as small of a head as we can possibly get to come out of that space but still be sustainable. So “Voila!” you have this little globby kind of baby.

Q. Talking of evolution, the Museum’s first Darwin Day is coming up on February 12. What will people see?

A. We’ll have a series of events and a lot will be family-oriented and fun to get people familiar with Darwin. I’m one of those people who have crazy loves and I have a love for everything about evolution. I’m so enamored of the idea that I just can’t stop thinking about it.

[At Darwin Day] we’ll have a fossil cast table and cakes and all that. It should be a lot of fun. Scientists have removed themselves from interaction with the community and I think we really want to bring that back. A lot of people don’t understand what Darwin did and when they’re confronted with other issues like Intelligent Design they don’t know how to weigh these things. It’s not a matter of convincing people, it’s a matter of letting them know. 

Originally published on January 26, 2006