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Department of Anthropology

Mexican masks in storage unit


The Anthropology collections include about 2.2 million specimens in archaeology, ethnology, and physical anthropology. The Collections Management staff is charged with documenting, tracking, preserving, and providing public access to these collections.


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About the Collections


The Smithsonian Institution's commitment to Anthropological research and collections dates back to its first secretary, Joseph Henry in 1846. Since then, the collection has grown through donations, purchases, and the fieldwork of scholars in the Museum and in the former Bureau of American Ethnology. In the early years of the Institution, the collections were also augmented by 19th century exploring expeditions, geographic surveys of the continent, diplomatic missions, and transfers from government collections that pre-dated the Smithsonian. Together these collections document the cultural and biological diversity of humankind, past and present.

The archaeology collections (what is archaeology?) of more than two million objects derive primarily from Smithsonian-sponsored excavations. From the mid-19th century survey of Mississippian mound sites to the massive mid-20th century River Basin Survey Program to the current Paleo-Indian research program, much of this work has focused on North America. There are, however, significant collections from other world areas, including artifacts from the first excavations at many locations in Central and South America and rare materials from the Old World Paleolithic and Mesolithic.

The ethnology collection (what is ethnology?) is comprised of a quarter of a million objects representing 19th, 20th and 21st century cultures from around the globe. Exploring expedition collections document periods of early contact worldwide, while the Bureau of American Ethnology materials represent the results of large scale, systematic collecting as an integral part of in-depth research in Native American communities. While the collection is particularly strong in material from North America, there are significant collections from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico, Oceania, and South America, including many examples of lost craft forms and artifact types. In addition to supporting scholarly research about the past, the collections are a source of information and inspiration for Native communities reviving cultural practices and craft traditions.

The physical anthropology collection is a diverse series of human anatomical specimens, primarily osteological, that are used for studies in biological anthropology. Nearly 33,000 specimens represent populations throughout the world. The majority of the material was recovered during archaeological investigations and represents over a millennium of human experience. In addition, the division houses one of the premier anatomical research collections, consisting of over 1,700 complete human skeletons from known individuals assembled by Robert J. Terry between 1921 and 1946. Because of the completeness of the information and excellent preservation, it continues to be a fundamental resource for research on bone pathology, skeletal biology, and forensic anthropology.


Collection Highlights

Catalog Number E413263, a Bobo Mask from Burkina Faso

Search our database of ethnology and archaeology collections, including over 230,000 object images.

The Guide to Collections Records summarizes resources available to researchers.


Woodpecker Gorget

Woodpecker Iconography

Archaeologist James Krakker reviews woodpecker images created by Native Americans over 500 years ago. Learn more »



A New Collection of Taino Artifacts

The M. H. Sanborn and Keriakou Family Collection is comprised primarily of stone and ceramic artifacts from the Dominican Republic. Learn more »




Prehistory of the Washington Monument

Artifacts collected in the 19th century provide a window on the prehistory of the area now encompasing the Washington Monument. Learn more »



Mimbres Bowl

Mimbres Pottery

Intern Sarah Zabriskie reviews 100 years of research on Mimbres culture (1000-1250 AD) and the history of an extraordinary Southwestern pottery collection. Learn more »



Radiometric Analysis of a Wood Celt Handle
Archaeologist James Krakker examines an ungrooved ax with wooden handle uncovered in 1881 during an excavation in Michigan. Learn more »





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