Stories of devastation and loss dominated 2023, with reports of violent conflicts in Israel and Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan and elsewhere reverberating around the world. Not only did Earth experience its hottest day on record—four days in a row—but 2023 is also on pace to be the hottest year to date. In other climate-related news, natural disasters devastated Turkey and Syria, Mozambique, and the Hawaiian island of Maui; wildfires in Canada left smoke and smog blanketing cities across the United States. A landmark study found that 41 percent of amphibians—the world’s most vulnerable animals—are at risk of extinction, in large part due to climate change.
But the news wasn’t all negative. The Covid-19 pandemic continued to show signs of abating, with the federal government declaring the end of the national emergency in April. In July, moviegoers returned to theaters in droves, eager to experience “Barbenheimer” for themselves. Conservation wins included the discovery of a golden mole species once thought to be “possibly extinct” and the arrival of the first wild kiwi chicks to be born near New Zealand’s capital in 150 years. Though Washington, D.C. bid farewell to its three beloved giant pandas, Chinese President Xi Jinping signaled that the black-and-white animals will return to the U.S. in the near future. (Atlanta, now the only American city with pandas, is slated to send its bears back to China in 2024.)
Smithsonian magazine’s coverage of 2023 reflected the eclectic interests of our audience. We tracked major milestones in the development of artificial intelligence and chronicled intriguing finds like a 7.5-foot-long sword unearthed in Japan, a 5,000-year-old tavern in Iraq and the entrance to a Zapotec underworld in Mexico. Drawing on the rich archive of images submitted to the magazine’s annual photo contest, we transported readers to Italy, captured the beauty of the northern lights, and celebrated holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving. We launched a podcast, called “There’s More to That,” in which we asked our journalists and editors about the history of Native representation on film, NASA’s mission to capture asteroid dust and why we have orcas all wrong. We also paid tribute to towering figures who died in 2023, including first lady Rosalynn Carter, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and singer Tony Bennett.
Our top story of the year explored the real history behind “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story,” a limited series chronicling the love story of the eponymous monarch and her husband, George III. The show, which clocked 503 million viewing hours in the first half of 2023, according to Netflix, serves as a prequel to the streaming service’s 2020 smash hit “Bridgerton.” The new series reveals the origins of the Regency-era drama’s imagined integrated society. In this heavily fictionalized landscape, Charlotte is a Black woman whose marriage to the white king opens doors for people of color in 18th-century England. As Black aristocrat Lady Agatha Danbury explains, “We were two separate societies divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us.”
The reality of racial relations in Georgian England was far more complicated than “Bridgerton” and “Queen Charlotte” suggest. Of the 15,000 Black people who lived in England during the second half of the 18th century, the majority were either paid domestic workers or enslaved servants. “The show’s producers and stars have framed its inclusion of Black characters as a form of escapism and fantasy, [but] the fact remains that slavery not only exists in the ‘Bridgerton’ world but is also directly responsible for generating much of the wealth on display,” Smithsonian noted in May. As for Charlotte herself, most scholars agree the queen was white, debunking a fringe theory by historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom that claims she was of African ancestry.
In addition to “Queen Charlotte,” Smithsonian spotlighted a wide range of movies and television shows about royals past and present. This year, we examined Empress Joséphine’s depiction in Napoleon, Princess Diana’s death in “The Crown,” the discovery of Richard III’s bones in The Lost King and the modernization of Marie Antoinette in a TV series of the same name.
Some three million years ago, petite penguins roamed what is now New Zealand, living in roughly the same area inhabited by their modern-day descendants, known as korora. Scientists identified the extinct birds, called Wilson’s little penguins or Eudyptula wilsonae, by studying two fossilized skulls found on New Zealand’s North Island.
“Because researchers only have the extinct animals’ skulls—and not their complete skeletons—they aren’t entirely sure how big the Wilson’s little penguins would have been,” wrote Smithsonian contributor Sarah Kuta in July. “But they suspect the birds may have been similar in size to today’s little penguins, which weigh about two pounds and stand roughly 13.5 inches tall.” (At the other end of the spectrum, the same team recently unearthed the bones of a 340-pound penguin that lived in the oceans around New Zealand approximately 57 million years ago.)
Deemed “ridiculously cute” by study co-author Daniel Ksepka, Wilson’s little penguins were surprisingly similar to their contemporary counterparts—a fact that surprised the scientists given the “big environmental shifts over the course of their evolution,” according to Kuta. By studying the diminutive species and how it adapted to its environment, experts hope to better predict what might happen to korora as their ecosystem faces rising temperatures and other effects of climate change.
Every year, an estimated 365 million to 1 billion birds die after colliding with buildings in the U.S. Unable to recognize glass windows as solid objects, the animals interpret “reflections [as] a continuation of the sky or the habitat that surrounds a building,” wrote Smithsonian correspondent Margaret Osborne in October. Artificial light also confuses birds, which use the stars to navigate by night.
This fall, a single evening demonstrated just how dangerous glass panes can be. On the morning of October 6, volunteers found at least 961 dead birds outside of the McCormick Place Lakeside Center in Chicago. “A normal night would be zero to 15 [dead] birds,” said David Willard, a retired bird division collections manager at the Field Museum. “It was just kind of a shocking outlier to what we’ve experienced.” Previously, the building’s record for bird fatalities in one night stood at 200.
A stretch of poor weather preceded the deadly disaster, preventing many Chicago-area birds from migrating south for the winter. Though temperatures and wind direction shifted favorably on the night of October 4, a storm system soon moved in, forcing the 1.49 million migrating birds in the area to fly closer to the ground—and the convention center’s predominantly glass facade. “We’re hoping this incident, as tragic as it was, [will] be a wake-up call to any building in the city to turn its lights out during migration and to support the implementation of the bird-friendly guidelines for new development,” said Annette Prince, director of Chicago Bird Collision Monitors.
More than a century and a half after the California Gold Rush began in January 1848, panning for gold retains its allure. “Once you see your first flake of gold pop out of the pan, it hooks you,” Andy Brooks, president of the Central Valley Prospectors gold panning club, told Smithsonian’s Carolyn Hagler in April. “I constantly find out new things about areas either archaeologically or historically. That’s just as exciting to me as finding a piece of gold. It enriches your soul when you find out about history.”
In this article, Hagler highlights five spots where hobbyists can find gold in the U.S. Nevada, which produces almost 75 percent of the annual U.S. gold yield, tops the list, with the Rye Patch State Recreation Area offering visitors the chance to find gold flakes or nuggets with a unique chevron pattern. Quiet waterways are also good bets, with modern-day prospectors flocking to the shores of the American River in California, the Yukon River in Alaska and Lynx Creek in Arizona. Rounding out the recommendations is the former Cache Creek mining site in Twin Lakes, Colorado.
Ahead of the release of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, writer Andy Kifer interviewed Kai Bird, co-author of the 2005 biography that inspired the film. J. Robert Oppenheimer “was interesting as the father of the [atomic] bomb,” Bird said. “But the real arc in the story is the tragedy.” A charismatic physicist celebrated as America’s savior in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Oppenheimer came to regret his role in developing the bomb, and his legacy was marred by a highly publicized 1954 security hearing that “amounted to an X-ray of [his] adult life,” according to Kifer. “The physicist never fully recovered from the blow to his reputation.”
Smithsonian’s coverage of Oppenheimer included the debut episode of the magazine’s podcast, “There’s More to That.” Host Chris Klimek spoke to Kifer about the many portrayals of Oppenheimer onscreen, from the 1946 documentary “Atomic Power” to a 1980 mini-series starring Sam Waterston of “Law and Order” fame. Speculating on why so many of these dramatizations have been “kind of bad and … cheesy,” Kifer suggested that the “sheer scope and scale of both Oppenheimer’s story and the Manhattan Project story in general” mean filmmakers “have to make some tough choices.” Nolan’s film, he concluded, “seems much more interested, to me, in taking a much broader view of what Oppenheimer’s life meant and also what sort of atomic weapons meant … what the dawn of that era meant.”
Oppenheimer was just one half of the “Barbenheimer” cultural phenomenon. To mark the release of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, the magazine published a brief history of the iconic doll; a podcast episode on Barbie’s beau, Ken; and a roundup of Barbies who “made it to the top of the career ladder before (or around the same time as) their real-life counterparts,” in the words of reporter Sonja Anderson. Examples include Astronaut Barbie, who traveled to space in 1965, and President Barbie, who first ran for office in 1992.
In February, a canine named Bobi broke two Guinness World Records, becoming both the oldest living dog and the oldest dog ever at 30 years and 266 days old. A purebred Rafeiro do Alentejo, he died on October 21 at 31 years and 165 days old.
Bobi was born in Conqueiros, Portugal, in 1992. The dog’s owner, Leonel Costa, said Bobi was lucky to survive infancy: Costa’s father, a hunter, thought the family owned too many animals, so he buried Bobi and his siblings in a hole shortly after their birth. Thankfully, Bobi’s mother rescued the puppy, hiding him in a pile of logs. According to Smithsonian correspondent Osborne, “Costa attributed Bobi’s long life to his diet of unseasoned human food, his freedom to roam unleashed through the forests and farmland close to home, and the calm countryside in which he grew up.”
Every January, Smithsonian publishes a skywatching guide detailing the most-anticipated celestial events on the horizon for the year ahead. In 2023, the list included the Perseid meteor shower, which peaked in North America in mid-August. Per Carlyn Kranking, Smithsonian’s assistant editor for science and innovation, “Each of the Perseid meteors is small—they might be just tiny grains, or the size of a pea or a pebble. Still, they create a fantastic glow, and the shower is known for its extra-bright fireballs, which are caused by slightly larger pieces of debris.”
Compared with 2022, when a full moon washed out the Perseids, this year’s shower was especially spectacular, with the “cloudless, dark sky” offering the perfect backdrop for meteor viewing, wrote Kranking.
Other major skywatching events in 2023 included a rare green comet, the Lyrid meteor shower, a hybrid solar eclipse in the South Pacific, a super blue moon and an asteroid that eclipsed a red star in the constellation Orion. Looking ahead to 2024, a total solar eclipse slated to be visible from North America on April 8 is generating the most excitement. In his guide to the event, veteran “eclipse chaser” Dan Falk outlined where to go for the best view, what equipment to bring and more. “If you want to make the most of this dramatic event, you’ll need to plan ahead,” Falk advised.
The installation of a new underfloor heating system at England’s Exeter Cathedral proved to be a boon for archaeologists, who used the upgrade as an opportunity to excavate the centuries-old church. While digging in the quire, a space at the cathedral’s center that houses its choir stalls, high altar and bishop’s throne, researchers unearthed the original foundations of a 12th-century altar, a medieval crypt and the empty tombs of two bishops. The finds represented “the most exciting archaeological discovery ever made” at the cathedral, per a statement.
Glimpses into the past proved popular with Smithsonian readers in 2023. Archaeology stories that resonated with our audience this year ranged from the recovery of a hand-sewn, 3,000-year-old boat off the coast of what is now Croatia to an 8-year-old Norwegian girl’s discovery of a Neolithic dagger at her school playground to Neanderthal engravings that were sealed in a cave for 57,000 years.
Lucy Maud Montgomery is known best for writing Anne of Green Gables, a 1908 children’s book about a plucky, red-headed orphan. Fans have long likened Montgomery to her young protagonist. But as V.M. Braganza, a book historian at Harvard University, wrote in Smithsonian’s April/May 2023 issue, Montgomery’s 1923 novel, Emily of New Moon, “was in many respects closer to the author’s reality.” The book’s central character is an orphan sent to live with her mother’s family, who prevent her from pursuing her passion for reading and writing. Emily’s underlying argument, Braganza explained, was “that young women’s literary ambitions deserved to be taken seriously.”
Like Anne and Emily, Montgomery was an orphan. Her maternal grandparents and aunt criticized her creative pursuits, even into adulthood. Montgomery’s “colossal achievements came at the price of ostracism and censure from members of her own family,” Braganza noted. Still, the author’s legacy lives on through her work. “Her vision has shaped a future in which readers like me could dare to imagine and to write,” Braganza added.
Some 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers from eastern Eurasia became the first humans to populate what is now North America. But as Smithsonian correspondent Brian Handwerk reported in January, “the intercontinental journey wasn’t a one-way trip.” DNA analyses indicate that Native Americans later returned to their ancestors’ homelands, crossing the Bering Strait to settle in Asia “over a span of thousands of years.” This eastward migration, as recorded in the bones and teeth of ten individuals who lived 7,500 to 500 years ago, “helps show that from the coasts of America and Japan to the Siberian interior, some of our deep ancestors’ populations may have been more mobile and intermixed than anyone would have imagined,” Handwerk wrote.
Photo credit for top image: Illustration by Meilan Solly / Clockwise from top left: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons, David Paul Morris / Getty Images, NASA, Guinness World Records, Diliff via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0, public domain, University of Guelph, Simone Giovanardi, Universal Pictures and Lauren Nassef via the Field Museum