Specimen of the Week 315 : The Red Ancients
By Tannis M N Davidson, on 3 November 2017
Back in September, a Specimen of the Week blog post The Gross, The Bad and The Ugly featured a number jarred specimens which were, in part due to their dreadful condition, disposed of. They were all fluid preserved specimens which had over time deteriorated and disintegrated and could not be salvaged by conservation.
But not all specimens in jars have this potential to turn nasty. There are thousands of fluid specimens in the collection which are in excellent condition. The Grant Museum also has specimens in jars which are not fluid preserved at all and, by the virtue of their jarred-ness, have been shielded from the effects of deterioration and look as lively and colourful as they did on their last living day.
So, as a counterpart to the uglies, this week’s blog is showcasing some lovelies…
** The Red Ancients**
These five bird skins are among the earliest specimens that came into the collection. They formed part of the Museum’s original collection which was created by founder Robert Grant. When Grant arrived at UCL in 1828 to become the first Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy in England, he had no specimens or materials with which to teach his classes. He thus began to acquire specimens – including these birds which were in the collection by the 1850’s.
According to their surviving labels, the four smallest specimens were ‘From Trinidad Presented by Dr. Dallas’. It is unknown exactly who Dr. Dallas was, but one possibility might be Dr. William Sweetland Dallas (1824–1890), a British entomologist and curator at the British Museum (Natural History). Unfortunately there are no documents in our archives which add more detail to this transaction.
Tracing the lineages of historical specimens is notoriously difficult, not least because specimens were not documented, described and identified as they are today. At best, vague descriptions of specimens, a rare illustration or a rough date of entry for a group of specimens into a collection are the best leads.
If these bird skins did come to us from the BMNH, this adds to the tantalising theory that they may have originated from a much earlier collection.
One of the first and outstanding private collections was amassed by Dutch apothecary Albertus Seba (1665-1736). His Cabinet of Natural History, and thesaurus of animal specimens, (known as the Thesaurus or Accurate description of the very rich thesaurus of the principal and rarest natural objects (1734, 1735, 1758, 1765), were celebrated during his lifetime. Famously, Carl Linneaus (“the father of modern taxonomy”) visited Seba’s collection and used many of Seba’s specimens as holotypes for the first scientific descriptions of species 1.
After his death, the collection was eventually auctioned in 1752 (in order to meet the expenses of printing the last two volumes of the Thesaurus) 2. The specimens were initially sold in various groups to at least 30 different collectors and were, in the subsequent decades that passed, resold and dispersed again and again 3.
Eventually, specimens from one of these subsequent collections of Seba material, the Lidth de Jeude Collection, were acquired (through natural history dealer Robert Damon) by the BMNH in 1858 and 1867 4.
Still reading? Here’s where it gets fuzzy. The 1858 acquisition lists ’32 birds purchased at the sale of Dr. Van Lidth de Jeude’s Museum’ but fails to mention which birds although describing them as ‘specimens of interest to the Museum’ and that they were from ‘one of the most celebrated private collections in Europe at the time’ 5.
The dates work for the BMNH-Dr. Dallas-to-GMZ theory of acquisition for the birds but does not account for why the BMNH would give up their new bird specimens so soon after arrival. Were these duplicates? We have later documentation that the Grant Museum received several duplicate canine skulls from the BMNH which were from the Lidth the Jeude Collection. What about the bird without the Dr. Dallas label? Possibly the label has been lost sometime in the 167 years since its been at the Grant Museum.
Another compelling (yet entirely inconclusive) bit of evidence which may suggest that the ‘red ancient’ birds have earned their nickname is their preparation – stuffed as skins, in old-fashioned glass jars with red tops – just like Seba’s specimens pictured in his portrait. Confirmed Seba specimens that have passed through the centuries do have red tops – but this style of preparation was also used by others including Lidth de Jeude (perhaps to conform to the original Seba specimens)? I wonder.
In any case, the Grant Museum only has one other specimen prepared in this manner which, like the birds, was one of the original specimens from Grant’s day – the silky anteater:
Is the silky anteater from the BMNH, the Lidth de Jeude Collection, Seba’s Cabinet?? There are illustrations in the Thesaurus that might confirm it! Could this be proven? Alas, this is a mystery for another day.
Tannis Davidson is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology
- Beolens, Bo, Watkins, M. and M. Grayson. 2011. The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Page 240.
- Engel, H. 1961. “The sale-catalogue of the cabinets of natural history of Albertus Seba (1752), a curious document from the period of naturae curiosi”. Bull. Res. Council Isr., 10B (1-3) : 119-131.
- Boseman, M. 1970. “The vicissitudes and dispersal of Albertus Seba’s Zoological Specimens,” Zoologische Mededelingen, deel 44, no. 13, 17 jan. 1970.
- British Museum (Natural History). 1906. “The History of the Collections Contained in the Natural History Departments of the British Museum Vol 2”. Printed by order of the Trustees.