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Myths in the Museum: The Iron-Eater and the Ostrich Egg

Marianne JDatiles4 July 2019

This is the fourth segment in the Myths in the Museum series; you can go back and read about the horseshoe crab, the dugong and mermaid, and the narwhal and unicorn.

The now-extinct Arabian ostrich, depicted in The Book of Animals, 1335. [Source: The Book of Animals of al-Jahiz, Syria]

The UCL Grant Museum of Zoology is currently undergoing a significant restructuring of its displays. The Grant Museum is the last of London’s university natural history museums and has amassed a fascinating collection — but only a fraction is on display. From a set of warthog and domesticated pig skulls now placed over the entranceway as part of the expanded comparative anatomy section, to a lost set of dodo bones found in a drawer in 2011, to the world’s rarest skeleton, the extinct quagga (think zebra with fewer stripes), the museum’s collection is vast. In the newly reorganised avian section, some exceptionally large bird eggs are neatly lined up like a mini hall of fame. And the largest (non-extinct) egg of all, of course, belongs to that famous 9-foot-tall marvel with legs strong enough to kill a lion in one blow, the OG kickstarter, the Ostrich.

At the Grant Museum of Zoology, you can compare the pale-coloured ostrich egg with other large birds’ eggs. The photo on the left shows the individual ostrich egg; the photo on the right shows the museum’s display, with the now-extinct elephant egg dwarfing the rest, and the ostrich egg next to it. [Left: UCL Grant Museum, Y134; Right: image by Jen Datiles]

As the largest living bird species in the world, the ostrich unsurprisingly lays massive eggs that have been valued by humans for millennia. But their value goes beyond serving as a royal dish for ancient pharaohs; across cultures, the ostrich egg has long possessed symbolic significance and associations with prosperity, truth, life, and rebirth. Evidence as early as the 4th millennium BCE reveals eggs were hollowed and intricately carved, used as perfume containers and drinking cups, and buried as part of ancient Egyptian funerary rituals. Eggshells were found in sites of the early cultures of Mesopotamia and Crete, and the use of eggshells as drinking vessels was continued by desert peoples until at least the late 20thcentury. Ostrich eggs were also, of course, highly valued for their nutritional intake, with a whopping 120g or so of protein per egg.

Left: A mosaic floor in the Byzantine Church of Petra, Jordan [Photo: Bernard Gagnon]; Right: A 15th-century ostrich egg with Arabic writing, describing the soul’s journey from death to life [Copyright University of Leeds. Source: Nature, 2002]

Ostrich eggs remained both spiritually and practically significant in the Greek and Roman worlds, where they were offered to deities and hung in temples as decorations or used as lamps. This association of ostrich eggs with sacred spaces carried over into Muslim and Christian practices. The ostrich, according to popular belief in the 2ndcentury BCE, the ostrich had the ability to make its eggs hatch by staring at them intensely rather than brooding, a trait that added to their significance as early Christian symbols of not only new life and rebirth, but also of single-mindedness, concentration, and determination. Pliny the Elder wrote on the ostrich’s mythical ability to eat iron and glass, which earned the bird a reputation as an iron-eater, and symbolized strength through resistance and hardship. In medieval and early modern Europe, the ostrich egg also came to symbolize the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.

Left: Ostrich eggs add both symbolism and splendor to the interior of the Lazarus Church in Cyprus. [Photo: Hannes Grobe/BHV]; Right: Piero della Francesca’s Brera Madona c. 1472, an altarpiece known for its pendant egg detail. [Source: Wiki Commons]

In the secular luxury trade of the 16-17th centuries, ostrich eggs became a subject of particular fascination for metalsmiths. Last week I oohed and ahhed my way through the famously fantastic Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Germany. Amongst all the royal treasures of gems, ivory, gold, and crystal, a wall of the Grünes Gewölb (Historic Green Vault) was devoted to some seriously decorated ostrich eggs. These specimens had been fashioned with gilt-silver into figurines, goblets, and drinking vessels that once adorned the feast tables and halls of Saxon princes. Talk about egg-cellent conversation pieces!

Left: Three ostriches, fashioned from eggs mounted in gilt-silver. Elias Geyer, c. 1595, in the Grünes Gewölbe, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden [Source: SKDresden Online Collection]; Right: An ostrich egg standing cup, c. 1570, from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Note the horseshoe in the ostrich’s beak — a reference to its mythical ability to eat iron [Source: Wiki Commons].

Ostrich eggs may also have use in modern medical research. Like all birds, ostriches pass on bacteria- and virus-fighting antibodies to their offspring through their yolk. Considering one ostrich egg contains as much yolk as about 24 chicken eggs, and one ostrich female can lay 50-100 eggs per year, a team of Japanese researchers have identified ostrich eggs as a promising source for developing drugs. Last October, they announced the commercial development of an ostrich antibody for dengue fever. The research is open to speculation, and still years away from clinical trials and regulatory approval, but our fascination large eggs continues!

Further reading:

Green, N. (2006) Ostrich Eggs and Peacock Feathers: Sacred Objects as Cultural Exchange between Christianity and Islam, Al-Masāq,18:1, 27-78, DOI: 10.1080/09503110500222328

The Last of the Neanderthal… Blog Posts!

Josie RMills26 June 2019

Since I started working for UCL Culture, the picture researchers have of human evolution has changed dramatically. There’s no surprises that I think the most exciting relate to Neanderthals; it’s now widely accepted that they possessed complex material culture, adapted to different climates and environments, and expressed themselves through art and symbolism. Researchers are giving the Neanderthals space to be both similar and different to Anatomically Modern Humans, and questioning whether the comparison between the two species is the most useful way to understand behaviour.

The evolutionary tree has also been updated multiple times as new genomic and anatomical data emerges. We know a whole species, the Denisovans, by evidence almost wholly gleaned from ancient DNA and proteins. The Denisovans were a species with a huge range from Siberia to SE Asia; they were distantly related to Neanderthals and possessed distinct adaptations relating to survival in cold climates. A huge breakthrough in the past few months identified a jawbone, found in 1980 by monks in a cave on the Tibetan Plateau, that actually belonged to an adolescent Denisovan. It’s the largest piece of anatomical evidence found of the species and also greatly expands their known geographical range. The fossil was identified by the presence of ancient proteins preserved in the teeth, via a type of analysis called palaeoproteomics  a revolutionary technique that provides an alternative to identification of ancient DNA, which doesn’t always preserve well.

A schematic of the relationship between Neanderthals, Denisovans, Chimpanzees and Anatomically Modern Humans that demonstrates the genetic link between Denisovans and Neanderthals (Image Credit: Frido Welker from this blog post, which discusses the mandible).

Discoveries like this both simplify and complicate our understanding of how humans evolved; it’s really interesting to see how the development of scientific techniques can draw information from finds both in museum archives and within local communities. One of the highlights of being a Student Engager is the chance to be involved with outreach activities like Curiosi-teas, a group that aims to bring local people together with the UCL Collections, fostering a sense of community and taking the museums out of a traditional academic setting. It’s often these sessions that produce the most interesting and also difficult to answer questions about Neanderthals (think cannibalism, brains, sex…). Or one of my personal favourites, did Neanderthals wear clothes? The origin of clothes is a tricky topic because organic material doesn’t preserve well in the archaeological record. We know that Neanderthals lived in cold climates, and although they had certain adaptations to cope with this, I think it’s incredibly unlikely they were wandering around in their birthday suits.  Although during this discussion it was suggested that they may have coped with the cold by being excessively hairy…

This will be my final blog post for UCL Researchers in Museums, as our funding has been withdrawn by UCL Culture – we’re facing an Engager-wide extinction event! I want to take a line to thank my colleagues (all 13 of them) and I hope this blog and our presence in UCL Museums has been interesting and engaging for readers and visitors – Although sad, we are leaving on a high as we have just been awarded The Dr Katharine Giles science blog award by the Association of British Science Writers! It’s been a wonderful place to talk about my PhD research and the amazing collections held at UCL and we’ve all learnt a lot from each other – did you know that – did you know that wombats poop cubes?!

I thought I’d finish by pointing you in the direction of a few human evolution and palaeolithic archaeology highlights in the UCL Museums. Firstly, the collection of handaxes and other stone tools in the  Petrie Museum. You’ll find them clustered under Flinders Petrie’s watchful gaze in the museum cases located at the earliest point of Egypt’s chronology. They represent some of the first finds from Egypt before it was really Egypt as we know it now, I’ve written about them here. A hot tip, the drawers under the display cases pull out and are chock full of more lovely lithics!

A late Acheulean (Lower Palaeolithic) handaxe found at what is now Thebes. From the collection of Montague Porch 1905, presented to the museum by the public museum of Weston-Super-Mare, January 1960. Dimensions 95mm. (Image Credit: Petrie Museum, UC13676).

Moving to the Grant Museum, you can see some great examples of comparative anatomy of both primates and hominins. This image is a skull cast from a cranium and mandible discovered at La Chappelle-Aux-Saints in France. It’s estimated that this person lived 50,000 years ago, to the ripe old age of 40, which is pretty good for a Neanderthal! It’s one of the most complete Neanderthal skeletons found, and thought to be a deliberate burial. It’s also a fossil that has been discussed in terms of prehistoric altruism and social care, as the skeleton shows signs of bad health, for example arthritis and tooth loss; these pathologies have been used to suggest that the ‘old man’ was cared for by others, which has important implications for group dynamics and is something we associate with humanity. The whole display case provides a great range of different hominin and non-human primate fossil casts, where you can see the differences and similarities between our ancestors.

Model of H. neanderthalensis skull, modelled after La Chapelle-Aux-Saints (Grant Museum, Z2020).

So, that’s it from your resident Neanderthal enthusiast, if you are interested in human evolution, prehistoric archaeology, ot rocks – follow me on Twitter @josiemills!

 

 

Multispectral Imaging of Leonardo da Vinci Drawings

Cerys RJones16 June 2019

In the first year of my PhD, I was asked by Alan Donnithorne, the former head of conservation of prints for the Royal Collection Trust, whether I would be interested in capturing multispectral images of three Leonardo drawings for a book he was writing. Of course I eagerly agreed and in July 2016 Alan brought three beautiful studies by Leonardo to UCL ready for imaging.

The first drawing was the ‘Studies of horses and horses’ heads’ created circa 1481. This is a metalpoint drawing of the portrait of a horse’s head and another in side-profile. To create a metalpoint drawing, a metal-nibbed stylus is used to engrave lines onto paper that has been prepped with glue and ground animal bone, whilst also leaving a deposit of the metal. Although only two horses heads could be seen in visible light, when illuminated in ultraviolet light, two more horses and a dog appeared at the bottom of the page that were invisible to the human eye.

‘Studies of horses and horses’ heads’ illuminated under visible light (left) and after multispectral imaging (right). The two horses and dog at the bottom of the page cannot be seen using the human eye alone. (Image copyright: Queen Elizabeth II, Moral rights: Cerys Jones)

The second drawing was of ‘the anatomy of a bear’s foot’, circa 1488-90. Leonardo initially studied anatomy to inform his paintings;however,this eventually evolved into a plan to write a never-completed treatise on the subject. Martin Clayton, in his 2019 book Leonardo da Vinci: a life in drawing, explained how, at the time, human dissection was illegal and so Leonardo may have been interested in the bear’s foot due to the similarity in the way humans and bears walk. The multispectral imaging of this drawing enabled the different materials (metalpoint, pen and ink, and white heightening) to be separated and show how Leonardo built up his compositions.

The final drawing was a study for ‘the drapery of the Madonna’s arm’ (c. 1510-1515) created for ‘the Madonna and Child with St Anne and a lamb’, a painting currently in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The multispectral imaging revealed the outline of the arm under the drapery,implying that Leonardo first drew a template for the arm and then built the drapery on top of that . The images also enhanced the different materials, including black and red chalk, pen and ink, brush and ink, and white opaque watercolour.

Capturing the multispectral images of the study for ‘the drapery of the Madonna’s arm’. (Image: Cerys Jones)

The full results from this imaging are in Alan’s book Leonardo da Vinci: A Closer Look. This fascinating book investigates many of the Leonardo da Vinci drawings held in the collection at Windsor Library, using a variety of imaging techniques, including multispectral imaging, microscopy, X-Ray fluorescence, and more. He shows Leonardo’s drawings in a way never seen before—including these features invisible to the human eye—to present a detailed view of Leonardo’s musings and thoughtful mind.

The studies for ‘the anatomy of the bear foot’ and ‘the drapery of the Madonna’s arm’ are currently on display in the Queen’s gallery as part of the new exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: a life in drawing to commemorate the 500-year anniversary of Leonardo’s death. This exhibition displays over 200 drawings from Leonardo’s life, spanning a range of topics including anatomy, optics, engineering, botany, cartography and more. I was honoured to be invited to a private view of the exhibition before it was open to the public to celebrate Leonardo’s work and the release of the book. The exhibition is captivating and provides a fascinating insight into Leonardo’s mind, which you can see jumping across subjects on a single piece of paper. I encourage everyone to attend and be inspired by Leonardo’s inquisitive and ingenious mind.

If you’re interested in learning more about my work on the Leonardo drawings, check out my poster!

At the private view of the Leonardo da Vinci: a life in drawing exhibition at the Queens Gallery in Buckingham Palace (Image: Cerys Jones)

Cerys Bradley: My Last Blog Post

Cerys MBradley14 June 2019

In April, I had my last shift at the UCL Art Museum . Last week I had my last shift in the Petrie Museum, next week will be my last shift ever at the Grant Museum. After nearly four and a half years, I’ve finally finished studying at UCL – I passed my PhD viva yesterday and am a few minor edits away from graduation.  As working as a student engager has been one of the best things about studying at UCL, I wanted to use this blog post to talk about some of my favourite moments on the job and the things I have learned because of this programme.

Let’s start with my favourite engagements. It was difficult to narrow down the list but I have chosen three, one from each museum. Before I tell you them, I would like to award a “highly commended” prize to the time I spent twenty minutes talking to two visitors in the Grant about how dead baby pigs are used in research in my department before finding out they were vegan. You can read more about the encounter here.

When I started working in the UCL Art Museum, I was incredibly apprehensive – I know nothing about art. My background is in mathematics and the staff in the museum kindly spent a lot of time searching through their catalogue to find related pieces I could talk about (to no avail). So I learned a few facts about Flaxman, the man whose works began the collection, and started offering to take visitors to the Flaxman gallery and the Housman room (a room that hosts several of UCL’s best pieces that should be on public display but are now hidden behind a key-card access only door).

On one of my shifts, a mother and daughter came to the museum. They had just moved to Reading from Pakistan and the daughter wasn’t getting on too well at school. She loved art class so her mum had brought her to London for the day to tour some art galleries. They were a little underwhelmed by our small print room (there wasn’t an exhibition on at the time) so I took them to the Flaxman gallery which displays casts and prototypes of some of the funerary monuments that Flaxman designed and sculpted. Flaxman worked during the British occupation of India and incorporated Indian burial iconography in his work. I learned this from the visitors who explained to me what the specific positions of the figures in the casts and their clothing signified about their lives. The visitors were excited to connect with the work and I learned a lot from them; it was an interaction which really demonstrated how positive the engagement programme could be.

UCL Flaxman Gallery and sculpture

The Flaxman Gallery at UCL

It is at the Grant Museum that I discovered the incredibleness of bats. Once again, I had to work hard with the staff at the museum to identify a way of connecting my research background with the collection. I started talking about the bats because a student in my department did her Master’s project about them. She is an environmental crime researcher (that encompasses both crimes committed against the environment and crimes committed by animals) and used her Master’s dissertation to investigate the destruction of bat habitats in the UK.

When on shift, I would hover by the bat specimens and use them to talk about my colleague’s research and, then, how we study crime in our department more generally. When I wasn’t talking to visitors I would idly google interesting facts about bats. They are now my favourite animals – I have two bat tattoos and a bat detector so I can determine the species of bats on Hampstead Heath.

One of my favourite facts to share with visitors is how much bats eat. Insectivore bats can eat up to 7 times their own body weight in insects in one night and fruit bats can eat up to twice their own body weight. I often tell this fact to children and ask them if they can imagine eating twice their own body weight in their favourite fruit. On one occasion, I asked a small boy (whose favourite food was cherries) how much fruit that would be. He asked his mum how much he weighed and then carefully counted two times 22 kg on his fingers before answering, very sincerely, 44 kg. His parents were extremely proud.

This is my favourite bat in the Grant Museum, I think he looks like a mob boss doing a really big laugh

When I work in the Petrie Museum, I talk about two things: the pot burial and Amelia Edwards. Three if you count helping children find the pink pyramids hidden in the displays. I like talking about the pot burial because we know so little about it and it’s a brilliant object for explaining to children the mechanics and limitations of archaeology.

When children approach the object, I ask them if they were an archaeologist and they found a skeleton in a pot, what questions would they try to answer. They nearly always ask the same three questions: “who was this person?”, “how did they die?”, and “why are they in a pot?”. Then we try to answer the questions together. On one occasion a tiny child looked me dead in the eye and declared that the person had died when they were hit on the head and all their blood had run out down their face (this was acted out for emphasis). The small child then went and did some colouring and I have had nightmares ever since (not really).

The pot burial in the Petrie Museum

Every instance of talking to a child about the pot burial becomes a favourite engagement at the Petrie. I enjoy observing their curiosity and creativity. It is even more fun when they come to terms with the idea that we just don’t know the complete answer to some questions and so they get to make up their own stories.

I have worked three Saturdays a month nearly every month for the past three years and experienced hundreds of engagements with visitors of UCL’s museums. I have learned a lot about their lives and about the collections, I have grown more confident talking to strangers, I have gotten better at explaining scientific concepts and I have discovered a thousand ways to say, “I have absolutely no idea, let’s google it”.

This is my final blogpost, which is why it is long and overtly sentimental, but I wanted to sign off by saying thank you to the UCL Student Engager’s programme for the huge, positive impact it has had on my time here at UCL.

 

‘Writing the Law’ Launches at Lambeth Palace Library

Arendse ILund12 June 2019

This week, I launched “Writing the Law: Lambeth’s Legal Manuscript Collection,” an exhibition of medieval legal manuscripts I curated for Lambeth Palace Library. The exhibition was supported by the London Arts & Humanities Partnership and stems from my research in the UCL English Department.

“Writing the Law: Lambeth’s Legal Manuscript Collection” is on display at Lambeth Palace Library (Image: Camille Koutoulakis)

Lambeth Palace was founded in the Middle Ages as the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the many centuries since then, each Archbishop added to the library’s holdings, either through explicit collections and purchases of manuscripts and books, or by leaving their own books and papers for posterity. The manuscripts on display as part of the exhibition entered into the Lambeth Palace Library collection at different times and thanks to the collecting interest of different archbishops. But they all shed light on how law was produced, written down, and evolved throughout the Middle Ages.

Finishing up the exhibition installation in Lambeth’s Great Hall (Image: Arendse Lund)

This exhibition comes out of my doctoral research on medieval law — specifically how rulers used law as a type of propaganda to increase perceptions of their own authority. Lambeth has generously given me the space to explore this topic in their collections and I thought I’d take a few paragraphs to write about some of the perhaps less obvious manuscripts on display and what they tell us about medieval law.

When we think of law, we often think of things that we consider strictly legal documents: legal treatises, or wills, land grants, maybe writs forbidding someone to act in a certain way. There are certainly many of these types of manuscripts on display. One of the highlights is a 13th-century copy of Lombard law, listing the amount of compensation you’d need to pay if you injured someone. Another highlight is a 14th-century copy of the Magna Carta. But we also have to take into account the many documents that shed light on the social and cultural history behind legal change.

Two of Lambeth Palace Library’s early versions of Henry of Huntingdon’s ‘History of the English’ (Historia Anglorum) are on display. Henry of Huntington was a 12th-century historian and the archdeacon of Huntingdon. His greatest accomplishment was the writing of what was supposed to be a single book on the history of the English but which spiraled out into multiple volumes detailing the lives and reigns of the English kings. One of the Lambeth Palace Library versions contains heavy reader annotations and marginalia. These are in many ways entirely different from the more formal types of commentary provided by the glosses to the canon law displayed nearby; and yet, these sorts of reader interactions with the text give us modern historians an understanding of how law was interpreted by its contemporaries. 

This Year Book [Lambeth Palace Library MS 270, f. 313r] includes a genealogical chronicle as a way of emphasizing Henry V’s descent from both Anglo-Saxon and Norman royal dynasties, in addition to prominent Biblical figures (Image: Arendse Lund)


Since my research interests lie with royal propaganda, one of the stars on display is a royal family tree. It lists the genealogy of all the kings of England, which some inventive scribe has managed to connect altogether. The genealogy starts with Irad, the Biblical son of Cain, and winds its way through famous figures, eventually getting to the Anglo-Saxon kings, including Alfred the Great, and then continuing past the Conquest, ending with King Henry V. There are approximately 40 roll chronicles of this type that survive from the later Middle Ages, many held by the British Library. Royal descent, traced through these frequently-invented blood relationships, was a powerful tool used to legitimize the succession of power and promote dynastic identities. But, one of the first things you’ll notice looking at the genealogy that on display at Lambeth Palace Library, is that it is very much a hefty manuscript and not a roll. But we can tell that it was likely copied from one of these rolls because a confused scribe has turned the manuscript sideways to draw in the family tree, in an attempt to mimic the roll form and try to maximize space. So, in following the scribe’s efforts, I too have displayed the manuscript sideways.

Although I could happily go on to describe each manuscript on display, I better stop there. I would like to end by issuing a huge thank you to Lambeth Palace Library for being generous with their space, and in particular, Dr Rachel Cosgrave, Senior Archivist, and Giles Mandelbrote, Librarian and Archivist, for their support.

You can go see “Writing the Law: Lambeth’s Legal Manuscript Collection” at Lambeth Palace Library this summer. Although generally closed to the public, you can view the exhibition during the Open Days; the next one is 5 July.

Student Engagers Win ‘Oscars of Science Journalism!’

Arendse ILund30 May 2019

The Student Engager team has won Britain and Ireland’s top award for science blogging at the 2019 Association of British Science Writers’ (ABSW) award ceremony.

Dorrie Giles presents Student Engagers Mark Kearney, Josie Mills, and team coordinator Arendse Lund with the Dr Katharine Giles science blog award at the ABSW ceremony (Credit: Trevor Aston Photography)

We were awarded the prestigious Dr Katharine Giles science blog award in a ceremony hosted this week by London’s Science Museum. The judges commended us for our “fresh, fun and innovative approach” to science writing, complimenting the curiosity-driven writing of this blog. We are over the moon!

Nikki Giles, Dorrie Giles, Mark Kearney, Josie Mills, and Arendse Lund celebrate at the ABSW awards (Credit: Nikki Giles)

Considered the “Oscars of Science Journalism,” the ABSW awards annually recognize the best in science journalism. The other finalists in the category were Cancer Research UK and the British Psychological Society Research Digest. Previous winners include Guardian columnist Alex Bellos, science educator Andy Brumming, and science writers Benjamin Thompson and Anand Jagatia. We’re the only students to ever win the award.

Over the last few years, the blog has grown as the team has gotten larger. It reflects the interests and research of each member. As we progress with our own doctoral research, the stories we tell here develop as well. This blog has always been a way for us to communicate the value of our research, the wider scientific application, and the fascinating connections we discover within UCL’s museums. Most importantly though, we strive to communicate our joy in what we research. From cubed wombat poop to Neanderthal encounters with Homo Sapiens to ancient Egyptian colors, there are endless interesting stories to talk about. And sometimes these posts aren’t connected to our research at all — many of our very favorite subjects to write about come about from questions asked by visitors to the museums!

Thank you to all of you who read and enjoy the blog! Are there any stories that have particularly stuck with you? Let us know!

When Plastics Saved Turtles

Mark VKearney25 May 2019

As you may now know, UCL Culture has decided to defund our program next month and so this will be my final post. I thought I would take this opportunity to give a little back story to my PhD project and tell you all about how once upon a time plastic saved the fate of turtles!

Throughout history, natural materials such as tortoise shell and ivory have been coveted by the rich and famous. This led to two things happening – the price of these materials became very high (meaning it really was the rich and famous who could afford them) and the stock levels declined. By stock levels I mean the killing of thousands of animals such as the Hawksbill turtle to feed the needs of the bourgeoisie.

The Grant Museum has three fantastic examples of Hawksbill turtles on its back wall. I normally stand beside them so that I can kidnap engage with people about my work.

Figure 1 – Eretmochelys imbricata or known by its common name Hawksbill Turtle that is on display at the Grant Museum. (Object Number X1226)

By the mid-18th century, the farming of turtles for their shells had gotten to the point where we almost caused their extinction. A similar point had been reached with ivory where demand far outweighed supply. To give you an idea of the scale of what can only be described a mass slaughter, have a look at this doll’s house currently on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam – the outside is totally covered in tortoise shell!

Figure 2 – Dolls’ house of Petronella Oortman. Part of the collection at the Rijksmuseum. The object is totally covered with tortoise shell. It measures h 255.0cm × w 190cm × d 78cm which is a huge surface area to cover in shell!

These natural materials were being used for everything: shirt collars, corset boning, piano keys, knife handles, spectacle frames, combs and brush handles, to name the most common ones. The rising cost and demand for these materials lead to a prize of $10,000 being offered to anyone who could develop a material to replace one particular use of ivory: billiard balls. $10k in 1860 s was a huge sum of money — about $300k today!

Around this time, a material called cellulose nitrate had been discovered and was being used in England by Alexander Parkes. John Wesley Hyatt, an American scientist, added heat, pressure and camphor to this material and created what we consider the first successful plastic. This material was hugely popular and allowed the democratisation of many goods which up to that point had been exclusively in the literal hands of the 1%ers.

However, the only issue with cellulose nitrate was that it was HIGHLY flammable. Even today, it’s considered highly dangerous. Even in UCL’s chemistry department, where we have all the safety precautions, you could expect, when we asked to make some for our research we were turned down as the method carries so much risk. Storing this historic plastic is also a major issue. In 1929 a major fire at a hospital in Cleveland, where 123 people were killed, was caused by x-ray negatives made from cellulose nitrate igniting. Because of this danger, the material was changed and cellulose acetate was developed instead. Cellulose acetate is most noted for its ability to mimic tortoise shell and is highly prized in glasses frame manufacture.

While the development of plastic didn’t totally stop the culling, it did slow it enough so that these fantastic animals are still around today.

These two materials are known as semi-synthetic plastics because they are based on cellulose rather than petroleum. It’s not till the development of Bakelite in at the turn of the 20th century that we get fully synthetic plastics. But even at this point plastics held a privileged place within the hierarchy of materials. This changed after the second world war, where mass industrialisation and production of plastic altered its role from being a highly prized replacement for natural materials to what we unfortunately now know it to be – a mass-produced, often poorly made, single-use throwaway object.

Clearly this move away from small scale production of plastic has produced horrific results for the natural environment. But history is starting to repeat itself again and many of the new plastics being developed are based on cellulose, which naturally decays and can be composted.  So, in a way, cellulose acetate is again saving turtles!

The Mystery of Iridescence in Glass

AnnaPokorska20 May 2019

This is the second part on a series on ‘Iridescence’. You can read the first part here, or return and read an introduction to colours, as well as individually about the colours blue, red, yellow, and green

If you’ve ever wandered through a museum displaying ancient artefacts, chances are you were amazed at the quality and artistry displayed in glass objects of that time. The   has some incredible pieces shining with iridescent colours:

Left: glass weight from the Fatimid period; Middle: glass fragment from the Roman period, possibly part of an eye amulet; Right: glass fragment from the late Roman period (Petrie Museum: UC13298, UC22744, UC67914).

However, despite the undeniable talents of ancient glassmakers, this particular effect was not intentional or even achieved during production. In fact, iridescence found in ancient glass is a result of weathering of its surface caused by burial.  The weathering process itself depends largely on the burial conditions such as heat, humidity and type of soil, although the chemistry of the glass, determined by the purity of raw materials and their compositional ratio, also plays a part. The iridescence is produced when alkalis, or soluble salts, are leached from the buried glass by slightly acidic water present in the soil. This in turn causes the formation of very fine layers which can delaminate or even flake off creating a prism effect.

But it wasn’t until the very end of the 19th century that the iridescence of ancient glass was replicated by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), the son of Charles Tiffany – the New York jeweller. He began his career as an aspiring painter but soon realised that his true potential was in interior decoration. It is generally thought that during his extensive travels Tiffany became inspired by the glasswork and mosaics of antiquity and devoted to the idea of restoring stained glass to its former glory by striving to achieve the same standards of beauty as the ones present in antique masterpieces[1]. Prior to the twelfth century, stained glass works were executed with differently coloured glass pieces as opposed to the later technique of painting on clear glass, which dulled it considerably and created a flat two-dimensional effect. Tiffany’s experiments with glass during the 1880s completely revolutionized the look of the medium and in 1894 he patented favrile glass[2]. By adding different or same shades of colour into the hot mixture Tiffany created a material different from other iridescent glasses as the effect was not just confined to the surface but part of the glass itself.

Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company was established in 1892 in New York and began producing its first favrile glass objects 1896, examples of which can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection as well as other major museums, particularly in America.

Favrile glass objects produced by the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company between 1896 and 1902 (Image: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

Left: “The Flight of Souls”, Tiffany stained glass window which won first prize at the 1900 Paris Exposition, now at the Wade Memorial Chapel, Cleveland, Ohio (Image: CoffeeDoc03); Right: Hanging Head Dragonfly Tiffany lamp from the Art Institute of Chicago collection (Image: mark6mauno).

Tiffany won first prize for the above stained-glass window using his new material at the 1900 Paris Exposition and continued to use favrile for other products, including his famous lamps. Being the innovator that he was, he also carried on experimenting with the medium, eventually developing many other, equally impressive, types of glass such as opalescent, streamer, fracture, ring-mottle, ripple and drapery. But that’s for another time!

[1]     Bing, S Louis C. Tiffany’s Coloured Glass Work, in Artistic America, Tiffany glass and Art Nouveau, Cambridge (Mass.); London: M.I.T. Press, 1970

[2]     The original trade name was actually fabrile, which was derived from an Old English word meaning ‘handcrafted’.

We’re Finalists for a Science Journalism Award!

Arendse ILund16 May 2019

We’re absolutely delighted to announce that we’re finalists for the Association of British Science Writers’ (ABSW) Dr Katharine Giles science blog award! The awards celebrate researchers who undertake science journalism and encourage reporting to improve science literacy in the UK. We’re especially proud as these are the top science journalism awards in the UK and Ireland.

This award was named after a fellow UCL researcher, who’s an inspiration to us all. Dr Katharine Giles was a research fellow at the Centre for Polar Observation and Measurement here at UCL where she worked on the interactions between sea ice cover, wind patterns, and ocean circulation. From the award announcement:

After consideration of two hundred and seventy entries, the judges have decided on the finalists in this year’s Association of British Science Writers’ Awards for Britain and Ireland. The winners will be announced at the awards ceremony on Tuesday 28 May 2019 in the Science Museum’s new Illuminate event space. The Awards are supported by Johnson & Johnson Innovation along with category support from the Royal Society, the Dr Katharine Giles Fund and NUJ/Stephen White Bequest.

Mico Tatalovic, chair of the judging panel and of the ABSW said: “We have had a near-record number of entries this year, and the standard has been excellent, as usual, which made judging them difficult but also enjoyable. It was great to see some new names – of both journalists and publications – on the shortlist, and several entries that were published in non-science publications. It’s been a privilege to be a part of these awards and see them go from strength to strength over the last few years. We hope to make them even bigger and better next year!”

Congratulations to all our blog writers this year: Arendse Lund, Cerys Bradley, Kyle Lee-Crossett, Josie Mills, Hannah Wills, Alexandra Bridarolli, Mark Kearney, Anna Pokorska, Hannah Page, Sarah Gibbs, Cerys Jones, Caz Thompson, and Jen Datiles. We’re excited to see where this goes and couldn’t have done this without the thousands of you who read this blog!

“When gibbons sing, I know it will rain”

CarolynThompson13 May 2019

I started writing this blog post whilst sat in a half-deserted village high up in the Gaoligong mountains in China. Occupied by only 10 remaining elders who refused to leave their traditional lives behind, I had the privilege of staying here and immersing myself into daily life.

Gaoligong mountain village, Yunnan Province, China. © Carolyn Thompson

I am seated by myself as the morning sun blinds me as it peeps out from over the moss-covered tiled roofs. Two chickens are currently sneaking past me into the kitchen to morbidly watch their duck cousin be prepared for breakfast. They scream as my host shoos them away flapping her arms wildly.

The houses date back 50+ years and are made from old wood and bamboo harvested from the forest in the days before the nearby reserve was established. Mules are found on the ground floor of these dwellings with humans roosting above. As a result, night-time can be a very noisy affair!

I also experienced a huge storm at 3 am. I’ve slept through many tropical storms when I lived and worked in Indonesian Borneo, but this was something else. The walls rattled as the rain beat against it and droplets started to seep through and trickle down. I thought the storm would snatch the flimsy roof right off, but I am glad to report that all houses — and mules — were still standing when I woke up.

Typical village dwelling. © Carolyn Thompson

My PhD is all about understanding local nature and wildlife values, comparing gibbon (small ape) knowledge, and investigating patterns of natural resource use. I have spent the past few months collecting social data in the form of structured interviews and small group discussions with local communities in both Hainan and Yunnan provinces. To get the most candid answers, it is important to immerse yourself into local life.

I have drunk countless cups of green tea and bottles of “bai jiu” (lethal Chinese wine) as a result, been dressed up as a local Hei Lisu person, braved eating the 100-year old egg, and scoffed so many sunflower seeds that I am ready to sprout!

Adult female Skywalker Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing). © Fan Peng-Fei.

Before embarking on my PhD journey, I was given an antique book by Robert Van Gulik, a Dutchman fascinated by gibbons and their significance in Chinese culture. Published in 1967, “The Gibbon in China” is a magical collection of poems, stories and paintings dating back to 200 BC. Rich in its content, I was overwhelmed with the stories about “lonely”, “sad-looking” yet “magical” apes who sing haunting and melancholy songs in the Chinese mountains.

Taoists (those that believe in ancient nature-worship regarding the flow of “ch’i” energy in all living things) talked about gibbons being superior to humans. Gibbons were often referred to as “gentlemen” as discussed in my previous blog. Everyone loves good manners — bring a gibbon to meet the parents and they won’t be disappointed due to their impeccable “table manners” (unlike their mischievous macaque monkey cousins), according to an 8th-Century poet, Liu Tsung-Yuan. Their intelligence, supposedly similar to humans, is also regularly mentioned, especially when needing to drink water from a nearby river. Forming a chain by holding hands, gibbons would lower themselves down to the river. One should therefore never “…place a gibbon (Yuan-yu) in a barred cage [as] how could he then show his clever skills?” (4th Century statesman, Ch’u-tz’u).

Forming a “Gibbon Chain”. Nineteenth Century. Sourced from Van Gulik’s 1967 essay on “Gibbons in China”.

Having read this book from cover to cover, I was pumped to record rich gibbon stories during my field season. I was therefore incredibly shocked and disappointed to learn that many traditional stories have not been passed down through the generations.

China is made up of 56 different ethnic groups, all of which used to be rich in culture and history with traditional dress and sigils (both of which are now rarely seen). I interviewed participants from six of these ethnic groups and asked them questions regarding  the importance of gibbons and forests in their local culture. Participants either didn’t understand the question or they would say there is no connection.

I was relieved to hear that a few elders still have a tale or two to tell, especially when it comes to gibbons being able to predict the weather:

“When gibbons sing, I know it will rain tomorrow.” (Anonymous).

An elder in Hainan province told me about how gibbons came to be which involved a naughty, lazy boy who was scolded with an iron on his butt. He then sprouted hair and turned into a gibbon.

I also had a surprisingly funny interview with a 70-something year old man who used to work in Burma harvesting wood to sell back to the Chinese. He spoke about his love of gibbons…to eat! We spent most of our interview crying with laughter as his opinion was so far from my own. He kept insisting that gibbons were incredibly ugly and thought I was crazy because I felt they had aesthetic value.

An on-looker listening in to an interview whilst looking at gibbon photographs. © Yu Yue Jiang.

“Look at their ugly faces!” He would yell. “Ah, they taste so good! Such a shame the government won’t let me hunt them anymore.”

It is important when I conduct these interviews that I remain impartial. At the end of the day, my PhD is all about finding sustainable solutions for both humans and gibbons alike.

My favourite moment was with an 87-year old woman who heard that a “laowai” (foreigner) was staying in the village. Having never left her village or seen a Caucasian woman before, we had a very special, informal moment bonding over gibbons and discussing what life was like during her youth — and what life was like now.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bu6JKNjAWA8/

Although I am still at the start of my PhD journey, I have teamed up with a local non-governmental organisation called Cloud Mountain, who carry out conservation education activities. We hope to work together to reintroduce some of these traditional gibbon stories back into these villages. With only 28 Hainan gibbons, 150 Skywalker Hoolock gibbons and 110 Cao Vit gibbons remaining (my three study species), hopefully we can remind people of their magical, shared history and raise the profile of these forgotten apes before it is too late.

If you would like to follow my PhD journey, you can do so here: Personal blog, Twitter, Instagram. Or come and meet me in the UCL Grant or Petrie museums next month!