X Close

Researchers in Museums

Home

Engaging the public with research & collections

Menu

Archive for the 'Current Engagers' Category

Colours of Ancient Egypt – Yellow

20 February 2019

This is the third post in the Colours of Ancient Egypt series; here you can read the introduction, here all about the colour blue, and here about the colour red.

Due to its availability in several different forms and shades, yellow was present in many aspects of ancient Egyptian art and decoration, from painting to pottery.

Fragment of a vessel (Petrie Museum, UC25325; Photo: Anna Pokorska).

Pottery vessel containing rough pieces of pale and deep yellow pigment (Petrie Museum, UC59746).

Just as men’s skin was painted red in Egyptian painting, women’s can be distinguished by its yellow colouring, which we can see in a fragment of a statue made out of yellow jasper possibly depicting Queen Nefertiti or Queen Kiya and dated ca.1353–1336 BC.

Fragmentary head of a Queen in yellow jasper, from the 18th Dynasty (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY).

Yellow was also used to mimic gold in works where the use of the precious metal wasn’t possible. The most prevalent yellow pigments in ancient Egypt were derived from natural ochres and had the same properties as their red equivalents — but they were by no means the only source of the colour.

Painted linen mummy shroud painted with red lead, carbon black, orpiment and Egyptian blue pigments (Petrie Museum, UC38058).

Orpiment was a common yellow pigment with a rich lemon or canary yellow shade. It is an arsenic sulphide and occurs naturally in small deposits as a product of hydrothermal veins, hot spring deposits and volcanic sublimation, although nowadays it can be easily obtained artificially. The arsenic content makes it highly toxic and the sulphur will darken lead-based pigments if used together in a mixture.

Closely related to — although not as widespread as — orpiment is an orange pigment called realgar which can often be found in the same deposits. Despite its toxicity, it was the only orange pigment available until chrome yellows and oranges were introduced in the beginning of the 19th century. An interesting feature of realgar is that prolonged light exposure turns it into a yellow compound called pararealgar without changing its elemental composition.

In addition, Egyptians were able to synthetically produce a highly toxic lead (II) antimonate, also known as Naples yellow. It was often used as an enamel colour from about 1500BC, although it didn’t appear in painting until the Renaissance. As one of the oldest produced artificial pigments it was highly toxic and provided a warm orange shade of yellow. Interestingly, a mineral of the same chemical composition, called bindheimite, exists in nature but wasn’t used to create the pigment. Instead it was made by a calcination of a lead compound (such as lead white) with an antimony compound (e.g. potassium antimonate). A 19th century recipe recommends mixing the ingredients, placing them over a gentle heat and then gradually increasing the temperature. After approx. 5 hrs the calcination is complete, and the resulting product can be ground in water with an ivory spatula (because iron can react with the powder and change its colour). The shade of the pigment could also be manipulated by changing the proportions of the ingredients. Lead antimonate is very stable to light exposure but due to the lead content will turn black on contact with hydrogen sulphide (e.g. in air).

Why were so many dangerous substances used as pigments for so long, especially as harmless clays were so abundant? Although their toxic effects were known, the depth and brilliance of the lead and arsenic compounds made the natural iron oxides appear rather dull and brownish in colour by comparison. In fact, even the pigments that strove to replace them — cadmium, chromium and cobalt yellows which appeared during the 19th century — are all harmful to some extent, and it wasn’t until the development of organic pigments (based on carbon and hydrogen) that we overcame this issue!

 

The practice of consanguineous marriages in our modern societies

AlexandraBridarolli8 February 2019

This is the fourth and final segment in a series on incest; you can go back and read the previous segments on incest in ancient Egypt, incest in the Hapsburg family, and incest in nature.

 

As surprising as it may seem, consanguineous marriages are nowadays respected and practised among more than one billion of the world’s population, in particular in the Muslim countries of North Africa, Central and West Asia, and in most parts of South Asia (Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi 2008) with consanguinity rates reaching 20–50% (Hamamy 2016). It has been shown (Bittles 1994, 2001) that sociocultural factors, such as the maintenance of family structure and property, ease of marital arrangements, better relationships with in-laws, and financial advantages relating to dowry, seem to be strong contributory factors in the preference for consanguineous unions.

In countries with civil unrest, consanguineous marriages are preferred because close-kin marriage is regarded as safeguarding for personal and family. It has also been suggested that marriage dissolution and divorce is lower among cousin couples. Studies have indicated that women in first-cousin marriages are protected against intimate partner violence. In another study focussing on cases of consanguinity in Iran (Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi 2008), the authors also demonstrate that in this country the ethnicity, province and area of residence have remained by far the most important determinants of the practice of marriage to biological relatives. In contrast, the modernization variable, education, had no significant effect upon behaviour, the effect being only for those with tertiary education.

Figure 1: Global prevalence of consanguinity (Bittles 2009)

 

In other countries, the genetic risk associated to consanguineous relations is taken very seriously and all is done to avoid it. This is the case with Iceland. With a population of only 320.00 inhabitants, the risk of incest is really high. De facto, in Iceland everyone shares at least one family relationship. It is said that one of the most asked questions during a first date is: “Hverra manna ert þú?” Which means “ Who are you, who is your family?” To avoid any chance to end up dating your cousin, 3 engineers have recently created a smartphone app called ÍslendigaApp in which people can check the family genealogy and any family relationship with their intended in a few seconds. It even has a “bump” option which gives the info on family relationships when the partners’ phones are clashed and can even send an “incest alert” when the two partners are close family members.

At the origin of this app, there is a genealogy website called Íslendingabók (i.e. Book of Icelanders). Launched in 2010, the database lists the family relationships between Icelanders going back 1200 years. To check the information related to your family, any inhabitant of the Island only needs to provide his/her name and national identity number. Quickly, the website starts to be much more than just a catalogue of genealogy trees and people started to use it to check any possible family connections to their partner.

 

Here the series on Incest ends. Through the different articles of this series, I have tried to elucidate the incest taboo, find its sources, and understand its origins through different historical cases — Tutankhamun or the Habsburg family — but also through scientific cases.  All these examples have shown us that this taboo seems deeply anchored in nature and culture but that neither nature nor some cultures totally prohibited it. So where to find its source? The questioning hits some dead-end; the answers provided are always partial. Psychology has tried to stick its nose into it while some scientists are waiting for the discovery of a possible “incest” gene. While we wait for answers, I would like to ask you: “Why do you find incest disgusting?” I hope these articles gave you some food for thoughts and starting points for further questioning.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet by W. Shakespeare).

 

References

Bittles A. H. (1994). ‘The role and significance of consanguinity as a demographic variable.’ Population and Development Review 20(3):561-583.

Bittles A. H. (2001). “A Background summary of consanguineous marriage.” Center for Human Genetics, Edith Cowan University, Perth.

Bittles, A. H. and M. L. Black. “Consanguinity, Human Evolution, and Complex Diseases.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107.Suppl 1 (2010): 1779-86. Web.

Hamamy, Hanan, and Alwan, Sura. “Chapter 18 – The Sociodemographic and Economic Correlates of Consanguineous Marriages in Highly Consanguineous Populations.” Genomics and Society, 2016, pp. 335–361.

Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi, Mohammad, et al. (2008). “modernization or cultural maintenance: the practice of consanguineous marriage in Iran.” Journal of Biosocial Science, 40(6):911–933.

Do you collect like a museum curator?

KyleLee-Crossett1 February 2019

Why do some objects end up in museums and others in the bin? How do people decide what’s important to keep from everyday life today?

These are questions I’ve posed as part of my research with the Heritage Futures project, both to social history curators and ordinary people. Social history curators make these decisions based on years of collections knowledge and experience, but ultimately their reasons for selecting things aren’t so different from why most people choose to hold onto important possessions.

Think of the important keepsakes in your life. The following quiz will tell you whether or not your reasons for adding to and keeping a personal collection are similar (or not) to a museum’s.

(more…)

Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals: Encounters of the Close and Personal Kind

29 January 2019

The two most common questions I get asked about Neanderthals are ‘Why did they go extinct?’ and ‘Did we have sex with them?’ (although never phrased that directly). Neanderthals first appeared in the fossil record around 430 thousand years ago (kya) and persisted through the Mid to Late Ice Age until disappearing approximately 40 kya. They evolved outside of Africa, from existing hominin (human like) populations that had migrated there before 400 kya, and lived in Europe, the Middle East and Western Eurasia. H. neanderthalensis is very closely related to H. sapiens, who are our direct ancestors, with genetic evidence suggesting that we shared a last common ancestor until around 750–550 kya. Although this sounds like a long time ago, the earliest stone tools made by a human ancestor are around 3 million years old.

The publication of the first complete Neanderthal genome in 2010 revealed that all non-African modern humans retain approximately 2% Neanderthal DNA, indicating interbreeding between the two species. So, yes, humans did have sex with Neanderthals, probably about 60–80 kya when they left Africa and encountered established Neanderthal populations in the Middle East. But before this grosses you out, remember that most reconstructions of Neanderthals pre-2010 and particularly during the 19th century were heavily loaded with an ‘us and them’ mentality. Basically, the more ape-like the portrayal of Neanderthals, the more elite and unique humans appear. We know that this is not the case now, with a myriad of new discoveries linking Neanderthals to cultural and symbolic practices, and advanced anatomical adaptations. There is no evidence to suggest the two species would not have recognised each other as what we would call ‘humans’.

A H. neaderthalensis (right) and H. sapien (left) skulls, facing each other. Image credit: hairymuseummatt (original photo), DrMikeBaxter (derivative work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

As more Neanderthal genomes are studied scientists are analysing why we have retained these pieces of DNA. The initial contribution of Neanderthal DNA was likely higher at around 6% but as humans have evolved some genes were selected out. Studies  suggest that the genes we retain are related mainly to phenotypic qualities, meaning those that affect our outward appearance, for example hair and skin colour. Researchers at the Max Planck institute proposed that these genes are all linked to climate adaptation and sunlight exposure, demonstrating characteristics linked to the Neanderthal’s c. 400 kya stay in cooler climates (Dannemann and Kelso 2017).

But Anatomically Modern Humans may have inherited something much more practical from Neanderthals in the form of a genetic resistance to some viruses. Researchers have proposed that when H. sapiens left Africa they encountered viruses that their bodies were not adapted to fight. Historically we know that these kind of encounters can be fatal, think the smallpox epidemics brought by the Spanish to Mexico leading to the downfall of the Aztec civilisation. Enard and Petrov (2018) propose that by breeding with Neanderthals, who had been exposed to these pathogens for around half a million years, H. sapiens became immune and were able to survive in Europe and beyond.

In archaeology and palaeoanthropology, the traditional model of linear evolution and direct replacement of species is becoming more and more difficult to uphold, with discoveries like the Denisovans and others living during similar time spans. At this point you might could say at times the Ice Age was a bit more like Middle Earth! There is a growing openness, supported by scientific evidence, to accept more nuanced views of interaction between different human species.

References:

Dannemann, M., & Kelso, J. (2017). The contribution of Neanderthals to phenotypic variation in modern humans. The American Journal of Human Genetics, 101(4), 578-589.

Enard, D. and Petrov, D.A., 2018. Evidence that RNA viruses drove adaptive introgression between Neanderthals and modern humans. Cell, 175(2), pp.360-371.

Green, R.E., Krause, J., Briggs, A.W., Maricic, T., Stenzel, U., Kircher, M., Patterson, N., Li, H., Zhai, W., Fritz, M.H.Y. and Hansen, N.F., 2010. A draft sequence of the Neandertal genome. science, 328(5979), pp.710-722.

Slon, V., Mafessoni, F., Vernot, B., de Filippo, C., Grote, S., Viola, B., Hajdinjak, M., Peyrégne, S., Nagel, S., Brown, S. and Douka, K., 2018. The genome of the offspring of a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father. Nature, 561(7721), p.113.

Wolf, A.B. and Akey, J.M., 2018. Outstanding questions in the study of archaic hominin admixture. PLoS genetics, 14(5), p.e1007349.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Event: Migration through (Pre)History

28 January 2019

Migration through (Pre)History, an evening of short talks by UCL’s Student Engagers, will be taking place on Thursday, 7 February 2019, from 6:30-9pm in UCL Art Museum

Coming up in UCL Art Museum, we’re hosting a series of talks around the theme of migration, and with Brexit coming up, there’s no wonder that’s what’s on our mind!

We’d like to welcome you to join UCL’s Student Engagers Josie Mills, Hannah Page, and Jen Datiles, current PhD researchers, to explore the migration of people and the movement of objects through time and space. Inspired by the Octagon Gallery’s 2019 exhibit Moving Objects, Student Engagers will use UCL Art Museum as a space to investigate the movement of people across disciplines. Highlights include migration in prehistory and the spread of botanicals in the nineteenth century. Stick around for some wine and snacks afterward!

The event is free and will be held at UCL Art Museum on Thursday 7th of February from 6.30 – 9.00 pm.

The speakers are:

Josie Mills is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Archaeology specialising in prehistoric archaeology, applying scientific techniques to stone tools made by Neanderthals. In her PhD she is studying where flint used to make lithic artefacts comes from in order to look at movement and landscape use during the Middle Palaeolithic. She is also interested in how we, as modern humans, perceive prehistoric behaviour and the division often drawn between us and other species.

Hannah Page is a fourth year part-time PhD student in the Archaeology department. Her thesis focuses on sociocultural and political organisation and change in the early 2nd millennium AD in Uganda. Her research aims to reconstruct key aspects of life at the site of Ntuusi through the detailed archaeometric (scientific) analysis of pottery. This type of ceramic analysis can be used to understand scale and organisation of production practices, identify cultural groups and understand networks of local and long-distance trade and exchange. She is also active in running excavations and coordinating field schools and outreach events in the UK and sub-saharan Africa.

Jen Datiles is a PhD student at the UCL School of Pharmacy studying food and medicinal plants that were exchanged between Asia and the Americas via the Spanish Galleon Trade (1565-1815). Using selected plant species as case studies, her research aims to link historical documentation with modern use-knowledge of traditional food-medicines through fieldwork and work in various archives and herbaria.

As usual our events in the museum aim to be inclusive and interactive, with lighthearted discussion about the topic of the event and how this might relate to our own research areas. You can book the event by clicking here. Booking is encouraged but not essential.

We look forward to welcoming you on the night!

For more information please email josephine.mills.10@ucl.ac.uk or follow us on Twitter @ResearchEngager

The case of the yellow T-Rex

Mark VKearney24 January 2019

When I joined the engager team, we were given a great tour of all three UCL museums so as to help us relate our own research to their respective collections. In a simplified nutshell, my work focuses on trying to monitor plastic artworks as they fall apart, by smelling them (more on that in a future blog post). Natural History and Egyptology collections aren’t known for their large plastic collections, so I was naturally a little nervous about how I might relate my work – or at least I was until I spotted the amazing dinosaur collection the Grant Museum has!

Figure 1 – A selection of dinosaurs at the Grant Museum (Author’s own photo)

My earliest memory of a museum was when I was about 10 and I visited the Natural History Museum in London, for an exhibition which had animated robot dinosaurs. One clear memory I have of that trip was how they looked – the colours and patterns. They all looked like my own toy models, which to a kid is amazing but now as a scientist I find it all little sketchy.

Figure 2 – The museum label for the dino collection — notice the lovely yellow T-Rex in the background! (Author’s own photo)

The models in the Grant are accessioned objects, meaning they are formal museum objects with the same status as some of the most important objects in the collection. They were used to teach students about the form of the animals they were studying. It’s not clear from the label if the colour of the models was also used in their studies. But judging by the bright yellow T-Rex, one would hope not!

But if a T-Rex wasn’t yellow, is there any way that we could know what colour it — or any of the other dinosaurs — might have been? Unfortunately, 65 million years ago they didn’t have quite as active an Instagram as the quokka does.

Amazingly, scientists have found a way to view the colour patterns from fossilized feathers that adorned some dinosaurs. In fact, feathered dinosaurs were more common than initially thought. In a paper published in Science, in 2010, scientists based in China looked at the morphologies (aka the shapes) of melanosomes. These are a small subunit , around 500nm,  of a cell which are used for ‘synthesis, storage and transport of melanin’. Using a clever bit of statistics, they learnt that depending on density and length, they could figure out the creature’s colours. Basically, if these melanosomes are long and narrow or short and wide then you ended up with either black and grey colours or with reds and browns respectively.

The team in China looked at one dinosaur in particular, Anchiornis huxleyi, which had enough preserved feathers to recreate a full profile of what it would have looked like. What is most striking about their reconstruction is how closely it matches one of the models at the Grant. So while not as totally outrageous as the yellow T-Rex, basing patterns on animals alive now gets you pretty close to what their ancestors may have been like.

Figure 3 – Image of Anchiornis huxleyi showing the resulting colour pattern from the scientific analysis. Photo taken from Quanguo et al (2010)

 


Figure 4 – A model featured at the Grant, notice its tail whose pattern is similar to that found in the research by Quanguo et al. (2010 )(Author’s own photo)

However, there’s one clear area where the research falls down, and where it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know. Many animals have the ability to camouflage themselves, but given the uncertainty about their habitats millions of years ago (combined with a low number of preserved samples and the fact the only certain types of cells can be preserved), it is very unlikely that we will ever know if dinosaurs were able to blend into their environment.

Let’s end on this thought – through looking at the shape and size of certain parts of cells, and through some fairly understandable stats, scientists are basically able to do some paint-by-numbers on animals that lived over 65 million years ago. Sometimes I am left in utter awe of what science can tell us!

P.S – Plastic Dino figures are not only used in science but also in art – check these out at the new exhibition at the UCL Art Museum.

Figure 5 – A piece by Edward Allington which is currently on display at UCL Art Museum (Author’s own photo)

The Top Ten Student Engager Blogs of 2018

14 January 2019

Last year, we wrote on topics as diverse as the okapi and medieval manuscripts. So what topped the most read list?

As we start off the new year perhaps it’s only natural that we look back at the highlights from the past one. In 2018 we hosted talks on the theme of justice through the ages in the UCL Art Museum. We had a talk on what justice in the prehistoric era might have looked like, then an interactive back-and-forth on how the Anglo-Saxons assessed recompense for crimes committed, and ended with a discussion of law enforcement in the age of the Dark Net. Talk about interdisciplinary!

On another note, a whole slew of new Student Engagers joined our team—meet them here! There are now 15 of us in the UCL Museums ready to talk about our research and the connections with the museum holdings. We’ve also been furiously writing blog posts!

This past week on Twitter, we’ve been counting down our most read blogs of 2018. (We maintain that this list says more about you, our readers, than us.) And, drum roll please, our most popular post was…

The one about why wombats have cubic poop!

A baby wombat with its face full of cubed-shaped poop (Image: © Jack Ashby)

Here’s the full list of our Top Ten:

  1. Sinking our teeth into the topic, we asked did Neanderthals eat brains?
  2. The story of how some ancient Egyptian objects secretly fluoresce infrared light.
  3. A gripping tale of handaxes from ancient Egypt.
  4. The relationship between frogs and fertility.
  5. Ancient neuroscience, or how the Egyptians were the first to describe the cerebral cortex.
  6. How ancient Egyptian art lost its colour.
  7. Myths in the Museum: The dugong and the mermaid.
  8. The ancient Egyptians loved cats (so do we)!
  9. The prevalence of incest—and how the pharaohs suffered for it.
  10. But really, why do wombats poop cubes?

Here’s to more excellent research in 2019!

“Chief City of Airstrip One”: George Orwell and London

Sarah MGibbs14 January 2019

George Sidney Shepherd (1784-1861). London University from Old Gower Muse (1835) (UCL Art Museum 4587)

Migrating Words, a creative writing workshop inspired by literary and artistic representations of London, will take place at UCL Art Museum on Wednesday, 16 January 2019 from 6 to 8 pm.

In the opening pages of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), the novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith, gazes at a scene of urban decay:

He tried to squeeze out some childhood memory that should tell him whether London had always been quite like this. Were there always these vistas of rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with baulks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard, and their roofs with corrugated iron […]? And the bombed sites where the plaster dust swirled in the air […]? (5)

Though Orwell was born in Bengal, and preferred life on an isolated Scottish island to the bustle of the city, he is inextricably linked to London. An investigative journalist as well as a novelist, he is famous for having gone “native in his own country.” That anthropological expedition involved transgressing geographic, as well as class, boundaries. “I wanted to submerge myself,” he writes in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), “to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants” (148).

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). The Limeburner (1859) (UCL Art Museum 8606).

Orwell’s novels and non-fiction return continually to London and provide a cross-section of its places and people through prosperity, depression, and war. UCL Culture’s upcoming creative writing workshop, Migrating Words, takes its inspiration from Orwell’s texts, and the representations of the city in UCL Art Museum’s collection. The words and images align and diverge, contradict and complement one another in their portrayal of a centre that began as a far-flung outpost of a dying empire, and became a global centre. The world has come to London.

* * *

Orwell’s novels of the 1930s engage directly with urban poverty. Dorothy Hare, Orwell’s heroine in the 1935 novel A Clergyman’s Daughter, is recently returned from hop picking in Kent and desperately seeking shelter:

It was not until the evening that Dorothy managed to find herself a room. For something like ten hours she was wandering up and down, from Bermondsey into Southwark, from Southwark into Lambeth, through labyrinthine streets where snotty-nosed children played at hop-scotch on pavements horrible with banana skins and decaying cabbage leaves. At every house she tried it was the same story—the landlady refused point-blank to take her in. (95)

The narrator’s description of conditions near the Thames contrasts sharply with seventeenth-century artist Wenceslaus Hollar’s rendering of the glory of Lambeth Palace.

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677). A View of Lambeth Palace (1647) (UCL Art Museum 1229).

In Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), failed writer Gordon Comstock, who lives a life of principled penury, wanders drunkenly through central London. While James Dickson Innes’s 1908 oil painting portrays the elegance of aristocrats’ night at the theatre, Gordon’s hatred of the “money god” and the strictures of work and wealth casts a deathly pall on the West End:

“We’d better walk up to Piccadilly Circus,” he said. “There’ll be plenty of taxis there.”

The theatres were emptying. Crowds of people and streams of cars flowed to and fro in the frightful corpse-light. (192)

James Dickson Innes (1887-1914). A Scene in a Theatre: A Performance Seen from a Box in which Three Figures are Standing (1908) (. UCL Art Museum 5263).

 

Both Orwell and Fairlie Harmar had an intimate knowledge of London accommodations for the poor. The latter created the undated watercolour Old and Helpless—Saint Pancras Workhouse, while Orwell describes the conditions in the institutions’ casual wards, termed “spikes,” in a 1931 essay; he also refers to workhouses in his first book-length publication, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933):

At half-past eight Paddy took me to the Embankment, where a clergyman was known to distribute meal tickets once a week. Under Charing Cross Bridge fifty men were waiting, mirrored in the shivering puddles. Some of them were truly appalling specimens–they were Embankment sleepers, and the Embankment dredges up worse types than the spike. (198)

Fairlie Harmar (1876-1945). Old and Helpless- Saint Pancras Workhouse (UCL Art Museum 3208).

Also in Down and Out, Orwell describes a day’s idling in the Thames district. James Whistler portrays a similarly ramshackle, chaotic river life in Black Lion Wharf, an etching he completed in 1859.

All day I loafed in the streets, east as far as Wapping, west as far as Whitechapel. It was queer after Paris; everything was so much cleaner and quieter and drearier. […] In Whitechapel somebody called The Singing Evangel undertook to save you from hell for the charge of sixpence. In the East India Dock Road the Salvation Army were holding a service. […] On Tower Hill two Mormons were trying to address a meeting.” (143-144)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). Black Lion Wharf (1859)(UCL Art Museum 8604).

John Flaxman was one of the foremost funerary sculptors of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and casts of his Greco-Roman style monuments are a cornerstone of UCL Art Museum’s collections. His pen and ink drawings, however, often diverge from neoclassical subjects. A Man in a Cloak Asleep on the Plinth of a Building (undated) co-locates indigency and architectural grandeur. Orwell does the same in A Clergyman’s Daughter, drawing the wandering Dorothy to London’s triumphal center:

Dorothy turned to the left, up the Waterloo Road, towards the river. On the iron footbridge she halted for a moment. The night wind was blowing. Deep banks of mist, like dunes, were rising from the river, and, as the wind caught them, swirling north-eastward across the town. A swirl of mist enveloped Dorothy, penetrating her thin clothes and making her shudder with a sudden foretaste of the night’s cold. She walked on and arrived, by the process of gravitation that draws all roofless people to the same spot, at Trafalgar Square.” (100)

John Flaxman (1755-1826). A Man in a Cloak Asleep on the Plinth of a Building (undated)(UCL Art Museum 776).

It is Rome, rather than London, that is called the Eternal City. Orwell, however, never visited Italy. Instead, he lived, loved, suffered, was celebrated, and most importantly, wrote in London; it is his city of the past, and the future. For the capital endures even in the nightmare world of Nineteen Eighty-Four. While Winston struggles to remember life before Big Brother—everything, including the names of countries, had been different then (34)—he remains certain that London has always been London.

Join me for Migrating Words, UCL Culture’s creative writing workshop examining London, Orwell, and the works of the UCL Art Museum collection.

 

Question of the Week: How do you Describe the Jaw of a Crocodile?

Cerys RJones11 January 2019

Like many of us, Leonardo da Vinci, the great polymath, wrote “to-do” lists. However, in true Leonardo form, his lists did not contain typical mundane tasks such as ‘pick up milk’ or ‘post mum’s birthday card’ but instead provide a fascinating insight into the mind of the Renaissance great. The entries on Leonardo’s list include ‘obtain a skull’, ‘describe the tongue of the woodpecker’ and ‘describe the jaw of a crocodile’. In the spirit of the New Year, with the motivation of completing tasks and resolutions, this blog post aims to tick off one of Leonardo’s 500-year-old objectives.

To start with, let’s return to a previous blog post by UCL museums that discussed the differences between crocodiles and alligators. It includes the location (alligators are typically found in North and South America, whereas crocodiles are typically found everywhere else), how porous the skin is (alligators only have pores around their jaws, whereas crocodiles have them everywhere),  and also the shape of the jaw. The blog post states that the crocodile’s jaw is narrower than the alligators: it is more of a V shape whereas the alligator’s is more rounded at the end, like a U. The jaw is also straighter in an alligator than a crocodile and crocodiles have bottom teeth that extrude from the bottom lip. This is enough information if you are simply looking to identify your crocodiles from your alligators but, for curiosity’s sake, we will continue.

 

The skull of a crocodile. (Grant Museum, X1224)

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo mentions the inventor’s interest in crocodile jaws. Isaacson states that “a crocodile, unlike any mammal, has a second jaw joint, which spreads out the force when it snaps shut its mouth. That gives the crocodile the most forceful bite of any animal. It can exert 3,700 pounds per square inch of force, which is more than thirty times that of a human bite” [1]. According to Science Daily, crocodiles have likely retained this ability since the Mesozoic Era, when dinosaurs roamed the earth].

A rather humorous experiment involving “ten gigantic crocodiles” was described in an article in Scientific American published February 25th 1882. The aim of the experiment was to calculate the strength of the muscles of the crocodile’s jaw, which they determined as 1540 lb, although noted that “this experiment was performed on a crocodile already weakened by cold and fatigue, its force when in its natural conditions of life must be enormous”. The text also mentions “how difficult it must be to manage such ferocious animals in a laboratory” and measures some of the crocodiles as ten feet long and 154 lb in weight! Leonardo was possibly interested in these creatures for their warfare potential. After all, he was hired as a military engineer and creatively designed weapons and armour.

Sketch of the experiment to determine the power of a crocodile’s jaw in Scientific American (Copyright: Universal History Archives, via Scientific American)

 

Although Leonardo has a bit of a reputation for not finishing his works (look at the Adoration of the Magi, the Battle of Anghiari, and Saint Jerome in the Wilderness to name a few), Leonardo did in fact complete this task. He wrote in one of his notebooks “[the crocodile] is found in the Nile, it has four feet and lives on land and in water. No other terrestrial creature but this is found to have no tongue, and it only bites by moving its upper jaw”. This actually isn’t entirely true. The crocodile does have a tongue – in fact, the female crocodile uses her tongue to help crack the eggshells of her young. There are also many scientific papers that discuss the tongue of a crocodile (for example, see [2]). Furthermore, ‘The British Cyclopaedia of Natural History’ published in 1837 mentions that the crocodile only moving its upper jaw was an “old belief” [3].

Leonardo’s inquisitive mind and thirst for knowledge is reflected on every page of his notebooks. He fills them almost entirely with his fervent list-keeping, avid note-taking, and intricate sketches. The child-like fascination with every aspect of the natural world is a quality that enabled him to become an expert in many areas of studies, including art, anatomy, optics, and geology.

As we enter the New Year, a time for reflections and new beginnings, we could all do with “being more Leonardo” and seeking the answers to life’s curiosities. What unconventional item will you add to your next “to-do” list?

 

References:

[1] Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography (Simon & Schuster, 2017), 398.

[2] J.F. Putterill and J.T .Soley, “General morphology of the oral cavity of the Nile crocodile, Crocodylus niloticus (Laurenti, 1768). II. The tongue,”The Onderstepoort Journal of Veterinary Research71.4 (2004): 263-77.

[3] Charles Frederick Partington, The British Cyclopaedia of Natural History (Orr & Smith, 1835), 550.

Incest in Nature

AlexandraBridarolli20 December 2018

This is the third segment in a series on incest; you can go back and read the previous segments on incest in ancient Egypt and incest in the Hapsburg family.

Firstly, did you know that despite the earliest forms of life emerging around 3.8 billion years ago, sex has only existed for 1.2 billion years? Before that, asexual reproduction was the only form of reproduction to evolve. When you think about it, this is the most extreme type of incest, reproducing yourself with …yourself, cloning yourself. Nowadays, most mammals tend to not engage in inbreeding. If they do, we have seen that incest can lead to depression inbreeding with offspring experiencing health problems. For this reason, scientists used to think that Nature might have weeded out incestuous behaviour through natural selection.

However, recent studies have actually shown that incestuous behaviour has not completely disappeared and that it is more common than generally thought. Some species are asexual or still breed with themselves in situations where there is no advantage to sex; others commit incest where there is no penalty to inbreeding. And guess where those incestuous species are mostly found? Islands and mountaintops. In these isolated places, it is difficult to find someone who does not fit somewhere in your family tree.

Incestuous species

  • Mongoose

Mongoose live in close-knit groups with a median size of 18 adults. Each group has both male and female dominant members, who do most of the breeding and reproducing—those on the periphery only reproduce occasionally. Most group members remain with their group for their entire lives. This close-knit living arrangement has led to a high incidence of incest. A study has found that 64% of newborn pups were the result of mating between members of the same natal group (Nichols, 2014). Father/daughter incest was documented eight times over the course of the study run over 16 years; no mating attempts between mother/son were reported. The researchers point out that females tend to have short lives and generally die before their sons are old enough to mate with them.

Yellow mongoose, Cynictis penicillata

 

  • Whiptail lizards

This one is with no doubt my favourite.

Some women might have dreamed of a world with no men. Whiptail lizards have done it. Females whiptail lizards are able to clone themselves. And this is not the only species with this capability. There are actually quite a few, 80 groups to be precise, which include amphibians, reptiles, and even fish. But the specificity of these female lizards is that though they don’t need to have sex to survive, they still display mating behaviours, meaning that females sometimes mount other females. Scientists think this behaviour is hormonally driven; high progesterone levels may cause females to mount others. But they probably don’t just bump cloacal regions for fun. Studies have shown that females who are mounted by another female are more fertile than those who go it alone, likely because the mounting behaviour promotes ovulation (Wade, 2013).

Mating behaviour among whiptail lizards: female lizard mounting another female.

 

  • Spotted salamanders

Among spotted salamanders, DNA analysis shows inbreeding at the level of first cousins, on average. Despite having hundreds of possible mates to choose from, females tended to fertilize their eggs with sperm from related males.

Spotted salamander

Interestingly, in some cases, the natural selection mentioned earlier seems to contradict other studies showing that for some animal or insects, inbreeding within first cousins or brother/sister gives better chance of survival to the offspring. Inbred ambrosia beetles, for example, fared no worse than outbred insects, and the eggs produced by brother-sister pairs are likelier to hatch than the eggs of unrelated pairs (Andersen 2012). Similarly, another study has found that for at least one fish species, fathers from brother-sister couples spent more time, on average, defending their caves and that both parents tended to pay more attention to their kids than unrelated couples.” How to explain this? The ecologist who supervised the study reports, “Couples which are full siblings are more cooperative in brood care. … [T]he males and females stay with the offspring for several weeks and guard them—they defend them—and there’s less aggression between full siblings.”

Stay tuned for next and final segment in a series on incest. We will talking about the practice of incest in modern societies: Modernization or cultural maintenance?

 References

Andersen, H., Jordal, B., Kambestad, M., & Kirkendall, L. (2012). Improbable but true: The invasive inbreeding ambrosia beetle Xylosandrus morigerus has generalist genotypes. Ecology and Evolution, 2(1), 247-257.

Nichols, H., Cant, M., Hoffman, J., & Sanderson, J. (2014). Evidence for frequent incest in a cooperatively breeding mammal. Biology Letters, 10(12), 20140898.

Wade, J., Huang, J., & Crewst, D. (1993). Hormonal Control of Sex Differences in the Brain, Behavior and Accessory Sex Structures of Whiptail Lizards ( Cnemidophorus Species. Journal of Neuroendocrinology, 5(1), 81-93.

Skip to toolbar