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The Top Ten Student Engager Blogs of 2018

ArendseLund14 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!

The Legal Manuscripts of Lambeth Palace Library

ArendseLund19 December 2018

For the past couple months, I’ve been working with the legal manuscripts at Lambeth Palace Library. As the historic library and record office of the Archbishops of Canterbury, they have an incredible collection of documents and manuscripts collected, copied and published from the 9th century till today — and I’m taking full advantage of it!

Lambeth Palace Library MS 118 (Author’s own photo)

During my London Arts & Humanities Partnership placement at Lambeth Palace Library, I’m writing about the sorts of things I discover as I examine their incredible collection of manuscripts. My first piece is on their two vellum copies of Henry of Huntingdon’s massive Historia Anglorum, his account of the history of England from its beginnings until the mid-twelfth century. Huntingdon’s account is important as a historical source. However, it’s also fascinating because we can see his narrative techniques at play; he inserts apocryphal stories as a way to highlight a historical figure’s character.

By comparing the two manuscripts their stark differences are thrown into light, both in terms of their content and also their current physical state. MS 118 is in a much better state with clean pages and wide margins. MS 327 has all the marks of having been a working copy and frequently used; there’s a spattering of verdigris discoloring the pages and stitches repairing tears in the vellum.

Stitches across Lambeth Palace LIbrary MS 327

As I work my way through all of Lambeth’s medieval legal holdings, I am putting together an exhibit of the most important manuscripts. This will go on display in the spring. Stay tuned!

Question of the Week: Do Fish Pee?

ArendseLund2 October 2018

I seem to be asked a lot of fecal facts when talking to visitors in the Grant Museum, but here’s a new one to me: Do fish pee? Although fish are certainly discrete about it, they do!

A school of forage fish. Creative Commons photo by Oliver.Dodd.

At least one of these wee fish is doing its business (Image: Oliver Dodd)

Perhaps the first question is whether fish drink. Freshwater fish will passively intake water from their environment and then, as their insides are saltier than their surroundings, will excrete a diluted urine. Saltwater fish have to drink water more actively and, as their surroundings are saltier than their insides, will expel a more concentrated urine.

Why all the fuss about fish pee? Although you might think it’s gross that you’re swimming through the collected urine of the ocean’s creatures, this pee is critically important to the nutrient budgets of different ecosystems. Fish have kidneys which produce urine containing ammonium, phosphorus, urea, and nitrous waste. The expelled urine encourages plant growth on coral reefs; downstream benefits also include increased fertilization of algae and seagrass, which in turn provides food for the fish.

Coral reef biomass is correlated to species diversity (Image: Vikram Jadhav)

Fish urine thereby plays an important role in the biodiversity of coral reefs. If the supply of fish urine falls—through overfishing, for example—reef biodiversity suffers. A study in Nature Communications showed that overfishing “is reducing the capacity of coral reef fish communities to store and recycle nutrients by nearly half” and concluded that “rebuilding coral reef fish communities is of critical importance for food security and the livelihood of billions of people.”

As coral reefs rely so desperately on urination, life really becomes a fish’s creation. Nutrient recycling is an imperative in coral reef ecosystems as it is quite difficult to acquire new nutrients. Fish are the best recyclers around. Overfishing doesn’t just reduce the total number of fish species, it removes the largest fish (and their steady stream of pee) from the equation. The ecosystem suffers as a result.

While we can certainly all appreciate the trickle-down effects of fish urine, I’ll end with a quote from a poem by Sean Tyler B, which asks an important question:

Does a fish go pee
when it’s swimming in the sea?
Does it ever get the notion
when it’s swimming in the ocean?

The answer is a resounding yes.

An Evening Dealing Out “Justice”

ArendseLund4 April 2018

Last week, we held our first event of 2018 in the UCL Art Museum where three of us PhD students — Josie Mills, Cerys Bradley, and myself — all approached the topic of “justice” from different perspectives and vastly different disciplines.

Josie speaking about the Neanderthals

Josie spoke about the idea of justice amongst the Neanderthals and what theories scholars have for any type of justice system in the Palaeolithic era. By talking about the factors we need for a crime to happen, she described from an archaeological view whether or not there was rock solid evidence for a Palaeolithic justice system. Turns out, there isn’t — at least not yet!

She drew comparisons to the modern Inuit justice system, and discussed whether they could tell us anything about tribal justice at large. Taking questions from the audience, Josie disabused us of the notion that Neanderthals are completely different from modern humans or that they ran around bashing each other on the head with rocks. This is a topic she’s well accustomed to discussing; she has also written extensively on Palaeolithic burial practices and cannibalism amongst the Neanderthals.

Arendse speaking about the Anglo-Saxon concept of justice

Skipping from the Neanderthals to the Anglo-Saxons, I followed Josie’s talk with a discussion of justice in the year 600 CE. This was the year that King Æthelbert of Kent issued his law code. With its long list of clauses, Æthelbert’s law code was a comprehensive list of how to calculate the appropriate amount to pay someone if you wrong them somehow. This would theoretically make it easier to police crimes as families are paid off for their relative’s injury and therefore don’t need to attack in retaliation and start a blood feud.

As everyone arrived for the talk, they had been handed a piece of paper with an attack on a victim, the social status of those involved, or the location of the attack. I now invited the audience to play a game with me. We would attack a hypothetical Edwin of Kent and see what happened. For example, laming Edwin’s shoulder would cost us 30 shillings in the year 600 (an enormous sum). If Edwin was a freeman and our attack killed him, we would have to pay his family 100 shillings, broken up into two installments: 20 shillings at Edwin’s open grave, where a blood feud might erupt, and the remaining 80 shillings within the next 40 days. The location where we murder Edwin is also important in calculating how much we have to pay because through our actions, we might accidentally have insulted someone else. If our attack was on the king’s estate, then we would have to pay an additional 50 shillings to the Æthelbert for disrupting the peace.

Cards to “attack” poor Edwin of Kent

The goal of this exercise was to show how expensive it was to injure or murder someone. But because of this exhaustive list of fines, for the first time in Anglo-Saxon law there are recognized crimes and standardized punishments, and there will theoretically be fewer blood feuds. The audience engaged with this talk and I received excellent feedback encouraging me to do another one in this style.

 

Cerys giving an overview of 21st-century justice

Jumping from the Anglo-Saxons to modern policing, Cerys spoke about attempting to enforce justice in the age of the Dark Net. As a doctoral student in the crime and security science department, Cerys studies people who buy drugs on the internet and how they react to different law enforcement interventions. In a fascinating discussion, Cerys showed how far we’ve come in policing crime but also how the modern justice system has not caught up with anonymous internet crime.

We moved from one-on-one crime with very little evidence of a justice system with the Neanderthals, to recognized crimes with standardized punishment for the Anglo-Saxons, to anonymized crime which doesn’t always have a standardized punishment in our modern world of the Dark Net. These types of interdisciplinary talks with different approaches to a common theme is something that excites me the most about working as part of the Student Engager team. It provides me greater insight into my own research by hearing about the resources and approaches of other disciplines.

At the end of the evening, we asked our audience members for feedback and to vote on which justice system they’d most like to live under. To my great surprise, the Anglo-Saxons won!

 

Event: What do you need to create a justice system?

ArendseLund14 March 2018

What do you need to create a justice system, an evening of short talks by UCL’s student engagers, will be taking place on Tuesday, 20 March 2018, UCL Art Museum 6:30-8pm

 

Our upcoming event “What do you need to create a justice system?” is next Tuesday — come join us for an evening of short talks focussed on the justice systems, or lack thereof, in early farming communities, amongst the Anglo-Saxons, and in the Dark Net. Think there’s no connection at all between these disparate time periods? You might be surprised!

 

 

The speakers are:

Josie Mills – a third-year PhD in Archaeology at UCL specialising in applying scientific techniques, like mass spectrometry, to understand more about stone tools made by Neanderthals. She’s particularly interested in how we, as modern humans, perceive prehistoric behaviour and the division we draw between us and other species.

Arendse Lund – a PhD student in the UCL English department. She traces the development of an Old English legal language and how rulers use this legal terminology to shape perceptions of their authority. She is funded by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership.

Cerys Bradley – a PhD student in the crime and security science department at UCL. They study the people who buy drugs on the internet and how they react to different law enforcement interventions.

The event is being hosted in the UCL Art Museum, an intimate space in what used to be the old print room. The three talks are 15 minutes each and are followed by questions. Then attendees are welcome to join the presenters for a wine reception. No booking is necessary but space is limited.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Question of the Week: Why Do Wombats Poop Cubes?

ArendseLund14 February 2018

 

A wombat waddling along (Image: © Jack Ashby)

With pudgy little legs and a determined waddle, wombats are amongst Australia’s cutest marsupials. I mean, have you ever seen a wombatlet (not the technical term, unfortunately) sneeze? There’s lots to love about wombats—including their cube-shaped poop.

Wombat faeces—not a snack treat (Image: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

This odd wombat feature has sparked a lot of gleeful speculation. The prevailing thought is that these six-sided excrements are caused by a combination of the digestion time, the shape of the large intestine, and the dryness of the resulting fecal matter.

Wombats have a slow digestive system—it takes up to 2.5 weeks for food eaten to make its way down the alimentary canal, through the stomach, small intestine, and finally out the anus as fecal matter. (On the scale of animal defecation time, wombats aren’t even in the running. One snake was recorded as “holding it” for 420 days.)

A common wombat, or Vombatus ursinus, skull with large teeth for masticating grasses and roots, and a skeleton with large front claws for digging (Images: Grant Museum of Zoology, Z68 and Z67)

After being processed by the stomach, the digested matter transverses the large intestine, which is a long tube-like organ with ridged sides. These ridges may help to break the matter into compact sections. Since the final part of the intestine is much smoother, these cubed sections retain their shape all the way to the anus.

A wombat’s long digestive time means that this matter becomes condensed and, ultimately, dry as the nutrients are extracted. Wombats have some of the driest faeces amongst mammals and, it turns out, it’s a handy evolutionary trait. Wombats use their droppings to mark territory; with a propensity to defecate on logs and other elevated objects, cubes won’t roll off, unlike cylindrical droppings. As wombats drop between 80 and 100 scats a day, it would be a pain if they, well, scattered.

 

According to Jack Ashby, Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology, “Another thing to note about wombat poo is that since wombats have backwards-facing pouches, larger wombatlets end up spending a lot of time with their faces in poo. It has been suggested that this is an important way that they gain helpful gut bacteria that they need to digest the wombat diet of tough Australian grasses.”

If you want to see fake wombat faeces in action, Robyn Lawrence created a video demonstrating a wombat’s digestive system. She uses Jell-O to illustrate the forming and squeezing of the food into cube shapes, which then passes unchanged through the colon and out the fake anus.

So no, the wombat rectum isn’t square.

———

Further Reading:

Menkhorst, P. A Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Triggs, Barbara. The Wombat: Common Wombats in Australia. University of New South Wales Press, 2002.

We’re Hiring Student Engagers!

ArendseLund24 January 2018

Are you a UCL student and excited to share your PhD research with the world? Can you find connections between your research and museum collections? Come join our Student Engager team!

Citlali Helenes Gonzalez presents during the Materials & Objects event in the UCL Art Museum last spring.

 

Who We Are

We’re a interdisciplinary team of PhD students from across UCL who are interested in public engagement and sharing our doctoral research with the world. We come from different backgrounds and departments and study everything from medieval law to neuroscience to the Dark Web. You might spot us in the UCL Art Museum, Grant Museum of Zoology, or Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology any day of the week talking about our research and how it relates to the museum collections.

We love talking to people, sharing expertise, and making new connections that benefit both the public and our own research. Sometimes we also host events such as Foreign Bodies, LandSCAPE, Stress: Approaches to the First World War, and Materials & Objects.

 

Are You the One?

We’re hiring! If you’re a first or second-year PhD student interested in working in the three UCL museums, sharing your knowledge, engaging the public in dialogue, and enhancing visitors’ experiences of UCL, then we want to hear from you. We think this is the best gig ever and we want equally enthusiastic people to come join us. We’ve also written extensively on this blog about what the Student Engager experience is like and highly recommend you take a look around if you’re interested in joining us.

For the practical side, here’s a full job description (PDF); you should email your CV and cover letter to Celine West (celine.west@ucl.ac.uk) by 16 February.

If you have any questions, tweet us or find us in one of the UCL museums.

An Afternoon with Materials & Objects

ArendseLund25 May 2017

Materials & Objects, an afternoon of short talks by UCL’s student engagers, took place on Thursday, 18 May 2017, in the UCL Art Museum.

The first manuscript I ever handled was the Vercelli Book. I was on an archival research trip to the Capitulary Library of Vercelli, just outside of Milan, and I couldn’t believe that the librarian would entrust me with this. Awe struck and fangirling, I oh-so-very-carefully flipped my way through the large manuscript. I had written papers and looked at digital versions of the manuscript but nothing could compare to handling and studying it in person.

The  Vercelli Book and Vercelli Cross

The Vercelli Book and Vercelli Cross

 

The Vercelli Book is a late 10th-century work, compiled of both prose and poetry, and written in Old English on parchment. How it got down to Vercelli is still something scholars debate. It’s not the largest work I’ve ever handled, and depending on your perspective, not the rarest either; I’ve handled manuscripts that are technically saints’ relics. The Vercelli Book holds a special place in my heart and I’ve never lost my awe for handling the objects behind my research.

Talking about the manuscripts with the public is one way I try to share my enthusiasm for what an incredible field of studies I’m in and how exciting it is to be a medievalist. Last week’s Materials & Objects event was the first event we’ve put on since I’ve joined the fabulous Student Engagement team here at UCL and one in which I got to speak all about manuscripts and what they’re made of. Thanks to everyone who turned up, the UCL Art Museum was packed — we even had to place out more chairs! — and the presentations sparked fascinating questions about aspects of research that showed everyone was really engaged with the speakers.

In a way it’s humbling to hear about all the incredible and life changing research that my fellow PhD students are performing. Hannah took the audience step-by-step through recreating the process of 18th-century paper making in her kitchen, and Kyle talked about depictions of archives and their diversity problems (something he’s also written about on this blog). Cerys spoke about researching the Dark Web to aid law enforcement, and Citlali walked the audience through the difficulties and possibilities of growing brains in labs. Josie defended Neanderthals (something she’s done here as well) and handed around flint examples for everyone to feel; finally, Stacy subtly gave the concluding talk standing on one leg to demonstrate how our day-to-day activities shape our bone growth.

Thanks to everyone who came out and participated in our event — leave us a comment and let us know what you thought. If you missed the afternoon, don’t fret; many of the talks will appear in blog post form here before too long and you’re always welcome to come into any of the UCL museums and talk to us more in person!

Follow @Arendse on Twitter or read more of her blog posts here.

Question of the Week: What’s that zigzag on your skull?

ArendseLund25 April 2017

Stan hangs out in a corner of the Grant Museum amid cases filled with insect exoskeletons and bisected animal heads. Standing at around two meters, he keeps watch through empty sockets over the animal bones, taxidermy, and jar specimens.

“Can I hold his hand?” I’ve been asked more than once. “Is he real?” comes the hesitant question. As a matter of fact, Stan is a model skeleton, the likes of which you’ve probably seen in any biology classroom. Although he’s resin and missing a joint or two he’s still a remarkably good way to explain what we’re made of once you strip all our clothes, skin, and muscles away.

One of Stan’s characteristics is a zigzagging line arching its way across his skull. Surprised by the mark, a visitor wanted to know why Stan bears this line. She might have been surprised to know that she has one too. It’s actually a feature all human skulls have. Known as the coronal suture, it’s an immovable joint that runs transverse across the skull, separating the frontal bone from the parietal bones.

Top view of a skull with coronal suture extending from ear to ear (Image: Stanford's Children Health Hospital)

Top view of a skull with coronal suture extending from ear to ear (Image: Stanford’s Children Health Hospital)

At birth, the various bones of the skull don’t quite join up, making it easier for the infant to fit through the birth canal; following the birth, the gap persists for a while and the coronal suture reflects where that separation once was. There can be “premature closing” of the suture if the bones fuse too soon and people will develop conditions such as oxycephaly—where the skull is lengthened—or plagiocephaly—where the skull is flattened.

Top view of skull casts, the left found in Beijing and commonly referred to as the "Peking man" but is actually thought to be female (Grant Museum Z2681); and the right of a Rhodesian Man found in Kabwe and known as the Broken Hill 1 skull (Grant Museum Z2684).

Top view of skull casts, the left found in Beijing and commonly referred to as the “Peking man” but is actually thought to be female (Grant Museum Z2681); and the right of a Rhodesian Man found in Kabwe and known as the Broken Hill 1 skull (Grant Museum Z2684).

If you take an “exploded skull” view then you can see how the various parts of your head all join up. We can see these sutures in other skulls than just modern humans as these skulls are formed in similar ways.

Chimpanzee skull (left, Grant Museum Z461) and Neanderthal skull (right, Grant Museum Z2020) both showing coronal sutures.

Chimpanzee skull (left, Grant Museum Z461) and Neanderthal skull (right, Grant Museum Z2020) both showing coronal sutures.

Stan has a few friends at the Grant Museum. There’s a Neanderthal skull alongside Homo erectus, Homo habilis, and Australopithecus afarensis. There’s also a human skeleton that oversees the museum up on a balcony accompanied by an orangutan, gorilla, and chimpanzee—all bearing these sutures.

Next time you see a human skull in a museum, see if you can spot the coronal suture. While knowing its name may not win you any prizes in a pub quiz, it’ll certainly impress Stan. He’ll be waiting to say hi.

Follow @Arendse on Twitter or read more of her blog posts here.

#MedievalTwitter and Academia

ArendseLund31 March 2017

After my undergraduate degree, I took two years off to work before returning to school for my Masters and PhD. In that interim period, Twitter was my lifeline to academia.

Social media is surprisingly egalitarian—I could follow professors and academies, grad students and departments, and be part of the higher education conversation. When I returned to academia, I held on to that connection. I’ve sourced reading recommendations and run into academics at conferences who I had previously interacted with on Twitter.

Medieval hug manuscript

British Library, MS Arundel 66, f. 34

Social media also has a less serious and downright silly side. 31 March is International Hug A Medievalist Day. Initially promulgated on Facebook by Sarah Laseke, this holiday is my favorite since medievalists are the best people—though I might be a little biased. There’s great joy that goes into days like these and at one point the New Yorker even did a write up on the holiday. If you run into me, I’ll be accepting hugs all day.

Following directly on the heels of the International Hug A Medievalist Day, 1 April is Whan That Aprille Day, which was started by the person behind @LeVostreGC and celebrates all the old or dead languages of the world.

Hwæt! You might say. That’s just the day for me! Feel free; the only thing required is a sense of humor.

Cantebury tales opening

Oxford, MS Bodl. 686, f. 1r

All year round, you can follow along with #MedievalTwitter and #twitterstorians and watch as people post photos of manuscripts with wacky captions, announce their publications, and invent holidays; there’s something exceptionally joyous in academics delighting in and sharing their research.

While this is my favorite corner of the internet, every specialty seems to have their own hashtags. You can join in different conversations by following #Appellatetwitter for U.S. legal discussion, #histmed for medical history, and #museumhour for weekly public history topics. (The best part is I sourced the answers to this last question on Twitter.) Enjoy!

Follow @Arendse on Twitter or read more of her blog posts here.