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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

Event: Migration through (Pre)History

Josie RMills28 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

Myths in the Museum: Horseshoe Crabs, Blue Blood, and Modern Medicine

Marianne JDatiles7 December 2018

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

 

With Halloween now behind us and the golden days of autumn getting shorter and shorter, a new time of year is fast coming upon us…one filled with tissues, stuffy noses, and general misery. Flu season.

Yes, it’s that time again, when the cold frost that heralds winter comes nipping at our toes at night to suck the warmth from our bodies like the vampire that it is. Feverishly we brew our teas, cling to those hankies and wrap ourselves in our best woollies and Jon Snow faux furs in an attempt to fend off illness. Yet we ourselves are guilty of our own vampiric methods in this War of the Wheezing. Our flu shots, and basically most drugs and medical injections today, are possible because we harvest another species’ blood: Horseshoe crab blood.

 

Still from the PBS Documentary Crash (Source: The Atlantic, 2014)

 

The horseshoe crab, Limulus Polyphemus, is actually more closely related to scorpions, spiders, and mites than to crabs. Its common name is obvious; its exoskeleton is a large shell shaped like—you guessed it—a horseshoe. These strange-looking creatures have 10 eyes distributed around the shell to help them navigate their way. Don’t be fooled by the tail that looks like a stinger; it serves as a rudder while swimming, and can help the crab reorient itself when it gets flipped over. The horseshoe crab is the only species within its family, Merostomata, which means “legs attached to mouth”. Take a look at the 6 pairs of appendages on its underside, and you’ll see why.

 

Horseshoe crabs, our ‘living fossils’ (Source: PBS)

 

The blood of horseshoe crabs produces limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL), a protein that can detect the presence of endotoxins, bacteria, and other sources of contamination, which we use to render our medicines safe. This protein is found nowhere else on earth. It’s no wonder that this marvellous miracle protein would be found in the blood of horseshoe crabs; they’ve have remained virtually unchanged in the 450 million years they’ve existed. They’re literally living fossils, and yet another example of the strange mysteries of ocean life.

In the 1960s humans discovered the amazing LAL and soon after put it to use in pharmaceutical laboratories around the world. Horseshoe crabs were gathered from their native Atlantic habitats, taken to facilities, drained of up to 40% of their blood, and returned to the ocean. The problem, however, is that this method does little to track what happens to the crabs after they’ve returned to the wild, starved and injured. It is estimated that 50,000 die in the process each year; this, sadly, may be a gross underestimation.

 

Crabs collected from Delaware Bay, 1928 (Source: Delaware Public Archives)

 

Since the 1850s, Atlantic fishermen have harvested about 1.1-2 million horseshoe crabs annually to use as eel and fish bait. Once the medical industry got involved, however, horseshoe crab populations have drastically reduced, and by 2016 the species was added to the IUCN Red List.

A recent publication in June 2018 claims to have found a synthetic alternative to LAL; if true, this could mean a total turnaround for the species. And, possibly, humans may not have to rely on draining these ocean species’ blood and threaten their existence to protect ours.

 

Myths in the Museum: The Unicorn Horn of UCL

Marianne JDatiles18 September 2018

It’s there, just across the main UCL campus on Gower Street. A mystical power of unknown proportions coveted by monarchs and conquerors of golden ages past. Quiet and unassuming, mounted on a museum cabinet crammed with jars of preserved worms and spiders bobbing about in 70% ethanol for eternity, this long, white, spiraled object that looks suspiciously like a wizard’s wand or sorcerer’s staff, sought after by the most powerful dynasties to walk the earth…

No, it’s not a unicorn horn. It’s the Grant Museum of Zoology’s narwhal tusk.

 

The Narwhal Tusk of UCL. (Grant Museum, Z2168)

 

Don’t feel bad for mistaking it for a unicorn horn, though. For centuries the Vikings harvested these tusks—which can be up to 10 feet long—from the ocean creatures off the arctic coast of Greenland and used, gifted, and traded them. They were brought to northern Europe via the major trade routes across the Atlantic linking Greenland and Iceland with the British Isles, Scandinavia, and ultimately the Baltic. Since the unicorn symbolized immortality, power, and protection against poison, narwhal tusks were rare and highly sought after to adorn royal objects in Europe and into Asia. They also served as magico-medical material in the cabinets of wealthy physics and apothecaries (whether their unicorn horn powder was ‘authentic’ is another story).

 

Five types of unicorn, described by Pierre Pomet in his 1694 natural history treatise. (Credit: New York Academy of Medicine)

 

Unicorns feature heavily in myths and tales as a symbol of both power and pure magic. (Screenshot from Disney/Walden’s Chronicles of Narnia: Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; 2005)

 

La Dame à la licorne: À mon seul désir. The famous 16th-century Flemish tapestry, one of six in a series, depicting a noblewoman with her lion and unicorn. It now hangs in Musée de Cluny, Paris.

Perhaps the most famous example of European monarchies’ obsession with owning unicorn horn bling is the Danish throne in Rosenborg Castle. It was commissioned in 1662 to symbolize the ‘absolute monarch’, and was inspired by the throne of Solomon—so naturally its surface was almost entirely covered with precious ‘unicorn horn’. Narwhal tusks were procured by Danish traders, since during this time the Danish monarchs claimed Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

IMPOSING: Rosenborg Castle’s Coronation Throne, used for the Danish coronations between 1671-1840. (Credit: Danish Royal Collections)

So what are these ‘unicorns of the sea’? Narwhals, Monodon monoceros (Greek for ‘one-tooth’ ‘one-horn’) are mid-sized porpoises native to the arctic. Narwhals and beluga whales are the only members of the family Monodontidae, and our knowledge of their daily habits remains elusive. Though they usually don’t share a habitat, just this week a juvenile narwhal male was seen by Quebec researchers playing with a beluga pod over 1000 km south of its usual Arctic range, apparently adopted by its cousins!

Now for the million-dollar question: what is the tusk, besides a magnet for power-crazy monarchs and mystical medicine hunters? The ‘horn’ or ‘tusk’ of a narwhal is actually… a tooth. Unlike many other debunked myths from the Middle Ages, the potency of this unicorn horn’s still relatively shrouded in mystery. For years scientists have debated and theorized about its actual use, from weapons to ‘joust’ for dominance with other males as part of mating rituals, to sensory tools to detect water temperature, pressure and salinity. It wasn’t until last year that drone footage captured footage of narwhals using their tusks to hunt codfish, suggesting the complicated nerve systems within these tusks may have stunning capabilities.

[above and below] Narwhals, narwhals, swimming in the ocean. (Credit: World Wildlife Fund)

So do unicorns exist? We’d have to say no. But until technology catches up to human curiosity and scientific research, these sea unicorns remain as elusive as the myth that surrounds their magical tusks.

 

Myths in the Museum: The Dugong and the Mermaid

Marianne JDatiles21 July 2018

There’s a 2.7-meter-long skeleton of a big underwater creature in the Grant Museum of Zoology, right when you enter the main room. On my first Saturday shift as a PhD museum engager, a 7-year-old boy stopped to point and ask his mom what this monster was, and why it had hands. The mom glanced at the display label, read its name, DUGONG, and then stopped and looked at me — what on earth was this note about this animal starting the myth of mermaids? Was it for real?

The dugong skeleton making waves (Grant Museum, Z33)

As Rita Dal Martello has written on our blog before, dugongs and manatees both belong to the animal genus Sirenia, and share the common name ‘sea cow’. The mammary glands of females in the Sirenia genus are located on their upper bodies near their armpits, which are likely to have contributed to the reported ‘mermaid’ sightings of explorers and sailors. While manatees can be found in estuarine and fresh waters, dugongs are strictly marine mammals. They also possess a dolphin fluke-like tail. Dugongs are slimmer than their cousins, but this is relative — they still can grow to 3 meters in length and weigh up to a whopping 1000 kg! It’s not surprising, then, that sailors spotted these animals from their ship’s deck. And mistaking them for beautiful humanlike creatures is not entirely far-fetched… when one considers these men could have been at sea for years at a time and knew every tall tale of fantastical ocean creatures in the book.

The myth of humanlike water spirits has perpetuated over the centuries. The first depiction of a half human-half fish creature is thought to be of the Babylonian water god Oannes as far back as 5000 BCE. The ancient Greek sirens, which originally were described with human heads on birds’ bodies, have also often been portrayed with fishtails. Pliny the Elder dedicated an entire chapter of his 1st century book The Natural History to write on the forms of tritons and nereids, describing that “in them, the portion of the body that resembles the human figure is still rough all over with scales.” In the pacific island nation of Palau, where a 3,000-year-old cave drawing of dugongs was found, legends of young women transforming into sea creatures have been passed down over the years; the word dugong, in fact, derives from Malay for ‘lady of the sea’. Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaids near Haiti in 1493, and the English explorer Henry Hudson (namesake of New York’s Hudson River) gave a vivid description of the mermaid his crew apparently saw off the coast of Greenland in 1608:

“From the navill upward her backe and breasts were like a woman’s,
as they say they saw her, but her body as big as one of us. Her
skin very white, and long haire hanging downe behind of colour
blacke. In her going downe they saw her tayle, which was like the
tayle of a porposse, and speckled like a macrell.”

An 1817 coloured engraving of mermaids. (Credit: Wellcome Collection)

Captain Hailborne at St. Johns Newfoundland, from Newe Welt und Americanische Historian by Ludwig Gottfried, 1655. (Credit: The Mariners’ Museum)

In the 18th and 19th centuries, mermaid specimens held a particular grip on Western popular imagination. The hype began when several astonishingly realistic mermaid ‘specimens’ from Asia — primarily from Japan — made their way to Europe during Japan’s isolation policy under the Tokugawa shogunate. When this ended in 1854, these ningyo (which translates to ‘man-fish’), began to circulate as objects of good fortune, supernatural potency, and — perhaps above all — as a means to spark the curiosity of the public. Mermaids were sought after by collectors and showmen alike to draw crowds, as P.T. Barnum famously did with the ‘Feejee Mermaid’.

A Mermaid by John Waterhouse, 1900. (Credit: Royal Academy)

The “mermaid” from the Horniman Museum. (Photo: Heini Schneebeli)

Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), whose massive collection has been distributed over the years to various museums including our own Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, saw mermaids worth purchasing for their anthropological value; his two specimens are now housed in the Science Museum over in South Kensington, and in the Buxton Museum. Even the British Museum down the road boasts having its own mermaid. And these ‘Japanese mermaids’ continue to captivate our interest into the present day, not only out of curiosity but for science and conservation studies; researchers at the nearby Wellcome Collection recently investigated what two of these cleverly constructed specimens (long assumed to be a monkey head sewn to a fish body) are actually made of. The answer, it turns out, is stuffed papier-mache, wire, fish teeth, scales, carved bone and wood!

So next time you’re at the Grant Museum, take a look at the dugong skeleton. It may not look like it now, but just think of how this creature inspired sailors, shamans, and showmen to perpetuate myths of mermaids across the world, and over hundreds of years!

 

Not a mermaid. (Photo: Julien Willem)

Additional Reading:

Viscardi P, Hollinshead A, MacFarlane R, Moffatt J, 2014. Mermaids Uncovered. Journal of Museum Ethnography, (27): 98-116.