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5 Things Museums Want to Do in the Future

By tcrnkl0, on 6 December 2018

As part of my PhD research this past summer, I got together a group of archive and museum professionals to talk about contemporary collecting and imagining the future of their work.

This wasn’t so much about having museums on Mars or fancy futuristic machines (although technology did come into it) but more about the principles by which archive and museum staff would like to be working and connecting with their audiences.

Participants at the workshop. Image by author.

Based on the workshop, here are 5 things museums want to be doing in the future:

  1. Facilitate inclusive personal and imaginative journeys: There was a strong desire to improve people’s access to collections, in order to make archive and museum collections a truly shared resource. Staff also want to encourage playfulness, and use collections to activate people’s imaginations about creative futures for society. This could include using digital and virtual reality to create emotional connections, centring archives and museums around people’s experiences.
  2. Give life to objects that have lost functionThis meant reinvigorating meaningful objects that we want to be part of collective memory, and valuing the work we put into taking care of them. On the other side, there was also a desire to recognise that materials disintegrate and ‘die’—we don’t have to preserve things that have come to the end of their natural lives.
  3. Protect public access to free digital culture and resources: In a time when much of our digital data, including personal and cultural material, is held and used by private companies, collections should aspire to help people keep things free and public. Practitioners spoke about the importance of learning to navigate digital rights and ownership in their collections. The right to free access to digital culture also needs to be balanced with the right of artists and communities to maintain ownership of their material.
  4. Be instruments of change and activism: Archives and museums can be used to investigate the society we live in, and model ways to engaging in research and learning. They can encourage and support explorations of collections, past collectors, and what it means to be collectors ourselves. Building a strong basis of research and inquiry can be used to inspire changes in attitude and informed democracy. It’s important for archive and collections staff not to be complacent or ‘bubble bound’.
  5. Work across boundaries: Participants wanted to be free to make greater connections between science, art and culture, both within collections and across departments and organisations. Working across boundaries also meant thinking about collections as ecosystems—creating networks of institutional (and community) holdings.

Participant contribution: ‘A future where collections are relevant and facilitate optimistic outrage’. Image by author.

You can read  more about the findings of my workshop, including the full report, at the Heritage Futures project website.

Colours of Ancient Egypt – Red

By Anna Pokorska, on 4 December 2018

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

Red was an easy colour to obtain in ancient Egypt as naturally red minerals, or clays, were abundant. In fact, they were already used as pigments for painting in pre-historic times. Of the earth pigments, as they are often called, ochre was used for red colouring. Like others, it is an iron oxide but gets its red shade from a mineral hematite, which can be naturally present in varying quantities. Another way of obtaining the pigment is by heating the more common yellow clay to produce what is called ‘burnt ochre’.

Painted wooden stela showing man Ihefy adoring hawk-headed Horus (Petrie Museum, UC14695).

In ancient Egyptian painting we find the red colour often used to distinguish gender, as men’s skin was often painted red[1]. We can see an example of that in this painted wooden stela from the Petrie Museum.

Less obviously, red ochre was also popular in cosmetics such as rouge and lip colour. In fact, those pigments are still found in beauty products today due to their ready availability, stability and non-toxicity. However, perhaps the most surprising application of these materials is actually medicinal. The Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest and most important medical texts from ancient Egypt (dated 1550 BC), prescribes ochre clays as a cure for any intestinal or eye problems.

However, minerals were not the only source of red colourants. Ancient Egyptians were also able to tint their textiles using madder or kermes carmine dyes. The former was derived from the root of a madder plant, rubia tinctorum (see below).

Madder plant (Image: Franz Eugen Köhler).

It was one of the most widely used natural red dyes until the development of synthetic equivalents in the 19th and 20th century. In fact, some madder-dyed cloth was even found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. On the other hand, kermes carmine was made from wingless insects found on certain species of European oak trees. Like madder it was used both as a textile dye and a lake, which is a pale pigment obtained by precipitating a dye onto an inert colourless substrate such as chalk. Kermes’ deep crimson shade made it a very popular colourant for centuries.

So far, I’ve mainly talked about pigments and dyes used for decoration, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention at this point one of my favourite objects in the Petrie collection:

Fragment of a composite statue from Amarna: right ankle and heel, in red jasper (Petrie Museum, UC150; Photo: Anna Pokorska).

This is a right ankle and heel in red jasper, part of a full-size composite statue from Amarna, dated to the 18th Dynasty. I’ve often stopped in front of it imagining what the statue would have looked like whole. I have to admit that I previously assumed the sculpture to have been entirely made of red jasper, which, in my mind, looked incredible. However, that was not the case; only the exposed flesh would have been carved from red jasper (thus depicting a male figure), while the rest of the statue was likely made from Egyptian alabaster, limestone or wood. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has fragments of a king’s head made of the same material and dated to the same period. In fact, some of the fragments come from the Petrie collection which makes me wonder if they were perhaps part of the same statue.

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

We may never know. But one thing is certain: even though we’ve since been able to create many synthetic red colourants of various shades, natural red pigments used by the ancients remain as popular as ever.


[1] Lorelei Corcoran, Color Symbolism, in ‘The Encyclopedia of Ancient History’, Edited by Roger S. Bagnall, Kai Brodersen, Craige B. Champion, Andrew Erskine, and Sabine R. Huebner, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. (2013), pp. 1673–1674

The Plagues of Egypt

By Hannah B Page, on 23 October 2018

For my blog post this week I am starting a new series based loosely on the Plagues of Egypt. The idea came to me while I was working in the Grant Museum and was thinking about possible connections between the Grant and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. For some reason as I was stood next to the insect cabinet, the plague of locusts was the first thing that came to mind.. and conveniently, I have already written a blog post about the 2nd plague of frogs. Before I launch in I must note briefly that I don’t particularly wish to talk about religion or religious texts. Instead I will use the 10 plagues to discuss some (hopefully) interesting zoological and sociocultural phenomena that link the two museums.

So, what are the 10 Plagues of Egypt?

  1. Water turning into blood
  2. Frogs
  3. Lice
  4. Wild animals
  5. Diseased livestock
  6. Boils
  7. Thunderstorms of hail and fire
  8. Locusts
  9. Darkness for three days
  10. Death of the firstborn

The first plague of water turning into blood is an interesting one to start with, but the topic of the two liquids is very pertinent to both collections. Water has an incredibly important role in the ideological and cultural landscape of ancient Egypt. The waters of the Nile were the lifeblood of ancient Egyptian society. It provided vital irrigation for farming, transport through the kingdom, and was linked closely with ideology and religion in Egypt. The Greek Herodotus is recorded as calling Egypt the “gift of the Nile”, implying that Egypt itself was born from the river—this further develops an idea I have discussed in a previous blog post: that the Nile is deeply connected with fertility. With this in mind it is not difficult to see how devastating the idea of water turning into blood would be for Egyptian society.

One papyrus from the twelfth dynasty (c.1991-1803 BCE) interestingly states that the “river is blood“, which has caused some debate over the occurrence of the plagues in Egyptian history. However, the most probable explanation is that during the harsh flooding of the Nile the disturbed red river silt would create this phenomena.

Blood as well as water was also symbolically significant to the Ancient Egyptians. Wine was given as “blood of the Gods” during certain religious offerings, something akin to the Christian symbolism of using wine as the blood of Christ, and the deity Shesmu is also linked with blood, being the lord of wine and the “great slaughterer of the gods”.

It is also not difficult to connect the Grant Museum with water and blood as they are both vital components to many living creatures on earth. For this post I wish to focus in on one of my favourite water dwellers in the museum and one that has a deep connection with ancient Egypt. This mammal can certainly displace a lot of water and coincidently produces a fluid over its skin that is often called blood sweat. The hippopotamus, known as a “river horse” by the ancient Greeks secretes a substance called hipposudoric acid. The liquid is red, which gives it its colloquial name, but it is neither sweat nor blood. In fact the secretion is an example of an evolutionary masterpiece—a natural sunscreen! This fluid is very much needed due to their skin being exposed in blistering high UV environments (and being a redhead who works in sub-Saharan Africa- I can fully appreciate this)! As well as the blood sweat creating UV protection it is also a very good antiseptic, which is useful as hippos can be extremely aggressive animals.

Fig 2. Hippo skull in the Grant Museum of Zoology (Catalogue no. Z32)

Sadly, the hippo is no longer found in Egypt but in dynastic times it was a hazard to boat travellers along the Nile and was present in ideological and cultural symbolism.  The deity Taweret was often depicted in the form of a pregnant hippo as she represented fertility (like frogs!). Hippo figurines are also found on ancient Egyptian sites (Fig 3) and hippo tusk ivory was used to make pendants, amulets and sculptural pieces.

Fig 3. Blue glazed faience hippopotamus (Petrie Museum Catalogue No. UC45074)

As you can see, water and blood were and still are incredibly important cultural symbols, most probably due to their inescapable connection to the natural world and to life and death. It really is no wonder that that these themes come up time and time again all over the world.

I hope you have enjoyed my first foray into the Plagues of Egypt as much as I have… I’m quite excited about what direction they might take my research in next!

The rampant consanguinity in the Spanish branch of the Habsburg family

By Alexandra Bridarolli, on 18 October 2018

Welcome back to this series of articles on Consanguinity in History. In my previous article, you have heard about incest in Ancient Egypt and the case of Akhenaton and his son Tutankhamun. Let’s continue our investigations around consanguinity and look at another famous case: Charles II from the Spanish branch of the Habsburg family. We often hear that consanguinity is dangerous for the future child, but how dangerous is it exactly and why? The family story of this king followed might give you some food for thoughts.

Between the 15th and the 18th century, the Habsburg family ruled the Holy Roman Empire and, as such, was the most influential and powerful royal family in Europe. In the 16th century, the family separated into the senior Habsburg Spain and the junior Habsburg Monarchy branches, who settled their mutual claims in the Oñate treaty.

The kings of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty, and of the Habsburg house in general, are known to frequently marry close relatives in such a way that uncle-niece, first cousins and other consanguineous unions were prevalent in that dynasty.

Figure 1: Family tree of the Spanish branch of the Habsburg family (kings are in capital letters) showing the inbreeding among Charles II ancestors. (Source: Alvarez et al.)

This branch disappeared in 1700 with Charles II, which many say was because of his family’s rampant inbreeding (see Figure 1). Charles II was indeed famous for being one of the ugliest kings. His nickname was El Hechizado or the Bewitched. He probably suffered from two genetic disorders. First, there was combined pituitary hormone deficiency, a disorder that made him short, impotent, infertile, and weak with a host of digestive problems. The other disorder was distal renal tubular acidosis, a condition marked by blood in the urine, weak muscles and having an abnormally large head compared to the rest of the body.


Figure 2: Portrait of Charles II of Spain (1661-1700) as well as two of his uncles and ancestors (Charles V (1500-1558) and Emperor Leopold I (1640-1705) (credits: Wikimedia Commons).


In order to understand the origin of these disorders, scientists have often used genetic analysis (such as in the case of Tutankhamun and Akhenaten) but not always. Gonzalo Alvarez et al. at the University of Santiago de Compostela recently came up with another innovative approach that enabled them to study 3000 family members of the Spanish branch of the Habsburg family over 16 generations. Using computational calculation of the coefficient of inbreeding (F) of each family member, the team was able to unravel the family history and its consequences on Charles II genetic disorders. The coefficient of Inbreeding (F) corresponds to the probability of finding, at a given position on a chromosome, two genes which are identical by descent. For two first cousins, for example, this probability will be equal to 1/16. For these reasons, consanguinity and inbreeding may significantly impact the occurrence and recurrence of recessive conditions and congenital anomalies (Holt 2013). This may lead to birth defects or children with genetic conditions.

These researchers showed that the inbreeding coefficient for Charles II (0.257), Phillip III (0.218) and prince Charles[1] (i.e. Don Carlos) (0.211) were the highest measured for all the kings of the Spanish Habsburg. This is not surprising as they were all born from either uncle-niece (Charles II and Philip III) or double first cousin (Prince Charles) marriages. However, what was surprising is that the coefficient calculated for each of them were almost twice the expected value for those types of consanguineous marriages (F = 0.125 in either uncle-niece or first cousins relationships) and very close to the expected value in an incestuous union as parent-child or brother-sister (F = 0.250 in both cases). These results were particularly stricking as they showed that “The inbreeding of the Spanish Habsburg kings was not only the consequence of a few generations of unions between close relatives as it is sometimes claimed” but that “ancestral consanguinity from multiple remote ancestors makes a substantial contribution to the inbreeding coefficient of the Spanish Habsburg kings and the contribution of this remote consanguinity is very similar in magnitude to that due to close consanguinity”.

By looking at death records for the family, Alvarez also found that children were much less likely to survive till their tenth birthday if they were born to kings with high F-values. The growing degree of inbreeding in the family meant that fewer and fewer children made it to adulthood, leaving the entire line resting on an infertile, handicapped and short-lived king. Paradoxically, it is thus the same desire that pushed the royal family to preserve the purity of their blood and to keep the “power” within their family that led them to lose it.

But inbreeding did not impact directly the royal lineage. It is, instead, the repeated inbreeding practice that gradually weakens the descendants’ mental and physical health. Incest simply increases the risk that the two parents share the same congenital condition which could then be transmitted to the child. But, what prevents two parents from different families to also share this anomaly? Nothing. Also, it has been shown that having a child with your first cousin raised the risk of a significant birth defect from about 3-to-4 percent to about 4-to-7 percent (Bennett et al., 2002). The authors concluded that this difference wasn’t enough to justify genetic testing of cousin couples and that most of the stigma associated with cousin unions in occidental cultures has little biological basis.

The incest taboo is resolutely very strong…

In the next episode: incest in the animal kingdom. An article in which you will hear about mongoose, termite which reproduce by producing clones of themselves, fish, salamanders and many more. Incest in nature is surprisingly more common than what you would think…


Alvarez G., Ceballos F.C., Quinteiro C. (2009) The role of inbreeding in the extinction of a European royal dynasty. PLoS ONE 4: e5147.

Bennett, R., Motulsky, L., Bittles, A., Hudgins, G., Uhrich, A., Doyle, L., . . . Olson, R. (2002). Genetic Counseling and Screening of Consanguineous Couples and Their Offspring: Recommendations of the National Society of Genetic Counselors. Journal of Genetic Counseling, 11(2), 97-119.

Holt, R. L., and Trepanier, A. (2013). Genetic Counseling and Clinical Risk Assessment-Chapter 21. Emery and Rimoin’s Principles and Practice of Medical Genetics, pp. 1–40.

[1] Prince Charles was also strongly affected by his ancestors’ consanguineous unions. His behaviour suggests that he suffered from some serious mental problems. Rumour in the Spanish court had it that he enjoyed roasting animals alive and in one occasion blinded all horses in the royal stables. At age eleven he ordered the whipping of a serving girl for no known reason. Stories about Charles’ misconducts are numerous.

Colours of Ancient Egypt – Blue

By Anna Pokorska, on 16 October 2018

This is the second in the Colours of Ancient Egypt series; if you want to start at the beginning, click here

The colour blue has already featured in a couple of posts in this blog (e.g. check out Cerys Jones’ post on why the Common Kingfisher looks blue) but it seems impossible to me to discuss colour, especially in Ancient Egypt, and not start with blue. Arguably, blue has the most interesting history of all the colours, which can be attributed to the fact that it is not a colour that appears much in nature – that is, if you exclude large bodies of water and the sky, obviously. Naturally occurring materials which can be made into blue colourants are rare and the process of production is often very time-consuming. In Ancient Egypt, pigments for painting and ceramics were ground from precious minerals such as azurite and lapis lazuli; indigo, a textile dye now famous for its use in colouring jeans, was extracted from plants.


Left: two pieces of azurite (Petrie Museum, UC43790); Right: lapis lazuli (Image: Hannes Grobe)

However, all the above-mentioned colourants presented issues which limited their use. Azurite pigment is unstable in air and would eventually be transformed into its green counterpart, malachite. Lapis lazuli had to be imported from north-east Afghanistan (still the major source of the precious stone) and the extraction process would produce only small amounts of the purest colourant powder called ultramarine. Finally, indigo dyes can fade quickly when exposed to sunlight.

And yet it seems that the Ancient Egyptians attributed important meaning to the colour blue and it was used in many amulets and jewellery pieces such as the blue faience ring, lapis lazuli and gold bracelet or the serpent amulet from the Petrie Museum collection (below).

From left to right: blue faience ring with openwork bezel in form of uadjat eye (Petrie Museum, UC24520); lapis lazuli serpent amulet (UC38655); fragment of bracelet with alternative zig-zag lapis lazuli and gold beads (UC25970).

Therefore, the race to artificially produce a stable blue colourant began rather early. In fact, the earliest evidence of the first-known synthetic pigment, Egyptian blue, has been dated to the pre-dynastic period (ca. 3250 BC)[1]. It was a calcium copper silicate (or cuprorivaite) and – although the exact method of manufacture has been lost since the fall of the Roman Empire – we now know that it was made by heating a mixture of quartz sand, a copper compound, calcium carbonate and a small amount of an alkali such as natron, to temperatures over 800°C.









Fragment of fused Egyptian blue (Petrie Museum, UC25037).

This resulted in a bright blue pigment that proved very stable to the elements and was thus widely used well beyond Egypt. In fact, its presence has recently been discovered on the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum due to its unusually strong photoluminescence, i.e. when the pigment is illuminated with red light (wavelengths around 630 nm) it emits near infrared radiation (with a max emission at 910 nm).

After its disappearance, artists and artisans had to make do with natural pigments and, being the most stable and brilliant, ultramarine became the coveted colourant once again. In fact, during the Renaissance, it is reputed to have been more expensive than gold and, as a result, often reserved for the pictorial representations of the Madonna and Christ. And so, the search for another replacement was back on. But it wasn’t until the early 1700s that another synthetic blue pigment was discovered, this time accidentally, by a paint maker from Berlin who, while attempting to make a red dye, unintentionally used blood-tainted potash in his recipe. The iron from the blood reacted with the other ingredients creating a distinctly blue compound, iron ferrocyanide, which would later be named Prussian blue. Naturally, other man-made blue pigments and dyes followed, including artificial ultramarine, indigo and phthalocyanine blues.

However, it wasn’t quite the end of the line for Egyptian blue, which was rediscovered and extensively studied in the 19th century by such great people as Sir Humphry Davy. And not only are we now able to reproduce the compound for artistic purposes, scientists are finding more and more surprising applications for its luminescence properties, such as biomedical analysis, telecommunications and (my personal favourite) security and crime detection[2].


[1]  Lorelei H. Corcoran, “The Color Blue as an ‘Animator’ in Ancient Egyptian Art,” in Rachael B.Goldman, (Ed.), Essays in Global Color History, Interpreting the Ancient Spectrum (NJ, Gorgias Press, 2016), pp. 59-82.

[2] Benjamin Errington, Glen Lawson, Simon W. Lewis, Gregory D. Smith, ‘Micronised Egyptian blue pigment: A novel near-infrared luminescent fingerprint dusting powder’, Dyes and Pigments, vol 132, (2016), pp 310-315.

Question of the Week: Do Fish Pee?

By Arendse I Lund, on 2 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.

Question of the Week: Why does the Kingfisher look blue?

By Cerys R Jones, on 25 September 2018

The Common Kingfisher is one of Britain’s most colourful native birds and a personal favourite of mine. Despite the name, the Common Kingfisher isn’t actually all that common. I’ve only been lucky enough to see one in the wild and it was a brief encounter; I still vividly remember the bright blue flash of its feathers. Although these creatures are known for their striking colours, the blue feathers down the back of the Kingfisher are actually brown.

The bright blue colour you perceive is due to a phenomenon called structural colouration. Structural  colouration is seen throughout the animal kingdom and makes creatures appear much more colourful than they actually are. So while the coloured pigments in the kingfisher’s feathers are brown, you actually view them as a brilliant blue.

The brightly coloured Common Kingfisher (Image: Avijan saha)

Structural colouration, first described by Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton, is when the observed colour of an object is not due to the pigment but rather caused by some interference effects instead. The structure of the object itself causes a different colour to be perceived than what would typically be observed by the pigment. Structural colouration can result in iridescent colours – i.e. colours that are dependent on the viewing angle – or non-iridescent colours, when the colour remains constant regardless of the viewing angle. Examples of iridescent colours are the feathers of a peacock, which are also pigmented brown but appear blue due to the structural colouration, and the setea (or spines) of the sea mouse. The nanostructures of the setea of the sea mouse and peacock feathers are regular and so reflect the light in the same direction. This means that the bright colour is only perceived at a certain angle.

The setea of the sea mouse appear red, green and blue to act as a warning to potential predators. The sea mice in the Grant Museum are some of my favourite specimens in the museum and are often unfortunately overlooked by visitors. Their interesting name likely derives from the fact that they look like drowned mice when washed up on shore, but their Latin name, Aphrodita, comes from the Ancient Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, supposedly due to their resemblance to female anatomy…

The Sea Mouse specimen in the Grant Museum, G15 (Author’s own photo)

In contrast, the kingfisher’s feathers are an example of non-iridescent structural colouration. The blue stripe appears blue regardless of the angle of the viewer. This is because the structures are randomly oriented and so the reflections of the light are not angled in the same direction. The blue-and-yellow macaw similarly displays bright blue feathers that are due to non-iridescent structural coloration. These feathers also contain the brown-black pigment melanin that is present in those of the kingfisher.

Let that be a lesson that you can never trust your eyes – at least, not when it comes to structural colouration! Next time you visit the Grant Museum, look out for our kingfisher taxidermy specimen, the sea mice and any other brightly coloured creatures that may be cleverly appearing more colourful than their pigments might suggest!

To read more about this phenomenon, check out this paper.

What are the Oldest Artefacts in Egypt?

By Josie Mills, on 21 September 2018

The oldest artefacts in the Petrie Museum weren’t made by the Ancient Egyptians or at least the people we associate with pyramids, mummies and hieroglyphs. They may look unassuming, but these amber coloured stones are handaxes that were made by our human ancestors around half a million years ago. These are my favourite artefacts in the museum even though they aren’t shiny or gilded but because they shed light on hominin behaviour in Egypt before the Egyptians.

These stone tools were made by hominins who lived in Egypt around half a million years ago, making them around 495,000 years older than the earliest ‘Egyptians’! It’s likely that Egypt was occupied by hominins during cooler periods when river systems and vegetation provided a suitable habitat. Lots of these handaxes were found on river terraces suggesting these waterways were an important part of life. Petrie Museum accession numbers: UC 13572 UC75136 UC13579 UC13527 left to right. (Author’s own image)


Archaeologists call this type of artefact a lithic, which means ‘made of stone’, usually flint or other siliceous rock. Flint is a very hard rock that is part of the chert family and is particularly useful for making tools because it fractures like glass creating very sharp edges. Stone tools are a very important record left behind by hominins and they are often the only thing we find on stone age sites because they preserve well and don’t decay. Handaxes, also called bifaces, are a particularly recognisable tool because of their distinctive shape.

Handaxe is a term we use to describe a stone tool that has been shaped bifacially (on both sides) by the removal of flint flakes, a process called knapping. There are lots of different shapes of handaxe; for example, those that are more oval are called ovate handaxes whereas those with a wider butt (technical term!) and shaped to a point are called ficrons. They were used throughout the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic.


This is an example of a ficron handaxe. A lot of ficrons are made on pebbles, often from flint cobbles transported by rivers or glaciers. Here you can see that the natural shape of the pebble has been used as the base of the handaxe with the remaining portion knapped into a point. (Image credit: The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ © The Trustees of the British Museum)


It’s likely that handaxes had many different uses but were primarily employed to process carcasses, enabling hominins to get the most meat possible from the animals they hunted or scavenged. It’s thought that they were also used to dig for tubers and process organic materials. The shape of the tool meant that they could be easily re-sharpened by removing the blunted edge revealing sharp flint underneath. This ability to rejuvenate the tool means that handaxes were highly portable tools that could be shaped and adapted on the move.


This handaxe is from the Middle Palaeolithic site La Cotte a La Chèvre on Jersey. It is relatively small and has probably been re-sharpened multiple times. During the Middle Palaeolithic the landscape to the north of Jersey was used by highly mobile Neanderthals hunting and gathering. It’s likely that this handaxe was part of a Neanderthal tool-kit and may have been discarded at the cave because it had been re-sharpened so much it was too small to use! (Image Credit: Jersey Heritage)


The idea that handaxes were made by humans rather than environmental or supernatural processes was popularised by John Frere in 1800. Frere discovered an assemblage of handaxes and animal bones in a gravel deposit at the site of Hoxne in Sussex. Although Frere was the first to publish this idea others before him, for example John Conyers who was present at the discover of the Gray’s Inn Handaxe in 1679, had suggested it but not been taken seriously. Prior to the 19th Century the origin of handaxes was often explained through folklore, they were often called ‘thunder stones’, the lithified remnants of lightning bolts, or ‘elf-shot’, the preserved remains of tiny weapons.


This is the handaxe found at the Gray’s Inn Road site by John Conyers in 1679. (Image credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum)


Although it’s generally accepted that handaxes are a practical tool, there are several instances of bifaces that are simply too big to function. This handaxe (below) discovered at Furze Platt in Maidenhead, UK, is around 30cm long and would have been very heavy! These oversized axes led to the theory that bifaces influenced sexual selection; the larger your handaxe, the more proficient you were at provisioning resources and important raw material. In this scenario your giant handaxe suggests that you are a great option for a partner or somebody to have children with! Equally it has been suggested that these larger handaxes were status symbols hinting at social hierarchy. However, these types of behaviours are hard to reconstruct in the past and these theories are definitely not set in stone.


The Furze Platt handaxe. (Image Credit: © Trustees of NHM)


Overall, it’s evident that handaxes were very useful in the prehistoric—but even back then it seems hominins also found the tools aesthetically pleasing… I’ll leave you with this beauty.


This handaxe was made around 500 – 300, 000 years ago and was found at West Tofts in Norfolk, UK. It appears that the knapper has carefully preserved the outline of a shell in the cortex, the calcareous outer surface of flint. (Image Copyright: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Cambridge. Museum ID 1916.82/Record 2)


Follow this link for a 3D model of the artefact: https://sketchfab.com/models/343ae7d92a384327aebec8f0ec8e5e54

Myths in the Museum: The Unicorn Horn of UCL

By Jen Datiles, on 18 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.


Could you Bear to eat Pooh?

By Josie Mills, on 10 September 2018

Well our ancestors did… Bear was most definitely on the menu in the Palaeolithic and if you think bears are big now you should take a trip back to the Stone Age!

Bears are an incredibly diverse species that have evolved from a single genus but now occupy dramatically different ecological niches across the planet. Because of their weight and size, they are classed as megafauna. Megafauna are large animals that usually live for a long time, have slow population growth, and low mortality because they don’t have many natural predators. There are lots of very cool prehistoric megafauna like the mammoth, sabre tooth cat, and several distinct species of bear.

Humans have a long history interacting with bears, mainly because of our shared preference for sheltered spaces like caves and eating the same types of food. In Europe, both Cave Bears (Ursus spelaus) and Brown Bears (Ursus arctos) were present during the Middle Palaeolithic, which was 250,000-40,000 years ago and most frequently associated with the Neanderthals.

This is a diagram of the skull of a brown bear found at Banwell Cave in the UK. Drawing by Tabitha Paterson.



This is a diagram of the top part of a cave bear skull. If you compare it to the brown bear skull above you can see the distinctive elongation and dome-shape of the cranium. This is one of the ways to tell apart brown and cave bear skeletons. Drawing by Tabitha Paterson.


New research published by Romandini et al. (2018) highlights the relationship between Neanderthals and bears in southern Europe by studying bear and animal bones from Rio Secco and Fumane caves (Italy). The study focuses on animal bones found at both caves, particularly bear remains. The bones were identified, and any cut marks present were studied using 3 types of microscope to separate those made by carnivores from marks made by humans using stone tools. The results were then compared with databases of known types of cut marks established via experimental work. Results suggest that Neanderthals were exploiting bears as a resource at both sites; however, the sites were slightly different.

The authors propose that Rio Secco cave was used by bears for hibernation, the period over the winter where they sleep to conserve energy. There are clues around the cave that indicate it served this special purpose like scratch marks and shiny areas on the cave walls polished by bears rubbing past them . This is a phenomenon called Bärenschliffe and is discussed in this great blog post by Ross Barnet on the website Twilight Beasts. The animal remains found at Rio Secco are reported from two archaeological layers, one layer contains 39.3% cave bear and 1.6% brown bear; and the other 27% cave bear and 0.2% brown bear. Many of these bones have cut marks indicating butchery by Neanderthals, suggesting that the cave was actively targeted to exploit the hibernating bears as a food resource. This is supported by the scarcity of other resources in the surrounding landscape—like flint used to make tools—meaning people probably wouldn’t have been in the region hunting and gathering more generally. Instead they were making specific organised trips to hunt the bears!

A selection of bear bones from Rio Secco Cave showing the locations of human made cut marks. Image Credit: Romandini et al. (2018)


The human signature at the Fumane site is noticeably different and the authors suggest archaeological evidence represents periods of intense and repeated Neanderthal occupation. The assemblage contains a wide variety of butchered fauna demonstrating that food resources were plentiful, and the site is situated in a raw material rich region. In this case it appears that unfortunate bears were an occasional item on the menu rather than the specific reason the humans were present! This is supported by the lack of bear remains, which only amount to 2.2% and 1.4% of the two archaeological layers reported. The authors state that it is harder to differentiate between the types of bear as some skeletal elements are missing but overall there are more brown bear present. This absence of some bones particularly the back bone and pelvis indicate that the bears were butchered elsewhere, and prime cuts of meat brought back to the cave. Overall these contrasting archaeological contexts suggest very different hunting behaviour at both caves with the former a targeted resource and the latter a more opportunistic way of hunting.

There are two exciting implications from this study; it adds to the body of evidence that Neanderthals specifically targeted megafauna using a sophisticated knowledge of animal behaviour. It also provides more indication for co-operative hunting in Neanderthal populations—I certainly wouldn’t want to try to take down a bear on my own, even a sleeping one!

A brown bear and a polar bear again drawn by the talented Tabitha Paterson (Twitter handle: @TabithaPaterson)



Romandini, M., Terlato, G., Nannini, N., Tagliacozzo, A., Benazzi, S. and Peresani, M., 2018. Bears and humans, a Neanderthal tale. Reconstructing uncommon behaviors from zooarchaeological evidence in southern Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science90, pp.71-91.

Also a big thank you to bear specialist Tabitha Paterson for advice!