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Cocaine Mummies & the search for narcotics in historic collections

Mark VKearney20 April 2019

I told a small white lie in my last blog as there was actually a third reason I noticed the seven small cylindrical bronze measures in the Petrie Museum. It was the reason they first caught my eye – their museum label described them as being opium measures. We know that the Egyptians consumed wine because we are able to test archaeological artefacts that could have contained wine for its presence. The scientific techniques used is actually the same as what I use in my PhD research looking at the decay of plastics.

Figure 1 – The seven bronze measuring vessels, as seen on display in the Petrie Museum (Author’s own photograph UC26315)

I mostly associate ancient drug use with the Aztecs, “Reefer Madness”, 1960’s counter culture and Alice in Wonderland! But the use of such a drug, either medicinal or recreational, was unknown to me.

As today is April 20th, I thought we could discuss a little bit about the use of drugs in Egypt…

The set of opium measures is dated to the 18th dynasty, which places them at the start of the opium trade in Egypt. There are a number of interesting questions stemming from this statement:

  • How do we know about the drugs they used?
  • Where did they get their drugs?
  • Just how high were they?

We know ancient Egyptians were using drugs for two reasons: First, through written records; second, through scientific analysis. In the fields of archaeological science, heritage science and forensic science, one technique reigns supreme; gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) is held as being the gold standard when it comes to identifying compounds. This method is basically a 2-for-1 in that it first separates out all the different compounds in a sample (that’s the gas chromatography bit), and then each of these compounds has their unique mass-to-charge ratio analysed. This leads to very specific information about each chemical compound that made up the original sample, which in turn makes identifying these compounds relatively straight forward.

Possibly the best example of this, in relation to the Egyptians, is the case of the Cocaine Mummies. In 1992, Dr. Svetlana Balabanova, a German toxicologist,  found traces of cocaine, tobacco, and hash in several different mummies.  For such an important conclusion, her data treatment is lacking, but more worrying is the utter lack of context in her work. In the three scientific fields I mentioned above, context is king. This is because we are not dealing with fresh newly made samples. At a minimum, samples could be a few days old and likely highly contaminated by their surroundings. Contamination is something that can easily happen over the course of 3500 years from either poor storage conditions, poor handling or even cross-contamination with another object. Learning about where to sample from archaeological or artistic objects is one of the fundamental skills you are taught when entering the field. This means without proper provenance or records all results, no matter how good the analysis was conducted, need to be taken with a very large pinch of salt.

So, what of our German Mummies then? Unlike what Eric Clapton said, cocaine can lie, and three things need to be confirmed before I would be willing to believe the results. The first is are these really ancient Egyptian mummies? Many of the mummies entered collections in the 1800s when record keeping was poor and forgeries were common. Along with this dubious provenance, we have thousands of years of cross-contamination to reconcile. One-nil against.

Secondly is the issue of false positives. While GC/MS makes life easier it does not make things easy. I have personal experience with this, and experience where the context allows for the correct answer to win out. Last week I finished some work at Tate Britain on a plastic artwork. After running a search on the results, something very weird popped up. A clear peak which showed the presence of codeine, a type of opiate. This was a plastic artwork from the 1940s and stored in its protective case at Tate for many years. There is no way this peak was from codeine. In the below image you can see, in red a big peak at 282 and then a scattering of many smaller peaks – this was the signal from my sample. The scattering is noise. The reference sample, in blue, has one main peak at 282 and not a much else.

Figure 2 – A screen grab of the NIST software which searches GCMS results for possible compounds. The red line is from my sample, the blue line is the library reference. The list on the left-hand side are possible matches with match scores – 1000 being a perfect match, an R.Match of 908 means an almost certain match.

The software thinks that because the two samples have the same main peak they must be the same, but context tells us something else might be at play. The noisy smaller values plus a peak at around 282 screams that our GCMS is wearing out and one of its parts will need replacing soon. But if you only ever went by what the software told you would say that this plastic had a drug problem!  Two-nil.

The last issue is where these mummies got their drugs — and again, context remains crucial. Cocaine is derived from the coca leaf, something that is not grown in Egypt. A trade route between Egypt and the New World would have had to been in operation for them to get their fix. While not totally out of the realms of possibility, a pre- Columbian trade route is not something that historians believe happened. There is a suggestion of contact with the New World before the arrival of Columbus, such as the one every Irish child is taught in school, but a fully-fledged industrial trade route does not have enough evidence to support it. Three-nil, Game over.

Getting back to opium production, it’s worth thinking about just how high the Egyptians could have gotten. It is rather difficult to say as we don’t know their exact method of production. A number of years ago VICE reported on heroin users in the Czech Republic who would take a vacation to the poppy fields outside the city to cook up their own batch of heroin from latex produced by the poppies in the field. The video shows the relatively easy cultivation of the poppy latex, but analysis showed that they didn’t actually form heroin, but rather morphine and codeine. These two compounds will get you high… just not as high as heroin. It’s likely the Egyptians were able to produce something similar — maybe that’s where they got the idea for the pyramids…

Measuring the Past: The importance of standards from the Egyptians to the present

Mark VKearney29 March 2019

During my previous shift at the Petrie Museum one object took most of my attention – a set of seven cylindrical bronze measures. I noticed them for two reasons, the first being that they are incredibly well made, especially the smallest which is only 5 mm in diameter. The second reason is that even in the 18th Dynasty (about 3500 years ago) the Egyptians understood the concept of standardization.

Figure 1 – The seven bronze measuring vessels, likely for gold dust. (Petrie Museum, UC26315)

Our entire lives are guided by some kind of standard measurement – megabits, mp3, 5G, ounce, and of course the International System of Units. For those of you who don’t believe that working from a common standard set of units is important, allow me to remind you of just how costly it can be to mix things up. In September 1999 NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter crashed into the side of Mars because one group of workers used non-SI units. A mistake costing $327.6 million.

It seems rather mindless that Egyptians living 3500 years ago understood this, yet we continue to make silly mistakes. The founder of the Petrie Museum, William Matthew Flinders Petrie, was keenly aware that in any high functioning society a set of standards would be both vital to its success and a central part of the daily lives of its citizens. In his book Ancient weights and measures, published in 1926, he notes that “we have now at University College over four thousand weights, or about two thirds of all Egyptian weights known”. This staggering claim highlights the importance of the museum’s collection. What is even more staggering is the sheer range and sub divisions which they had standardized — almost rivalling our own system today.

Figure 2 – Another example of a measuring device from the Petrie Collection. (Petrie Museum, UC7093)

Originally, those seven bronze measures would have measured gold dust in the Deben unit. The largest holding ½ a Deben, or approx. 11.8 grams today. However, as with many things, over time their meanings change, and during the New Kingdom,    a Deben was changed to signify approx. 91 grams.

This change isn’t unlike our own modern struggles with the kilogram, a unit whose precise value had been changing ever so subtly since its mass was first defined in 1886 with Le Grand K – a cylinder of a platinum alloy which is carefully kept in Paris, France. However, basing a standard off of a physical object found only here on Earth rather than a universal constant is suboptimal to say the least. As an example, if someone in Canada wanted to know precisely what mass their object was in relation to a standard kilo they either had to send it to be measured directly against Le Grand K in France or off its copy, which may or may not be identical to Le Grand K. This leads to a lot of uncertainty, and while it might not affect the successful procrastibaking of a certain PhD’s scones (p.s – cake flour works wonders!), it does affect the highly precise measurements of certain scientific professions, as other units are also based of its value.


Figure 3 -The old units, some of which, like a mole, were based on the mass of Le Grand K (Source :Wiki)


Figure 4 – The new standards, where kg is governed by Planck’s constant Source: Wiki)


With this in mind, the group in charge of defining a kilo have changed its definition by defining the Planck constant to be exactly 6.62607015×10−34 kg⋅m2⋅s-1. The means that in May of this year, when the new standards take effect, a kilogram is no longer the mass of some lump of Platinum in a lab in France, but dependant on time and length, both of which are themselves defined by a universal constant.

From measuring mass using set volumes — which is what those seven vessels in the Petrie do — we now measure a kilogram with something called a Kibble Balance. This balance, which can be manufactured anywhere in the world, uses the newly defined value of Planck’s constant to measure the mass of objects to a level where uncertainty no longer has a negative effect — though to be fair, it doesn’t look as nice as the bronze cups, so there is still some work to do!

Objects of Desire Event

Cerys MBradley15 March 2019

On the 28th of February, the Petrie Museum hosted a special event, Objects of Desire. February is LGBTQ History Month  so this post is a little late but the event was a lot of fun so well worth a review. Objects of Desire is an annual event hosted by the Egyptologist and former Vice-Chair of the Egypt Exploration Society John J Johnston. This year, Johnston was joined by concert pianist Tyler Hay, UCL academic Dr Xine Yao, V&A Ambassador Dan Vo, author Chris McCrudden, and myself as we all shared objects within the museum that we felt were connected to the LGBTQ+ community.

There aren’t many objects that explicitly show evidence of modern day LGBTQ+ identities and relationships in Ancient Egypt and even fewer that have been catalogued as doing so. But there were several objects that the speakers had personal connections with, or that facilitated a conversation about, some famous LGBTQ+ figures.

Dr Xine Yao used the sarcophagi to talk about 19th-Century mummy fiction, which led to a conversation about her research on the LGBTQ+ community and tarot reading. Tyler Hay chatted about the Pharaoh Hatshepsut who is immortalised in name and image on dozens of small amulets and similar objects in the collection. Hapshepsut is recognised as the second female pharaoh and reigned for approximately 21 years in the 15thC BC. Statues and paintings record Hapshepsut wearing what was essentially the uniform of the pharaohs right down to the false beard; however, other images depict also wearing clothing more typically associated with women.

Not everyone, in fairness, was able to choose an object from the museum. Dan Vo spoke about Antinous, a Greek who came to Ancient Egypt with his lover, the Roman emperor Hadrian. Antinous famously died in the Nile under mysterious circumstances and was deified after death. He has been the subject of many sculptures as he was famed for his beauty. Another iconic symbol of LGBTQ+ relationships (not in the Petrie collection) is the tomb of Niankhnumn and Khnumnhotep which was discussed by Chris McCrudden. This is the tomb of two men considered to be joint overseers of the manicurists to King Nyuserre (who ruled in the 25thC BC). Niankhnumn and Khnumnhotep’s tomb is decorated with images of them embracing and otherwise depicted using iconography usually reserved for married couples.

I chose to talk about the pot burial in the museum. This is one of the top ten objects at the museum and so I was surprised that none of the other speakers wanted to discuss it. The pot burial was found by archaeologist Ali Suefi and contains human remains of someone thought to be from the earliest farming community in Middle Egypt. The person they belong to is thought to have lived around 6,000 years ago in the village of Badari. I chose this object because, when the remains were first found in 1923 they were thought to have belonged to a woman; however, the gynaecologist Mark argued in an assessment in 1995 that the skeleton belonged to a man who was over 6ft tall.

The Pot Burial at the Petrie Museum, photo from the Petrie website.

We know very little else about this person – they were buried in a pot but either were not buried with any belongings or those belongings have not survived. As such, how this person lived their life and how they expressed themselves is not known. Some people may feel that understanding the sex of the skeleton gives us a small piece of information about who they were. However, I personally feel that guessing the sex of their skeleton can’t tell us about their gender, if they had one. Similarly, I don’t think we can assume that Hapshepsut was a woman who adopted men’s clothing in order to fulfil the role of pharaoh. Instead, they may have chosen that clothing because they saw themselves as a man or had a fluid gender expression.

So often, we impose our ideas of the gender binary on historical figures (recent and ancient) and this may erase the experiences of trans, intersex, and other non-cisgendered people. Just as many historians still argue that Niankhnumn and Khnumnhotep were just good friends, brothers or business partners rather than accepting them as lovers. The Objects of Desire event provided a great space to challenge the absence of LGBTQ+ stories in the collection and argue that this absence has been created because of the way that we record history.

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

Josie RMills29 January 2019

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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








Event: Migration through (Pre)History

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

5 Things Museums Want to Do in the Future

KyleLee-Crossett6 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.

Museum Engagement Outside the Museum

Cerys MBradley9 October 2018

On a recent shift in the Grant Museum , I was talking to a small child about the bats. I explained that some bats will eat twice their own body weight in fruit in a single night. I like to share this fact with kids because I then ask them to imagine eating twice their own body weight in their favourite fruit and they are often extremely impressed (an opinion I think everyone should have of bats all the time).  On this occasion, I asked the child how much he thought twice his own body weight would be in his favourite fruit – cherries. He turned to his mum and asked her how much he weighed (17kg), he then patiently counted twice 17 out on his fingers and before replying, very seriously, “it would be 34kg in cherries”. I have been telling this fact to visitors, I estimate, for probably 3 years now. This is the first time anyone has calculated an answer to my follow-up question.

Needless to say, I was impressed, and also touched by how proud this boy’s parents were. Moments like these are one of many reasons I really enjoy speaking to children who visit the museums. They are like small sponges (so right at home at the Grant) and filled with questions that vary wildly and wonderfully from the collection (my favourites include “is everything really dead?” and “how did he brush his teeth?”).

Whilst searching for a suitable image for this post, I discovered the Sponge Crab. This species of crab, that wears sponges as a hat, is an even better metaphor for children because it scuttles. (Image: Grant Museum)

The interesting conversations and literal hours of fact swapping with young visitors that I have enjoyed on my shifts are why I always enthusiastically volunteer to go on school visits and why, last week, I paid a visit to Fleet Primary School to talk to their students for Maths Week.

I was there to talk to the students about my research (in the UCL Crime Science department ) as an example of a something you could do if you studied maths. We talked about the different ways I use maths to understand Dark Net Markets (websites only accessible by anonymity preserving technologies such as Tor that facilitate the trade of illegal goods and services) and how it was similar to the maths they are learning in school. A lot of my research involves trying to measure the population size on these websites and evaluate if it’s been affected by a law enforcement intervention, so it’s basically adding and subtracting. I also look at the proportions of different types of products available to purchase; or, in other words, I divide things.

You may think that my research area is not an appropriate discussion topic for 8-11 year olds but, as ever, I was surprised by how much the students already knew. A good handful of them had heard of the Dark Web, some even knew about the types of the illegal purchases that could be made on it. Fewer had heard of the ways that the Dark Web is used by human rights groups, activists and whistleblowers to circumnavigate censorship and share information that might endanger them. Even though my research focuses on the illegal activity enabled by the Dark Web, a huge benefit of the outreach I am able to do with UCL is the opportunity to inform people about how important a space it can be. Plus I get to hear all of the insightful and interesting thoughts that the students I meet have about my research and being safe online.

The main role of the student engager is to hover in one of UCL’s museums and engage (ensnare?) visitors with conversations about the collections and our research. It takes a bit of getting used to – approaching strangers enjoying their lunch break or afternoon out and interrupting their visit with questions like “what do you think of the skeleton?”, “would you like to hear more about the history of this museum?” or “have you seen the bats?”, but it is a really interesting way to talk to people with lots of different lives and opinions about what happens at UCL. Sometimes, however, we get to take this conversation outside of the museum and learn a lot more about the people we talk to. It’s similar to the work we do in museums, but on a bigger scale, which allows for even more ideas to be shared. I really enjoy this part of the job, especially because I get to do the interesting talking-to-people part without the having-to-initiate-a-conversation  bit.


Myths in the Museum: The Unicorn Horn of UCL

JenDatiles18 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.


Heritage in Flames

Hannah BPage7 September 2018

I was shattered this week to read about the catastrophic fire in Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum in Brazil (Fig 1). The 200-year-old museum housed an enormous collection of archaeological, anthropological and natural historical objects (more than 20 million) including Luzia woman (Fig 2), an Upper Palaeolithic skeleton and the oldest ever found in the Americas (11,500 years old). The museum also housed extensive collections from the indigenous Brazilian people as well as Egyptian and Greco-Roman artefacts.  The loss of these objects is one tragedy, but more devastating is the harm done to the decades of diligent work and research by countless people all working to a single end: to preserve and protect the social, cultural and natural heritage of Brazil and the world for the world. Some of the most upsetting photographs were of academics and museum staff in front of the burning museum, frantically trying to save what they could.

Fig 1. Brazil’s National Museum in flames (Source: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

For me, the real privilege of working in museums is seeing just how important they are for all kinds of people. Every person experiences museums in a unique way: they are drawn to different objects, and they each bring something new away from their experience. Museums are a way for people to connect with their past, to learn about the heritage of others, and to appreciate the art and nature of our world. Without museums we risk the disconnection from cultural and natural heritage and ultimately, a loss of identity.

Fig. 2: Luzia Woman (Source: BBC TWO)

Unfortunately this type of news is not new. In recent years we have seen distressing headlines revealing the damage to world heritage sites. From the destruction of parts of archaeological sites such as Palmyra in Syria, the burning of the Kasubi Tombs (Fig. 3)—the burial ground for the kings of the Buganda—in Uganda, to coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. These events all have two major features in common: first, the importance of the locations as natural and cultural heritage sites for millions of people, and second, that in some way political agendas can be held responsible for their damage. Political agendas it seems, whether driven by money, religion or an indifference to the value of culture and history, are the biggest threat to our heritage sites.

Fig. 3: The Kasubi Tombs in Uganda (Source: Lazare Eloundou Assomo, © UNESCO)

The burning of Brazil’s National Museum has highlighted the increasing neglect of the heritage sector by governments, which is trickling down to affect research, conservation of artefacts and sites, the honouring of cultural identity, and ultimately the connection with our past and present.

Museums are a celebration of us, and without them, and the research that occurs within those walls we lose much more than just a beautiful building and some aesthetically pleasing objects.

Words cannot describe the pain that must be felt by the hundreds of people directly connected with the museum and the countless more affected by what this loss represents to them.

All I can hope, probably naively, is that governments might wake up and see that an investment in the arts and heritage is an investment in their people, and there is little more important than that.

The End of Art is Peace

Mark VKearney2 August 2018

The title of this blog refers to a favourite line from Seamus Heaney’s The Harvest Bow, a poem that explores the humanity of the writer’s father as he crafts a decorative knot made of woven straw reeds, a traditional Irish custom strongly linked with courtship and marriage (you can see my own example below).

The end of art is peace….

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Since beginning the role of Student Engager earlier this year, I have found myself thinking of this poem more frequently; one reason for this is that the Petrie Museum holds in its collection an example of a woven basket, in front of which I always stand during my shifts. The similarities of form between two objects separated by both thousands of years and miles has made me wonder just how universally pervasive the skill was.

Woven basket which is on display and the inspiration for this blog post (Petrie Museum, 7494).

Let me just mention one other important fact about all this… I’ve a background in physics and my current PhD research is based on the decay of modern materials like plastics in museums. Basket making — especially the ancient form — is a little out of my comfort zone!

It therefore came as a shock to me that the weaving skills I learnt in the classroom (as every Irish child does) can be traced back to before the use of pottery. As Carolyn McDowall mentions, many weaving techniques reflect the geographical location of the many and varied culturally different groups”. The beauty of traditional skills such as these is they can offer a connection, via our hands, to the past as little has changed in the way we construct them over thousands of years.

From a personal viewpoint, I’ve always been drawn to geometric objects such as these; its possibly the physicist in me attracted to their symmetry (or in certain cases, lack thereof). My research trip down the rabbit hole for this blog lead me to some interesting reading about the mathematics of weaving. One thing is for sure, that the resulting patterns are pleasing to the eye, and the inclusion of dyed, or painted elements into the structure elevates a simple commodity into a piece of folk art. It’s also clear that the resulting symmetrical patterns are universally pleasing – why else would we find decorative patterns in weaving in Egypt, southern Africa, and from the peoples of Native American tribes.

My research also led me to a theory about something that have always wondered – if you walk around the pottery displays in the Petrie Museum, you will notice that many of the objects have geometric patterns baked into them. I’ve never understood why they would go to the added trouble of imprinting the pattern. If, however, you acknowledge that patternation is a universal trait, and that basket weaving pre-dates pottery then the herringbone patterns found on some pottery could be the makers attempt to copy the form of woven baskets. I asked fellow engager Hannah, who’s PhD focuses on sub-Saharan African ceramics, about my theory recently. Hannah told me that “some academics have suggested that in these cases these decorated ceramics can imply that vessels made from natural fibres were also made and used in these time periods”. So it seems I’m onto something with the theory!

An example from the collection showing a herringbone pattern that Hannah says would have been applied with a stick or pointed object which the clay had been air-dried. (Petrie Museum, 14165)

The Petrie Museum has other examples of weaving skills. There are examples of sandals –

More examples of weaving from the Collection (Petrie Museum, UC769 Above & UC 16557 Below).

And Rope –

(Petrie Museum, UC7420).

One thing that stuck me is that these products must have created trade between the groups, promoting both an early economy and the spread of their technologies. Could this be why some of the patterns are common to all or could the base mathematics of weaving be a common universal trait somehow hardwired into our brains? Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to answer this question during my research. I’ll have to keep digging for the answer, but in the end, I am left with an even deeper understanding and connection to the past, and an object that as Heaney says, “is burnished by its passage, and still warm”.