The Stories Behind Objects

By Hannah L Wills, on 14 February 2017

By Hannah Wills



During my most recent engagement session at the Petrie Museum, I got the chance to take a look at their new exhibition ‘Exporting Egypt: Where? Why? Whose?’. This fascinating exhibition charts the journeys of some of the objects from British excavations in Egypt, conducted between the 1880s and 1980s, following these objects from the sites where they were found, to institutions around the globe. As this exhibition reveals, each and every object we encounter in a museum has a history, a past life, shaped by the circumstances of its acquisition, and an often complex mesh of politics, agendas and negotiations.

Taking a look around the exhibition got me thinking about my own research, which examines the work of Charles Blagden (1748-1820), secretary to the Royal Society under the presidency of Joseph Banks (1743-1820). Joseph Banks made his name by taking part in Captain James Cook’s first voyage aboard HMS Endeavour, which lasted from 1768 until 1771, visiting Brazil, Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia. During the voyage, Banks and his team, comprised of naturalists and artists, collected specimens including fish, crustaceans, birds and plants, which were described and preserved on board the ship. These collections, when they returned to England, were taken directly to Banks’s own home in New Burlington Street, and were to form the basis of his own collection later stored in his residence at 32 Soho Square.[i]

Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), photo credit: Wikipedia

Having made his name on board the Endeavour voyage, Banks also played a central role in organising other expeditions, providing specific instructions for what was to be collected. Cook’s subsequent two voyages resulted in the collection of many more specimens, which, despite Banks not participating directly in the voyages, all passed through Banks as a kind of ‘hub’ for the dispersal of material. These specimens were subsequently to end up in institutions such as the Royal College of Surgeons, the Linnean Society and the British Museum.[ii]

Charles Blagden, the key figure in my research, also collected natural history specimens, which, as the historian Reginald Howe has suggested, may also have ended up in the British Museum. Whilst serving as a surgeon aboard a hospital ship during the American War of Independence, Blagden was asked to collect a number of specimens from America for his friend and fellow naturalist Daines Barrington, to be given to his friend Sir Ashton Lever for display in his museum.[iii] Perhaps not wanting to slight his friend and patron Joseph Banks, Blagden decided to send his collection, comprised of preserved animals collected from Rhode Island, jointly to both Barrington and Banks. The specimens, preserved in kegs of rum and transported aboard the Brigantine Betsy, a navy victualing ship, were to be shared “six kegs apiece” between the two men, and either kept or disposed of as each saw fit.[iv]

Perspective interior view of Sir Ashton Lever's Museum in Leicester Square, London March 30 1785. Watercolour by Sarah Stone. Photo credit: State Library of New South Wales.

Perspective interior view of Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum in Leicester Square, London, March 30 1785. Watercolour by Sarah Stone. Photo credit: State Library of New South Wales.

Some of the ways in which animal specimens made it back to Britain from far-flung shores in the eighteenth century are described in the Short directions for collecting, preserving and transporting, all kinds of natural history curiosities, published by the naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster in 1771. “All Quadrupeds of a great bulk”, Forster wrote, were to be “skinned” and “washed or brushed over with a liquor” made of Sal Ammoniac (ammonium chloride), water and mercury, before a complex procedure of stuffing and drying. “Small Quadrupeds”, on the other hand, were to be “plunged into a keg of brandy, rack or rum, and thus sent over”. For birds, to be prepared in a similar way, Forster was keen to note that the shot used to kill the animal should be “proportioned to their size”, and that “Young birds… must not be taken”.[v]

The Petrie Museum’s new exhibition is great for getting visitors to think about questions of ownership, collecting and transport—the things that I’ll often forget about as I wander through a museum admiring beautiful or intriguing objects. In the Grant Museum too, it can be easy to forget that each and every specimen has its own journey, a story to tell about who collected it and why, as well as the more gruesome tale of its preparation, storage and transport. The historian Samuel Alberti has written about the notion of object biographies in relation to museum artefacts, arguing that museums serve as a “vessel for the bundle of relationships enacted through each of the thousands of specimens on display and in store”.[vi] But the story of the object does not end when it enters the collection, as Alberti notes. As viewers we react to objects in a range of different ways, according to our memories, associations, and feelings.[vii] By hearing the reactions of visitors in UCL’s museums, I enjoy seeing how these ‘object stories’ continue to develop.


‘Exporting Egypt: where, why, whose?’ is on at the Petrie Museum from Tuesday 31 January to Saturday 29 April 2017, Tues-Sat 1-5pm.

[i] David Philip Miller, “Joseph Banks, Empire and ‘Centres of Calculation’ in Late Hanoverian London,” in Visions of Empire : Voyages, Botany, and Representations of Nature, ed. David Philip Miller and Peter Hanns Reill (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 27.

[ii] Ibid., 29-30.

[iii] Reginald Heber Howe, “Sir Charles Blagden, Earliest of Rhode Island Ornithologists,” The American Naturalist 39, no. 462 (1905), 398.

[iv] Letter from Charles Blagden to Joseph Banks, 28 Oct 1777, quoted in Howe “Sir Charles Blagden”, 398.

[v] Johann Reinhold Forster, A Catalogue of the Animals of North America. Containing, an Enumeration of the Known Quadrupeds, Birds, Reptiles, Fish, Insects, Crustaceous and Testaceous Animals; Many of Which Are New, and Never Described Before. To Which Are Added, Short Directions for Collecting, Preserving, and Transporting, All Kinds of Natural History Curiosities (London: B. White, 1771), 35-37.

[vi] Samuel Alberti, “Objects and the Museum,” Isis 96, no. 4 (2005): 561.

[vii] Ibid., 569.





Movement Taster – Movement in Premodern Societies

By Stacy Hackner, on 14 May 2014


The following is a taster for the Student Engagers’ Movement event taking place at UCL on Friday 23 May. Stacy, a researcher in Archaeology, will be discussing movement through the lens of biomechanics.

by Stacy Hackner

Imagine you’re in the grocery store. You start in the produce section, taking small steps between items. You hover by the bananas, decide you won’t take them, and walk a few steps further for apples, carrots, and cabbage. You then take a longer walk, carefully avoiding the ice cream on your way to the dairy fridge for some milk. You hover, picking out the semi-skimmed and some yogurt, before taking another long walk to the bakery. This pattern repeats until you’re at the checkout.

What you may not realize is that this pattern of stops and starts with long strides in between may be intrinsic to human movement, if not common to many foraging animals. A recent study of the Hadza, a hunting and gathering group in Tanzania, shows that they practice this type of movement known as the Lévy walk (or Lévy flight in birds and bumblebees). It makes sense on a gathering level: you’ve exhausted all your resources in one area, so you move to another locale further afield, then another, before returning to your base. When the Hadza have finished all the resources in an area, they’ll move camp, allowing them to regrow (for us, this is the shelves being restocked). This study links us with the Hadza, and the Hadza with what we can loosely term “ancient humans and their ancestors”.

Diagram of a Levy walk.

Diagram of a Levy walk. Credit Leif Svalgaard.

It’s unsurprising that the Hadza were used to examine the Lévy walk and probabilistic foraging strategies. As they are one of the few remaining hunter-gatherer groups on the planet, they are often used in scientific studies aiming to find out how humans lived, ate, and moved thousands of years ago, before the invention of agriculture. The Hadza have been remarkably amenable to being studied by researchers investigating concepts including female waist-to-hip ratios, the gut microbiome, botanical surveys, and body fat percentage. Tracking their movement around the landscape using GPS units is one of the most ingenious!

Much of the theoretical background to my work is based on human movement around the landscape. The more an individual moves, the more his or her leg bones will adapt to that type of movement. Thus it is important to examine how much movement cultures practicing different subsistence strategies perform. The oft-cited hypothesis is that hunter-gatherers perform the most walking or running activity, and the transition to agriculture decreased movement. An implicit assumption in this is that males, no matter the society, always performed more work requiring mobility than females. This has been upheld in a number of archaeological studies: between the Italian Late Upper Paleolithic and the Italian Neolithic, individuals’ overall femoral strength decreased, but the males decreased more; over the course of the Classical Maya period (350-900 AD), the difference in leg strength between males and females decreased, solely due a reduction in strength of the males. The authors posit that this is due to an economic shift allowing the males to be free from hard physical labour.

However, I take issue with the hypothesis that females always performed less work. The prevailing idea of a hunting man settling down to farm work while the gathering woman retains her adherence to household chores and finding local vegetables is not borne out by the Hadza. First, both Hadza men and women gather. Their resources and methods differ – men gather alone and hunt small game while women and children gather in groups – but another GPS study found that Hadza women walk up to 15 km per day on a gathering excursion (men get up to 18 km). 15 km is not exactly sitting around the camp peeling tubers. Another discrepancy from bone research is the effect of testosterone: given similar levels of activity, a man is likely to build more bone than a woman, leading archaeologists to believe he did more work. Finally, hunting for big game – at least for the Hadza – occurs rarely (about once every 30 hunter-days, according to one researcher) and may be of more social significance than biomechanical, and berries gathered account for as many calories as meat; perhaps we should rethink our nomenclature and call pre-agricultural groups gatherer-gatherers or just foragers.

For a video of Hadza foraging techniques, click here.

For a National Geographic photo article, click here.



Marchi, D. 2008. Relationships between lower limb cross-sectional geometry and mobility: the case of a Neolithic sample from Italy. AJPA 137, 188-200.

Marlowe, FW. 2010. The Hadza: Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania. Berkeley: Univ. California Press.

O’Connell, J and Hawkes, K. 1998. Grandmothers, gathering, and the evolution of human diets. 14th International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences.

Raichlen, DA, Gordon, AD, AZP Mabulla, FW Marlowe, and H Pontzer. 2014. Evidence of Lévy walk foraging patterns in human hunter–gatherers. PNAS 111:2, 728-733.

Wanner, IS, T Sierra Sosa, KW Alt, and VT Blos. 2007. Lifestyle, occupation, and whole bone morphology of the pre-Hispanic Maya coastal population from Xcambó, Yucatan, Mexico. IJO 17, 253-268.

Mythical Hybrids and Fantastic Beasts

By Gemma Angel, on 13 May 2013

Gemma Angelby Gemma Angel






I’m going to describe a creature, and you have to try and guess what it is, based on the following three clues: 1) it lays eggs; 2) it has venomous claws; and 3) it uses electroreception to assist it in catching prey under water. You probably guessed some sort of reptile, right? Wrong. Ok, so those questions were a bit tricky. I’ll give you another three clues: 4) it’s semi-aquatic; 5) it has thick fur; and 6) despite laying eggs, it suckles its young on milk. Some of you will probably have worked out what this mysterious animal is by now. I am, of course, describing Ornithorhynchus anatinus, or as it is more commonly known, the platypus.

Growing up in Australia, I was fascinated by the native wildlife. As a curious 7-year-old recently emigrated from England, I tried to assimilate the unfamiliar Antipodean fauna into my limited understanding of the animal kingdom, largely through approximations: To me, the wombat was like a kind of stout, snub-nosed badger; sugar gliders were reminiscent of squirrels; and the echidna was a larger and longer-nosed version of the hedgehog. Kangaroos were a more difficult species to accommodate, with a face similar to a deer, and the hind legs of some sort of giant Alice-in-Wonderlandesque rabbit. But my system completely fell down when it came to the platypus. This creature was truly weird, a kind of animal cut-and-paste that defied all of the categories that I tried to fit it into. As it turned out, I wasn’t alone in my estimations of this remarkable and unique creature.


Ornithornhynchus anatinus, John Gould (1863).

As an Australian native, the platypus has been known in Aboriginal culture for millennia – but it was not until 1797 that Europeans first encountered them. Captain John Hunter of the Royal Navy sent a pelt and a sketch back to Britain in 1798, [1] but the bizarre appearance of the creature baffled European naturalists. Some considered it to be an elaborate hoax, and Scottish zoologist Robert Knox believed the creature to be the work of an inventive Asian taxidermist. Even George Shaw, the first man to scientifically describe the platypus, admitted that “a degree of scepticism is not only pardonable, but laudable … I almost doubt the testimony of my own eyes.” [2]

Whilst it makes perfect sense that European observers would find the platypus strange, having never encountered anything like it in the Northern hemisphere outside of the bizarre chimerical creatures of mythology, it is perhaps more surprising that Aboriginal Dreamtime legends also describe the platypus as a peculiar exception within the animal realm. Known as the ‘mallangong’, tambreet’ or ‘duliawarung’ to local indigenous peoples, Aboriginal story-telling traditions use myth to explain the unique appearance and behavioural characteristics of the platypus. The platypus was believed to be the offspring of a mother duck and a father water rat, accounting for its unusual characteristics – inheriting the duck-bill, webbed feet and egg-laying abilities of their mother, and the thick fur, claws and four legs of their father. In an origin story of the platypus from Northern New South Wales, their poor mother Gaygar is ostracized by the other ducks because of her bizarre-looking hatchlings, and is forced to leave her home on Narran Lake. She takes her babies up into the Warrumbungle mountains, thereby accounting for why platypus are only found in particular regions. In another story from the New South Wales Central Coast, the animals argue amongst themselves about who is the most important creature. They form three exclusive groups, all convinced of their superiority: The animals with fur who can run across land, the birds who lay eggs, and the water creatures who can swim. All of the groups want the platypus to join them, since he shares characteristics with all of them, and each faction invites him to be part of their group. After thinking about this for some days, the platypus gathers all the animals to tell them his decision:

I don’t have to join anyone’s group to be special because I am special in my own way. Because I have fur and love to run across the land, I have a little bit of animal in me. I also have a little bit of bird in me because of my bill and the fact that my wife lays eggs. As well, I also have a bit of water creature in me because I love to swim and explore the underwater world. […] I don’t know why the ancestors have made us all different, but we must learn to accept these differences and live with each other. [3]

All of the animals listening, including people, agreed that the platypus was very wise; and the people decided that they would not hunt the platypus because he was so special. Non-human animal hybrids of Eurasian mythology have also often been considered special, such as the Griffin, which combined features of the lion and eagle, both of which were regarded as especially regal animals.

Animal-hybrids from diverse mythological traditions demonstrate the significance of animals within human culture, playing an important role in origin stories and cosmology, as well as in defining what it is to be human. In the Aboriginal story above for instance, the strange ‘hybrid’ character of the platypus reminds us to accept and learn from our differences. To early European observers, the platypus must have seemed like the ultimate foreign creature, an almost perfect embodiment of mythical animal-assemblages such as the Chimera, a fire-breathing, androgynous, composite creature of ancient Greek legend that had the head and body of a lion, a snake for a tail and the head of a goat emerging from its back. But the platypus does not merely look like an odd melding of different species; recent scientific research has revealed that the platypus also has a very complex genetic lineage. Studies on platypus venom, which is secreted from a gland in the male’s hind legs and delivered by a ‘spur’, or hollow claw-like structure, have shown that their venom contains 80 different toxins, which share genetic similarities to poisons produced by snakes, lizards, spiders, starfish and sea anenomes, as well as containing 3 proteins that are unique to the platypus. [4] Despite these genetic similarities, this research suggests that platypus venom is an example of convergent evolution, whereby similar traits in different genetic lineages can arise independently due to similar environmental pressures. The eye, wings and fins are all examples of convergent evolution. Thus it seems that whilst the platypus appears to closely resemble a range of other species – both on the surface and genetically – it is nevertheless a uniquely adapted and very special creature indeed.

Platypus taxidermy specimen at the Grant Museum of Zoology. © The Grant Museum, UCL.

Platypus taxidermy specimen at the Grant Museum of Zoology.
Photograph © The Grant Museum, UCL.



[1] Brian K. Hall, The Paradoxical Platypus in BioScience, Vol. 49 No. 3 (March 1999), p. 211. 

[2] George Shaw, The naturalist’s miscellany – Platypus Anatinus, June 1799, Vol. 10, published by Frederick P. Nodder, (London 1813/14). Available online from the Library of NSW.

[3] Helen F. McKay, Pauline E. Jones, F. Francis & June E. Barber: Gadi Mirrabooka: Australian Aboriginal Tales from the Dreaming. Libraries Unlimited (2001), pp. 57-60 & 83-85.

[4] Ewen Callaway, Poisonous Platypuses Confirm Convergent Evolution in Nature, (October 12th 2012).

From Delphi to the Dodo: Finding Links Between Archaeology and Natural History

By Gemma Angel, on 1 October 2012

by Felicity Winkley






Initially, my response to the challenge of finding a link between my research and the zoological specimens in the Grant Museum was one of dread and panic. Such a thing could simply not be done – it would be impossible to engage a member of the public for long enough to travel the conversational distance from a dissected Thylacine to British archaeology. On closer inspection, however, I was to find that the museum which houses Grant’s collection of some 67,000 zoological specimens, is not, in fact, dissimilar to those great anthropological collections that were also assembled during the 19th century. The shadowy corners and densely-packed glass cases are reminiscent, certainly, of those at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, where the shelves overflow with ethnological artefacts.

And yet the similarities go beyond the simply aesthetic. Both Robert Edmund Grant ( 1793-1874  – pictured left) and Lieutenant-General Augustus Pitt Rivers (1827-1900 – pictured below) were undoubtedly, if unconsciously, influenced by a long-established tradition of collecting in England, which since the 17th century had been a gentlemanly pursuit acceptable to the social elite [1]. Indeed, for ambitious scholars it was even a method of propelling oneself up the social charts. Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) was the son of a saddler, but with a good eye and some wily investing he was able to accumulate a collection that when bequeathed to Oxford University (along with its own custom-made premises), would provide a lasting legacy to maintain both the collection and his own prestige [1]. But Ashmole was only one of any number of ‘Antiquarians’ as these collectors were soon to become known; men who, for Sweet, “were important actors in that explosion of print and ideas, that thirst for knowledge and understanding with some have called the British Enlightenment” [2].

The rise of the antiquarian popularised the collection of all kinds of objects and artefacts, from coins and medals, to maps and even fossils; the over-arching motivation was simply a thirst for information about the past, and particularly information that was not provided by the historical record. This lack of concern for the ‘what’ that was being studied, often meant that focus was instead placed upon the ‘where’, so that authors would compile an in-depth study of the local parish or county – a regional framework which brought their work into obvious connection with natural historians compiling similar studies. The connection between antiquaries and natural historians was cemented further still by their agreement on epistemological models, and a sympathetic “culture of inquiry” according to Sweet [2].

In order to find a link between my own research and the Grant Museum collections, I determined to find out whether this undeniable spirit of discovery which so connected antiquarians and natural historians during the 17th and 18th century persisted into the 19th century also – and I was very happy to discover that it did. Whilst the methodology had been modernised into a recognisable early archaeology, and the investigative locations had moved from the local county to the more exotic, there was still an undeniable relationship between antiquarian and natural historical research. Just as the history of the local parish had been a relative unknown several hundred years previously, by the 19th century researchers had begun travelling further afield to collect archaeological information alongside samples of foreign flora and fauna. And this is where Darwin comes in.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) had studied under Robert Grant during the 1820s and was much influenced by his ideas; however, his focus was by no means limited to the comparative anatomical interest they both shared. Written records show that even later on in his career, Darwin was contributing to funding for voyages that would provide evidence for archaeological investigations as well as natural-historical studies. A trip, funded in part by the Royal Society (then The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge), to Borneo in 1878, had the archaeological aim of finding evidence for early human occupation, but plainly also had great implications for Darwin and his colleague Alfred Russell Wallace as a potential source for proving the evolution of anthropoid apes [3]. Wallace had already visited Borneo in 1855, where his observation of orangutans native only to that island and neighbouring Sumatra, prompted his composition of the very paper that would inspire Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Darwin pledged a sum of twenty pounds to the voyage [3]. Any discovery, whether made by an archaeologist, anatomist, collector or naturalist, was seen as a contribution to enlightenment. As testament to the limitless horizons of this quest for knowledge, signing off his letter, Darwin adds:

“I wish someone as energetic as yourself [John Evans] would organise an expedition to the triassic lacustrine beds in S. Africa, where the cliffs are said to be almost composed of bones.”

Evidently, he was already planning the next adventure! [3]


[1] Swann, M. (2001) Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

[2] Sweet, R. (2004) Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain London: Hambledon and London (pp. xiv)

[3] Sherratt, A. (2002) Darwin among the archaeologists: The John Evans nexus and the Borneo Caves Antiquity 76 pp.151-157