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Summer Lovin’: Why You Need a Pachyderm Paramour

By Sarah M Gibbs, on 23 July 2018

Here’s a special issue of Jungle-politan by our Senior Relationships Correspondent, Sarah Serengeti.

Hey there, Savannah Sisters. I don’t know about you, but when the temperature climbs, the first thing I think about (other than how to avoid crocodile attacks at ever-shrinking watering holes—those cheeky devils!) is summer love. But today’s confusing dating environment often leaves a girl with more questions than answers. Should you go Dutch on that leg of antelope? When is the right time to let him challenge your pack alpha? Is he really that buff, or is he just distending his salivary glands to impress you? Maybe you’re sold on the chimp’s personality. A man who can juggle? What’s not to like? Or perhaps you think the sloth would be your ideal “Netflix-and-Chill” partner. For some ladies, it’s the handyman—the industrious beaver has raised more than a few heart rates—while others live for the bad boy, lone-wolf wolf. But let me tell you from experience, he may hold your paw while you get that full moon tattoo, but he’ll have split long before the ink dries.

That’s why I’m pursuing a new type of man, one with a feature that just can’t be beat: a giant heart. That’s right, girls. This week’s column is dedicated to the African elephant, and let me assure you, the world’s largest land mammal is one of the few tall men whose parts are proportionate. Don’t believe me? Drop by UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology, where the preserved heart below in on display.

Elephant Heart (Grant Museum, Z639)

Who doesn’t want a partner whose heart weighs in at a mighty 20 to 30 kilograms? That’s a titanic ticker! It’s ten times as heavy as that purse dog you lost when Nigel the Anaconda got peckish on Fireworks Night. And who better to comfort you in your chihuahua bereavement than someone who will save each of his thirty beats per minute for you? Not to mention that elephant societies are matriarchal. This man will not be threatened by a powerful woman. Career girls, rejoice!

But maybe you’re not convinced. To win you over to Party Pachyderm, Encyclopedia Britannica and I have collected a few more elephant facts that are going to knock your hoof warmers off. Read on for more delightful details about the Stud of the Serengeti.

1. Forgot the snacks on the counter? No problem! Your date has a handy dandy trunk, or proboscis, a hybrid upper lip and nose unique to members of Proboscidea, a group that used to count more than 160 species (including mastodons) as members. With a load capacity of 250 kg, your squeeze can grab the crisps, drinks, and even the kitchen table while you recline on the sofa.

Elephant Trunk (Photo: Eco Images. Britannica Images)

2. Need to fell a tree on your property during spring clean-up? Lucky for you, elephants have been used as draft animals in Asia for centuries. Your pachyderm partner can uproot and carry off that endangered heirloom chestnut before you’ve even had time to water the perennials.

3. Tired of waiting for the bathroom? Your elephant love will never keep you idling outside the loo on a busy morning. Mature elephants have only four permanent teeth. Brushing and flossing is complete before you can say “Tusk-Whitening Toothpaste.” Speaking of tusks, talk about some useful enlarged incisor teeth! In addition to protecting the trunk, tusks help elephants dig water holes, lift objects, gather food, and strip bark from trees. And you’ll never feel afraid in that dodgy biker bar with your elephant by your side, as tusks are also super useful for defense.

African Elephant Skull with two visible teeth. (Grant Museum, Z764)

4. Wondering if he’ll remember your anniversary? Well, ladies, the adage is true: an elephant never forgets. How else would groups manage seasonal migrations to food and water? If that elephant can remember the location of water sources along lengthy migration routes, he’ll never buy tickets for the footie on your nine-month anniversary and then try and fob you off with an Arsenal beer cozy.

So next time you’re tearing your fur out waiting for a text from Mr. “You’re-such-a-pretty-prey-animal-you-make-me-want-to-go-vegan,” take a glance across the watering hole to that bulky bloke consuming his required 100 litres per day. You might just be looking at the elephant love of your life.

The Invisible Glow of Egyptian Blue

By Cerys R Jones, on 20 July 2018

If you were to visit the Petrie Museum with infrared vision, you would probably be drawn to wildly different parts of the collection than you would normally. Certain artefacts would appear to glow before your eyes. This is because of the inventively-named pigment Egyptian blue, which, as the name tells you, is a blue pigment that was commonly used in Egypt. However, Egyptian blue has a special property that makes it stand out from the rest: when illuminated in visible light, it fluoresces infrared light. If you could see infrared light, you would see all of the artefacts that contain this pigment glowing. I haven’t yet evolved to have this special power, but I have a camera that does. This is a multispectral imaging system and is what my PhD research is focused on. Multispectral imaging involves capturing images of objects that are illuminated in ultraviolet, visible and infrared light to reveal features that cannot be detected by the human eye alone.

Last November, I captured multispectral images of this Egyptian mummy mask from the Petrie Mmuseum. In the Petrie catalogue, it is described as a “linen-based cartonnage mask, painted with blue headcloth, white face, black brows, eye-borders and pupils, and red-edged yellow band around face.” This mummy mask would have placed over the mummified body to protect the deceased in the afterlife. The Petrie has several mummy masks in the collection, including some that are gilded with gold.

Late period cartonnage mask (Petrie Museum, 55084)

The mask was illuminated in visible light and an infrared filter was placed in front of the camera lens. This meant that only infrared light was able to pass through the lens and be captured by the camera. The resulting image is below. The blue headcloth appears brightly in the image, indicating that it is painted in Egyptian blue. We were also able to confirm that the little fragment of mask in the vial was also from the headpiece, as this also fluoresced.

The cartonnage mask illuminated in visible light (left) and captured with an infrared filter (right). (Photo: Cerys Jones)

When you search Egyptian blue in the Petrie catalogue, 194 results appear ranging from Egyptian blue scarab beetles to plaster with hieroglyphs written in Egyptian blue paint. Two of my favourite items from the collection are the Egyptian blue hippopotamus and the Egyptian blue paste amulet of a lion-headed goddess. The hippopotamus represents Taweret, the Ancient Egyptian goddess of childbirth and fertility. The lion-headed goddess is probably Bastet, the goddess of warfare in Lower Egypt .

Left, hippopotamus in Egyptian blue pigment (Petrie Museum, 6489) and right, Egyptian blue paste lion-headed amulet (Petrie Museum, 52875).

Next time you visit an Egyptian museum, keep your eyes out for any artefacts that are painted in Egyptian Blue that are glowing unbeknown to your eyes!

What is the relationship between frogs and fertility?

By Hannah B Page, on 10 July 2018

During my first few weeks as a student engager I began to notice the presence of frogs… everywhere. I saw them in various forms and objects in the Petrie Museum, and found frog and other amphibious specimens in the Grant Museum. The Surinam toad quickly became one of my favourite objects to show visitors—the female stores her eggs in her back, and they then burst through the skin when fertilised (Fig 1.). As you can imagine, when you tell people this, you get a mixed response. I took this all as a sign and decided I should do a bit of splashing around in the amphibian research pool and dedicate my first blog post to them.

Fig 1 Surinam Toad with emergent young (Grant Museum W332)

What became immediately obvious when I started to do some digging is just how common frogs are in cultural and religious belief systems. Frogs are used as characters in folk law and in fairy tales—just think of the frog prince in the Grimm stories—but I discovered that their use in religion and culture goes back much, much further. Both the ancient Egyptians and the Mesopotamians saw the frog as a symbol of fertility and life giving. This connection is obvious when you understand the importance these past civilisations gave to the rivers that flowed through their lands. The Nile, Tigris and Euphrates rivers are hailed as the facilitators of the fertile lands that made the development of the first major cities and the centralised hierarchical societies that lived there possible. So the frog, as a watery symbol of the life-giving waters, was then depicted in reliefs, sculpture and objects. One such object is a beautifully crafted, smooth limestone frog in the Petrie Museum (Fig. 2). In fact, frogs are such a strong and consistent symbol in ancient Egyptian culture that they are found depicted in important and specialist objects from the predynastic Naqada periods to the Roman period—some 4,500 years.

Fig 2 Limestone frog from Meroe in the (UCL Petrie Museum, UC.43984)

The Egyptians even depicted a goddess, Haqet, in the image of a frog. Unsurprisingly Haqet is the goddess of fertility and is often depicted either as a frog or in human form with the head of a frog. Amulets were then fashioned in the shape of frogs/Haqet, and were worn, providing fertility to the wearer.

Frogs have also been the subjects of art in other areas of the world as well, for example for the Moche culture of Peru (Fig. 3). The frog species found in the Amazon basin are the most numerous and some of the most deadly, including the poison dart frog who has enough deadly toxin to kill between ten and twenty grown people. Interestingly enough, in Moche society they were also associated with fertility and growth, but with their toxicity (and sometimes hallucinogenic quality), it is thought that their symbolic meaning stretches far beyond this interpretation.

Fig 3 Moche Frog stirrup spout bottle (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992.60.8)

However in Europe, frogs and toads haven’t always been seen in such a positive light. The prince in the frog prince was cursed and turned into a frog as punishment, and in the epic biblical poem Paradise Lost, John Milton depicts Satan as a toad poisoning Eve.

So, their social and symbolic importance is well recorded, but what about their biological history? For this I interrogated the case in the Grant Museum dedicated to them. Frogs and toads it seems started life in the Triassic period, some 240 million years ago. The museum even has a cast of an early German species (Palaeobatrachus) that lived around 130-5 million years ago. What is also striking about the frog is its wide native distribution across the globe, from Europe, to the Americas, Africa to Australasia. So it is unsurprising that these springy species have such an important and consistent cultural presence worldwide.

Finally in my research I discovered that the study of the relationship between human culture and amphibians even has a name: ethnoherpetology. Clearly we have a long and intimate history with our croaky friends.

So next time you’re close by, why not hop into the Grant or the Petrie Museum to see how many frogs you can find?

Introducing the new Student Engagers!

By Arendse I Lund, on 1 May 2018

We have a new cohort of Student Engagers joining the team! We are incredibly pleased to welcome eight new PhD students working on everything from George Orwell to gibbon decline. Starting this month, you can look for them in the UCL Art Museum, Grant Museum of Zoology, and Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. You can also read a little about them and their research in their own words below.

Alexandra Bridarolli:

I am a 2nd year PhD student at Eastman Dental Institute at UCL in London. I am also part of SEAHA, the centre for doctoral training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology, a research centre also based at UCL bringing together other PhD students promoting heritage science in research. My background is in chemistry and I have a strong interest in material science. I have always been fascinated by the detective work carried out by scientists working on art objects, studying the materials they are made of, their stability, their properties.

My current research explores the use of innovative nanoparticles of cellulose for the consolidation of the canvas of modern paintings. These treatments could offer an alternative to current practices and materials in use in conservation which are known to put paintings at risks. This research greatly benefits from a close collaboration with painting conservators across Europe.

Mark Kearney:

I am a 2nd year PhD student based at the SEAHA CDT in the Institute of Sustainable Heritage. My research is concerned with the decay of plastic objects of art and design. Contrary to popular belief, many plastics do not last forever, with some suffering rapid and often catastrophic decay patterns within the first 20 – 50 years of acquisition. As plastics have been one of the most important materials of the modern era, they now form central parts of museum’s collections.

My project will exploit the information gained from the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are naturally emitted from plastics objects with the aim to detect and monitor their decay museum environments. I will work with Tate museums to study their sculpture collection, looking at cellulose acetate works of art, a polymer known to be problematic within museums.

Anna Pokorska:

I am a second year PhD student at the Institute for Sustainable Heritage and SEAHA-CDT (Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology Centre for Doctoral Training). My research project is focused on the stability of modern synthetic and semi-synthetic materials to visible light and is carried out at in association with the V&A museum and Philips.

“Modern” materials such as plastics are a very important part of modern and contemporary art and design as well as social history collections from the 20th century. From high-profile artworks destined for a life in a gallery to everyday objects meant to be disposed of, more and more of plastic objects can be found in heritage institutions. However, our knowledge of their light sensitivity from a heritage perspective as well as the guidelines for their display and preservation are still limited. The project will, therefore, investigate the light stability of plastics to understand whether and how their light degradation is spectrally dependent. This will be done using visible radiation only as it would normally be in a museum or gallery environment.

Hannah Page:

I am a fourth year part-time PhD student in the Archaeology department. My thesis focuses on sociocultural and political organisation and change in the early 2nd millennium AD in Uganda. My 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. I am also active in running excavations and coordinating field schools and outreach events in the UK and sub-saharan Africa.

Sarah Gibbs:

I completed an MA in English at Queen’s University and a Master of Library and Information Studies (MLIS) degree at McGill University in Canada. My doctoral dissertation at UCL focuses on George Orwell’s epistemology. My research combines concepts and methodologies from literary scholarship, philosophy, and library and information studies to discern how the ‘Tory-Anarchist-Turned-Socialist’ author of Nineteen Eighty-Four conceived of the relationship between knowledge and power, and what tools his epistemology offers to address current political realities.

Cerys Jones:

Multispectral imaging involves capturing images of an object illuminated in ultraviolet, visible and infrared light, in order to reveal features, such as faded text and underdrawings, that cannot be seen by the naked eye. My PhD research will optimise the workflow of multispectral imaging of heritage artefacts to enable heritage practitioners to capture and process images of their own collections without the need for a specialist imaging scientist.

 

Caz Thompson:

I am a PhD student studying the patterns and drivers of gibbon decline in China and Myanmar. Gibbons are the smallest of the apes known for their ability to sing and move gracefully through the trees. Nineteen of the twenty known species are on the brink of extinction, yet in the shadow of their great ape cousins, gibbons receive less funding and research attention. By adopting an interdisciplinary approach, involving both biological and social sciences, I aim to understand the relationship between co-existing humans and gibbons. I currently focus on two species threatened by habitat loss and hunting: the Hainan gibbon, which is the rarest primate in the world with only 26 individuals, and the newly discovered Skywalker Hoolock gibbon with only 200 individuals remaining.

Jen Datiles:

I am 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, my research aims to link historical documentation with modern use-knowledge of traditional food-medicines through fieldwork and work in various archives and herbaria.

 

Welcome to the team!

An Afternoon with Materials & Objects

By Arendse I Lund, on 25 May 2017

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

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

The  Vercelli Book and Vercelli Cross

The Vercelli Book and Vercelli Cross

 

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

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

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

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

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