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Myths in the Museum: The Iron-Eater and the Ostrich Egg

Marianne JDatiles4 July 2019

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

The now-extinct Arabian ostrich, depicted in The Book of Animals, 1335. [Source: The Book of Animals of al-Jahiz, Syria]

The UCL Grant Museum of Zoology is currently undergoing a significant restructuring of its displays. The Grant Museum is the last of London’s university natural history museums and has amassed a fascinating collection — but only a fraction is on display. From a set of warthog and domesticated pig skulls now placed over the entranceway as part of the expanded comparative anatomy section, to a lost set of dodo bones found in a drawer in 2011, to the world’s rarest skeleton, the extinct quagga (think zebra with fewer stripes), the museum’s collection is vast. In the newly reorganised avian section, some exceptionally large bird eggs are neatly lined up like a mini hall of fame. And the largest (non-extinct) egg of all, of course, belongs to that famous 9-foot-tall marvel with legs strong enough to kill a lion in one blow, the OG kickstarter, the Ostrich.

At the Grant Museum of Zoology, you can compare the pale-coloured ostrich egg with other large birds’ eggs. The photo on the left shows the individual ostrich egg; the photo on the right shows the museum’s display, with the now-extinct elephant egg dwarfing the rest, and the ostrich egg next to it. [Left: UCL Grant Museum, Y134; Right: image by Jen Datiles]

As the largest living bird species in the world, the ostrich unsurprisingly lays massive eggs that have been valued by humans for millennia. But their value goes beyond serving as a royal dish for ancient pharaohs; across cultures, the ostrich egg has long possessed symbolic significance and associations with prosperity, truth, life, and rebirth. Evidence as early as the 4th millennium BCE reveals eggs were hollowed and intricately carved, used as perfume containers and drinking cups, and buried as part of ancient Egyptian funerary rituals. Eggshells were found in sites of the early cultures of Mesopotamia and Crete, and the use of eggshells as drinking vessels was continued by desert peoples until at least the late 20thcentury. Ostrich eggs were also, of course, highly valued for their nutritional intake, with a whopping 120g or so of protein per egg.

Left: A mosaic floor in the Byzantine Church of Petra, Jordan [Photo: Bernard Gagnon]; Right: A 15th-century ostrich egg with Arabic writing, describing the soul’s journey from death to life [Copyright University of Leeds. Source: Nature, 2002]

Ostrich eggs remained both spiritually and practically significant in the Greek and Roman worlds, where they were offered to deities and hung in temples as decorations or used as lamps. This association of ostrich eggs with sacred spaces carried over into Muslim and Christian practices. The ostrich, according to popular belief in the 2ndcentury BCE, the ostrich had the ability to make its eggs hatch by staring at them intensely rather than brooding, a trait that added to their significance as early Christian symbols of not only new life and rebirth, but also of single-mindedness, concentration, and determination. Pliny the Elder wrote on the ostrich’s mythical ability to eat iron and glass, which earned the bird a reputation as an iron-eater, and symbolized strength through resistance and hardship. In medieval and early modern Europe, the ostrich egg also came to symbolize the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.

Left: Ostrich eggs add both symbolism and splendor to the interior of the Lazarus Church in Cyprus. [Photo: Hannes Grobe/BHV]; Right: Piero della Francesca’s Brera Madona c. 1472, an altarpiece known for its pendant egg detail. [Source: Wiki Commons]

In the secular luxury trade of the 16-17th centuries, ostrich eggs became a subject of particular fascination for metalsmiths. Last week I oohed and ahhed my way through the famously fantastic Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Germany. Amongst all the royal treasures of gems, ivory, gold, and crystal, a wall of the Grünes Gewölb (Historic Green Vault) was devoted to some seriously decorated ostrich eggs. These specimens had been fashioned with gilt-silver into figurines, goblets, and drinking vessels that once adorned the feast tables and halls of Saxon princes. Talk about egg-cellent conversation pieces!

Left: Three ostriches, fashioned from eggs mounted in gilt-silver. Elias Geyer, c. 1595, in the Grünes Gewölbe, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden [Source: SKDresden Online Collection]; Right: An ostrich egg standing cup, c. 1570, from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Note the horseshoe in the ostrich’s beak — a reference to its mythical ability to eat iron [Source: Wiki Commons].

Ostrich eggs may also have use in modern medical research. Like all birds, ostriches pass on bacteria- and virus-fighting antibodies to their offspring through their yolk. Considering one ostrich egg contains as much yolk as about 24 chicken eggs, and one ostrich female can lay 50-100 eggs per year, a team of Japanese researchers have identified ostrich eggs as a promising source for developing drugs. Last October, they announced the commercial development of an ostrich antibody for dengue fever. The research is open to speculation, and still years away from clinical trials and regulatory approval, but our fascination large eggs continues!

Further reading:

Green, N. (2006) Ostrich Eggs and Peacock Feathers: Sacred Objects as Cultural Exchange between Christianity and Islam, Al-Masāq,18:1, 27-78, DOI: 10.1080/09503110500222328

“When gibbons sing, I know it will rain”

CarolynThompson13 May 2019

I started writing this blog post whilst sat in a half-deserted village high up in the Gaoligong mountains in China. Occupied by only 10 remaining elders who refused to leave their traditional lives behind, I had the privilege of staying here and immersing myself into daily life.

Gaoligong mountain village, Yunnan Province, China. © Carolyn Thompson

I am seated by myself as the morning sun blinds me as it peeps out from over the moss-covered tiled roofs. Two chickens are currently sneaking past me into the kitchen to morbidly watch their duck cousin be prepared for breakfast. They scream as my host shoos them away flapping her arms wildly.

The houses date back 50+ years and are made from old wood and bamboo harvested from the forest in the days before the nearby reserve was established. Mules are found on the ground floor of these dwellings with humans roosting above. As a result, night-time can be a very noisy affair!

I also experienced a huge storm at 3 am. I’ve slept through many tropical storms when I lived and worked in Indonesian Borneo, but this was something else. The walls rattled as the rain beat against it and droplets started to seep through and trickle down. I thought the storm would snatch the flimsy roof right off, but I am glad to report that all houses — and mules — were still standing when I woke up.

Typical village dwelling. © Carolyn Thompson

My PhD is all about understanding local nature and wildlife values, comparing gibbon (small ape) knowledge, and investigating patterns of natural resource use. I have spent the past few months collecting social data in the form of structured interviews and small group discussions with local communities in both Hainan and Yunnan provinces. To get the most candid answers, it is important to immerse yourself into local life.

I have drunk countless cups of green tea and bottles of “bai jiu” (lethal Chinese wine) as a result, been dressed up as a local Hei Lisu person, braved eating the 100-year old egg, and scoffed so many sunflower seeds that I am ready to sprout!

Adult female Skywalker Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing). © Fan Peng-Fei.

Before embarking on my PhD journey, I was given an antique book by Robert Van Gulik, a Dutchman fascinated by gibbons and their significance in Chinese culture. Published in 1967, “The Gibbon in China” is a magical collection of poems, stories and paintings dating back to 200 BC. Rich in its content, I was overwhelmed with the stories about “lonely”, “sad-looking” yet “magical” apes who sing haunting and melancholy songs in the Chinese mountains.

Taoists (those that believe in ancient nature-worship regarding the flow of “ch’i” energy in all living things) talked about gibbons being superior to humans. Gibbons were often referred to as “gentlemen” as discussed in my previous blog. Everyone loves good manners — bring a gibbon to meet the parents and they won’t be disappointed due to their impeccable “table manners” (unlike their mischievous macaque monkey cousins), according to an 8th-Century poet, Liu Tsung-Yuan. Their intelligence, supposedly similar to humans, is also regularly mentioned, especially when needing to drink water from a nearby river. Forming a chain by holding hands, gibbons would lower themselves down to the river. One should therefore never “…place a gibbon (Yuan-yu) in a barred cage [as] how could he then show his clever skills?” (4th Century statesman, Ch’u-tz’u).

Forming a “Gibbon Chain”. Nineteenth Century. Sourced from Van Gulik’s 1967 essay on “Gibbons in China”.

Having read this book from cover to cover, I was pumped to record rich gibbon stories during my field season. I was therefore incredibly shocked and disappointed to learn that many traditional stories have not been passed down through the generations.

China is made up of 56 different ethnic groups, all of which used to be rich in culture and history with traditional dress and sigils (both of which are now rarely seen). I interviewed participants from six of these ethnic groups and asked them questions regarding  the importance of gibbons and forests in their local culture. Participants either didn’t understand the question or they would say there is no connection.

I was relieved to hear that a few elders still have a tale or two to tell, especially when it comes to gibbons being able to predict the weather:

“When gibbons sing, I know it will rain tomorrow.” (Anonymous).

An elder in Hainan province told me about how gibbons came to be which involved a naughty, lazy boy who was scolded with an iron on his butt. He then sprouted hair and turned into a gibbon.

I also had a surprisingly funny interview with a 70-something year old man who used to work in Burma harvesting wood to sell back to the Chinese. He spoke about his love of gibbons…to eat! We spent most of our interview crying with laughter as his opinion was so far from my own. He kept insisting that gibbons were incredibly ugly and thought I was crazy because I felt they had aesthetic value.

An on-looker listening in to an interview whilst looking at gibbon photographs. © Yu Yue Jiang.

“Look at their ugly faces!” He would yell. “Ah, they taste so good! Such a shame the government won’t let me hunt them anymore.”

It is important when I conduct these interviews that I remain impartial. At the end of the day, my PhD is all about finding sustainable solutions for both humans and gibbons alike.

My favourite moment was with an 87-year old woman who heard that a “laowai” (foreigner) was staying in the village. Having never left her village or seen a Caucasian woman before, we had a very special, informal moment bonding over gibbons and discussing what life was like during her youth — and what life was like now.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bu6JKNjAWA8/

Although I am still at the start of my PhD journey, I have teamed up with a local non-governmental organisation called Cloud Mountain, who carry out conservation education activities. We hope to work together to reintroduce some of these traditional gibbon stories back into these villages. With only 28 Hainan gibbons, 150 Skywalker Hoolock gibbons and 110 Cao Vit gibbons remaining (my three study species), hopefully we can remind people of their magical, shared history and raise the profile of these forgotten apes before it is too late.

If you would like to follow my PhD journey, you can do so here: Personal blog, Twitter, Instagram. Or come and meet me in the UCL Grant or Petrie museums next month!

Famous Butts of the Animal World: The Okapi

Sarah MGibbs10 December 2018

Jungle-politan’s Senior Relationships and Lifestyle Correspondent, Sarah Serengeti, examines pressing posterior issues.

Hey there, all you sassy Jungle ladies! Sarah Serengeti here. Now, as you may have learned from a few little posts on my Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter (retweeted thirty-seven times!), and Snapchat accounts, I was recently voted Best Lifestyle Columnist (Four-Legged and Flightless Bird Division) at the annual Savannah Magazine Awards. But I don’t want my readers to worry that my fame will make me rest on my laurels (or, you know, just eat a celebratory antelope and then sleep for three days). No, this award has spurred me on to pursue solutions to challenging reader dilemmas. Hence, my recent memorable columns: “So You’re Dating Your Natural Predator: Tips to Enjoy Times with the Bad Boys” and “Dying Your Pelt: How to Find the Best Spots and Stripes Stylists.” This month, I take on an even more pressing issue: butts.

Ever since Pippa Tiger-ton slunk her way into the jungle, the watering hole chatter has been all about generous backsides. How to get them? How to maintain them? Will they throw off your balance so much that you nosedive trying to swing through the canopy? To find answers, I’ve started a new series, “Famous Butts of the Animal World.” These interviews will get the facts direct from the horse’s (or baboon’s or thylacine’s) mouth. First up, we’ll be talking to a fierce four-legger: the Okapi.

The Okapi (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Sarah: Welcome, Miss Okapi.

Okapi: Uh, thanks. You can call me “Oki.”

Sarah: Okie-dokie, Oki! Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

Okapi: Um, I guess, but I’m a bit of a shy animal.

Sarah: Well, we all feel a little invisible sometimes.

Okapi: Actually, I’m way invisible. I live deep in the Ituri rainforest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and have keen hearing that lets me detect any stumbling two-footers (humans) long before they see me. I wasn’t even known to science until 1900.

Sarah: Wow! You’re like a hoofed ninja!

Okapi: True dat. And I’m really not a people person. Okapis are solitary animals.

Sarah: Well, I don’t want to get too personal, but I hear you have a famous relative: the giraffe.

Okapi: Yeah, he’s pretty popular. The ladies love a tall guy.

Sarah: Was it difficult to grow up with such a well-known family member?

Okapi: Living in his shadow wasn’t easy. I mean, it’s huge. The dude is two stories tall. It doesn’t help that we have similar heads and ears, and the same long, prehensile tongues. I’ve been asked a lot of times whether I’m a giraffe standing in a hole.

Okapi Calf at the San Diego Zoo.

Sarah: Oki, let’s talk brass tacks. What about that butt?

Okapi: Well, you know, I was really self-conscious about it growing up. I felt that people were staring at it. Which they were, because it’s covered with stripes. The rest of my fur is dark purple or reddish brown, and feels like velvet. And it’s oily to allow water to roll off. Then suddenly, BAM! Butt stripes! One day my mom finally said to me, “It’s unique. It’s you. It’s time you owned that booty!” And she was right. That day, I strutted through the Ituri.

Sarah: Work it, girl!

Okapi: My butt is actually the reason I survive. The markings are great camouflage in the diffuse light of the rainforest, and they help okapis find each other as well. That, and the scent glands. Each of our feet secrets a tar-like substance that marks where we’ve walked. It means if you’re lost in the rainforest department store, you can always find your mom.

Sarah: Any parting words for our readers, Oki?

Okapi: Make sure you love that junk in your trunk!

Sarah: Oh, what a lovely—she gone! She really is a hoofed ninja! Well, until next time, readers, keep it furry and fabulous!

Come see the Okapi at UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology!

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

Cerys RJones25 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.

Consanguinity and Incest in Ancient Egypt

AlexandraBridarolli16 August 2018

My curiosity was piqued during one of my turns at the Petrie Museum. Facing all these artefacts, traces of dynasties of pharaohs, I was suddenly reminded of the stories of incest and marriages between brother and sister which were common in ancient Egypt among the ruling class. More recently, the topic was brought up again by another visitor. I was then told about Akhenaton’s androgynous appearance that could have been a result of the incestuous practices of the time. This practice seems to be a common thing and these stories made me immediately think of the Greek and Roman gods and their intricate family-love relationships. With this thought came then one question: why would pharaohs marry their sister, mother and other relatives? To act as living gods? To preserve the purity of their blood?

Fig. 1: Limestone statuette of Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Princess (Tell el Amarna). [Petrie museum, UC004]

Many others questions followed: If incest was accepted in ancient Egypt among the ruling class, was it tolerated by the whole population? What makes it unacceptable in Western countries today? Health? Morality? Are marriages among siblings and/or first cousins still allowed nowadays in some countries? And what are actually the risks of incestuous relations?

From ancient Egypt to the Habsburg family in Europe, throughout history cases of consanguinity — mainly among members of the ruling classes — are numerous. It is surprising that the practice continued for as long as it has when religious and civil laws started to forbid it and when the risks associated to this practice started to be known; from the 5th century BCE, Roman civil law already forbade couples from marrying if they were within four degrees of consanguinity (Bouchard 2010). From the half of the 9th century CE, the church even raised this limit to the seventh degree of consanguinity and the method of calculating degrees was also changed. More recently, modern philosophers and thinkers argued that the prohibition against incest was a universal phenomenon, the so-called incest taboo . But this theory seems contestable in view of the Egyptian case.

So why is it that incest was accepted and practised in ancient Egypt and more recently among members of the royal family such as the Habsburg (16th-18th century)? And how did science shed the lights on family relationships, incestuous practices and the diseases resulting from them?

Let’s first take the case of the 18th dynasty, the first dynasty of the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt.

Incest in Ancient Egypt: the case of the 18th Dynasty

There is an abundance of evidence showing that marriages or sexual relations between members of the “nuclear family“ (i.e. parents, children) were common among royalty or special classes of priests since they were the representatives of divine on Earth. They were often privileged to do what was forbidden to members of the ordinary family. During the Ptolemaic period (305 to 30 BCE) the practice was even used by King Ptolemy II as “a major theme of propaganda, stressing the nature of the couple, which could not be bound by ordinary rules of humanity” (Chauveau, M.).

Fig. 2: Alabaster sunken relief depicting Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and daughter Meritaten. Early Aten cartouches on king’s arm and chest. From Amarna, Egypt. 18th Dynasty. [Petrie Museum, UC401]

But let’s go back to the 18th dynasty (1549/1550 BCE to 1292 BCE). In 2010, a team of Egyptian and German researchers analysed 11 mummies dated from the 18th dynasty which were closely related to Tutankhamun (Hawass, Zahi, et al.). The mummies were scanned and DNA extraction on bone tissues was carried out. The information they could get from these analyses enabled them to identify the mummies, determine the exact relationships between members of the royal family, and to speculate on possible illnesses and causes of death.

The results of the DNA analyses show that Tutankhamun was, beyond doubt, the child born from a first-degree brother-sister relationship between Akhenaten and Akhenaten’s sister (see Fig. 3). Moreover, the authors provided an answer to the androgynous appearance of Akhenaten. They actually showed that the feminized appearance exhibited by the art of the pharaoh Akhenaten (also seen to a lesser degree in the statues and reliefs of Tutankhamun) was not related to some form of gynecomastia or Marfan syndrome as suggested in the past. Neither Akhenaten nor Tutankhamun were likely to have displayed a significantly bizarre or feminine physique. The particular artistic representation of persons in the Amarna period is more probably related to the religious reforms of Akhenaten.

However, the incestuous relationship between Akhenaten and his sister may have had other consequences. Pharaoh Tutankhamun suffered from congenital equinovarus deformity (also called ‘clubfoot’). The tomography scans of Tutankhamun’s mummy also revealed that the Pharaoh had a bone necrosis for quite a long time, which might have caused a walking disability. This was supported by the objects found next to his mummy. Did you know that 130 sticks and staves were found in its tomb?

Fig. 3: Genealogical tree showing the relationship between the tested mummies dating from the 18th dynasty (Source: Hawass, Zahi, et al.).

 

Fig. 4: Scans of Tutankhamun feet (Hawass, Zahi, et al.)

 

Incest and common people

This article on consanguinity and incestuous marriages could easily finish here. We learned that incest was practised in ancient Egypt for strategic reasons, in order to preserve the symbolism which associates the pharaoh to a living god. We also saw how science could help us in unravelling the true stories lying behind myths, speculations and rumours.

This could be almost perfect but the incest taboo is more complex than this. As observed by Paul John Frandsen, “in a society (such as ancient Egypt) where nuclear family incest is practised there is no discrepancy between what is licit among royalty and in the populace”. Indeed, contrary to what is often admitted incest was not only reserved to the ruling class. In Persia and ancient Egypt, incestuous relationships between members of non-royal nuclear families also existed (Frandsen P. J.). This shows that incestuous relationship in the nuclear family could be more than just propaganda and that other reasons might have motivated this practice. It has been argued that this was done for economic reasons as endogamy could have been a means to keep the estate undivided and/or avoiding paying bride price. However, these arguments have been dismissed. Up till now, there is thus no reasonable explanation for the lack of incest taboo in ancient Egypt and Persia.

Keep an eye out for my next post, where I’ll talk about incest in the Habsburg royal family and King Charles II of Spain (also called “the Bewitched”)!

 

References (and read more!)

Bouchard, Constance Brittain. Those of My Blood : Creating Noble Families in Medieval Francia. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Chauveau, Michel.MmNm. Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra : History and Society under the Ptolemies. Cornell University Press, 2000.

Hawass, Zahi, et al. “Ancestry and Pathology in King Tutankhamun’s Family.” JAMA, vol. 303, no. 7, 2010, pp. 638–647.

Frandsen, Paul John,MmNm. Incestuous and Close-Kin Marriage in Ancient Egypt and Persia : an Examination of the Evidence. Museum Tusculanum Press, 2009.

 

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….

A post shared by Mark (@mark_v_k_) on

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”.

Summer Lovin’: Why You Need a Pachyderm Paramour

Sarah MGibbs23 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.

Myths in the Museum: The Dugong and the Mermaid

Marianne JDatiles21 July 2018

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

The dugong skeleton making waves (Grant Museum, Z33)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Not a mermaid. (Photo: Julien Willem)

Additional Reading:

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

 

Jewels of an Ancient Civilization

Julia RDeathridge1 March 2018

Whenever I’m in the Petrie Museum I’m always drawn to the jewellery. This is because a) much like a magpie my attention is easily attracted to shiny pretty objects, and b) I would actually wear a lot of the pieces on display, probably to some future fancy event that I’ll one day attend post PhD life. So I decided to do a little research on the history of jewellery in ancient Egypt and pick out my favourite pieces from the collection.

Gold wide collar necklace, dynasty 18. From the tomb of the three minor wives of Thutmose III. CC BY-NC 2.0 © Peter Roan

The rise of extravagant jewellery

As far back as the Stone Age, our ancestors have been decorating themselves in jewellery. Originally these were just simple pieces crafted from easily available resources such as seashells, bone and animal skins. However, the ancient Egyptians had other ideas, and they would go on to create trends and styles of jewellery that would live on to this day.

The discovery of gold in ancient Egypt, along with the use of precious gems, resulted in the creation of highly lavish jewellery pieces that epitomised the luxury culture of nobles and royals. As technology advanced and materials became more readily available, the popularity and extravagance of jewellery also increased, making it one of the most desirable trade items of the ancient world.

Jewellery and religion

Jewellery was extremely popular in ancient Egypt. Everyone wore it, whether they were male, female, rich or poor. But jewellery was not just about adorning oneself with pretty gems; it also acted as symbol of status and was steeped in religious beliefs.

Small charms, known as amulets, were of particular religious importance to ancient Egyptians. They believed that these charms had magical powers of protection and healing, and would bestow good fortune to the wearer. Much like charm bracelets today, these charms were commonly worn as part of a necklace or bracelet, and the shape or symbol of the amulet would specify a particular meaning or power.

Violet faience scarab bead (Petrie Museum: UC1367)

Jewellery offered magical powers to the dead as well as the living, and ancient Egyptians were often buried wearing their prized jewels. One of the most common amulets to be buried with was the scarab, as it symbolised rebirth and would ensure reincarnation to the next level.

 Materials and metals

The materials that a jewellery piece was made out of acted as an indicator for social class. Nobles would wear jewellery made up of gold and precious gems, and others would wear jewellery made from copper, colourful stones and rocks.

Gold was the most commonly used precious metal, due to its availability in Egypt at the time and its softness, which made it the perfect material for establishing elaborate intricate designs. Moreover, the non-tarnishing properties of gold added to the magical prowess of the metal, leading ancient Egyptians to believe that it was the ‘flesh of the gods’.

Another regularly used material was the semi-precious stone Lapis Lazuli. The deep blue colour of Lapis Lazuli symbolised honour, royalty, wisdom and truth. Other prized stones included obsidian, garnet, rock crystal and carnelian, pearls and emeralds. However, artificial more affordable versions of these precious gems were also crafted, and commonly worn by the lower classes. Much like the fake diamonds and pearls of today, these artificial gemstones were practically indistinguishable from the real thing.

I want that jewellery!

So now we’ve had a little history. Lets get on to the important stuff – which pieces of jewellery I would most like to wear!

First, lets start with the earrings. It wasn’t actually until King Tutankhamen that earrings became a popular jewellery item among ancient Egyptians. The style and use of earrings is likely to have been brought over from western Africa. My favourite earrings are these beautiful hoops, which would not look out of place on stall in a Brick Lane market!

 

Another piece that would nicely fit into my jewellery collection is a string of faience cat amulets. Firstly, it will go brilliantly with all my other cat jewellery. Secondly, cats were highly regarded in ancient Egypt and these cat amulets would likely to have been of great importance to the owner.

 

Faience, turquoise glaze, sting of cat amulets (Petrie Museum: UC37170)

 

Finally, the ultimate extravagant piece from the collection that I would love to own, is this wide collar necklace, which was likely to have been worn by Akhenaten, Tutankhamen’s father. Each bead was excavated separately and the design of the necklace was reconstructed for the Petrie collection. Additionally, conservation revealed a turquoise bead (11th from the right) to have a cartouche of Tutankhamun. When you’re next in the Petrie, see if you can spot it!

 

Reconstructed bead necklace. Armana period (Petrie Museum: UC1957)

 

Time and Astronomy in the Petrie Museum

Hannah LWills9 February 2018

During a recent shift at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, I was asked by one visitor, ‘what’s your favourite object in the museum?’. As anyone who has visited the Petrie Museum will know, there is no shortage of fascinating objects on display, from the museum’s 12th dynasty pottery rat-trap, to the amazing Hawara mummy portraits (naming but two of my go-to favourites when showing visitors around the collection). However, the object I find most interesting within the museum’s collection is a small artefact found in one of the cabinets in the museum’s pottery room, in and amongst a group of objects dating from the Ottoman period (1517 – 1914 CE). The object is identified on its label as ‘UC4108 Wooden astrolabe with brass dial. Probably made for teaching purposes rather than use’. From the moment I first spotted the object I was intrigued. What exactly is an astrolabe, and how would it have been used?

Wooden Astrolabe (UC4108), displayed with its handwritten museum label (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

The Petrie Museum’s astrolabe (UC4108), displayed with a group of objects from the Ottoman Period (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

 

What is an astrolabe?

An astrolabe is a kind of scientific instrument, used to calculate the time and to make observations, such as the height of the Sun and stars with respect to the horizon or meridian.[i] In the Islamic world, astrolabes served an important function in determining prayer times, and the direction of Mecca.[ii] Such instruments date back to ancient times and were used to reveal how the sky looks from a specific place at a specific time. The face of the astrolabe features a map of the sky, with the celestial sphere mapped onto a flat surface. The instrument features moveable parts that allow the user to set date and time. When this is done, the face of the instrument represents the sky, allowing the user to solve astronomical problems visually.[iii]

Teaching astronomy 

Though many astrolabes used in the medieval period were made from either brass or iron, the Petrie Museum’s astrolabe is made from wood, with a brass dial, known as the ‘rete’ (in Arabic al-‘ankabūt), affixed to the top.[iv] The museum’s catalogue suggests that the object is ‘too crudely made for any practical purpose other than teaching’.[v] Historian Johannes Thomann notes that in the Islamic world from around the mid-eighth century onwards, the main function of the astrolabe was as a tool for teaching introductory astronomy, supported by texts written in an instructional style that explained the use of key astronomical instruments.[vi] The ‘crude’ finish of the Petrie Museum astrolabe, along with its size, would have made it imprecise, and ultimately unfit for carrying out practical calculations. The instrument might instead have been used for basic exercises to familiarise pupils with astronomy, and the process of making observations.

 

To find out more about how astrolabes work, you can watch this short TED talk, “Tom Wujec Demos the 13th-Century Astrolabe.” New York: TED, 2009.

 

Do you have a favourite object in any of the UCL museums? Tweet us @ResearchEngager or find us in the museums and tell us about it!

 

 

References:

[i] ‘Astrolabe’,  in Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/science/astrolabe-instrument [Accessed 8 Feb 2018].

[ii] Unit 4: Science and the Art of the Islamic World, in Maryam D. Ekhtiar and Claire Moore, Art of the Islamic World: A Resource for Educators, https://www.metmuseum.org/learn/educators/curriculum-resources/art-of-the-islamic-world [Accessed 8 Feb 2018], p. 94.

[iii] ‘The Astrolabe: An Instrument with a Past and Future’, http://www.astrolabes.org/ [Accessed 8 Feb 2018].

[iv] Sonja Brentjes and Robert G. Morrison ‘The Sciences in Islamic societies (750-1800)’, in Robert Irwin, ed. The New Cambridge History of Islam. Vol. 4. The New Cambridge History of Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 596.

[v] UC4108 Wooden Astrolabe, Petrie Museum Online Catalogue, http://petriecat.museums.ucl.ac.uk/detail.aspx [Accessed 8 Feb 2018].

[vi] ‘Interviews with the Experts’, Charles Burnett interview with Johannes Thomann, Astrolabes in Medieval Jewish Culture, 5 March 2014, http://blogs.mhs.ox.ac.uk/hebrew-astrolabes/2014/03/05/interviews-experts/ [Accessed 8 Feb 2018].