Fossil Unicorn found in Cambridge Museum!

‘Unicornu Fossile-Canstadiense’ fragments of mammoth tusk

Unicornu Fossile-Canstadiense’ fragments of mammoth tusk

Dan Pemberton, Collections Manager at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, writes:

Well not quite – unicorns are of course mythical beasts; however one of the specimens being prepared for an exhibition at Two Temple Place, London is described as ”Unicornu Fossile-Canstadiense” (fossil unicorn of Konstanz?). The specimen is in fact several fragments of fossil tusk, probably from a mammoth.  This is just one of the fascinating specimens in the collection of Dr John Woodward, the founding collection of the Sedgwick Museum that was assembled between 1688 and 1728.  This particular specimen was sent to Woodward by Johan Jakob Scheuchzer (1672-1733) a Zurich physician, now famous for his ‘Homo diluvii testis’ a fossil giant salamander he thought was the skeleton of a human killed during the biblical flood.

Woodwardian Collection Drawer B-17 ‘Recent bodies’

Woodwardian Collection
Drawer B-17 ‘Recent bodies’

Woodwardian Collection Drawer E-27 ‘Bones, Teeth &c of fishes’

Woodwardian Collection
Drawer E-27 ‘Bones, Teeth &c of fishes’

Two drawers of specimens have been chosen from Woodward’s collection as part of the Sedgwick Museum’s contribution to the University of Cambridge Museums’ (UCM) joint exhibition ‘Discoveries’ to be held at Two Temple Place January 31st to April 27th 2014. One drawer contains the bones and teeth of  recent animals and fish alongside fir-cones and the shells and spines of sea-urchins.  The other contains the bones and teeth  of fossil animals and fish.  These drawers were chosen because they relate to one of the most hotly contested scientific debates of Woodward’s time: whether fossils were the remains of once living things, were ‘sports of nature’ that grew in the ground (through some mysterious force such as the ‘vis plastica’) or were the remains of mythical beasts (unicorns, Cyclops etc.) or troublesome creatures ‘petrified’ by saints.

Fish jaw once belonging to Agostino Scilla alongside his original pencil illustrations

Fish jaw once belonging to Agostino Scilla
alongside his original pencil illustrations

Much of the contents of these two drawers comes from the collection of the Renaissance artist and naturalist Agostino Scilla (1629-1700). Scilla studied painting in Rome under the artist Andrea Sacchi and painted the fresco on the ceiling of the Sacrament Chapel in Siracusa cathedral Sicily. Scilla was from Messina and collected many fossils from Messina, Calabria and Malta which he compared with the bones, teeth and shells of animals from the Mediterranean. As well as commenting on the striking similarities between the bones, teeth and shells of his local sea-life and the Miocene (23-5 million years ago) fossils of the region he made some other important scientific observations. He found that fossil sea urchin shells never contained sediment grains bigger than the largest opening in the shell even if the rock enclosing the shell did.  For him this was evidence that fossil sea urchins could not have grown in the rock as a ‘sport of nature’, since this would have resulted in the grain size being identical inside and outside the shells.  He also noticed that fossil sea-urchin shells are often crushed (evidence of sediment compaction) and that fossil shark teeth are often water-worn, both highly suggestive that the fossils could not have grown inside the rock.  Scilla’s findings were published in Italian alongside his highly accurate drawings in 1670 in a book entitled ‘La vana speculazione disingannata dal senso’ (‘The vain speculation disillusioned by the sense’). This publication is considered to be the first that used scientific observation and reasoning to argue that fossils are the remains of plants and animals from the past.

Scilla’s views did not reach a mass audience at the time because it was published in Italian, although it was later translated into Latin, the international scientific language of the time. Woodward purchased Scilla’s collection and presumably his drawings as these too can be found in his collection. Woodward very much adhered to Scilla’s principles of scientific observation and deduction carrying out his own experiments, for example filling modern shells with lead to mimic mouldic fossils. Woodward agreed with Scilla’s view that fossils were the remains of plants and animals that had once been alive and his comments in his published catalogue of 1728 are remarkably insightful for the time. Interestingly Woodward often recorded the identifications given to specimens by their donors, so alongside Scheuchzer’s ‘fossil unicorn of Konstanz’ are Dr Leopold’s ‘Glossopetrae Luneburgensis’ (tongue-stones of Lüneburg = shark teeth). This in itself is illustrative of some of the various ideas respecting the nature of fossils that were prevalent at the time.

Woodward wrote his own book ‘Essay towards a Natural History of the Earth’ published in 1695. It was written in English, a very progressive act for the time.  The arguments Woodward put forward in his book lead to a more general acceptance that fossils were not sports of nature but the remains of plants and animals that had once been alive.

(photographs by Eva-Louise Fowler)


Fitting the Pieces Together

Eleanor Wilkinson, Collections Assistant at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology writes:

As the Store Stories project winds up here at the MAA time is now being spent updating the online catalogue with all the new information that has been discovered over the past few weeks and cross referencing this with the images taken and the expedition report.[1] This itself is a long and time-consuming process.

As I have been making my way through the boxes and boxes of material from Matmar in our stores I have been making notes on what kind of information the database needs. This could be anything from adding full descriptions and appropriate terminology to creating completely new database records. What has emerged, from opening boxes, is that not all material from Matmar was classified as such when first being entered into the museum records. In such situations, what has been incredibly helpful is the use of excavation numbers written on or attached to some of the objects. The excavation numbering system used by Guy Brunton at Matmar is very distinctive: the year of excavation followed by the number of either the grave group or tomb, temple, or excavation area.

Spindles marked with a Brunton excavation number, 30/1000. This tells us it was excavated in 1930 from the temple area

It is with this excavation number that the object can then be crossed referenced with the distribution lists and photographs from Brunton’s expedition report. It is then possible to give the object more context. In the case of the wooden spindles above, this meant giving the object information regarding where it was found, the period it is from and a full description, as well as its correct name. Prior to this project they were simply described as pointed wooden sticks from Egypt. In addition, I am able to provide a reference so future researchers are able to follow up with further reading.[2] This does however mean there may be more objects that comprise the Matmar Collection that we have yet to come across.

In some instances, it is remembering images in the expedition report that has enabled me to link accession numbers to the correct object. For example, the copper hook below has no accession number attached nor does it have a Matmar excavation number. Without either of these the hook’s true identity may have been lost. Luckily, through researching the site report and archives as part of this project, I saw the image of the copper hook in the expedition report. This meant the hook could be reunited with the correct excavation number, accession number and be properly located within the museum store becoming part of the Matmar Collection once more.[3]

An unmarked copper hook from Matmar with its illustration from Brunton’s expedition report, the only way it could be identified

By the end of the Store Stories project it is hoped that many of these problems will be resolved and the Matmar Collection will become one of the most well documented collections at the MAA.


[1] British Museum Expedition to Middle Egypt 1929-1931 Matmar, Guy Brunton, (Bernard Quaritch Ltd., London: 1948).

[2] Plate image from ibid., Pl. LII.

[3] Plate image from ibid., Pl. LXIV.


Cromhall Quarry material in the Dry Invertebrate Store

Cromhall Quarry material

Tom White, Collections Assistant at the Museum of Zoology, writes:

Amongst the collections in the Zoology museum lurk numerous enigmatic boxes containing rock and sediment samples, the contents of which were often collected decades ago.  As we continue to clear the Dry Invertebrate store in preparation for it to be moved, we came across several large and extremely heavy wooden crates labelled simply ‘Cromhall Quarry fissure material’.  These contained blocks of pale grey limestone, some wrapped in the remains of tatty plastic bags that were beginning to disintegrate with age.  It took some time to haul all of the material out of the store so that it could be examined.

Cromhall Quarry is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) located a few miles NE of Bristol.  The rocks in our store were collected from Triassic fissure fill deposits known as an abundant source of fossils, most notably very early Mesozoic mammal remains.  At first glance the Cromhall samples looked rather unpromising, but to the right palaeontologist – in this case Professor Mike Benton of the University of Bristol – even the most boring of rocks can provoke great excitement.  Professor Benton and his colleagues have taken away about two-thirds of the Cromhall samples and intend to extract the fossils as part of their research into Mesozoic mammals.  The material will be returned to the UMZC in due course, thankfully as a tiny fraction of the size and weight of the material we have just had to move!


The Curse of the Cotton Wool

MAA blog week 5 picture 1

Eleanor Wilkinson, Collections Assistant at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology writes:

So, the Store Stories project at the MAA has not been completely plain sailing from week to week. A few hiccups have been thrown up that require addressing or issues that need further research. In my first blog I explained that it appeared many objects, which had been wrapped up in cotton wool for transport to Cambridge in the 1930s, were still in their original packaging. Why, you may ask, is this nice, soft, generally protective material such a problem for museums who want to carefully store objects that are thousands of years old? Well, have you ever tried to peel back the most fibrous material known to man from corroded metal? Or tried to untangle it from finely woven basketry? It’s a nice idea, but it really doesn’t work!

We’re also finding a growing number of objects that have unfortunately succumbed to the age-old conservation technique of ‘glue fragments back together and then place the object and still-wet glue back into the cotton wool packaging’. As you can see from our picture above this can have terrible effects on objects, causing not only the cotton wool to stick to the surface but being stuck between the fragments meaning the break does not fit back correctly, sitting awkwardly together where there should only be a small fracture line.

You can now see how something so benign as soft, fluffy cotton wool can cause such problems in museums. It is why the repacking of the Matmar material into proper conservation boxes and wrapped in acid free tissue paper is crucial for the preservation and conservation of these objects. As you can see below, each object then has its own little compartment, protected by acid free jiffy foam and tissue paper.

MAA blog week 5 picture 2

Once the Store Stories project is complete, all Matmar material excavated by Guy Brunton will no longer have to sit uncomfortably in their woolly boxes, but be better packed and easily accessible.

And don’t get us started on bubble wrap…


Not Just Objects

MAA blog week 4 picture 1

Eleanor Wilkinson, Collections Assistant at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology writes:

The Store Stories project here at the MAA is coming along nicely as more objects are found in our stores. However it isn’t just the physical material from Matmar that we are researching. This project is taking us into the museum archives too.

To learn a bit more about how the material came to the MAA we have been studying the correspondence of the museum over the period of 1929 to 1932. This time frame covers both seasons of Guy Brunton’s excavations at Matmar and the following year. As you can see from our picture above however, there were a lot of letters received during this time!

After trawling through a great many items we started to find letters by our man. In an issue of the magazine Antiquities a message had been sent out to any individuals or museums, who were interested in supporting Brunton, for contributions to his fieldwork in exchange for interesting pieces excavated from Matmar. We can see from documents in the archives that the curator at the time, Louis Colville Gray Clarke, saw great potential in this. Letters between Brunton and Clarke tell us that Clarke provided a subscription, of £20-25, to the excavation for each season and we have original lists, typed and handwritten, of the objects that Brunton had couriered to Cambridge.

MAA blog week 4 picture 2

This type of research helps us understand more about the process of the Matmar excavation than simply studying the objects and site reports. It tells us how the material came to the MAA and on whose suggestion, and who else was interested in acquiring the material that Brunton discovered – ‘The Victoria and Albert are nibbling’. It has provided insight into why the MAA has particular material types – ‘It was Green who told me you wanted beads; I always have a big supply of them’ – and how Brunton himself felt of some of his finds –‘I will do what I can for you in the way of the early stuff – the flints are not very good this year’.


To box or not to box?

whipple blog 2 fig 1

Katy Barrett, Collections Assistant at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science writes:

I commented in my last post about how a first impression of the Whipple Museum stores is just how many boxes there are. Firstly, there are the archival boxes, made of specially inert cardboard, which house smaller and more fragile objects wrapped carefully in acid-free tissue. Secondly there are some big heavy-duty plastic boxes to make the heavy objects easier to carry (of which more in a future post). But most interestingly, and lets face it most attractive, are the boxes that many of the objects came with.

The kind of scientific instruments that are designed to be used in the field usually come with their own historic wooden boxes. These are often beautifully shaped and fitted-out to hold the unique instrument and its accessories in place. They often also have leather straps, metal keys, historic labels and luxurious linings of velvet or marbled paper. This makes them an intrinsic part of the object, and also of the accession record on the database. When it comes to re-organising the stores, however, these boxes present us with some logistical questions.

whipple blog 2 fig 2

Previously, many objects have been removed from their boxes and stored separately. It is difficult to know why this occurs in all cases. Sometimes it happens when the object has been displayed in a public gallery and the two are then not immediately reunited when the object is removed from display. ­The dilemma for the museum staff is whether to reunite them or not. Ideally we would like to have all parts of an object with the same accession number stored in the same location. However, being designed for travel, some objects need to be dismantled in order to fit into their boxes. This requires unscrewing fragile and complicated parts, which may damage these delicate mechanisms.

As museum collections expand into a limited storage space, questions over how best make use of the available space become more and more pressing…


The Man behind the Collection

A big thank you goes to the Griffith Institute, University of Oxford for the brilliant picture of who they believe to be Brunton asleep, possibly at Matmar!

A big thank you goes to the Griffith Institute, University of Oxford for the brilliant picture of who they believe to be Brunton asleep, possibly at Matmar!

Eleanor Wilkinson, Collections Assistant at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology writes:

I thought I would spend this week’s blog post telling you a bit more about the man behind the MAA’s Store Stories project, Guy Brunton. Born in London in 1878,[1] Brunton’s interest in Egyptology was first kindled when he won a book on the subject as a prize at school.[2]

After school, and a short interlude in business in South Africa, Brunton returned to his studies as a pupil under Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie at University College London where he spent two years learning of the archaeology of ancient Egypt.[3] Once completing his time at university, Brunton accompanied Petrie in his excavations of Senusret II’s tomb complex in Hawara, and it is for the archaeological finds discovered here that Brunton is best known. In 1913 the shaft tomb of princess Sit-Hathor-Iunet, a daughter of Senusret II, was excavated by Brunton and Petrie just south of the king’s pyramid. Robbers had ransacked the princess’s tomb, however they had not found the jewellery, cosmetic equipment or canopic jars hidden in a recess in the tomb wall. This great discovery was called the ‘Treasure of Lahun’.[4]

After the First World War, Brunton returned to Egypt and continued to excavate in the Faiyum region. In 1920 he went to Medinet Gurob with Reginald Engelbach where they excavated an Old Kingdom low-status cemetery. Though low-status Brunton was able to demonstrate, through the grave goods, the importance of burial rituals for different levels of the social strata.[5] Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Brunton continued to excavate over 50 sites just south of the Faiyum, in the el-Badari district, whilst he was the Assistant Keeper of the Cairo Museum.[6] This work took him to Qau, Badari, Matmar and Mostagedda,[7] and it is from this period of excavation that the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s material from Matmar originates. Some of the most notable material from Brunton’s Matmar excavation, as mentioned in the British Museum Quarterly, was a deposit of carved hippopotamus bones found in a large pit near a temple dedicated to the god Seth, some of which you can see in our picture this week.[8] This is now amongst the material that is currently being researched and repacked as part of the Store Stories project.

MAA blog picture 1 blog post 3

Brunton retired to South Africa with his wife, Winifred Brunton, a watercolour artist known for her illustrations of ancient Egyptian art, in 1948 and died later that year in White River, East Transvaal.[9]


[1] Wikipedia, Guy Brunton, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy_Brunton [Accessed 23 June 2013].

[2] The Times, Wednesday November 10 1948, p. 7.

[3] Ibid.

[4] An Introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt, Kathryn A. Bard, (Blackwell Publications, Oxford: 2008), pp. 183-84.

[5] Ibid., p. 160.

[6] The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Expedition to Egypt 1919, http://oi.uchicago.edu/research/pubs/nn/fal94_breasted.html [Accessed 23 June 2013]

[7] Ancient Egypt Anatomy of a Civilisation, Barry J. Kemp, (Routledge, London: 2004), p.239.

[8] The Brunton Archaeological Expedition, The British Museum Quarterly, vol. 6 no. 1, (June 1931), pp. 29-30.

[9] The Times, Wednesday November 10 1948, p. 7.


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