Category Archives: Natural History

Behind-the-scenes on a Monday!

Have you ever wondered what staff do when the museum is closed on a Monday? We’re busy behind the scenes, making sure our collections are documented and cared for.

An important job to complete when the Museum is closed to visitors is routine cleaning of the museum’s permanent displays. Volunteers are helping curatorial staff to clean objects on display, a few cases at a time. This not only keeps the displays looking good, but also prevents potentially harmful dust particles accumulating on fragile objects, and allows curatorial staff to check for signs of corrosion and other problems.

Objects are carefully removed from the case to a table covered with acid-free tissue paper. Here they can be examined and very gently brushed to remove dust particles. The nozzle of the special mini-vacuum cleaner, designed for museum conservation, is held just above the object to remove any loose dust without touching fragile surfaces. Once the case interior has also been cleaned, everything can by placed back on display and the case secured. It can take about an hour to do a medium-sized show case.

Volunteer Joanne has been helping our curator Carolyn to clean the archaeology displays. So far, we are about half way round the gallery. In the case behind Joanne are some of the beautiful Roman glass vessels, pottery and metal objects used by and buried with local people over 1,800 years ago, at Little Walden, Canfield, Bartlow and Stebbing.

Other curatorial staff work in our off-site store with volunteers on a Monday. Here, we add and edit information about the collection onto our collections management database, making sure we know exactly what we have in the collection and where it is! This has been particularly important in the aftermath of our store-move, as the locations of all the objects moved (about 80,000 objects in total) needed to be updated! Every object has a separate record on the database, with information about its history, provenance, significance and physical appearance. 

As we work through the collections systematically, adding information to the database, we check the condition of our objects and identify any conservation work that needs to be done. Our new store has helped dramatically with this process as we now have the space to store our objects in a more visible way and to lay out objects so that they can be inspected. 

Whether they are on display, or cared for in our stores, our collections are at the heart of the museum. It is vitally important that we take the time to care for them properly, so that they are preserved for people to enjoy long into the future. 

Object of the Month – December 2017


December’s Object of the Month is a pair of robins. The birds were chosen as Object of the Month by Sarah Kenyon, Natural Sciences Officer.

This adult female robin has the familiar red face and breast feathers. It is a mounted, or stuffed, bird specimen that was given to the museum during the 1800s. Male and female adult robins look identical. On display with her is the preserved skin of a young male robin whose feathers are brown with pale spots. Juvenile robins grow red feathers after their first moult. This young robin was found dead at Saffron Walden, Essex in August 2000. Study skins prepared like this are used for research in museums.

The European robin, Erithacus rubecula, is a member of the thrush family, so it is related to the blackbird and the nightingale. They live in woodland, hedgerows, parks and gardens. Robins from northern Europe may visit Britain during winter. These small song birds only live for a couple of years. Robins eat worms, snails, insects, spiders and seeds, berries and fruits.
Robins are often pictured in snowy scenes on Christmas cards. However, a robin can use up 10% of its body weight during a cold night. Unless a bird is able to feed well every day a prolonged cold spell can be fatal. Putting out food on bird tables can help robins to survive. They eat mealworms, scraps of meat, fat, cheese, cake and biscuit crumbs, dried fruit and crushed peanuts.

The robin is one of the few birds that hold a territory all year round for breeding and feeding. In summer a territory is defended by a male and female breeding pair. During winter each robin will hold an individual territory. Robins will always defend their territories from other robins. They sometimes fight to the death.

Robins sing all year round because they need to defend their territories. They will also sing at night, usually under artificial street lighting, and are often mistaken for nightingales. The song is a rippling stream of crystal-clear notes with changes of speed and volume. An alarm call is a sharp “tic”, or repeated ticking “tic-ic-ic…”.

Breeding and Nesting
Robins normally start breeding in March. Males and females only pair up for a season. They nest on, or near, the ground in sites such as hollow in a bank or tree root, in climbing plants or in sheds. British robins prefer open-fronted nest boxes. A female builds a cup-shaped nest from moss and dead leaves, and then lines it with hair.
The female lays and incubates four to six eggs. The young leave the nest, called fledging, at 14 days old. Their parents look after them for up to three weeks. Most pairs of robins will try to raise three broods of chicks a year.

You can see the robins on display in the museum until 1 January 2018.



Saffron is famous for being the world’s most expensive spice, with its distinctive aroma, rich honey-like flavour and trademark yellow hue. The history of Saffron is particularly relevant to Saffron Walden, which took its name from the spice.

The spice

Saffron comes from the flower of the saffron crocus (crocus sativus), and its name comes from the Arabic word for yellow. The spice, the three stigma found in the flower of the crocus, is harvested between September and October, and the stigma are then dried. It is this process which gives the spice its hefty price tag, as the stigma must be hand-picked, and it can take thousands of flowers to produce a few ounces of dried saffron. Saffron is often referred to as ‘red gold’, as it is so expensive.

Today saffron is grown mostly in Iran, as well as in Greece, Spain, Australia, India and China. It can sell for anywhere between £5 and £75 a gram – good quality Afghan saffron sells for around £14 a gram. Because of saffron’s price tag, cheap substitutes are often passed off as authentic saffron – from the unrelated safflower to (in extreme cases) shredded paper or even horsehair being sold as cheap saffron.

The spice’s main use today is in cooking, famously flavouring and colouring a variety of dishes, from Swedish saffron buns to paella. It’s use is varied, and can today be found in cosmetics, such as skin cream and shampoo, or food products like coffee or salt.

Uses in history

Crocus bulbs, preserved since 1886.

Saffron can be found throughout history. Cleopatra reportedly used it to infuse her bathwater, as well as to improve her complexion. Roman physicians recommended the rubbing of a saffron paste onto the heads of the mad, and Alexander the Great bathed his battle wounds with saffron and drank saffron tea.  Saffron was very popular during medieval times, used by cooks, physicians, dyers and even monks who sometimes used it to illuminate their manuscripts. Fashionable Venetian women used it to dye their hair during the 1500s, covering it with saffron, honey, egg yolk and sulphur and sitting in the sunshine until their desired colour was achieved. It was also traditionally used in medicine, as a treatment for various illnesses including menstrual problems, depression and asthma.

Saffron Walden

Saffron was grown around Saffron Walden for many centuries, and it was said that the soil from the area gave the saffron a distinctive flavour. William Harrison (1534 – 1593) said of the Saffron Walden saffron: “As the saffron of England…is the most excellent of all other…[the saffron] that growth about Saffron Walden in the edge of Essex surmounteth all the rest, and therefore beareth worthily the higher price”.

Not only was saffron grown around the town of Saffron Walden, it was also processed and sold here. The spice was sold at market in Newport and Saffron Walden in October and November. The trade brought prosperity to the town, and the name of the town changed, from Chepyng Walden to Saffron Walden, as a result. The earliest reference to the new town name is in a deed of 1582, which refers to ‘saffornewalden’.

The crocus flowers can be seen on the left side of this town charter, which is on display in the museum’s Local History gallery.

A key industry surrounding saffron was its use as a dye, and Saffron Walden became well-known for its dying with saffron. The earliest reference to a dyeworks in Saffron Walden is dated to 1359. Saffron has been used as a dye since ancient times, but it was particularly popular as a yellow dye in the medieval cloth industry.

The saffron trade in Saffron Walden reached its peak in the 1500s. In 1514, Henry VIII granted the town a charter, which was decorated with the saffron crocus, showing how important the plant was to the town. It became a custom to present visiting dignitaries and monarchs with saffron. When William III visited Audley End in 1689, he was presented with a silver plate which cost £4 6s. 6d and fourteen ounces of saffron which cost £3 11s. 8d. After its peak in the1500s, the growing of saffron around Saffron Walden gradually declined due to the hugely labour intensive process required to harvest the plant, and saffron ceased to be grown at all in Saffron Walden in the 1700s.


The Saffron Walden coat of arms. The crocus flower is central, surrounded by the walls of the castle (saffron, walled in)

The lasting impact of saffron on Saffron Walden is undeniable. Images of the crocus and saffron can be seen decorating buildings in the town, both historical and modern, including the parish church. The crocus is still on the town’s coat of arms, and of course the town’s name remains as a reminder of how important the crocus plant was to the prosperity and growth of this market town.

Recently, saffron growers have begun to return to the area. Authentic Essex-grown saffron is in demand for its historical reputation, and it can sell for £75 a gram in top London establishments – three times the price of gold.

You can learn more about saffron in the museum’s Local History gallery

Featured image: A sketch by Nathan Maynard of the crocus harvest around Saffron Walden.

Object of the Month – April 2017

April’s Object of the Month is a male Mallard or Wild Duck. It was chosen by Sarah Kenyon, Natural Sciences Officer, to coincide with our Easter holidays trail (can you find all nine cuddly ducks in the museum?!) 

A male Mallard is called a drake.  This mounted bird is contained in a Perspex case on a wooden base.  It is from a collection of objects that can be loaned to schools for use in the classroom.

Mallards are found all over Britain.  They are the ancestor of the domestic duck.  They live in towns and the countryside in wetland areas or near freshwater ponds, lakes, canals and rivers.  These dabbling ducks eat plants, insects and shellfish.  They feed in shallow water on submerged vegetation and small aquatic animals and graze on plants, seeds and berries in farmland.

The female has pale brown, speckled feathers.  She is called a duck or hen.  Ducks lay and incubate 7 to 16 eggs. They look after all the ducklings.  Females make the more familiar loud quacking calls. The feathers of the drake are metallic green on the head, white around the neck, brown on the breast, grey and black on the rest of the body. The male makes a range of whistles or nasal calls.

A Museum Mystery

The female duck has an orange bill and the male bird has a dull yellow bill. Curiously, the bill of this male bird is a dull red colour.

This duck is a skin which was preserved, stuffed and mounted in a life-like pose by a taxidermist during the 1800s.  The bird was labelled as a female mallard originally.  So the bill may have been coloured orange when it became a museum specimen.  It was later re-identified as a male mallard.

You can see the Mallard on display in the museum until 30 April 2017. If you would like more information about loaning the Mallard or any of our other School Loans boxes, click here or contact the museum

Object of the Month – February 2017

February’s Object of the Month is a dinosaur footprint. It was chosen as Object of the Month by Sarah Kenyon, Natural Sciences Officer.

The footprint was made by a young Iguanodon dinosaur 145 to 100 million years ago during the early Cretaceous period. This cast of the footprint was fossilised in chalky limestone rock. You are looking at the underside of the three-toed footprint. It was bought at a quarry near Swanage in Dorset during the twentieth century.

Dinosaur Footprints
Footprints can provide information about the type of dinosaur and the size, weight and speed of these extinct animals. This one was identified by a geologist as the footprint of a young Iguanodon. It was preserved when the imprint left by the foot of the Iguanodon was quickly filled with lime rich mud from a lake or stream. The limy mud eventually turned to limestone rock and formed a cast of the footprint on the underside of the layer of rock.

Iguanadon (image courtesy of Natural History Museum)

Iguanodon was one of the most successful and widespread dinosaurs. Fossils have been found in Britain, Germany, Spain, Belgium and the United States of America. The name Iguanodon means ‘iguana tooth’. It is pronounced “ig-WHA-noh-don”. Boulenger and van Beneden named the dinosaur in 1881. An adult Iguanodon was up to ten metres long and weighed almost five tons. It is now thought that Iguanodon could walk on all fours or on two legs. The dinosaur had three toes, five fingers and large thumb spikes, which may have been used to defend against predators. It had a horny beak and the teeth were chewing teeth so it ate plants.

Museum Dinosaur Fossils
Saffron Walden Museum has only five dinosaur specimens in the geology collection. They are this fossilised dinosaur footprint; a cast of a flying reptile fossil, a Pterosaur from Solnhofen in Germany; and three replicas in a school loan box. The replicas are of a tooth from a plant-eating dinosaur, the tooth of a meat-eating dinosaur and the footprint of a small carnivorous Theropod dinosaur which walked on two legs.

The dinosaur footprint is on display in the museum until 28 February 2017 where you can discover more about fossilisation.

My Museum: Jill Knight

Museum shares the experiences of our staff, volunteers and interns of working at Saffron Walden Museum. Jill has various roles in the museum, including Welcome Desk Volunteer, Collections Volunteer and Museum Assistant.

“I’ve been involved with Saffron Walden Museum since December 2014, when I arrived as a volunteer to work on the Welcome Desk. This turned out to be a very providential move: as I discovered the diverse delights of all the wonderful artefacts that form the museum’s collections and learned how the museum ticks, I began to take on more roles and responsibilities.

After a few months I started to help Leah Mellors, Collections Officer (Human History), with documentation of the social history collections. I began by working on documents relating to World War I, entering their details on a database, and it was so interesting to handle letters and paperwork relating to the experiences of people in and around Saffron Walden during the war. These included documents about recruitment, army orders, ration books, and even handwritten telegrams relating to the Battle of Jutland! It was like an ongoing history lesson every week! Having finished the World War I documents, I am now helping to catalogue various items relating to music and drama in Saffron Walden during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for a little light relief!

stick insects 1

Malaysian stick insects

A few months ago, I was offered the opportunity to become a Casual Museum Assistant at the museum, which involves opening, closing and stewarding the museum at weekends, helping to prepare for activities and events and assisting the curatorial staff. In this role, I have assisted Sarah Kenyon, Natural History Officer, on a number of occasions, and have found myself doing various jobs, including checking and re-focusing the microscope in the Natural History display area, cleaning out the Malaysian stick insects, dealing with dehumidifiers and unwrapping a buzzard in the Natural History Store. Working at the museum is certainly never dull!

One of my favourite parts of working at the museum is speaking to visitors at the Welcome Desk. Many of them have remarked to me that there are so many different things to see here and so much to discover. Lots of our visitors return regularly and bring their families. This is truly a fascinating and very popular family museum!”

Object of the Month – August 2016

August’s Object of the Month is a dried specimen of a plant called crested cow-wheat, Melampyrum cristatum. Specimens of this plant are preserved in Saffron Walden Museum’s herbarium collection of dried plants. Crested cow-wheat was illustrated and recorded in the first ‘Flora’ of Essex of 1862.

The plant was chosen as Object of the Month by Sarah Kenyon, Natural Sciences Officer, because this once abundant plant is now very rare. The Special Roadside Verges Project and the Wildlife Sites Project try to preserve the sites where it still grows. The plant flowers from July to September and can be found at Special Roadside Verges in Langley, Duddenhoe End and Saffron Walden. It also grows at one place in Chrishall, in a woodland at Langley and in Shadwell Wood and Little Hales Wood at Ashdon.

DSCN0972Herbarium sheets
This is a herbarium sheet of crested cow-wheat plants collected in Saffron Walden by George Stacey Gibson in 1840. He published the first ‘Flora’ of Essex in 1862. His plant specimens and those of other Essex botanists are preserved in the herbarium of Saffron Walden Museum. This dried plant collection is now more accessible at the new museum store.

To preserve them, the plants were pressed, dried and mounted on a paper herbarium sheet. The plant name, the location where it was found, the name of the collector and the date were written on the sheet. Each herbarium sheet represents a biological record of where a plant species was found at a particular time.

‘Flora’ of Essex
The herbarium collection is an invaluable record of the plants found in this region. It has been used to produce ‘Floras’ for Essex and Cambridgeshire. George Stacey Gibson of Saffron Walden published the first ‘Flora’ of Essex in 1862.


An illustration of crested cow-wheat in the Flora of Essex.

A ‘Flora’ is a book that describes the plants that grow in a geographical area and records where they are found at a certain time. Research has plotted how the number of plant species and the distribution of plants have changed over time because of habitat loss, changes in management of the countryside and pollution.

You can see the dried crested cow-wheat plants and a volume of the ‘Flora’ of Essex on display in the museum until 31 August 2016.

Object of the Month – July 2016

July’s Object of the Month is a mineral tablet created by Richard Brown, a marble merchant, and John Mawe, a dealer and expert in minerals.  This tablet was made between 1790 and 1810 from sections of rock cemented to each side of a slab of marble.

One side of the tablet is engraved Strata of Derbyshire.  It shows the limestones, toadstones and millstone grit in the Peak District of Derbyshire, with a few rock faults and mineral veins.

The reverse side of the tablet is engraved Vein of Copper Ore.  It is an engraved black marble section of Ecton Hill and its copper mine in the Manifold Valley of Staffordshire.


Originally the tablet was enclosed in a black marble frame.  Only part of the frame survives.  It was engraved Brown, Son & Maw, London.


You can see the mineral tablet on display in the museum until 31 July 2016. It was chosen by Sarah Kenyon, Natural Sciences Officer, because the object illustrates how people were exploring and recording the natural world over 200 years ago at the dawn of the nineteenth century in 1800.

National Insect Week

It’s National Insect Week! Celebrated from the 20 June to the 26 June 2016, National Insect Week, organised by the Royal Entomological Society, encourages people of all ages to learn more about insects.

There are over 24,000 species of insects in the United Kingdom, with hundreds of species to be found in almost every garden and green space. They can be pollinators, predators, pests, parasites and prey and their study is an important part of conservation, food production, medicine and ecology.

Saffron Walden Museum has collected insect specimens since its establishment in 1835. Our 1845 catalogue lists both British and Foreign Insects in the collection. The museum’s British Insects included butterflies, wasps and moths and the Foreign Insects included locusts and more than 350 butterflies from China, Brazil, North and South America and the Himalayas.

Female leopard moth

Female leopard moth

Nowadays, we continue to collect insects that have been found dead in the local area. This beautiful female leopard moth was found dead in a house in Elsenham and donated to the museum in 2012.

You can get up close and personal with some of the insects in our collection by looking at them under the microscope in our Discovery Centre. Whilst you’re there, you can say hello to our resident Malaysian stick insects – we now have five females and a male!

Male stag beetle

We try to encourage as much wildlife in the museum grounds as possible. Sections of the grounds have been left to grow wild to encourage biodiversity and we have recently built a loggery next to Walden Castle, to create a home for stag beetles.

Object of the Month – August 2015

August’s Object of the Month is the nest of a Swallow, Hirundo rustica.  The object was chosen by Sarah Kenyon, Natural Sciences Officer, because it is a record of the wildlife that lives in this area.  It was found at Great Sampford, Essex, in 2013 when wood on the outside of a house was being painted.  The nest is cup-shaped and made from mud and grass.  This nest was empty when it was found – there were no eggs in it – so it was probably built the year before it was found.

It has been illegal to collect the eggs and nests of wild birds since 1954. Nests are protected while they are being built or used by birds.  It is illegal to disturb a nesting bird or to destroy its nest.  Old nests can be removed after the last brood has fledged and breeding has finished for the year.

The sale or exchange of Birds’ Eggs is banned.  They can only be given away or destroyed.  Possession of birds’ eggs collected before 1954 is legal but keeping eggs obtained after 1954 is illegal unless the possessor can show that the eggs have been taken lawfully.  One problem for museums concerns the donation of old or confiscated egg collections.  Museums are often offered egg collections and it can be difficult to know whether such collections have been legally obtained.  Museums are expected to prove that the eggs were collected before 1954, so information about when and where each egg was collected is essential.

Nest of a swallow

Nest of a swallow

You can see this bird nest on display in the museum until 31 August and discover more about Swallows, the law protecting birds’ nests and eggs, and biological recording.