Category Archives: Object of the Month

Object of the Month – January 2022

Ptarmigan in Winter Plumage

Our ‘Object of the Month’ for January is a Ptarmigan in white winter plumage. This bird was collected between 1835 and 1899, after Saffron Walden Museum opened in 1835 and before the end of the nineteenth century. It is a stuffed specimen mounted on an imitation rock with a painted wooden base. Sarah Kenyon, one of the Natural Sciences Officers at the Museum, chose it because snow has already fallen in Britain this winter.

 

Ptarmigan Lagopus mutus

SAFWM : NB229C © Saffron Walden Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

Winter Feathers and Fur

As cold temperatures and snow descend over Britain animals put on their winter coats. In Scotland several species change the colour and thickness of their fur and feathers to stay hidden, or camouflaged, and warm. They are the Mountain Hare, Pine Marten, Stoat, Reindeer and Ptarmigan. This adult male Ptarmigan, Lagopus mutus, shows the white winter plumage which helps the bird blend in with the snow and remain safe from predators, especially birds of prey. The feathers around their legs also help to keep in warmth. These small, plump game birds can be found on Scottish mountains, such as the Cairngorms, and on heather moors at high altitudes. They have a characteristic walk. In summer their feathers are speckled grey and brown which blends in with rocks, scrub and heather.

The fur of Mountain Hares turns from grey-brown to completely white in winter as they also need to avoid being caught by birds of prey. They live on heather moorland and in woodland above 300-400 metres in Scotland.

The Pine Marten is found in the north and centre of Scotland. Numbers of this predator are low but stable now that they are protected from persecution. They live in old native forests where the trees lose their leaves in winter. Their fur is brown with a yellow ‘bib’ on the chest. The brown fur becomes lighter in colour during winter to help blend in with the trees and snow. A thicker coat is grown to keep warm.

A herd of Reindeer live in the Cairngorm mountains. In winter they grow a thicker, lighter coloured coat of fur to protect against cold mountain temperatures and harsh arctic winds.

Stoats are predators in the same family as Pine Martens. The fur is light brown, white on the belly, and the tail has a black tip. This distinguishes them from Weasels which are smaller in size and have a brown tail.

In northern Scotland the fur of Weasels and Stoats turns white in winter to blend in with the snow, except for the black tail tip. This white fur colouration of stoats is called ermine and the fur was used to trim robes.

 

Weasel from Barley, Hertfordshire

(SAFWM : 1982.164)

 

You can see a Weasel and Stoat in the wildlife display case in the museum

 

Stoat from Newport, Essex               

(SAFWM : 2009.23)

 

 

Stoat in its white winter ermine fur 

(Image Wikimedia Commons)

 

Collections Focus: John Harvey’s Carved Mantlepiece (c.1570)

 

In 1855, Robert Driver Thurgood, decided to demolish his mansion in the centre of Saffron Walden, between Market Street (Market End) and Common Hill, to sell the land to provide additional space for the town’s cattle market.

The house was one of several previously owned by John Harvey (d. 1593). Harvey was a gentleman farmer, master rope-maker, and notable as well as the father of Gabriel Harvey (c.1550-1650) a famous scholar and poet.

During the demolition work sections of oak panelling were removed from the house, which revealed underneath them, three heavily carved chimney pieces. One of these carved overmantels was rescued and has been on display in the museum ever since. It is referred to by specialists as one of the earliest examples of “Alciato” emblems, based on Andrea Alciato, an Italian humanist’s writings, being used in England.

The overmantel has been made from clunch, a form of limestone which was used because it was relatively easy to carve. The central section depicts Harvey’s rope-making business.  A ropewalk is shown, the area where the master roper and his assistants’ twisted hemp, jute or flax yarn into ropes and cordage. The figures shown are dressed in late 16th century clothes, with winged and tabbed doublets or jerkins, breeches, stockings and latchet-secured shoes.  Presumably the ropemaking scene is being used to symbolise the value of labour and effort, and the link to its owner’s profession. Around the rope-making scene are depicted flowering plants and what appears to be a silk moth. There is a small building and an oak tree with a pig beside it eating fallen acorns. The motto in Latin here reads NEC ALIIS NEC NOBIS (Neither for others nor for ourselves).

The scene on the left of the rope making features a mule eating a thistle, a goose-like bird perched on a single tree branch, a series of stylised flowering plants and a tree full of oranges. The motto in Latin which reads ALIIS NON NOBIS (For others not for ourselves), could refer to the idea of not benefitting from your own labours, essentially doing something for the common good. To the right of the rope-making scene is pictured a deciduous tree with birds, a swarm of bees going backwards and forwards to their straw beehive. Here the Latin motto reads ALIIS ET NOBIS (For others and for ourselves), which makes sense with the image of the bees, as their honey benefits the bees themselves as well as humans.

Beneath all three sections of the symbolic emblems, the Latin motto appears to read NOSTRI PLACENTE VNT LABOR, but there are some letters and words missing, it possibly meansOur cakes are our labour,” presumably meaning labour brings its own rewards.

The recessed panels feature a cockatrice (a mythic beast which was said to have plagued Saffron Walden before it was killed) and a gryphon segreant (combined eagle and lion), which both appear to have been used in the design like heraldic crests, as there are twisted ribbons pictured around them. Other emblems carved here include flowers, leaves, fruit and trefoils.

For more information:

  • Peter Daly and Bari Hooper. John Harvey’s Carved Mantle-piece (c. 1570): An Early Instance of the Use of Alciato Emblems in England, Saffron Walden Historical Journal, 2003.
  • Alison Saunders. Emblems in Applied Arts and Crafts with Particular Reference to Alciati. 
  • Peter Daly (ed.,), Andrea Alciato and the Emblem Tradition, New York: AMS Press, pp.177-204

 

Watercolour showing the back of Gabriel Harvey’s childhood house, The Bell, showing the side which faced The Common. The house was pulled down in 1855. The sketch is by GN Maynard in 1886 based on one by Fry. 

 

 

The mantelpiece as it appeared in the museum on display in the late 19th / early 20th century

 

The carved mantlepiece or over-mantel

Object of the Month – December 2021

1914 Christmas Gift Box for the Troops

The Museum’s ‘Object of the Month’ provides an opportunity to  explore interesting and unusual objects from our stores.

December’s Object of the Month chosen by Jenny Oxley, Collections Officer (Human History) is a Princess Mary Christmas gift box, an embossed and monogrammed tin which was intended to be distributed to all members of the armed forces of the British Empire on Christmas day 1914, during World War I.

Following the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the British Expeditionary Force was sent to the Western Front and was soon joined by troops from the Empire, those from India arriving before the end of the year.  In October 1914, George V’s 17-year-old daughter, Mary, Princess Royal, launched a public appeal to fund every member of the armed forces receiving a Christmas gift.  Shortly before Christmas 1914, advertisements were placed in the British press seeking donations for the “Soldiers and Sailors Christmas fund” and £513,000 was quickly raised.

The funding was used to manufacture small boxes made of silver for officers and brass for all others.  However, there were metal shortages.  Supplies of 45 tons of brass strip, destined to make more boxes, was lost in May 1915 when RMS Lusitania was sunk off Ireland on passage from the USA.  In the latter stages of the war when metal became even more scarce, some of the tins were made from plated base metals or alloys. 

Each tin was decorated with an image of Mary and other military and imperial symbols.  They were typically filled with an ounce of pipe tobacco, a packet of cigarettes in a yellow monogrammed wrapper, a pipe, a tinder cigarette lighter, and a Christmas card and photograph from Princess Mary.  Some contained sweets, chocolates, and lemon drops.   There were also variations on the contents of the boxes for non-smokers, who received a packet of acid tablets, a khaki writing set comprising a case with pencil, paper and envelopes. 

The Committee was also obliged to consider the tastes of other minority groups and it was recognised that if the dietary rules of various religious groups were to be respected, changes would have to be made in the gifts intended for Indian troops. It was decided that The Gurkhas were to receive the same gift as the British troops; Sikhs the box filled with sugar candy, a tin box of spices and the Christmas card; all other Indian troops, the box with a packet of cigarettes and sugar candy, a tin box of spices and the card. Authorised camp followers, grouped under the title of ‘Bhistis’ were to receive a tin box of spices and the card.

The smokers’ and non-smokers’ gifts were both deemed unacceptable by the committee for nurses at the front in France who were instead offered the box, a packet of chocolate and the card.

However, suppliers of the content items had trouble and it was realised that there were still not enough to go round. The Committee resolved the problem by hurriedly buying in an assortment of substitute gifts: bullet pencil cases, tobacco pouches, shaving brushes, combs, pencil cases with packets of postcards, knives, scissors, cigarette cases and purses.  Those sailors who should also have received the lighter as part of their gift, were given instead, a handsome bullet pencil in a silver cartridge case which bore Princess Mary’s monogram. The ‘pencil bullet’ was not fashioned out of real bullet parts – it was simply a pencil with a rounded white metal end that looked like an unfired round when stored inside a brass tube resembling a cartridge case.   

The boxes were originally intended for “every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front” on Christmas day 1914, but with the charity fun in surplus and some feeling that they had been left out, eligibility was soon extended to everyone “wearing the King’s uniform on Christmas day”, later prisoners of war were included, as well as the next of kin of 1914 casualties.  It is estimated that 400,000 were delivered by Christmas 1914, with full distribution completed in 1920, by which time approximately 2.5 million had been delivered.

A Princess Mary Gift Fund Box was a treasured possession of many veteran soldiers of the First World War, even when the original contents – usually cigarettes and rolling tobacco – had long been used. The embossed brass box was air-tight, and made a useful container for money, tobacco, papers and photographs, so was often carried through subsequent service.  Some troops repacked their tins and sent them home to their wives and families.

Further information and acknowledged sources  here:

Object of the Month – November


The Museum’s ‘Object of the Month’ provides an opportunity to explore interesting and unusual objects from our stores. 

November’s Object of the Month is a bronze and iron lynch pin from an Iron Age chariot wheel, chosen by our Curator Carolyn Wingfield.  It is at least 2,000 years old and was found in Radwinter parish by local detectorist James Patmore, who has kindly loaned it to the Museum.

This lynch pin is far more than just a functional piece of metalwork from a horse-drawn cart; it is a beautifully cast and decorated piece of late Iron Age bronze work and was made for the chariot of an ancient British warrior.

The lynch pin keeps the hub of a wheel in place. In Britain, there is evidence for the use of horses and wheeled vehicles from the Bronze Age, but the use of horses in warfare seems to have developed among the warrior class of Iron Age society. Their mastery of lightweight, two-wheeled chariots, drawn by a pair of native ponies, was described and admired by Julius Caesar, in his campaigns in Britain of 55 and 54 BC:

“In chariot fighting the Britons begin by driving all over the field, hurling javelins, and generally the terror inspired by the horses and the noise of the wheels are sufficient to throw their opponents’ ranks into disorder….even on a steep incline they are able to control the horses at full gallop, and to check and turn them in a moment”.

(Julia Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, translated by S A Handford, 1951, Penguin Classics)

Some chariot lynch pins have enamel inlay surviving, as on another example on display in the Museum, though this lynch pin, acquired in the 19th century, has one end missing and no record of where it came from. Iron Age lynch pins like these are found occasionally across Britain, and are thought to date from around 300 BC to AD 100. So the Radwinter lynch pin is a very welcome addition to the displays. Who knows, maybe its owner was fighting during Caeser’s campaigns, or the Roman invasion of AD 43, or even Boudicca’s revolt of AD 60-61?

Object of the Month – October

Dark stone with faint tracing of a fossil flower in two petal shapes

October’s Objects of the Month are pieces of fossilised plants.

Fossils can form in different ways depending on where they form and the type of plant or animal. Most fossils come from the hard parts of animals such as bones, teeth or shells. For plants, wood is the most common material to fossilise because it is quite hard, and takes longer to rot away than other parts.
Soft leaves and flowers need to be buried quickly in deep sediment like mud or volcanic ash where the low oxygen levels mean they won’t rot. Once underground, plant material can fossilise in different ways.

Compression

Dark stone with faint tracing of a fossil flower in two petal shapesThis flower is probably preserved by compression, like pressing and drying it in fine mud over millions of years. Heat and pressure deep underground turned the mud to stone and forced moisture and gases from the leaf at the same time.

The main ingredient in living plants is carbon, so a thin, black, carbon-rich film is all that’s left. In most fossils, new minerals replace the original material. But because this is a compression fossil, the carbon-rich film is the exact same carbon that was in the plant millions of years ago. Soft-bodied animals like squid can also be preserved like this.

Impression

Dark stone showing inpression of a fern leaf, with fronds alternating in an exaggerated sawtooth pattern

© SWM

This fern leaf, or frond, is preserved as an impression. When something soft is preserved by compression, the shape of it is also preserved as an impression, like pressing a leaf into soft mud or clay and then removing it.

This fossil is one part of a small rock nodule which was split in two to show the leaf – this part shows the impression of the frond. Because compression and impression fossils usually form together, the word ‘adpression’ describes both at the same time.

Petrification

Wedge of dark fossil wood, narrow at left. Lines of pale grey run top-bottom showing growth rings.

© SWM

Fossilised wood is often called ‘petrified’ wood, meaning wood ‘turned to stone’. It happens when the materials (cellulose and lignin) that make up the solid part of wood are replaced by minerals, turning it to stone.

Minerals dissolved in groundwater seeping through the sediment settle as solids in the microscopic cell walls of the wood as the cellulose and lignin slowly rot. This can create a perfect stone copy of the original structure of the wood.

See these objects up close in Curiosity Corner throughout October.

Object of the Month – August 2021

The Museum’s ‘Object of the Month’ provides an opportunity to explore interesting and unusual objects from our stores. 

August’s Objects of the Month have been chosen by Jenny Oxley, Collections Officer (Human History)

Wampum is a traditional shell bead of the Eastern Woodlands indigenous tribes in North America. It includes white shell beads hand fashioned from the North Atlantic channeled whelk shell and white and purple beads made from the quahog or Western North Atlantic hard-shelled clam.

The highly decorative wampum belt on the right is currently on display in the Museum’s world cultures gallery, whilst the remaining bead strings and belt are currently on display at The Box in Plymouth for an ongoing touring exhibition commemorating Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy with the exhibition title Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America, in association with Wampanoag partners in the US.

Between May and July the museum’s wampum items were visited at the Box in Plymouth by over 25,000 people. 

New Archaeological Treasure Acquisitions

Roman ring and silver coins

Saffron Walden Museum celebrates Uttlesford’s ancient heritage with three new archaeological treasures on display from 10 June.

The first two are a gold Roman ring from Broxted, set with a polished amethyst, and a hoard of ten silver coins from Barnston. The coins date from AD 395-402 and were probably buried in the early fifth century. When the last Roman legion left Britain in 410 and the supply of new coins dried up, silver coins like these continued in use into the fifth century, and are often found in hoards. The ring and coins were metal-detector finds and acquired by the Museum through the Treasure Act, with thanks to the Gibson Walden Fund who generously supported the purchase of the ring.

 

Ring surrounded by the 10 silver coins is                      © Saffron Walden Museum

 

 

 

Close-up of ring with amethyst                             ©Portable Antiquities Scheme

 

 

 

Bronze Age Gold Bracelets

This pair of solid gold bracelets, found in North-west Essex are nearly 3,000 years old. They date from the late Bronze Age, around 900 – 750 AD and seem to have been deliberately buried on their own. The Museum purchased them through the Treasure Act thanks to generous support from the Arts Council England / V&A Purchase Grant Fund, Art Fund, the Beecroft Bequest and two local donors.

       

Two members of Creative Walden’s Writers’ Room model the Bronze Age bling!

Credits

ACE / V&A Purchase Grant Fund:   www.vam.ac.uk/purchasegrantfund  

Art Fund: Twitter and Instagram @artfund  Facebook  facebook.com/artfunduk

For website include link to  https://www.artfund.org

Object of the Month – June 2021

A humpback whale leaping out of the sea. One flipper visible pointing left.

Humpback whale photographs taken by Barry Kaufmann-Wright in New Zealand, in 2013.

BK-W © Saffron Walden Museum

Image 1 of 5

BK-W © Saffron Walden Museum

All Images BK-W © Saffron Walden Museum

Barry took and kept over 72,000 photographs in his lifetime, almost all of wildlife and the countryside. Barry grew up in Buckinghamshire but his first job was at Jersey Zoo, working for the famous naturalist Gerald Durrell.
When he returned to the UK, Barry joined Essex police and was posted to Thaxted, where he began duties as Wildlife Crime Officer and, later, Wildlife Liaison Coordinator for Essex. His photographs from all over the world are a modern treasure in the Museum’s collection, which also includes two slide projectors which he used when giving talks – up to 250 times a year (that’s 5 per week)!
Barry’s wife Pat very kindly donated his photographs and equipment following his death in 2016.

Humpback whales live in oceans all over the world, except the far north of the Arctic Ocean and around Antarctica in the Southern Ocean, where the sea is covered in ice. Whales are mammals, so sea ice stops them coming to the surface to breathe air.
They are grouped into four major populations in the north Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Southern Ocean and Indian Ocean. They usually migrate between summer and winter ranges, but there are year-round groups around Britain and Norway, and in the Arabian Sea between India and east Africa.

– They can grow up to 16 metres long
Humpbacks are one of the largest whale species. Females are slightly larger than males, usually up to 16m (50ft) long. They can weigh 30 tonnes – the same as 2½ double-decker buses.

This picture shows the size of a humpback whale compared to a human swimming next to it, and its long pectoral fins. Image: Jjw, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

– They have ‘big wings’
The scientific name of the humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, means ‘big wing of New England’. Their ‘big wings’ are their giant pectoral fins – one female had fins that were 6m (20ft) long, as tall as a giraffe!
The ‘New England’ part comes from where humpback whales were first discovered by European whalers, off the coast of New England in the far north-east of the USA.

– Each animal’s tail is unique
A whale’s tail is called a fluke, and has a wavy pattern along the rear edge. Like our fingerprints, this wavy pattern is unique to each whale and is an easy way to identify animals in a group.
Compare this image to Barry Kaufmann-Wright’s photograph of a humpback’s fluke, above.

Image: Terry Howard CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

– They use nets to catch fish
Humpbacks migrate between summer and winter ranges and only eat for 6 months of the year, in the cooler waters of their summer range. Hunting and eating for 22 hours a day means they can build up enough fat reserves to survive their winter breeding season without eating.
Some populations of humpbacks have learned to feed in groups using the ‘bubble net’ technique and use vocal calls to work together. The whales swim in circles below a school of fish, blowing bubbles from their blowholes to create a ‘net’ that the fish won’t swim through. When one whale gives a feeding call, all the whales swim upwards inside the net with their mouths open to catch the fish.

A humpback whale using the bubble net technique on its own. Image: Christin Khan, NOAA/NEFSC, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

– They sieve their food
Humpbacks are one of a group of whale species called baleen whales, which have bony, comb-like plates inside their mouths. With a mouth full of water and food animals, baleen whales partly close their mouths, and push water out through the baleen plates using their tongue. The baleen lets the water through but keeps in food such as fish and krill, which the whale then swallows.

Baleen plates and bristles in the mouth of a young gray whale. Image: Marc Webber/USFWS, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Whale ear bone, probably from  North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica)

The North Pacific right whale is a baleen whale like the humpback.
This bone is the tympanic bulla and may have come from a North Pacific right whale. It’s a hollow shape but made of heavy, dense bone which helps sound resonate in the whale’s middle ear, inside the head. In life, it would have been attached to the petrosal bone, which has snapped off.

Smaller bones called the hammer, anvil and stirrup would sit inside the hollow space, and actually transmit the sound from the outer inner to the inner ear, just like in humans.

The North pacific right whale got its name because it is a large whale (up to 18m long but weighing 80 tons) with plenty of valuable blubber, it moved slowly, and would float after it was killed. It was the ‘right’ whale to go for because it was easy to catch and made lots of money for the whalers.

Image: John Durban (NOAA), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

More than 15,000 were killed by whalers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, estimates say there are fewer than 400 North Pacific right whales left, split between an eastern and a western population, making them the smallest known population of all whale species, As a whole, they are listed as Endangered on the IUCN red list, while the eastern population is Critically Endangered, with less than 40 animals.

Use this link to listen to a song about the dangers of whaling, based on the songwriter’s own experiences in Australia in the 1950s – www.swmuseumlearning.com/general-5

On this Day……7th April 1914…….The Great Fire at Little Chesterford

On the 7th April 1914, a fire broke out at Bordeaux farm in the parish of Littlebury.  Newspaper reports at the time suggested that in high winds, sparks from a traction engine caught light to some dry thatch.  The flames ran along the river path to Little Chesterford and then spread rapidly across the village.  Many of the timber framed thatched properties were burnt to the ground whilst the ones built using clunch (chalk bedded in rammed powered chalk) fared better.      

The fire also highlighted the lack of effective fire-fighting equipment and poor communication that existed between local fire fighters at that time.  Littlebury had no fire pump, whilst Little Chesterford had only a small portable one for estate purposes.  The closest fire engine was based at the Mill in Great Chesterford, but it took over half an hour to attend once the alarm had been raised.  The Saffron Walden brigade was hampered in its efforts to attend, as they reportedly “lost their coal on the journey to the fire.”  Eventually additional brigades from Hinxton, Audley End estate and Sawston attended as well as the police, but the response had sadly come too late to save many of the properties.    

Within 30 minutes of the fire starting it had already destroyed 2 farms, 2 pubs (The Crown and The Bushel & Strike) and 9 houses, leaving 43 out of 100 villagers homeless. The fire had taken everyone by surprise and spread so quickly that the alarm had been raised too late to make a difference.   The town’s labourers working in the fields saw the fire spreading at huge speed, they returned home to find their wives and children making frantic efforts to save themselves and their belongings.

Newspaper reports from the time tell the dramatic story of 100 year old Mrs Law who was rescued from her burning first floor room by Stacey Dyer and her son, who lifted her into a wheelbarrow and got her quickly to safety. Stacey Dyer was reportedly scarred on his face for the rest of his life following his heroism.  It must have been pandemonium as villagers and their animals ran from the flames.  One baby was missing for 2 hours before it was found safe.      

Photographs show the village roads strewn with salvaged furniture and crowds gathering shocked by the scale of the fire and how quickly it had spread. The landlady of the Bushel and Strike (Pampisford Brewery) hastily prepared a shed so that they could continue to serve drinks to their shell-shocked customers.  A fire relief committee was established and the village reading room was used as a shelter for the homeless and store for their surviving belongings.  A fundraising campaign was advertised in the Daily Mail Newspaper. However, not everyone appreciated outside help, with Reverend John Stewart, vicar of both Chesterfords quoted in a subsequent edition of the newspaper as saying:

“We’re a proud people and like to help ourselves. Tell all the kind people who want to send money that we thank them, but do not need their help.”

Cheques from the Daily Mail campaign were reportedly returned to their senders! Archive material suggests local gentry stepped in and helped with the rebuilding work and financial loss.  Lessons were learnt following the fire, as all the local brigades vowed to work on better communication and to pool resources.

Object of the Month : April 2021

April’s Object of the Month has been chosen by Jenny Oxley, Collections Officer (Human History) and is not strictly one object but a collection, in this case, items made from barkcloth, which form part of the museum’s world cultures collections.

The museum holds around 80 barkcloth items, originating from all around the world, but largely from the Pacific region. Over the last year the museum has been involved in an international project: “A Living Tradition: Expanding engagement with Pacific barkcloth” being led by Glasgow University, which has provided us a great opportunity to shed more light on the cultural traditions surrounding their production, design and use. 

Barkcloth is made from the inner bark of paper mulberry, breadfruit or banyan trees, which is soaked and stretched, then naturally dyed and hand-painted, printed or stencilled, to create often highly decorative barkcloths (sometimes referred to as Tapa).  It is believed there are over 90 different pattern variations in existence.  The barkcloths are used for utilitarian items as well as for ceremonial purposes. 

In addition to large textile rolls and flat sections of barkcloth, the museum also holds clothing made from barkcloth. Notable examples include a barkcloth poncho believed to have originated from Samoa, as well as a lace-bark dress and matching bonnet from Jamaica, which were donated to the museum in 1833 by the Marchioness Cornwallis.