Category Archives: Object of the Month

Object of the Month – June 2022

June’s object of the month celebrates the Lost Language of Nature project, with repair work to this hen harrier. With Lost Language of Nature, we want to hear your stories about wildlife and nature in your life, or rhymes, songs and sayings for all kinds of animals that you might have heard from parents or grandparents. For example, different old names across the country for hen harriers include Blue sleeves, Vuzz kitt, Grey gled, Furze kite and Goss harrier; or Ringtail for females, like this fragile mounted skin. Head to our website for more information https://www.swmuseumlearning.com/the-lost-language-project

This bird came to the Museum in the 1800s, and was taken from the area around Saffron Walden. Today, hen harriers only live in the north of England, north Wales, in Scotland and on Scottish islands, including Arran and Orkney.

Hen harrier on temporary base during conservation work.

Hen harriers today

Hen harriers are one of the UK’s most endangered birds of prey, with only an estimated 545 breeding pairs left in the country. They are on the RSPB’s Red List of endangered species in Britain, but listed as ‘Least Concern’ globally by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Work carried out by the RSPB suggests that over 2,500 pairs could survive in the UK. They live in open areas with low vegetation, like heather moors.

Between 2014 and 2019, the RSPB ran the LIFE project to learn more about hen harriers in Britain, their movements throughout the year and to understand why their numbers are so low. They tagged over 100 birds that they tracked using satellites, and found that some fly 1000 miles to spend the winter in Spain and Portugal. Not all birds do this though – the brother of one of these wandering birds always stayed within 50 miles of where he hatched.

In the UK, hen harriers are protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, meaning it is illegal to kill, injure or capture the birds, their eggs or nests, or even disturb the birds and their young while they are nesting. Despite this, the study showed that the numbers of breeding hen harriers fell by 24% (about one-quarter) between 2004 and 2016. In particular, the project monitored seven Special Protected Areas in parts of the country where land is managed for driven grouse shooting. In these seven areas, hen harrier numbers fell by over 80%, which suggests that there is deliberate human action to reduce their numbers in these areas.

References

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/hen-harrier/

https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/conservation/projects/hen-harrier-life/about-the-project/

https://community.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/skydancer/b/skydancer

https://community.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/skydancer/b/skydancer/posts/hen-harrier-apollo-bomber-migrate-1000-miles-to-spain

https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/conservation/projects/hen-harrier-life/best-places-to-see-hen-harriersnew-page/

Object of the Month – May 2022

Butterflies to See in May

Two drawers of British butterflies are our ‘Objects of the Month’ for May. They contain some of the butterflies that you might spot visiting your garden or local park during May. These butterfly species are the Brimstone, Green-veined White, Holly Blue, Orange-tip, Peacock, Painted Lady, Red Admiral, Small White and Large White.  The drawers are from a wooden cabinet of butterfly specimens collected in Essex and other places in Britain between 1890 and 1968. The collection was donated to Saffron Walden Museum in 2002.

SAFWM : 2002.110.5 Butterfly cabinet drawer 5 containing Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Painted Lady, Red Admiral and Silver-washed Fritillary butterflies.

Butterflies that may hibernate over winter as adults in the UK include the Brimstone, Red Admiral, Peacock, Comma and Small Tortoiseshell.    This means they can wake up bright and early to make the most of sunny spring days. There are 59 species of butterfly in Britain, 57 that live in the UK and two regular migrants – the Painted Lady and Clouded Yellow.

Butterfly Conservation found that 76% of butterflies have declined in numbers and range (occurrence) over the last 40 years due to habitats being destroyed, pollution, weather patterns and climate change. Gardens and balconies are very important for butterflies because they are wildlife corridors. They cover a large area, which according to the RSPB is about 1,500 square miles or twice the size of Greater London. This habitat provides the flowering plants, such as Buddleia, that butterflies need for nectar, or nettles and thistles which are eaten by caterpillars.

 

SAFWM : 2002.110.2 Butterfly cabinet drawer 2 containing Small White, Green-veined White, Bath White, Orange-tip and Wood White butterflies.

What can you do to help?

Butterfly caterpillars need nettles, thistles and shrubs like Buckthorn to eat, so leave parts of your garden to get wild and overgrown.

Plant cornfield annuals and nectar rich flowering plants such as Buddleia, Lavender, Betony and Red Valerian to provide nectar for butterflies.

Take part in No Mow May or leave part of your lawn uncut until autumn.

Enjoy watching butterflies and do the National Garden Butterfly Survey.

 

SAFWM : 2002.110 Butterflies from cabinet drawers 3, 11 and 1. Brimstone male and female, Holly Blue males upper side and underside and female, Large White butterflies upper side and underside.

The Hadstock ‘Daneskin’ – new research on an old mystery

One of the exciting research projects to involve Museum collections has featured the scrap of alleged ‘Viking skin’ from the ancient north door of St Botolph’s Church, Hadstock. Local folklore holds that it came from a Viking who was flayed alive as a punishment for raiding the Church. Similar stories of so-called ‘Daneskins’ are associated with church doors at Copford, Essex, and Westminster Abbey, London. It is now 20 years since a tiny sample of the Hadstock skin was analysed at Oxford for the BBC TV series Blood of the Vikings (2001) and the results then suggested that its DNA profile was more cow-like than human. Now University of Cambridge researcher Ruairidh Macleod has used a new DNA analysis technique to investigate the Hadstock, Copford and Westminster Abbey ‘Daneskins’ and presented the results at the UK Archaeological Sciences Conference in Aberdeen last week. There is also an article in the New Scientist

https://institutions.newscientist.com/article/2317004-viking-skin-nailed-to-medieval-church-doors-is-actually-animal-hide/

The results confirm that the Hadstock skin is indeed cowhide, and lends weight to the theory that high-status doors, such as important doors in churches, were given hide coverings in the medieval period.

Up in Flames : the lost Roman treasures of Bartlow Hills

The current exhibition All Fired Up! prompts us to consider the local history which has been lost in fires. The fire of 1847 at Great Easton Lodge destroyed some of the most remarkable Roman artefacts ever discovered in the area, from the lavish burials under mounds of Romano-British aristocrats at Bartlow Hills, on the Essex / Cambridgeshire border. Fortunately the finds had been illustrated and published between 1832 and 1840, so we have a good idea of the contents of these great burial mounds, and the luxury goods which were accompanied the dead.

Between 1832 and 1840, the barrows were excavated by John Gage (later known as John Gage Rokewood) for the landowner Henry, Viscount Maynard of Easton Lodge near Dunmow. Saffron Walden Museum’s archives include copies of the original illustrations, published in the journal Archaeologia by the Society of Antiquaries of London, and also large watercolour copies made in 1885 for display in the Museum by its first professional curator, George Nathan Maynard (not related to Viscount Maynard). This selection of images from the Museum’s archives shows just some of wonderful objects discovered, all dating from the first or second centuries AD.

 

A unique bronze enamelled vessel, like a miniature cauldron. This did survive the 1847 fire, though damaged, and was acquired by the British Museum. Saffron Walden Museum has a 19th-century painted plaster copy. (Society of Antiquaries, 1836)

 

 

 

 

 

This beautifully-decorated bronze jug was for serving wine at table. A similar ornate bronze jug was excavated from a burial at Stansted Airport in the late 1980s and is displayed in Saffron Walden Museum. (Society of Antiquaries, 1836)

 

 

 

 

At the heart of one barrow a burial chamber had been constructed of tiles and contained cremated remains in a glass urn, with other vessels. (Watercolour by G N Maynard 1885)

 

 

 

A rare folding stool with an iron frame and bronze terminals. When excavated, it still had remains of the leather straps which formed the seat. (Watercolour by G N Maynard 1885)

 

 

 

 

 

A bronze oil lamp, with other bronze, glass and pottery vessels recovered from one barrow. It is likely that lighted oil lamps were placed in the graves as part of the burial ritual. (Society of Antiquaries, 1836)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pottery bowl. (Watercolour by G N Maynard 1885)

 

 

 

A Plan of the Bartlow Hills in the Parish of Ashdon in Essex by J G Lenny Surveyor Bury St Edmunds 1832

 

 

 

There were seven barrows originally, though some were damaged by agriculture. The largest survives to a height of 15 metres, making it the tallest Roman barrow in western Europe. Today the site is a scheduled monument and can be accessed via public footpaths from the Bartlow-Ashdon road and Bartlow parish church. Saffron Walden Museum also has a few objects from one barrow discovered during earlier investigations in 1815 by Sir Busic Harwood, a Cambridge physician who loved nearby.

Object of the Month – April 2022

The Museum’s ‘Object of the Month’ provides an opportunity to

explore interesting and unusual objects from our stores. 

April’s Object of the Month chosen by Jenny Oxley, Collections Officer (Human History) is a charred key fob discovered after the Rose & Crown fire in the town on Boxing Day 1969. It forms part of the museum’s new exhibition, All Fired Up, by Essex Fire Museum, which charts the history of Essex Fire & Rescue Service (see more below).

At 1.40am on Boxing Day 1969 a fire broke out. Sadly 11 people died in their sleep, unaware that the fire had even taken hold. 29 people were rescued, some having climbed down from the upper floor windows using knotted sheets. The inquest ruled that the fire was caused by a faulty TV in the resident’s lounge overheating.  Three Saffron Walden firemen received commendations. The fire resulted in the government strengthening the fire safety regulations governing hotels and they passed a new Fire Precautions Act (1971). 

The building erected in its place became Boots the Chemist from 1973 onwards. A bunch of grapes carved in oak and a door canopy are all that remain of the original building. 

More detailed information including eyewitness accounts of the fire can be found in Zofia Everett’s 2008 article published in the Saffron Walden Historical Journal and in Paul Wood’s book, titled From Station Officer Drane

The fire understandably still has a major emotional impact on the town’s residents over 50 years on.  

To find out more visit the Museum in April to see this item on display in our new exhibition, All Fired Up. 

Object of the Month – March 2022

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

March’s Object of the Month chosen by Curator Carolyn Wingfield features three clay tobacco pipe bowls, all recently found in the Castle Street area.

Last autumn, archaeologists monitoring building works at the Fry Art Gallery, Bridge End Gardens recovered two pipe bowls.

In December, sharp-eyed pupils from Year 5 at St Mary’s C of E Primary School discovered a clay tobacco pipe while digging in the school grounds.

In early January, the Museum was delighted to welcome a delegation from Year 5, who very kindly gave their find to the Museum.

Fragments of clay tobacco pipes, especially pieces of broken stems, are common finds. The earliest pipes date from the 17th century, following the introduction of tobacco from America.

Clay pipes continued to be made into the 20th century, although by World War I, smokers were turning to cigarettes and briar pipes.

The three pipe bowls from Castle Street date from the 19th century, when clay pipes were made in great quantities all over the country, and many were decorated with designs or motifs moulded in relief.

The pipe bowl from St Mary’s School probably dates from the later 19th century and has a fine band of leafy decoration within a border running down the front and back of the bowl.

The two pipe bowls from the Fry Art Gallery are very different. One is plain, though a small ‘spur’ beneath the bowl is stamped with the maker’s initial ‘W’.

The other bowl has elaborate moulded decoration. On one side is the badge of the Prince of Wales, three ostrich feathers and the motto ‘Ich Dien’ (‘I serve’). On the other side, a soldier fires a rifle from behind a tree. He wears the tall hat of an early 19th century infantryman.

The archaeologists (Archaeological Solutions Ltd) who were monitoring the works, dated the pipe to around 1820-1840 and suggested that it commemorated the Napoleonic Wars.

Such pipes would have been popular with former soldiers, or might be marketed to landlords of pubs named the Prince of Wales. A clay pipe with a plug of tobacco would be sold over the bar for a penny. There was a Prince of Wales pub in London Road, Saffron Walden in the 19th century, but there were also a number of pubs in Castle Street where pipes would be sold and smoked.

Image (left): all three clay pipe bowls found in the Castle Street area. 

Image (centre): St Marys School pipe bowl, showing the distinctive leafy style design 

Image (right): Detail of the Fry Art Gallery pipe bowl, showing an infantry soldier firing a gun

Many thanks to the pupils, staff and governors of St Mary’s C of E Primary School, and to John Ready and the Fry Art Gallery Society for the donation of these pipes and information on their discovery.

Andy Peachey of Wardell Armstrong LLP Archaeological Solutions Ltd provided the identification of the decorated pipe bowl from the Fry Art Gallery.

To find out more visit the Museum in March to see them on display…  

 

Victorian Valentines and more

A bit of Valentine’s related history for February from our collections!

 

An invitation to a Valentine’s ball at Wimbish Village Hall, 12 February 1943.  Miss McQueen was well-known locally she had a small farm at Rowney Corner from which people could buy fresh eggs and she also played the organ in the 1970s at the church in Wimbish.

 

 

 

 

We also have a selection of Victorian Valentines cards. These 19th century designs typically include floral decoupage, lace doilies, ribbon details and lace trimmings. Inside the cards are lovely little poetic verses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

February’s object of the month shows gemstones which are associated with love and romance, to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

 

4 mineral specimens on a white background. Lines of shade cross the image.

Amethyst geode (top left), sapphire (bottom left), ruby crystals in sheet of mica (middle), lapis lazuli (top right).  

They have been chosen by James Lumbard, one of the museum’s Natural Sciences Officers.  Amethyst is the birthstone for February, but as a symbol of love, St Valentine is said to have worn an amethyst ring so Christian couples in Ancient Rome could identify him. Valentine was a priest who carried out forbidden Christian marriages and married young couples, when the Roman empire persecuted Christians and preferred their soldiers to be unmarried men.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lapis lazuli can represent truth and friendship, and in Christianity represents the Virgin Mary. With the blue of the sky and gold of the sun, it represents success in Jewish traditions, while beads found in the ancient town of Bhirrana from 7500 BCE are its oldest known use by people. The remains of Bhirrana are in the Indian state of Haryana.

Sapphires are popular for engagement rings, as used for Lady Diana’s engagement ring from Prince Charles. Sapphire is the traditional gift in the UK for a 45th wedding anniversary and can symbolise truth and faithfulness.

In Ancient Greece and Rome, the word sapphire was used for lapis lazuli, as sapphire was only widely known from the Roman Empire onwards.

To find out more visit the Museum in February to see it on display or check out the Object of the Month Blog article on our website.

Object of the Month – February 2022

February’s Objects of the Month are minerals with connections to love and relationships, in honour of St Valentine’s Day on 14 February.

4 mineral specimens on a white background. Lines of shade cross the image.

Amethyst geode (top left), sapphire (bottom left), ruby crystals in sheet of mica (middle), lapis lazuli (right).

Amethyst is the birthstone for February, but as a symbol of love, St Valentine is said to have worn an amethyst ring so Christian couples in Ancient Rome could identify him. Valentine was a priest who carried out forbidden Christian marriages and married young couples, when the Roman empire persecuted Christians and preferred their soldiers to be unmarried men.

Lapis lazuli can represent truth and friendship, and in Christianity represents the Virgin Mary. With the blue of the sky and gold of the sun, it represents success in Jewish traditions, while beads found in the ancient town of Bhirrana from 7500 BCE are its oldest known use by people. The remains of Bhirrana are in the Indian state of Haryana.

The deep red colour of high-quality rubies means it is associated with love and passion in modern societies. Throughout history it has been popular in Burma (Myanmar), Hindu culture and China as a protective gem in battle or to secure good fortune when put beneath a building’s foundations. In the UK, it is the traditional gift for a 40th wedding anniversary.

Sapphires are popular for engagement rings, as used for Lady Diana’s engagement ring from Prince Charles. Sapphire is the traditional gift in the UK for a 45th wedding anniversary and can symbolise truth and faithfulness. Ruby and sapphire are actually the same mineral (corundum), with different colours depending on small amounts of other metal atoms included in the crystal. Chromium makes the ruby red, while blue sapphires are coloured by iron and titanium.

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