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Behind the scenes

2 Posts tagged with the british_museum tag

Some time ago I got a tip-off from my regular library source about the existence of a mineralised human skull in our collection. All she could tell me was that a scientist had been down to consult a book that contained some information about it; but she wasn't sure what book it was.


Armed with the scientist's name, and with visions of the crystal clear skulls of ancient Mesoamerican - and more recently, Indiana Jones - legend circling my mind, I set off to find out more.


But like the coded letter from Indy's old friend Oxley, which lead him to a Peruvian psychiatric hospital, and the interpretation of symbols scrawled therein which lead to the subsequent discovery of the grave of a sixteenth-century Conquistador which contained a crystal skull, my library tip off set in motion an epic series of twists and turns I had to navigate in order to track down our specimen and record its story in this here blog.


After months of emails and answer phone messages, conflicting schedules and workloads that didn't permit a spare moment to meet, I received an unexpected call from a scientist on the coast of Cornwall.

Hi, it's (Minerals Collection Manager) Mike Rumsey here. I'm on holiday right now, but I've got a 15 minute walk by myself back to my car so I thought I'd call you to talk about the skull. What would you like to know?


Hooray, I cheered internally, and replied: 'Everything!' And so he began:

It's a Hans Sloane specimen which dates to the foundation of the Museum, and we can trace it back quite a long way. We know that Sloane got it from the collection of a guy called Cardinal Filippo Gualtieri after Gualtieri died in 1728.


There's not many things we can trace back that far in the Mineral Collection.


It's a bit of a curiosity, really. It's supposedly the skull of someone who had fallen into the Tiber river in Rome. It's covered in a deposit called travertine.


Sadly for my crystal skull fantasy, Rumsey revealed that the skull is in fact a creamy limestone colour (not clear), and contains no crystal points (and probably never did). But, he continued:

It's got what looks like a handle attached to it. That sounds a bit morbid, but there's no evidence it was ever used as a drinking vessel. We think it's a rib bone of the same skeleton the skull came from.


Scientifically, we've not really done a great deal of work on it, although quite recently it was CT-scanned. I think they did find out that the skull is still in there, not completely replaced, which is quite interesting.



An image of the skull from the late eighteenth-century book Museum Britannicum, being an exhibition of a great variety of antiquities and natural curiosities belonging to the British Museum, by Jan van Rymsdyk. This was the tome that sparked the original tip-off.



A surface scan of the mineralised skull, which once belonged to Sir Hans Sloane.


Indeed, Farah Ahmed, manager of the Museum's X-Ray CT Scan Facility, confirmed Rumsey's belief.

Of all the skulls I've had come my way, this is probably one of the most well preserved. And considering the fact that you couldn't see it, and we had no idea what level it might have been preserved at underneath  - it's pretty special. The whole skull is intact, with only a small bit of damage above the nasal cavity, which is surprising, considering it must have had a bit of a bashing.


That's a rib going through its mouth. We think the whole body went in, and then the commotion and the motion of the river over time broke it up and just that rib got lodged there.



An internal image showing the preserved and intact skull, and rib bone, under the travertine deposit.


The mineralised skull is currently on long-term loan to the British Museum, and can be seen on display in the King's Library, home to their permanent Enlightenment exhibition.


It is perhaps fitting that this specimen is no longer (at least for the next 25 years or so) at the Museum, as I am about to leave the Museum, too. The completion of my quest to track down, and uncover the history of, our mineralised skull marks my final Behind the Scenes blog before I move on to career pastures new.


Thanks for reading.


I spent my formative years living by the beach, so the idea of being able to swim unhindered by lungs that need air to absorb oxygen was a fantastical one. Yes, I daydreamed about being a mermaid.


And, a few years ago, I discovered that mermaids were more than just an object of my imagination, or of myth and fairytale: they were real. Well, at least they were in the form of compound constructions for curiosity cabinets and travelling sideshows...


There are two types of 'mermaids' in natural history: the monkey fish and the 'jenny haniver':


As the name suggests, the monkey fish is comprised of the head and torso of a monkey (carved out of wood) and the tail of a fish, often with additional papier-mâché elements plus wood and wire for structure and support. The jenny haniver is constructed from a guitar fish (part of the Rhinobatidae family of rays) and has been fashioned since at least the 16th century, initially in the image of the lethal basilisk before (by way of dragon, devil and angel) taking on a more human form and being presented as a mermaid.



The mermaid of myth and legend, as depicted by painter John William Waterhouse (left), and mermaids of "reality", aka monkey fish, belonging to the British Museum (top right, © The Trustees of the British Museum) and the Horniman Museum (bottom right).



Ollie Crimmen, the Museum's fish curator, who also has a bit of a soft spot for mermaids, says it's a shame we don't have a monkey fish at the Museum, but was keen to discuss with me the two jenny hanivers held in our stores:

I think when people look at these things with modern eyes they think "how can people believe it?"


[But, in centuries past] when somebody went over the horizon in a ship they were more out of touch than astronauts are today. When they came back, if they came back, there was a huge expectation: "you must have seen something fantastic, you must have brought something back". There was a pressure to have seen marvellous things. It might sound mad to us, but it was the sheer pressure of the expectation of what you've seen once you'd gone over the horizon.


And those who had not been on the journey, who had not seen fantastic, foreign things, were willing to believe whatever was presented to them as fact. For how could they know any different without having ever seen it in the flesh themselves? Remember my mention in a previous blog about the 'legless bird of paradise'?


On the other hand, nature does come up with some very real, very strange creatures. Consider the platypus: when it was discovered in the 18th century many scientists had difficulty believing that its mix of reptilian and mammalian features could be genuine.


The Museum has one quite big jenny haniver which measures 54cm in height, and another 'more quaint, smaller one' that's much older, Ollie says. He's not sure of their origin, but suggests that Museum scientist Peter Dance 'maybe had a go' at making one.


The suggestion is not completely off the mark. In his book Animal Fakes and Frauds, Dance describes buying a jenny haniver in London's Soho around the 1960s or 70s. Perhaps this is the specimen now in our collection.

When I first began gathering material for this book, I found that jenny hanivers were still being made. I bought one in London. According to the proprietor of the shop in Soho, whence I obtained it, it was said to have come from the Gulf of Mexico. It was, he said, a very good selling line, and I know it did not take him long to sell the others he had.


jenny haniver double.jpg

The Museum's large jenny haniver specimen, front (left) and back (right). It measures 54cm tall and 29cm across.


There is no definitive answer as to where the name jenny haniver originates, although many cite 'Anvers' (the French name for Antwerp), as a source, as it was on the coasts of Belgium and Holland that these mermaids were said to have been caught.


Dance's book also includes a passage from Australian ichthyologist Gilbert P Whitley describing how jenny hanivers are made:

...[by] taking a small dead ray, curling its side fins over its back, and twisting its tail into any required position, a piece of string is tied round the head behind the jaws to form a neck and the ray is dried in the sun. During the subsequent shrinkage, the jaws project to form a snout and a hitherto concealed arch of cartilage protrudes so as to resemble folded arms. The nostrils, situated a little above the jaws, are transformed into a pair of eyes, the olfactory laminae resembling eyelashes. The result of this simple process, preserved with a coat of varnish and perhaps ornamented with a few dabs of paint, is a jenny haniver, well calculated to excite wonder in anyone interested in marine curios.


What is presented as the face of the jenny haniver  is actually the underside of the guitar fish. The ray's real eyes (located on its upperside) are sometimes obscured by curled pectoral fins. Ollie says:

Some people think it's dark, but it's a part of cultural history, of natural history.



Another jenny haniver specimen, which featured in the Museum's 2010 exhibition, The Deep.