Author Archives: Museum Editor

Identification – Ammonite in sandstone

One of the most interesting parts of working in museums is helping people discover something new (and I usually learn something new myself). A really important way for museums to do their job as a welcoming public source of information is by identifying mystery objects that you might find on a walk, on a seaside holiday or even in your garden or attic.
Anyone can bring in an item for us to identify, for free, and you should have an answer within a few weeks. It might look a bit like this:

Ammonite in sandstone

This piece of stone is a Jurassic fine-grained sandstone or sandy limestone, which may be from the Lias Group rock unit found on the Dorset coast, although it has a sandier appearance and rougher texture than the rocks usually found in this formation. If it is from the Dorset Lias formation, the rock is roughly 195 to 200 million years old, and the fossils it contains would be a species of Promicroceras ammonite, which are common along the Dorset coast.

Fossil of a Promicroceras ammonite.
Image: Ammojoe CC BY-SA 3.0 (Wikimedia Commons)

The bristleworm, Polydora ciliata. Image: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History [CC0] (Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The surface pattern of pores in the rock was made much more recently. They were probably made by a species of Polydora worm, probably Polydora ciliata. P. ciliata is a small, rock- or shell-boring worm which can grow up to 30mm (1 1/8 in.) long, and is also known as a bristleworm.

P. ciliata burrows in stone. Image: Rosser1954 CC BY-SA 3.0 (Wikimedia Commons)

Bristleworms are thought to burrow into rock or shell by scraping away at the surface using specialised bristles on the fifth segment of its body, although it may also secrete chemicals such as weak acid to help. It digs a U-shaped burrow, which appears on rocks as distinctive small slots or a ‘sunglasses’ shape.

 – James Lumbard, Natural Sciences Officer.

 

Object of the Month – February 2020

Snowy owl from front left angle. White breast plumage, with brown bars to sides and legs. Brown spotted plumage on wings. Mounted on a wooden post. Against a dark grey background.
Snowy owl from front left angle. White breast plumage, with brown bars to sides and legs. Brown spotted plumage on wings. Mounted on a wooden post. Against a dark grey background.

A female snowy owl in the Museum’s collections. Image: © Saffron Walden Museum.

Snowy Owl

A female snowy owl, Bubo scandiacus. Female snowy owls have spotted and striped plumage (above), while the male bird is almost pure white (below, left). Snowy owls live in the Arctic Circle where they hunt for food over tundra and upland moors. These impressive predators eat lemmings and other rodents, birds and rabbits, and only very rarely visit the far north of Britain. This mounted skin was donated to Saffron Walden Museum in 2003 for the Education collection. It has come out of the store for Museums at Night, exhibitions and teaching sessions.

A snowy owl from front angle. Pure white plumage of male, with a few dark spots visble on left wing. Against a pale background.

A male snowy owl. Image: Barry Kaufmann-Wright © Saffron Walden Museum.

An eagle owl from front left angle. Tawny under-plumage with patterns of dark brown and pale grey in bars and stripes. Vivid orange iris to eyes, and large horn-like feathers. Perched on a wooden post. Against a snowy backdrop.

An eagle owl. Image: Kamil. Corrections Piotr_J [CC BY-SA 3.0] (Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know?

All living things have a common name, like ‘snowy owl’, and a scientific name. The scientific name is a combination of two words which are only used for that species. Humans are Homo sapiens, and our extinct close relatives the Neanderthals are Homo neanderthalensis. We are different species in the same genus, Homo.
But scientific names can change. In 2004, the scientific name of the snowy owl was changed from Nyctea scandiaca to Bubo scandiacus, after years of research on their genetics and the shape of their bones. This showed that they were more closely related to horned owls and eagle owls (above, right), and should use the same genus name, Bubo.

You can see the snowy owl as Object of the Month until 29th February.

Object of the Month – October 2019

This case is arranged to show which butterflies live in the Saffron Walden area today (left), and which are extinct (right).

These butterflies died off mainly because of changing land use in the 19th & 20th centuries. Butterflies such as the Adonis blue (1) and chalk-hill blue (2) prefer large areas of chalk wildflower meadow, grazed by sheep and cattle. However, much of this land was converted to crop farming in the 1800s and these specialist insects died off. Other changes, such as the end of coppicing in woodlands, removed the open wooded habitat that butterflies such as the grizzled skipper (3) thrive in.

Species like the purple emperor (4) and white admiral (5) feed on the sugary waste products from aphids (honeydew). Pollution from coal burning may have contributed to these butterflies’ extinction as the toxins could dissolve into the honeydew on the leaf surface.

However, 2019 has been a very good year for some impressive larger butterflies too, with lots of painted ladies (6) arriving in Britain from the Mediterranean as they migrate north. Protected roadside verges in Uttlesford also provide good chalk grassland habitat for species such as the small copper (7).

There is also some very good news for three ‘extinct’ species (green boxes in main image). The purple emperor (4) returned to Uttlesford about two years ago and has been seen in Shadwell Wood and Rowney Wood, two local Essex Wildlife Trust nature reserves. The silver-washed fritillary (8) was first seen again about five years ago and is now known from Shadwell Wood, Rowney Wood and Hatfield Forest. The marbled white (9) has also been spotted at Harrison Sayer and Noakes Grove nature reserves and along some protected roadside verges over the last two years. The return of these three species in protected areas of countryside and special habitats show just how important effective conservation efforts are in supporting our native wildlife.

You can learn more about how humans have affected local environments and wildlife, for bad and for good, in the Take Away the Walls exhibition until 3 November.
Find out how you can help local wildlife groups on the Discovery Centre noticeboard next to the stick insects, and in the Take Away the Walls exhibition.

 

 

Object of the Month – June 2019

Did You Know?

The ‘cabbage white’ butterfly is actually two closely related species – the large white (Pieris brassicae) and the small white (Pieris rapae). Apart from the size difference, the large white has darker black wing spots, and a dark black band at the front of its wings. Both lay their eggs on cabbages in gardens, allotments and farms, as it is the preferred food of their caterpillars. The large white takes the outer leaves, while the small white prefers the soft inner leaves. The adult (imago) of both species often feeds on nectar from buddleia flowers.

Cabbage white butterflies “Insects Injurious to Vegetables”. SAFWM : 118007. © Saffron Walden Museum

The display has a male and female of each species, with the male at the top and female below. There is also a caterpillar of the large white butterfly, which is yellow and hairy, with black bumps on its skin. The small white’s caterpillar is pale green and hairless with a narrow yellow stripe on either side. The cabbage leaf in the box has some caterpillar feeding damage.

Caterpillar of the small white. CC BY-SA 3.0, Harald Süpfle.

Chrysalis of the small white. CC BY-SA 2.5, James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster.

Life cycle

These butterflies have two ‘broods’ per year, and three in a good year. In the spring, butterflies which survived the winter as a chrysalis emerge as adults in April and May. They lay eggs in May and June (spring brood), which hatch into caterpillars in June and July. The caterpillars feed and grow quickly, and shed their skin 4 times as they grow. After about a month, the caterpillar finds a sheltered spot to transform into a butterfly in a process called metamorphosis. The caterpillar spins a pad of silk against the surface of its shelter, and sheds it skin again to reveal a hard skin (chrysalis), which has a small hook to keep it attached to the silk.

Adults emerge from the chrysalis about two weeks later, in July and August. They then lay eggs which develop into caterpillars through September and form chrysalises into October. The caterpillars go through a very slow metamorphosis to survive the winter, and emerge as adults the following April and May to start the process again.

Butterfly survival

On the right of the leaf are some cocoons and adults of a parasitic wasp which lays its eggs inside the caterpillars. After hatching, the wasp larvae feed on the caterpillar and eventually kill it, helping to control cabbage white numbers in a natural way. The adult wasp feeds on nectar.

The parasitic wasp, now called Cotesia glomerata. © Albert de Wilde.

Like many insects, these butterflies have declined in number recently. Currently, the large white and small white are not the focus of conservation efforts, but many other more specialist butterflies have declined severely or have gone extinct in Essex since 1900.
You can find out more about local butterflies in the Take Away the Walls exhibition at the Museum.

June’s Object of the Month was chosen by James Lumbard, Natural Sciences Officer.

Image credits

Pieris rapae caterpillar: James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]. Accessed 11/06/2019.

Pieris rapae chrysalis: Harald Süpfle [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]. Accessed 11/06/2019

Parasitic wasp Cotesia glomerata: Copyright © Albert de Wilde – All rights reserved http://www.ahw.me/img/sluipwesp4mm_grootkoolwitje01b.html. Accessed 11/06/2019.

Featured Image – Cabbage whites “Insects Injurious to Vegetables” on display in the Museum © Saffron Walden Museum

 

The polecat comeback

Object of the Month – February 2019

The European polecat, Mustela putorius, was thought to be extinct in Essex since 1880 thanks to persecution from gamekeepers. The first modern sighting was in 1999 near Wendens Ambo and there are now numerous records from north-west Essex, though only from roadkill specimens.

A mounted polecat skin from 1842 and a polecat skull, also from the 1800s.

Continue reading

A bit behind the scenes

An update from James Lumbard, Natural Sciences Officer.

The Geology Gallery received a lot of attention in the run-up to the festive period thanks in no small part to the help provided by Cali, the latest addition to the natural sciences volunteer team. After a short training session in how to carefully clean specimens using a conservation vac and a paintbrush, we were away, and have already cleaned around half of the objects on display at the time of writing. It should be a fairly quick job to finish the rest of the objects in the ‘table-top’ display cases, leaving only a dozen or so in wall-mounted cases. This is part of regular ‘deep cleans’ that help care for museum objects, and will help us double-check and update the information we hold about each object. Many museums are also ‘Accredited’ which means that they uphold certain national standards of collection care, and this work contributes to Saffron Walden Museum maintaining its Accredited status year-on-year. Meanwhile, the photos we take can be used for everything from social media to encouraging researchers to visit the collection.

Fossil ammonite found in Saffron Walden. 150-200 million y.o.

At the start of December I visited the Essex Field Club’s (EFC) annual exhibition and social at Wat Tyler Country Park, near Basildon. The EFC is a volunteer-run society of amateurs and professionals who compile and look after a county-wide database of the wildlife and geology of Essex. The club’s secretary, Fiona Hutchings, very kindly introduced me to members from each specialty so I could speak to them about the natural sciences exhibition this summer, called Take Away the Walls. My plan is to hold a museum-based exhibition showcasing the wildlife of north-west Essex, and to run activities bringing together wildlife organisations and community groups across Uttlesford to help people enjoy the outdoors in new ways that will benefit their own health, and the health of the local environment. The exhibition and activities will really start to take shape behind the scenes soon, so keep your eyes peeled for more updates in the coming months.

Fossil bryozoan in flint. Tiny bryozoa live in coral-like colonies (above), but are much more complex internally.

At the end of this month I will be attending a short training seminar entitled ‘Finding Funds for Fossils, Ferns and Flamingos’, hosted by the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) at the World Museum, Liverpool. NatSCA are a nationwide ‘subject-specialist network’ of museum professionals working in the natural sciences who have an active programme of meetings, training courses and conferences throughout the year. This particular event is all about how to successfully attract funding and support to care for and promote natural sciences collections in museums, and I look forward to putting my new-found knowledge into use to benefit the tens of thousands of natural sciences specimens at Saffron Walden Museum.

Object of the Month – January 2019

The Holly and the Ivy

Holly and Ivy specimens from the herbarium collection of pressed, dried plants mounted on paper sheets. They were collected in 1864 by Joshua Clarke, a Botanist who lived at The Roos farmhouse on Debden Road, Saffron Walden with his brother Joseph. The Holly is from Stansted Mountfitchet and the Ivy was collected in Saffron Walden.

Holly is traditionally used in Christmas decorations.  Did you know that holly and ivy are also a fantastic resource for wildlife? Animals struggle to survive in winter.  Food is hard to find, days are short, the weather is cold and snow can cover the ground.  Small birds and mammals spend all the daylight hours trying to find enough food.  Deciduous trees lose their leaves in winter.  However evergreen trees keep theirs, giving shelter and nesting sites, and their berries provide welcome food.

Female Holly trees produce red berries which are eaten by blackbirds, redwings, fieldfares and song thrushes. Caterpillars of the holly blue butterfly and privet hawkmoth feed on Holly leaves. When food is scarce in autumn and winter Ivy provides nectar, pollen and high calorie black berries. They are essential food for insects, small mammals and a variety of birds.

Come to Saffron Walden Museum to see these remarkably well preserved 154 year old plants, learn more about Joshua Clarke and find out how you can help animals to survive the winter.

On display from Wednesday 2nd January 2019 until the end of the month.

 

 

Ivy, Hedera helix

 

Object of the Month – December 2018

The Piano Hoard Comes Home

In 2017, 913 gold sovereign and half-sovereign coins were discovered in Shropshire, hidden inside a piano. So what is the link with Saffron Walden? How have we acquired such a fascinating assemblage of material? The piano was originally supplied by Beaven & Mothersole Piano Tuners, who were based in 27 West Road, Saffron Walden. Receipts show that they had purchased the piano direct from the London manufacturers, Broadwood & Sons Ltd in 1906.

It was only when the piano was professionally tuned, that the coins were finally discovered, nestled between the keys and the keyboard.

In 1983, the piano was bought by the Hemmings family, residents of Saffron Walden. They owned the piano for 33 years, before moving to Shropshire and gifting it to their local college, The Community College, Bishop’s Castle, completely unaware of what was hidden inside.

Research has shown that the coins found date to between 1847 and 1915; so they originate from the reigns of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V.

It is likely that they were concealed within the piano by a Saffron Walden resident. Some of the cardboard packaging in the pouches, which encased the coins, were taken from Shredded Wheat cereal boxes.

The style of the packaging suggests that the coins were concealed around the time of the Great Depression, when there was great economic hardship across the world.

“The identity of the person who hid the coins and their precise motivation will probably remain a fascinating unanswered question”

Peter Reavill, Shropshire Finds Liaison Officer

When the coins were discovered, they were declared treasure under the Treasure Act 1996, as they were gold coins which were deliberately hidden and no rightful heirs could be traced. At the time of its discovery, this hoard of modern gold coins was the largest of its type.

We are delighted that a representative sample of twelve of the gold coins from the hoard, as well as their packaging and the piano in which they were hidden, have now been acquired by the Museum, as a result of a crowd-funding campaign and generous donations from individuals, as well as the Saffron Walden Round Table and Butler Smith Carriers. This fascinating mystery has captured many people’s imaginations, having received local, regional and national news coverage and it is fantastic to see it going on display in the Museum.  The display will be formally launched at the Museum on Friday 30th November.  

The piano and a representative sample of the hoard will be on display in the Great Hall of the Museum in December, and then the display will be transferred to the Local History Gallery.

Photo credit: Peter Reavill / British Museum

Here’s a sound clip of the piano hoard piano being played by Gail Ford at the launch of the display on 30th November 2018:

Object of the Month – November 2018

2nd Standard of the Royal British Legion by Jenny Oxley, Collections Officer, Human History.

To mark the commemoration of the Centenary of the end of the First World War (1914-1918), November’s Object of the Month is a poignant one.

The Royal British Legion is a charity which provides financial, social and emotional care and support to members and veterans of the British Armed Forces, their families and dependants. The Legion is also the national Custodian of Remembrance and safeguards the Military Covenant between the nation and its Armed Forces and is best known for the annual Poppy Appeal and its emblem the red poppy.  Founded in 1921, the Legion is not just about those who fought in the two World Wars of the last century, but also about those involved in the many conflicts since 1945 and those who are still fighting for the freedom we enjoy today.

The 2nd Saffron Walden Royal British Legion Branch Standard was first sworn in at the Eastern Area Golden Jubilee Rally, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the British Legion on the 26th June 1971 at Newmarket’s July Racecourse.

Over the years it has featured at many local, national and international events, helping to commemorate those who have given military service. It has featured at annual carol services, the Festival of Remembrance at the Albert Hall, the Last Royal Tournament at Earls Court in 1999 and many times for Burma Star Association events, Poppy Race Days at Newmarket Racecourse, and HMS Lapwing Association parades.  It took pride of place at the 80th Anniversary of the Saffron Walden Branch celebrations and played a key role in the 60th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War (1939-1945) commemorations in 2005. 

Parading these standards for many years, can leave them liable to damage as they feature detailed embroidery and brocade, so new ones are established and sworn in, when this is the case. The retired 2nd Standard has now been donated to the Museum, and features as our Object of the Month for November, whilst a new 3rd standard has been sworn in.  On Sunday 11th November, the new standard will form part of the town’s annual Remembrance Sunday Parade and Church service

For more information on the Saffron Walden branch of the Royal British Legion  http://branches.britishlegion.org.uk/branches/saffron-walden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Standard is on display at the Museum until the 1st December, where you can learn more about this object, the role played by the Royal British Legion and the Centenary of the end of the First World War.

Object of the Month – October 2018

October’s Object of the Month is a Roman wine strainer chosen by Carolyn Wingfield, Curator

An Essential Accessory for Wine Drinkers

This fragile bronze vessel was described as a “Roman Bronze colander – origin unknown” in the Museum’s registers when it was acquired in 1927. It was among a list of diverse archaeological, historical and ethnographic objects given by George Morris of The Friends’ School, Saffron Walden. It measures nearly 15cms in diameter and the tiny holes piercing the central bowl form a delicate pattern.

Too delicate to be a colander, it is more accurately described as a wine strainer, which would have been used to filter sediment from wine. It is of fine workmanship, though a little damaged and has in the past been repaired with plastic mesh to support the paper-thin edges where some pieces are missing. The handle is also largely missing, although the end adjoining the pan is visible, repaired in the past with modern solder.

We can now place this wine strainer in context, thanks to finds of similar vessels, often accompanying small Roman bronze saucepans know as trullei (singular, trulleus). Trullei were part of the standard equipment of Roman legionaries, but wine strainers were not everyday items issued to Roman troops, and strainers like ours could have been made in Britain. There are examples of strainers been buried with trullei or bronze bowls, for instance the Kingdtone Deverell hoard, discovered in 2005 and now in Salisbury Museum, and the Langstone hoard from Newport, Wales, found in 2007. The Langstone hoard may have been a ritual deposit made by Britons, but elsewhere, strainers and bronze vessels have been found in graves, as part of the feasting and drinking equipment which accompanied the social elite of late Iron Age and early Roman Britain to the next world.

Certainly at the top of Iron Age society in the Essex region, there were people enjoying wine imported from the Roman world as much as a century before the Claudian invasion of AD 43. We know this from high-status graves where wine amphorae were buried, and you can see examples of such amphorae in Saffron Walden Museum. So our wine strainer could date to around the 1st century AD, either just before or after the Roman conquest. It is a pity that we do not know where it was found, but we can imagine a local British aristocrat using this as part of a wine-drinking ceremony or special feast.

Cheers!

 

The wine strainer is on display at the Museum until 1st November 2018, where you can learn more about this object and life in Roman times.