Category Archives: Object of the Month

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.

“The Dig” on Netflix & it’s Saffron Walden Museum connections

Have you been watching “The Dig” on Netflix, which explores the excavation of the Great Ship Burial at Sutton Hoo (1939), based on John Preston’s novel.

Many of the characters depicted are inspired by real people, including one connected to Saffron Walden Museum.

Guy Maynard (1877-1968) was the museum’s Curator between 1904 and 1920, having initially been a mechanical engineer in the gun trade. Guy succeeded the 1st paid Curator, his father, George Nathan Maynard (b. 1828, Curator 1880-1904).

In 1920 Guy left Saffron Walden to become Curator of Ipswich Museum (1920-1932). He also became secretary and editor of the Prehistoric Society (1921–1936).

In 1937 as curator of Ipswich Museum, he was invited to visit the Sutton Hoo estate by its owner Edith Pretty and Vincent Redstone, a local historian. The wheels were then set in motion to explore the site. Little did they know then, that what they would unearth would completely transform our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon period. The site began to be excavated in 1938, by a team which included Maynard. The archaeological finds from the site were placed on display at Ipswich Museum and Maynard published a number of articles about them. He liaised with the British Museum about the excavation project.  

However, as the true archaeological significance of the site was revealed, tensions began to rise between Maynard & the Ipswich Museum team on one side and Charles Phillips, the new site archaeologist on the other. Maynard was angry that the finds were now being sent straight to the British Museum. There were increasingly arguments about physical access to the site and who should brief the press. Later Maynard gave evidence at the inquest which gifted the excavated finds back to the landowner Edith Pretty in Suffolk, but she ultimately gifted them back to the nation. Sadly, Guy Maynard and Charles Phillips never did resolve their issues and decided to avoid each other until Maynard retired from Ipswich Museum in 1952.

Photo Description: Guy Maynard wearing a flat cap and plus fours stood at the entrance to Saffron Walden Museum in 1912.

Object of the Month – February 2021

Water voles are probably best known from the character ‘Ratty’ from The Wind in the Willows. Recently described as “Britain’s fastest, declining mammal”, they are making a comeback thanks to careful wildlife management and the return of a locally extinct predator – the polecat.

Water vole © Saffron Walden Museum.

Water voles are about the same size as a brown rat, but with a furry, much shorter tail, and small ears. Today, they are a semi-aquatic mammal, relying heavily on streams and rivers for food and shelter – they use their teeth to dig burrows into steep banks to shelter and raise their young.

Do water voles need water?

But it wasn’t always this way. They don’t show any of the usual adaptations for a water-based mammal, such as webbed feet and a ‘keeled’ tail (flattened sideways but taller top-to-bottom), both of which make otters very strong swimmers.
In the 1500s, rewards for hunting ‘rats’ may actually have referred to ‘water voles’ that lived entirely on land. Their burrowing habits and herbivorous diet would have made them an agricultural pest, which would explain the rewards paid for hunting them. Modern water voles are always found on waterways, so any hunting must have succeeded in wiping out fully-terrestrial water voles.

A population vole-ercoaster

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the number of water voles in the UK plummeted, making them Britain’s fastest-declining mammal. Surveys of water vole territories in Essex showed that  81% of recent territories were still occupied in 1990, but by 2005, only 7.5% of territories were still occupied in certain areas.
Such a drastic decline couldn’t just be down to habitat loss, and they are resistant to pollution – water vole colonies live in the banks of streams which run from landfill sites along the Thames estuary, and on rubbish-choked streams near Rainham.

Studies by Essex Wildlife Trust showed that crashes in water vole numbers closely followed local increases in the number the invasive American mink. These animals are not native to the UK, and became established after escaping or being released from fur farms from the 1950s onwards. Mink will hunt water voles in their burrows and in water, and a female can destroy a water vole colony in one breeding season. The water vole’s usual predators only hunt on land, and are too big to fit in their burrows.

American mink. © Saffron Walden Museum.

Essex Wildlife Trust began work in 2007 to control mink numbers in key water vole strongholds, allowing water voles to recover, and spread. In 2012, more areas were put under mink control, and water vole colonies were relocated from sites destroyed by development along the Thames and M25. Surveys in 2013 showed that these colonies had survived and spread, with several new colonies established along the river Colne and its tributaries.

Ratty’s new best friends

Since 2000, wildlife surveys have found an ever-increasing number of polecats, a native predator which had been extinct in Essex for over 100 years. Polecats were hunted to near extinction across the UK by gamekeepers, who treated them as dangerous vermin, and they were also easily caught and killed in rabbit traps, which fell out of use in the 1950s. Polecats have probably spread into Essex from a targeted release in Hertfordshire in 1982-3.

Natural Sciences Officer, James Lumbard, with the skin of a recenltly-mounted polecat. The polecat was brought to the Museum after being found dead at the roadside. Image © Saffron Walden Museum.

Otter © Saffron Waledn Museum. This otter is on view in the Victorian Museum Workroom display when the Musuem is open.

Informal tracking and recording also suggests that the return of polecats may be helping water voles spread and recover more quickly, by reducing mink numbers. The same is true for otters, which are now returning to Essex, after being declared locally extinct in 1986. Both of these animals are native predators that rarely hunt water voles, but will compete with the American mink for food and territory, and are also big enough to hunt or kill mink. There are no studies to confirm it yet, but it could be very good news for water voles, and wildlife-lovers across Essex.

References

Are the otter and ​polecat combining to reduce mink numbers? East Anglian Daily Times, first published 31 March, 2019. Accessed 29.1.2021: https://www.eadt.co.uk/news/business/rise-in-polecats-and-otters-hit-mink-2562736

Mammals of Essex by John Dobson and Darren Tansley, 2014.

Object of the Month – January 2021

These Snowdrops from Littlebury in Essex are January’s ‘Object of the Month’. The snowdrops were collected by George Stacey Gibson in a meadow at Littlebury in March 1864, so these preserved plants are 156 years old.

George Stacey Gibson of Saffron Walden published the first Flora of Essex in 1862. This is an illustration of Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, from volume five of the Museum’s copy of his flora.

Herbarium

Specimens of these snowdrops are preserved in Saffron Walden Museum’s herbarium collection of dried plants. The herbarium contains plant specimens collected by botanists in Essex and it is now more accessible at the new museum store. The collection is an invaluable record of the plants found in this region and has been used to produce Floras for Essex and Cambridgeshire.

To preserve the plants they 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, or a label which is fixed to the sheet. Each herbarium sheet represents a biological record of where a plant species was found at a particular time.

Flora

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 using the Museum herbarium 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. The Museum’s copy of the Flora of Essex by George Stacey Gibson, 1862, includes so many beautiful coloured illustrations of plants from English Botany  by James Sowerby (1757-1822) that it has expanded to six volumes which are each bound in green leather.

The snowdrops were chosen by Sarah Kenyon, one of the Natural Sciences Officers at the Museum. These beautiful little plants produce their white flowers from January to March and they signify that spring is on its way. Snowdrops grow at the entrance to the Museum on Museum Street. We look forward to welcoming you back to Saffron Walden Museum later in 2021.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Images (top to bottom, left to right):

A herbarium sheet of snowdrop plants collected at Littlebury in 1864.

Snowdrop Gibson Flora. An illustration of snowdrop in the Flora of Essex by George Stacey Gibson, 1862.

The historic label for the herbarium sheet.

Object of the Month – December 2020

Karl Wesche (1925-2005), Sculpture: Deutschland 1946

Despite the museum having been physically closed to the public because of Covid-19 lockdowns for many months, we have thankfully continued to receive many interesting research enquiries. Maybe in lockdown, some academic researchers had fewer competing distractions!  For us working behind the scenes, the constant flow of research enquiries, was a godsend and ensured the collections have still been utilised.

One of the researchers who contacted us is working on his PhD, the first ever in-depth academic study into the life and work of the famous artist Karl Weschke. The museum holds a very evocative sculpture by Weschke of a weeping mother and child, titled ‘Deutschland 1946’ which he produced using clay he dug up at the Radwinter POW Rehabilitation camp when he was interred there.  Some have claimed it may even be the artist’s earliest known work.   

Weschke was born in central Germany near Gera in 1925 and became a member of the Hitler Youth, volunteering for parachute training in the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. In 1945, he was described as “insolent” when he was captured and ended up in a camp for hard-line prisoners in Caithness.  His mother petitioned for him to be freed in a prisoner exchange, but it fell through.  It was eventually decided that he was young and didn’t really pose any real threat, so he was moved to a more lenient student’s POW camp at Radwinter.    

Radwinter North camp had been established in the grounds of the requisitioned Radwinter Rectory, now known as Radwinter Manor. The camp was the brainchild of Charles Stambrook, a Jewish refugee from Vienna.  It was intended to be a way to reach out to those it was felt could be “re-educated.”

The German POWs regularly visited local families, as it was felt that this would help “rehabilitate” and integrate them better into the local community. Weschke regularly visited Bessie Midgeley at Larchmount on London Road, Saffron Walden with other POWS and she encouraged his artistic talents.  He painted scenery for the POW’s theatrical performances.  He became an art student at Cambridge using their studios to work on his sculpture and carvings.  He later went to St. Martins, before abandoning sculpture for painting and found acclaim as a leading artist of the Cornish School, having moved there in 1955.  He achieved national and international recognition relatively late in his career. A one-man show at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, in 1980, prompted the Tate to start acquiring examples of his paintings and Tate St Ives held an exhibition of Weschke’s work in 2004.  His obituary from February 2005 makes fascinating reading about his life and work. 

The sculpture we hold is believed to have been given by Weschke as a leaving present to Kelvin Osborn, who was then the YMCA Welfare Officer at the Radwinter camp. Decades later, Osborn donated the sculpture (by which time Weschke was now a famous artist!) for fundraising to the Friend’s School, Saffron Walden for an overseas development project they were undertaking.  It was purchased by Jean Strachan for £20 in the 1960s and it was later used again in the 1980s for fundraising for one of the school’s other overseas development projects, a water scheme in Bolivia.  The item remained unsold, so the family put in the donation money themselves and retained the sculpture.  The sculpture isn’t something which would naturally be displayed in a family home as it is quite raw.  The family eventually donated the sculpture to the Museum in 1984.