Friday mystery object #260 answer

Last week I broke the news that in October I’ll be taking on the role of curator at the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL. Many thanks to everyone for their congratulations and kind comments – it’s wonderful to have so much support!

I’m excited to get started in my new role, but I will be sad to no longer be the go-to person for identifying materials used in the Horniman’s Anthropology collections. This gave me the chance to see some lovely objects, like this little statue:
I asked if you had any thoughts on what it might be, and you gave some great answers, mostly involving an ungulate canon bone or metacarpal / metatarsal. However, palaeosam and palfreyman1414 spotted that this isn’t made of bone, while Chris went one better by making a nice reference to ‘Horsing around near the river’ – a reference to the meaning of the name Hippopotamus.

The key to identifying this is to look at the curve of the statue and the view from underneath. That cavity shape (plus the gentle curve) is exactly what you’d expect from the upper canine of Hippopotamus amphibius Linnaeus, 1758 – so well done Chris!

There’s a helpful guide to identification of ivories by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, which is well worth a look to help with this sort of thing. Hopefully that’ll be a helpful resource for my colleagues at the Horniman in my absence… although they know where to find me if they need help in future!

Friday mystery object #260

This Friday I have some news as well as a mystery object.

After eight enjoyable years at the Horniman Museum & Gardens, I have just accepted a new role as curator of the fantastic Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London, starting in October!

For those of you who don’t know the Grant, it’s named for Robert Edmond Grant, Professor of Comparative Anatomy at UCL from 1827-1874. It contains around 68,000 specimens, including a lot of fantastic osteology that I’ve featured on this blog before. I’ll be the fourteenth curator, with some big shoes to fill (information on my predecessors can be found in this series of posts).

I will of course be very sad to leave the Horniman, which has been a fantastic place to work, filled with wonderful people who I’ll miss. I’ll also miss helping out with identification of materials in the Horniman’s Anthropology and Musical Instrument collections, which is the inspiration of this mystery object:


Any idea what this object is made from?

As usual you can leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments box below.

Soon there will be a new collection for me to explore and I hope to be able to share the excitement of that process with you!

Friday mystery object #252

This week I have an object for you that one of my colleagues in Anthropology asked me to check the identification of:


Any ideas what bone this is made from and, more of a challenge, what the function of this worked object might have been in its culture of origin?

As usual you can leave your questions, observations and suggestions in the comments box below. Have fun!

Bonus mystery object

I usually offer up a mystery object on Friday, but here’ a bonus object that landed on my desk this morning.


Apparently it was found in a horsefield in Kent, I have narrowed down the likely species of the animal that ‘donated’ the bone to a couple of options, but thought you might like to have a go as well, before the specimen is handed over to our Anthropologists to inspect the engraved designs.

As usual can can leave your comments below. Have fun!

Friday mystery object #211

The mystery object has been a bit boring recently, mainly because I’ve been tied up with other projects (like the After Life exhibition I’ve been curating with the excellent fine art photographer Sean Dooley) and haven’t been in the stores much. So this Friday I thought I’d give you a bit of a fun object that my brilliant colleagues at the Horniman (check out their Tumblr) came across when reviewing the Anthropology collections:


Any idea what this weird piece of art (a Vicar, or perhaps Nicholas Cage?) has been painted on to? I’ve added a few more images below to help you work it out.

As usual you can put your suggestions in the comments section below – I can’t wait to hear what you think!


Friday mystery object #175 answer

On Friday I gave you this anthropological mystery object to identify:

I asked you what the teeth might have belonged to and where in the world might this necklace be from.

It’s always a bit tricky to identify worked material as it will often be different from what you’d see or expect in the wild state and you lose the context of the rest of the specimen. Nonetheless, these teeth are quite distinctive to a particular group of animals.

Barbara Powell, 23thorns and Robin got the right general area with suggestions of Islands in the South Pacific, in particular New Guinea. 23thorns also nailed the animal group with his suggestion of  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #175

This Friday I have a bit of a change for you – an anthropological mystery object made from animal bits. This specimen was being looked at as part of a review project that we have going on at the Horniman Museum. Any idea what these teeth might belong to and where in the world this necklace might come from?

As usual you can put your suggestions, observations and questions below and I’ll do my best to respond. Good luck!

Friday mystery object #119

It’s been a long time since I gave you an anthropological mystery object, so here you go:

Any idea what this is, what it’s for, how it works and (if you’re feeling up for a challenge) where it’s from?

Comments, questions and suggestions below  and I’ll do my best to respond – I hope you enjoy the challenge!

Friday mystery object #104 answer

On Friday I gave you this Anthropological object and asked what is it, where is it from and what is it made from:

As some of you spotted, this object is not made of hair, but of feathers that look like hair. This indicates that the feathers are from a flightless bird – and given their length it would be a big bird. That narrows it down to a ratite (also known as a Struthioniform).

There are large ratites in Africa (Ostriches), South America (Rheas), Australia (Emus and Cassowaries) and New Guinea (Cassowaries), so this object must come from one of these places.

Given the shape and size it seems fairly clear that the object is a headdress, so the easy way to identify what this object is made from (and therefore the area of the world from which it originated) is to do an image search for ‘*type of ratite* headdress’, after all, there are only 4 options. Sneaky but effective.

To save you the trouble I will tell you that it is in fact made from Cassowary feathers – probably Northern Cassowary Casuarius unappendiculatus (Blyth, 1860) and it’s from New Guinea, which David Craven successfully identified – well done!

Northern Cassowary (Casuarius unappendiculatus) at Bali Bird Park by

Northern Cassowary (Casuarius unappendiculatus) at Bali Bird Park by

Friday mystery object #95

It had to happen; a mystery object on Friday the 13th – a day reputed to be unlucky. So with the theme of superstition in mind I have an anthropological object for you to identify:

I admit that this doesn’t look much different to the usual mystery objects, but this one is reputed to have certain powers. Can you work out what these powers may be and where in the world this superstition comes from? Of course, the first step will be to identify what the object actually is.

As usual you can put your suggestions, observations and questions below and I’ll do my best to answer.

Good luck!

Friday mystery object #79 answer

On Friday I gave you this anthropological mystery object to identify, asking you to tell me what it is, where it’s from and what it’s made of:

Well, OdenedO worked out that it is a skirt (or apron) and Sam Kelly and Julie Doyle both correctly suggested that it was African in origin. Jake and Julie Doyle suggested that it could be ivory and Sam Kelly specified that it could be Hippopotamus teeth (although this suggestion was discarded in favour of horn).

So a bit of a group effort, but you pretty much got there – it’s an African (Ethiopian in fact) skirt/apron made using ivory, probably Hippopotamus incisors. That’s my current preferred hypothesis based on the photo – but I need to check the specimen myself to be entirely sure.

Ivory (teeth as a workable material) is an interesting area for us in the museum trade, since most kinds are controlled by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This means that objects made of certain types of ivory need to have licenses for import and export, or for any commercial use, unless they can be shown to have been made before 1st June 1947.

There are various characteristics that can help identify different ivories – the best known being the presence of Schreger lines in Elephant ivory:

But there are other clues that can indicate which species an ivory has come from – unfortunately I don’t have time or the appropriate images to go into detail here, so I will pull together a post on identifying ivory as soon as I can. For now, here’s a link to a useful pdf article on this very topic.

Back to the skirt/apron – anthropology isn’t my area of expertise, but to the best of my knowledge this sort of attire is largely an indicator of status rather than a practical piece of clothing. In other African cultures beaded aprons are given to young women when they marry, so this may fulfil a similar purpose. I will try to track down some more on this – I think it may be included in one of the Horniman’s planned exhibitions in the next couple of years, so there may be a lot more information forthcoming. I’ll keep you posted.

Friday mystery object #79

This week I’m going to give you a break from skulls, here’s an Anthropological mystery object for you to identify (as suggested by Emilia, who is one of our excellent Conservators):

Any idea what it is, where it’s from and what it’s made of?

As usual you can leave your suggestions, observations and questions in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to respond. Good luck!

Friday mystery object #72 answer

On Friday I gave you this rather snug looking object to identify, asking where does it come from and what is it made of?

Suggestions ranged from Beaver fur from North America to Yak fur from Bhutan. However, a number of you managed to get it right – it is in fact a  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #64 answer

On Friday I gave you this anthropological object to identify (courtesy of the helpful staff and volunteers at the Horniman’s Study Collections Centre):

I asked you where it was from, what it was for and what it was made from. The first two questions were correctly answered quite quickly – Manabu Sakamoto correctly identified the seal on the side of the vessel as Chinese and Wildaker worked out that it was for holding tea (in leaf form I hasten to add). So, it’s a Chinese tea-caddy.

However, what it was made from was a much trickier issue. Suggestions ranged from Ostrich leather (by Prancing Papio) to knitted silk (by Wildaker). Zigg recognised that it was compressed into shape and that it was plant based, and ObenedO suggested it was made from rice or mushrooms, but nobody (except Melissa, my lovely wife) correctly recognised it as being made from  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #64

I promised an anthropological mystery object this week, so I begged the @MuseumGeekGirls to keep their eyes peeled for something interesting and here it is:

Many thanks to Laura, Pari, Helen and Nick for finding this and bringing it to my attention!

Simple questions – where’s it from, what’s it for and what’s it made of? It stumped me.

As usual you can put your suggestions, observations and questions in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to answer. Good luck!

Friday mystery object #55 answer

On Friday I presented you with this anthropological mystery object:

I wanted to know what it is, what it’s used for and where/what culture it’s from. Since there are skulls on it I thought it would be a good idea to ask you to identify them while you were at it. No small task then.

Alistair was first to notice that the skulls belonged to monkeys, then Smallcasserole made the comment:

It’s the Predator’s earthly trophy bag with human skulls!

Which although not entirely accurate, is correct in identifying what this object is used for – it’s for carrying trophies. Moreover it’s for carrying the same trophies that the Predator might be out collecting…

Jonquil and Dave Godfrey worked out that it’s a basket rather than a bag and then Jonquil came through with a tribe in the right culture and place. I can’t be sure of the particular tribe this is from, but the culture is that of the Naga from the Northeastern part of India (Assam in this instance), who were renowned for the practise of head-hunting (and I don’t mean in the recruitment sense) until quite recently.

As to the monkey skulls, jonpaulkaiser suggested one may be from a Macaque and Jonquil suggested Gray Langur, while Dave Godfrey suggested Macaque and Gibbon. David Craven then provided a remarkably coherent and accurate answer:

Looks like a head-hunting bag, as used by the Naga (I couldn’t give a specific tribe). Still a very fraught part of the world unfortunately.

So, what sorts of monkeys do we have in that part of India?
Loads of Macaques, but others have said Macaque without being censored. Unless that’s too general to be censored…

I’ll say Capped Langur on the left (I also considered Hoolock Gibbon).
Macaque on the right? Hard to find good images of macaque skulls for some reason, so I have to shoot in the dark a little. Stump-tailed Macaque.

I think this is about as good an answer as I could hope for, partly because it reflects the levels of uncertainty that we are often stuck with in the museum world. The basket/bag came from Assam and it entered the collections around 1903 judging by its label. There was no tribe name associated, so that information would prove difficult (if not impossible) to track down. The primate skulls are damaged and they are attached to the bag, making them difficult to inspect in the kind of detail needed to make a certain identification.

I was personally leaning towards the skull on the left being that of a Hoolock Gibbon Hoolock hoolock (Harlan, 1834) based on the distance between the eyes, but I’m not convinced that this is reliable and the shape of the nasal opening (long and heart-shaped) doesn’t quite fit with this idea. It could indeed be a female Capped Langur Trachypithecus pileatus (Blythe, 1843) but probably not a Gray Langur Semnopithecus sp. Desmarest, 1822 because their range doesn’t quite fit. It could even be a female Macaque of some sort (although the width between the eyes looks too big for that).

The skull on the right looks like a male Macaque, probably a Rhesus Macaque Macaca mulatta (Zimmermann, 1780) or a Stump-tailed Macaque Macaca arctoides (I. Geoffroy, 1831) – with my preference being the more common and widely distributed Rhesus (compare 1 & 2). I am keen to see David Craven’s reasoning, to see what I may have missed.

Many thanks to everyone for their comments and suggestions. I particularly liked the idea by cackhandedkate that the basket was one of Lady Gaga’s costumes – something that I would not be surprised by.

Friday mystery object #55

For this week’s mystery object I am going to try something for everyone – a bit of Anthropology with some Natural History thrown in. So what is this, what’s it used for and where/what culture is it from – your bonus question is of course what species did the attached skulls belong to:

As usual questions, suggestions and observations in the comments section below, I’ll do my best to answer as the day goes on. Good luck!