The Calvin Wells Palaeopathology Archive Catalogue

The Calvin Wells Palaeopathology Archive Catalogue is now available on the Archives Hub



The Conservation of Colour Slides

Blog post by the Putting Flesh on the Bones Project Conservator Vanessa Torres. A trained paper conservator Vanessa works at the National Science and Media Museum, and acts as secretary for the Photographic Materials Committee at the Institute of Conservation.

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Image 1 – Variety of different frames in the Calvin Wells Archive

In September 2018, I had the opportunity to attend a 2 day workshop on the conservation of colour slides at the Faculty of Sciences and Technology the New University of Lisbon. The workshop was organised by the Portuguese art conservation organisation NEON and was conducted by Katrin Pietsch and Lénia Oliveira Fernandes; specialist photograph conservators from the Nederlands Fotomuseum. The event was divided into both lecture and practical sessions which provided a one-on-one learning experience for the attendees.

During her lecture Katrin discussed how the Nederlands Fotomuseum had raised funds for the Eye Love You conservation project by directly engaging with various stakeholders, such professional photographers, photography enthusiasts and the general public. The Eye Love You conservation project, aims to conserve the archive of one of the Netherland’s greatest and most influential photographers Ed van der Elsken. In her talk Katrin explained that van der Elsken kept his archive at his home in Edam where it had been inappropriately stored. As a result of the varying temperature and humidity, the 45,000 unique colour slides were damaged by mould.

If mould is allowed to grow on photographs, it gradually eats away at the emulsion and image. The only way to remove the mould permanently is to clean the pictures one by one. The conservation studio at the Nederlands Fotomuseum has developed a special method for doing this.

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Image 2 – Lecture’s presentation showing the house of Ed van der Elsken where he kept his collection throughout his life. Detail of mould growth in slides from his archive on the right.

Slides are positive transparencies which unlike other photographic processes do not require the use of negatives. Before the rise of digital photography, positive transparencies were a popular medium as it allowed the photographer to see a positive image with the aid of light box or projector. Similarly transparencies were commonly used for educational or commercial purposes, allowing for lecturers or speaker to project images and content during lessons or presentations.

The materials used to construct slides changed over time; the outer frame made from metal, plastic or paper and the support which holds the image was initially made from glass before plastic. The image itself is embedded in an emulsion layer which is laid across one side of the support. This emulsion is made out of gelatine which is a source of food for mould. In the right environmental conditions and with a constant food source mould can proliferate rapidly.

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Image 3 – Dismantled slide and its anatomy from the Calvin Wells Archive at the University of Bradford

In 2016, Lénia joined the Eye Love You project with the aim of carry out and completing conservation on the van der Elsken Collection within a period of 2 years. During the lecture, Lénia explained the great variety of photographic film and frames found in van der Elsken’s archive (40 years of body of work). It was fascinating to learn the frames themselves can be used as dating tools.

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Image 4: Lénia presenting her findings on dating slides based on the information gathered from their frames

Ed van der Elsken’s archive is comprised entirely of colour slides in plastic support. The Calvin Wells archive is composed of 1450 slides; 96% on plastic supports and 68% are colour. Colour dyes are prone to discolouration and fading due to exposure to light, this is particularly relevant to slide archives as they are likely to have been used multiple times in presentations, lessons, etc.

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Image 5: Examples of discoloured and faded slides from the Calvin Wells Archive

Another interesting point of discussion was about where mould was most commonly found on a slides; whether on the emulsion side or on the support side. The presence of gelatine is greater on the emulsion side however a gelatine layer is also applied to the support side as an anti-curling agent.

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Image 6: ©Graphic Atlas. Cross-section of a colour slide on plastic support

During the practical sessions the participants had the chance to dismantle slides and view them under the microscope to ascertain whether they had mould or not. I was surprised to learn that plasticisers added during the process of manufacturing of the plastic supports can migrate to the surface and form crystals or bubbles.  When viewed under the microscope the pattern of these crystals or bubbles is indeed very different from the pattern of mould.

Left: Mould (white specks) visible with naked eye

Right: Mould spores viewed under the microscope

Left: Plasticiser crystals viewed with naked eye are quite similar to mould spores

Right: Plasticiser crystals viewed under the microscope

Close analysis and visualisation of deterioration is very important in conservation. When slides present a significant amount of mould (as seen in image 7) and the surface is quite rough, the mould spores can become mixed with the dye particles.  In this condition, slides require a further level of treatment which requires them to be isolated and stored in frozen temperatures.

During the workshop, participants had the opportunity to carry out the treatment themselves. After dismantling the slides are slotted into a bespoke polyester sheet, which can accommodate up to 20. The sheets containing the slides are then washed in a combination of water and ethanol, then dried overnight. In the last practical session we had the chance to carry out the treatment on highly deteriorated slides which gave the participants insight into the various risks which can lead to damaging the slides even further.

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Image 11: Slides slotted in the bespoke polyester sheet

Left: During washing

Right: Slides drying

Throughout the workshop Katrin and Lénia provided many useful resources of identification, preservation, care and storage of colour photographic film. There were also plenty of networking opportunities for attendees, which included individuals from Portugal, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium, France, United Kingdom and United States.

I would like to thank the Putting Flesh on the Bones Project and the Wellcome Trust for funding my participation in this workshop. The expertise gained during the workshop will be instrumental in the conservation treatment of the colour slides of the Calvin Wells archive.

Bones, Bodies and Disease Launch Event, 26th January 2019

Calvin Wells Event

Date: Saturday 26th January, 2019

Time: 9:30am – 5:30pm

Location: Norcroft Centre, University of Bradford

Tickets: FREE (pre-registration only)

Details and registration:

CALL FOR ABSTRACTS –NOW OPEN (closes Monday 19th November, 2018)

We invite abstracts for papers relating to Calvin Wells and his work and papers relating to bones, bodies and / or disease

Please send abstracts to:

Please include your name, title and affiliation with your abstract and specify podium or poster*

*Podium Presentations should be 10 minutes long with 5 minutes for questions. Poster Presentations should be no bigger than A1 in size and must be in portrait orientation

N.B a small number of places have been reserved for presenters, but  please try to register if submitting abstracts. Any issues please contact the organisers.

Calvin’s Radiographs

Guest post by Sophie Whyatt

Sophie Whyatt is a postgraduate at the University of Bradford studying Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology BSc (Hons). Sophie joined the ‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ project in January 2018 after completing a five-month placement in the Anatomy Department at the RJAH Orthopaedic Hospital. Her main interests are a combination of Anatomy, Osteology and Forensic Anthropology. During her placement Sophie catalogued and digitised Calvin Wells’ extensive collection of archaeological and clinical radiographs.


The process of using x-rays to view the internal form of an object, or radiography, was discovered by the German physicist Wilhelm C. Roentgen in 1895. The potential medical application of the technique was immediately apparent and within months was being used for diagnosis across Europe and the United States. An early pioneer in applying radiography to palaeopathology was Calvin Wells’ former teacher of anatomy at UCL Elliot Smith, who is recorded as making x-rays of the mummy of Thutmose IV in Cairo in 1904. By the time Wells emerged as a prominent palaeopathologist in the early 1960s the technique had been long ignored within the discipline.

In his article The Radiography of Ancient Bones for the journal ‘X-Ray Focus’ (1964) Wells outlined the main benefits of using the technique in palaeopathology. This included the ability to examine structures within the bone, to confirm or make diagnoses which could not be made from visual examination, and in the examination of mummies, as it would prevent damage from handling. Wells enthusiastically incorporated the technique into his own practice, going as far as to purchase a portable x-ray machine of his own. In his own cavalier fashion Wells kept the device in one of his outbuildings with no concern for health and safety. It is likely that many of the archaeological radiographs in the archive collection were produced by this machine.

MMM 8097

Here are two radiographs from the Calvin Wells archive which demonstrate the value of applying radiography to palaeopathology:

Fig 3Figure 1 (above) gives an example of Polyostotic fibrous dysplasia revealed by a radiograph. Given that the bone has the appearance of several different diagnoses, a radiograph is required to identify a specific pathology

Figure 2 (right) is a radiograph of a femur which shows with a lesion resulting from scurvy, a diagnosis which would be impossible to identify from the naked eye alone.

My primary role on the Putting Flesh on the Bones project has involved digitising the 709 archaeological and clinical radiographs in the Calvin Wells Archive. This is a necessary task as radiographs are particularly prone to deterioration, and digital copies will ensure that they are accessible to future generations of researchers. The digitisation process involves scanning each radiograph using a specialised scanner and then adjusting the images using Photoshop. In the case of the clinical radiographs it was important for me to redact any personal information, such as the patient’s name, age and hospital number. Like health and safety regulations, Calvin Wells did not anticipate future data protection legislation!

In addition to working on the radiographs, I helped transcribe Wells’ unpublished skeletal reports, list his several hundred offprints and library books, and continue cataloguing his extensive transparency collection. Once catalogued and available to researchers, I think the collection will have a considerable influence on the understanding and development of palaeopathology.

Wooden Horns, Glass Ears & Clay Feet

‘Not all evidence is in bones’; Calvin Wells is quoted as saying in a 1966 article in the American arts magazine Horizon. He asserts that ‘ancient disease and injury have often been faithfully recorded in works of art…sometimes the skeletal material supplements the artistic’. It’s evident that Wells invested a considerable amount of research into the artistic representation of injury, disease and medical treatment throughout history. Most of Wells’ published work on the subject focuses on anthropological artefacts from African, East Asian or Pre-Columbian tribes and societies. However, Wells, who resided in both East Anglia and the French Pyrenees, was also interested in how European artists and craftsmen captured the history of human illness and medicine in various traditional artistic mediums.

Angel Roofs

St. Mary’s Church in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, is the third largest parish church in England and has one of the most renowned ‘angel roofs’. Fashionable between 1395 until the English Reformation, angel roofs are elaborately carved church ceilings and remain the largest surviving body of English medieval woodwork. Only 170 angel roofs remain today, with the majority located in East Anglia. The angel roof at St. Mary’s was commissioned to mark the marriage of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, and the cherubim are said to represent the Royal couple. Alongside the large ‘demi-angels’ are hundreds of smaller-scale carvings. In 1964 the East Anglian photographer Hallam Ashley undertook a photographic study of these figures, which inspired Wells to write an accompanying article.

 In the article 15th-Century Wood-Carvings in St. Mary’s Church, Bury St. Edmunds Wells writes that the church roof is ‘adorned with some of the finest woodwork to have survived the vandalism of Cromwell’. The most interesting aspect of the carvings is that ‘many have some relationship to disease or medicine’ and those that have no direct medical link may have been indirectly influenced by the proximity of several hospitals’. Bury St. Edmunds was a medieval centre for infirmaries, which served both large monastic and secular populations. In some carvings the references to medical treatment is explicit.

Man and Angel
Hallam Ashley (1964)

The carving on the left is a doctor with a uroscopy flask. Uroscopy was the historic medical technique of examining a patient’s urine for symptoms of disease, and was common practice up until the 17th-century. In this carving Wells notes that the doctor is tilting the flask forward ‘as though debouching its contents over the congregation’. The more ecclesiastical carving on the right is an angel with a pestle and mortar which were common tools for preparing ‘plants and fruits which figured prominently in the herbals and leech-lore of the Middle Ages’.

Elsewhere Wells identifies wood-carvings with more ambiguous links to medieval medical practices.

Monkey and Unicorn
Hallam Ashley (1964)

The horn of the unicorn (pictured left) was a valuable ingredient in an ancient ‘material medica’, the substances used in the composition of medicine. The 15th-century physician James Primrose wrote that ‘unicorn horns…are thought to be the prime antidote for all’ and offered the user ‘renewed strength and vigour’. The horn of this mythical creature, which was in fact narwhal tusk, came to symbolize quackery and fake medicine by the 17th-century.

The carving of the monkey (picture right) is indicative of medieval scepticism of the medical profession. Wells notes that the carving of a primate in a collar and chain holding a uroscopy flask is a ‘disrespectful gibe caricaturing the physician as an ape – a motif that is found elsewhere in medieval carvings’.

Henry VI’s Ear

“My life is spent studying the evidence for disease in ancient bones and early works of art, so I was delighted to receive your letter”

The above quotation is Wells’ response to the German folklorist Ellen Ettlinger, who was seeking a medical diagnosis for the aforementioned Henry VI. In researching an article about religious representations of Henry VI being invoked as a saint, Ettlinger came across a curious pair of stained glass windows in King’s College Chapel Cambridge.

Ellen Ettlinger (c1970)

In this detail from a stained glass window dated 1525 (above left), Henry VI has a ‘curious right-ear – like a question mark’. In a later 19th-century copy (below), the king has a ‘very distinctly deformed right ear’. It had been recorded that Henry suffered a neck wound at the first Battle of St. Albans (1455) and Ettlinger was curious as to whether this was the cause of the deformation.

Art ear
Detail of letter – with ear doodles – from Wells to Ettlinger (January 1972)

Wells relished medical puzzles such as this, and wrote Ettlinger a lengthy and detailed letter of reply. In his opinion it was ‘unlikely that the arrow wound at St. Albans would have produced a lesion of the ear’ as ‘wounds of the neck had a strong tendency to be either trivial or lethal’. Wells’ assertion was that the deformed ear in the 1525 portrait was pseudopathological, which is to say that although there is the appearance of disease none is actually present. After examining similar examples, Wells observed that anatomically incorrect ears were a common feature in artwork of the period. The Victorian craftsman who made the 19th-century copy most likely thought the inaccuracy was intentional and reproduced it. As an exercise in diagnostic thinking, Wells supposed that if the deformity was indeed intentional then Henry VI likely had an epithelioma, or ‘rodent ulcer’. Ellinger agreed with Wells’ first conclusion on the grounds that an image created to promote the cult of Henry VI would unlikely portray the saint suffering from such a temporal affliction.

Ex-Voto Anatomico

Bronze Roman Britain votive

Among the artwork and objects Wells examined for ‘glimpses into the ailments of ancient people’ were coins, pottery, wax seals, and even fabric. In Bones, Bodies and Disease Wells asserts that the Bayeux Tapestry provides a unique medical record of the battle wounds and fatalities suffered during the Norman conquest of England. One of Wells’ preferred medical artefacts were votive images. A votive, or ‘ex-voto’ is an offering to a saint or divinity given in fulfilment of a vow, or in gratitude or devotion. One of the most common types are ‘ex-voto anatomica’, which are modelled on parts of the human body. In 1977 Wells collaborated on an article with renowned archaeologist T.W. Potter  which involved the analysis of a sample of 8,000 terracotta ex-voto anatomica excavated at a healing sanctuary at Ponti de Nona near Rome.

L0035888 A clay-baked leg. Roman votive offering
Roman votive, terracotta

The ex-voto excavated at Ponti de Nona included many types of body parts, including heads, limbs and internal organs. In his report Wells noted that feet were the most common, making up some 40% of the entirety of ex-voto excavated. One explanation for the prevalence of a particular body part may have been because worshippers in that location were more likely to suffer from injuries or diseases specific to that certain part of the anatomy. For example Wells observed that Ponti de Nona was surrounded by rural farming communities whose members would have been predisposed to injuries of the legs and feet. Based on analysis of the remaining ex-votos, Wells postulated that people of Ponti di Nona also suffered from arthritis, migraines, gonorrhoea, and dermatological conditions. In the article Wells defended the limitations of diagnosing illness in terracotta artefacts writing ‘it is better to infer a range of possibilities than retreat into a safe but unhelpful silence, making no attempt to interpret these interesting objects’.

Medical and scientific knowledge has developed significantly since the 1970s, meaning interpretation of visual arts is no longer such a valuable tool for palaeopathological research. However, Wells always asserted that artwork was just one of many sources of evidence to be used in combination or in lieu of skeletal evidence. In this respect Wells saw artists and craftspeople as early clinical observers, providing a description or record of pathological conditions long before doctors. Whereas human remains are generally buried or cremated, artwork is treasured, preserved and put on display. As a doctor and art lover Wells would no doubt have identified with the famous Hippocratic saying ‘Ars longa, vita brevis’ (Art is long, life is short).


1966. Calvin Wells ‘Ancient Aches and Pains’ in Horizon (Summer) pp.114-120

1965. Calvin Wells ’15th-Century Wood-Carvings in St. Mary’s Church, Bury St. Edmunds’ in Medical History 9 pp.286-288

1973. Ellen Ettlinger ‘Notes on a Woodcut Depicting King Henry VI Being Invoked as a Saint’ in Folklore, Vol.84, No.2 (Summer) pp.115-119

1985. T.W. Potter & Calvin Wells ‘A Republican Healing Sanctuary at Ponte Di Nona Near Rome and the Classical Tradition of Votive Medicine’ in British Journal of Archaeology Volume 138. pp.23-47