Scholarly and Strange

The background to Bones, Bodies and Disease

Published in 1964 as volume 37 of Thames & Hudson’s landmark archaeology series Ancient People and Places, Calvin Wells’ Bones, Bodies and Disease is his most enduring work on palaeopathology. The series’ editor at the time was the distinguished archaeologist Glyn Daniel, who knew Wells personally but was taking somewhat of a risk commissioning him for such a major project. Up until this point Wells had published relatively little research besides a handful of skeletal reports focused mainly on excavations in East Anglia. However, letters from Daniel to Wells reveal that the editor was keen to meet the demand for archaeological literature which focused specifically on ancient disease, injury and medical treatment. As a general practitioner with a parallel career in palaeopathology Wells was the best, if not the only, candidate for the role.

With Bones, Bodies and Disease, Wells had ambitions to help popularise palaeopathology much in the same way Daniel, who was Television Personality of the Year 1955, had achieved with archaeology. In an interview for the BBC Home Service Wells stated that:

Transcript of Calvin Wells interview on BBC Home Service (1964)

Bones, Bodies, DiseaseTo the extent that Bones, Bodies and Disease was intended to make the study of ancient disease stimulating to the general reader Wells was remarkably successful. The book was warmly reviewed in national newspapers and magazines. East Anglia’s Eastern Daily Press stated that ‘to call it a thriller would not be out of place’ while the Liverpool Echo called it ‘a whodunit with a difference’. In the Irish Times the book was deemed ‘scholarly and strange’ with the clarification that it was ‘decorative and exact in scholarship’ with ‘wide and diverse appeal’. The Times Literary Supplement welcomed Dr Wells’ ‘exciting textbook of palaeopathology’ and the Economist confirmed that it contained ‘much to entertain and instruct the general reader’. Perhaps the most effusive review of this nature was by Jacquetta Hawkes in the Sunday Times who praised ‘Wells’ dedicated enthusiasm for his enthusiasm for his unusual subject, which has given vigour and vividness to his pen.’

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Extract from Hawkes’ Sunday Times review (May 1964)

It was not just in the popular press where Bones, Bodies and Disease received a positive reception, as several leading specialist journal and publications awarded the book favourable reviews. They included Science, the British Medical Journal, the Archaeological Journal, and the Pharmaceutical Journal. Writing in the Dutch archaeology journal Helinium the eminent Belgian physician Paul Janssens gave the work a glowing review, calling it a work of great value to archaeologists, medical doctors and the general reader.

The only exception to the largely enthusiastic response to Bones, Bodies and Disease appeared in the Museums Journal and was authored by Wells’ fellow palaeopathologist Don Brothwell. Instead of praising the accessibility or simplicity of the writing, Brothwell

Bones, Bodies, Disease German
German edition of Bones, Bodies and Disease

saw the author as ‘underestimating the reading ability and intelligence of people most likely to read such books’. The second major criticism, possibly the sharpest blow to the self-confessed pedant Wells, was that the book suffered from vague and inaccurate referencing. Overall, Brothwell felt the book fell ‘below par’ of the usual standard featured in the ‘Ancient People and Places’ series. An infuriated Wells demanded the Museums Journal publish a letter of reply. In response to Brothwell’s criticism of the book’s simple style, Wells countered that there was ‘no virtue in turgid complexity’. To the second criticism that the work was poorly referenced Wells accused Brothwell of lacking the training and experience to make such judgements. Despite Glyn Daniel’s best efforts to broker peace between the two palaeopathologists, their relationship became acrimonious thereafter.

Leaving this negative exchange aside the publication of Bones, Bodies and Disease was a major turning point Wells’ career in palaeopathology and remains a central part of his bibliography. In addition to selling sufficiently well to merit a second print, the book was translated into numerous and has the remarkable honour of being the only general work on palaeopathology in the Portuguese language. Despite its age the publication continues to be cited in bioarchaeology research and literature, and has yet to be fully superseded by later works. As an introductory book to palaeopathology for the general reader it remains pertinent, cover many subjects still feature in public debates related to archaeology and anthropology.

Given the legacy of Bones, Bodies and Disease it is surprising that Wells’ second and final book Man in his World made such little impact. Published in 1971 by John Baker Publishers Limited, Man in his World was an attempt by Wells to write an anthropological survey analysing 1 million years of human history and civilisation. The book was released with relatively little fanfare with none of the international publicity his first book received. A small review in The Sunday Times called the book ‘a terse and well informed impression’ let down by rather ‘stolid writing’. The review did praise the book’s illustrations, which were done by Wells’ daughter Satra . Despite the lack of coverage Man in his World achieved moderate success, and was later republished and distributed by the Scientific Book Club. Unusually the book was also published in Turkey where it appears to have sold well.

While only writing two books in his lifetime, Wells’ skeletal reports, journal articles and contributions of chapters to other publications means that he remains one of the most prolific writers on palaeopathology in the United Kingdom. Moreover as the Putting Flesh on the Bones project unlocks Wells’ archive we are finding considerably more writings not included in his official bibliography. These writings include unpublished work on palaeopathology as well as vast array of other subjects, including anthropology, history medicine, art history, and more. By unlocking the archive material we hope to give researchers the ability to reassess Calvin Wells’ ‘strange and scholarly’ life and work.

Selected Bibliography

Bones, Bodies and Disease by Calvin Wells (London: Thames & Hudson, 1964)

Man in His World by Calvin Wells (London: Baker, 1971)

Review of Bones, Bodies and Disease by Don Brothwell in Museum Journal (vol. 64, no.4, March 1965, p.340-341)

Review of Bones, Bodies and Disease by R.J. Harrison British Medical Journal (9 October 1964, p.1245)

Review of Bones, Bodies and Disease by Paul Janssens in Helinium (Volume 9, 1964, pp.282-284)

Review of Bones, Bodies and Disease by T.D. Stewart in Science (07 Aug 1964: Vol. 145, Issue 3632, pp. 568-569)

Review of Bones, Bodies and Disease by Roger Warwick Archaeological Journal (1964: 121:1, pp. 215-216


The Life and Bones of St. Nicholas

Sacred bone relics of Saint Nicholas, Antalya (via WikiCommons)

If Calvin Wells was alive today he would undoubtedly be fascinated by this recent piece of research from Oxford University which combines his seemingly unconnected interests in ancient bones and the mythology of Santa Claus, or Saint Nicholas. A historic Christian saint, the remains of St. Nicholas have been held in the Basilica di San Nicholas in Bair, Southern Puglia since 1087. Using a sample of bone-fragment from a pelvis, archaeologists from Oxford Relics Cluster at Keble College’s Advanced Studies Centre have for the first time tested St Nicholas’ supposed remains. The radiocarbon dating results show the relic’s age to be fourth century AD – the alleged time of St. Nicholas’ death. Unlike many holy relics, which often date much later than historic attestation, the results suggest St. Nicholas’ bones could in principle be authentic.

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Pelvis of St. Nicholas (University of Oxford)

From what we know about Calvin Wells, we can assume he would have loved to get his hands on the bones of old St. Nick. In a previous blog we discussed how Calvin tackled the philosophical arguments for deceiving children about the existence of Father Christmas in a newspaper column titled ‘Daddy, Is It True?’ Clearly Calvin would have been well aware of the elements of truth in the St. Nicholas legend, especially after undertaking somewhat of a pilgrimage to the saint’s birthplace at Patara, now an archaeological site on the Turkish Riviera. Below is the typescript of a never published article in which Calvin waxes lyrical about his trip to Nikolaos of Myra’s ‘sun-drenched home’ and provides a contemplative biography of the gift-giving saint.

Christmas 1Christmas 2Christmas 3Christmas 4

Further Ephemera

Given the encouraging response we received from our blog post on Calvin’s postcards we have decided to highlight some more interesting and unusual ephemera e.g. postcards, memos, Christmas cards from the collection’s correspondence files. Amusing on a surface level, this kind of archive material often provides rare insight into the minutiae of an individual daily life. Gathered together the following items give us deeper understanding of the scope of Calvin’s interests as well as the diversity of his personal and professional connections.

Odd Zoology:  A souvenir postcard from Copenhagen Zoo sent by the British zoologist Gilbert Larwood. While Calvin focused primarily on the study of disease in human remains, he maintained an interest in animal palaeopathology. In addition to publishing research on fossilised elephant teeth, Calvin undertook skeletal analysis on the excavated bones of a dolphin, a seal and a giant deer. His research on the subject is reflected in his slide collection which holds a large number of images of animal bones, horns, teeth, and tusks. One can assume Calvin was quick to spot the anatomic anomaly in Larwood’s postcard.

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Anatomically correct ? Postcard from Gilbert Larwood (November 1962)

Bumps of ‘Sense’:  Phrenology is a pseudoscience which focuses on measurements of the human skull as a means of assessing human character and diagnosing illness, particularly mental ill health. The practice became popular in the Victorian era and is considered a primitive precursor to brain mapping and neuroscience. Wells had a deep fascination with the development of medical diagnosis and treatment from their earliest origins, and this hand-drawn head chart was found in a copy of the phrenology textbook Heads, Faces, Types, Races by Victor Gabriel Rocine (1910). It is unclear whether Wells purchased the postcard or if it was gifted to him by its artist Donald George Bacon, a fellow Norwich resident. As Wells became more well-known for his work with the ancient dead, he started to receive correspondence of an increasingly esoteric nature.

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Handmade postcard from Donald George Bacon (August 1941)

Acquiring a Human Skull: Over the course his career Wells accumulated a large skeletal collection which was spread between Norwich Castle Museum and the Biological Anthropology Research Centre (BARC) at the University of Bradford. As is evident in the exchange between Calvin and the Norfolk naturalist Percy Trett (1926-2012), skeletal material was traded with relative ease and little regard to formal documentation processes. Part of the project will involve examining Calvin’s papers and correspondence in order to ascertain the provenance of skeletal material currently held at BARC.

Two letters from nature writer and magistrate Percy Trett (c1970s)

Thett skull

Bog Bodies: In 1974 Yorkshire Television produced a documentary called ‘Discovery: Down Among the Dead Men’ which profiled Calvin’s pioneering palaeopathology work as well as his life in Norwich. It shows Calvin analysing bones in the vaults of Norwich Castle Museum, water-skiing in the lakes at Costessey, and tramping across a misty Dersingham Bog in search of ancient burial grounds. The programme, which was broadcast as far afield as Australia, prompted a huge influx of letters from people not just curious about palaeopathology but Calvin himself. The letter below was written in response to a scene in the documentary where Calvin expresses his desire to find a bog body in Norfolk. While it is unclear whether local dowser Dewi Taunton was ever availed of his services, we do know that Calvin never succeeded in finding East-Anglia’s own Tollund Man.

Bog Letter1
Letter from Dewi Taunton, dowser (March 1974)

Cold War Christmas Cards: The homemade Christmas card below is from the family of distinguished American bio-chemist and geneticist Daniel Morse who corresponded frequently with Calvin throughout 1960s and 70s. As Calvin became increasingly well established in palaeopathology he started to build a greater number of international contacts from the worlds of science, medicine and academia. It is clear that Calvin embraced this global recognition which brought professional and social opportunities far beyond those offered to him as a regional general practitioner. These included lecture tours of North American schools and universities as well as the opportunity to publish in leading journals and magazines, such as American Scientist and the Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. Additionally Wells forged pen friendships with Thomas Dale Stewart (1901-1997), the founder of modern forensic anthropology, and Ian Tattersall, then a research student and now curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History.

Dr Dan Morse
Family Christmas card from Dr Daniel Morse (c1970s)

It was not just the Western world where Calvin established a reputation as a leading authority in palaeopathology as his work impacted east of the Berlin wall. While Calvin had misgivings about Communist brainwashing it did not prevent him from forging close pen relationships with contacts in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Although his correspondents alluded to the possibility of their exchanges being monitored by Soviet censors, it appears they could exchange ideas, research material and journal articles relatively freely. Calvin even collaborated on an article about Harris’ lines with the distinguished Hungarian radiologist Balázs Bugyi (1911-1982). The paper was later read out at the 3rd International Congress of the Socialist Radiologists at Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1972. Below is a hand-drawn Christmas card by the German anthropologist Hans Grimm (1910-1995) a life-long friend of both Calvin and Freddie Wells whose work was stifled under both the Nazi and Communist regimes.

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Hand drawn Christmas card from Hans Grimm to Freddie Wells (December 1979)

In the year before his death Calvin was still making arrangements for lecture tours and conference appearances in both Europe and North America. It is clear that following his time as an army medic and then General Practitioner, Calvin was just settling into a new life as ‘International Palaeopathologist’ before cancer struck him unexpectedly at age 70.

“These twisted bones”: Calvin Wells and the Study of Cremations

Guest post by Clare Rainsford

Clare is a PhD researcher at the University of Bradford, studying animal remains in Anglo-Saxon burials from eastern England and Norfolk in particular. I blog about animals, archaeology and creative engagement with the past at Follow Clare on Twitter.

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Cremated Bronze Age fragments

“Yet we cannot lightly dismiss these twisted bones as of no consequence when we recall how widely scattered is their occurrence in both time and space.” (Wells 1960)

In 1960, an article by Calvin Wells was published in the archaeological journal Antiquity, entitled “A Study of Cremation”. The article begins:

“Almost nothing is known about early cremations, and as a result of this, our problem resolves itself into two main divisions:

  • To try and find out something about the population with which we are dealing, the sex ratio, age at death, individual pathology, and similar matters.
  • To throw some light on the techniques and rituals of the actual cremation…”

Until the advent of Christianity in the 7th century AD, cremation was a common means of disposing of the dead, practised in Britain from at least the Bronze Age (2nd millennium BC), although how common it was and how much of the population it represented varied widely according to time period and geographical area. Yet the article published by Wells in 1960 was the first serious study of cremated bone published in the English language and working on British material. While well-known within the archaeological record in England, it was typically assumed that cremated bone was of no use and could provide no information about past populations or burial practices beyond the fairly self-evident fact that it was cremated. The process of consigning a person to the flames was assumed to destroy all of the morphological markers which were used on buried skeletons to tell whether it was male or female, old or young, or had any evident pathologies. In 1930, an eminent Swedish anthropologist recommended in a letter to the Chief Inspector of Antiquities in Stockholm: “…my considered opinion, based on experience, [is] that cremated remains of human bones in burial urns are almost always devoid of any anthropological interest… [T]hese bones are of no scientific value, and I consider that nothing is lost if they are neither submitted to nor preserved in the Museum.” (Furst 1930, quoted in Gejvall 1969: 468). This was the attitude which prevailed in Britain until the publication of Wells’ article in 1960.

Cremated Bronze Age fragments

The body of A Study of Cremation is a case study of the cremated bone from the Anglo-Saxon cemetery of Illington, Norfolk.  In the east of England, and particularly in Norfolk, where Calvin Wells was based, large cremation cemeteries dating to the early Anglo-Saxon period (5th-7th century) and numbering hundreds or even thousands of urns are a common feature of the archaeological record. The abrupt change in burial method from minimally-furnished inhumation in the preceding Late Roman period indicates the practice was imported, perhaps as part of the practices of a diaspora community, from the Continent where it was more common. These cemeteries form a significant part of the relatively sparse archaeological record of the 5th-7th century. Illington itself was excavated in the 1950s for the Ministry of Works, and comprised just over 100 cremations.

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Cremated molar

Wells’ analysis demonstrated that you could identify age and sex from at least a proportion of cremations, based on such factors as (for age) size, deciduous / adult teeth, and bone fusion. Sex determination was substantially more subjective, with size and robusticity most often the only indicators used. Substantial space was also given to considering techniques of burning. In this, Wells was building on the work of Nils-Gustaf Gejvall, whose work he references within the article. Gejvall was analysing and publishing on cremated bone from Swedish sites in the 1950s, although his early publications were in Swedish, making them largely inaccessible to the broader British archaeological community. With the aid of J.E. King from the British Museum, Wells also identified animal bone within 21% percent of the human cremations from Illington – mostly sheep, but also horse, cattle, pig and dog – which were considered to have been included on the pyre as grave offerings. Recent reanalysis of the Illington assemblage has shown that Wells’ work contained important, if understandable, inaccuracies. Specifically, Wells tended to overstate what could be confidently said, particularly in terms of assigning age and sex. Animal bone in cremations was also underidentified, especially bone from larger mammal – in one cremation from Illington, several elements of horse probably representing a complete skeleton had passed undetected.  While not up to modern standards, the impact of Wells’ work was such that it was made impossible for anyone to claim thereafter that cremated bone was neither useful nor informative.

The impact of Wells’ article, and of his subsequent work in analysing cremated material

Cremated petrous temporal of child
Cremated petrous temporal bone from a child

sent to him by excavators, is hard to overstate. As late as 1967, Wells was almost the only palaeopathologist in Britain who regularly analysed cremated bone, but his work was sufficient to change perspectives on the usefulness and therefore curation practices for cremations. Prior to 1960, since cremated bone was considered to be effectively useless, it was not considered important to keep cremated bone which had been excavated. While artefacts and urns excavated from cremation sites were highly valued for their use in constructing typological and chronological sequences, cremated bone was for the most part discarded on site. This practice has decimated archives. Of the 70-80 burials excavated from the Castle Acre cemetery (Norfolk) between 1851 and 1897, none of the cremated bone survives, although other parts of the material archive remain in store at Norwich Castle Museum. For other sites, discard policies were more sporadic, although no less unhelpful. At the Anglo-Saxon cemetery of Caistor-by-Norwich (Norfolk), excavated during the 1930s, what was retained of the cremated bone were examples that the excavator found interesting – primarily individual elements of burnt animal bone and milk teeth from cremations of children. From this large and clearly important cemetery, containing at least 370 cremations, the material archive which survives consists of one shoebox with a few fragments of cremated bone from 43 cremations, any objects from within the cremations, and a store room with serried ranks of empty urns.

Cremation Urn
An Anglo-Saxon cremation urn

Nor are these isolated examples. One of the central problems for modern researchers looking at Anglo-Saxon cremation practices in East Anglia is that most cemeteries were excavated before their importance was understood. The earliest record of their (albeit inadvertent) excavation dates as far back as the 16th century, when it was recorded that “yn digging of a balke or mere in a folde” in Norfolk, many “yerthen pottes” were found, containing cremated human remains.  Later, cremation cemeteries were regularly the target of antiquarian or early professional excavators in the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Castle Acre and Caistor-by-Norwich. Within Norfolk, a survey of Historic Environment Record data indicates that there were 29 early Anglo-Saxon cremation cemeteries excavated prior to 1960, of which four (Castle Acre, Caistor-by-Norwich, Brettenham and Illington) contained over 100 cremations each. Of these twenty-nine cemeteries, only the archive from Illington survives intact – and this can be attributed to Wells’ influence.

From 1960 onwards, archives were generally retained, but many fewer cremation cemeteries have been excavated. Only 15 cemeteries containing early Anglo-Saxon cremations were excavated in Norfolk between 1960 and the present, and the majority of these are predominantly inhumation cemeteries with a handful of cremation burials. Only one large cemetery has been excavated and fully analysed, and this cemetery is Spong Hill, which has determined much of what is known about Anglo-Saxon cremation burial in eastern England. This is partly due to its very large size, but partly due to the lack of other large cemeteries to act as comparanda. Our understanding of Anglo-Saxon cremation burial has tended to rest on a few very large and well-published sites – not because museum archives are stuffed full of unanalysed material, but because they aren’t.

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Cremated Bronze Age fragments

The publication of A Study of Cremation, and Wells’ continuing work on cremated bone, had a direct impact on curatorial policy. Put simply, if a site was excavated before 1960, it’s unlikely the cremated bone survives. After 1960, it probably does. The analysis and publication of Illington by Calvin Wells was not only the beginning of the discipline of cremation studies in Britain, but also instrumental in preserving archives, even where they were not immediately analysed. Analysis by a trained specialist is now accepted best practice for all cremated bone recovered by commercial, research or amateur excavation. The demography and the pyre technologies of cremation cemeteries have been shown to be essential in reconstructing the identity of the dead and the burial process, and how the identity of the deceased affects the social choices made in funerary rites. In periods where cremation and inhumation rites are contemporary, the practices and grave goods associated with the cremation rite have often been shown to differ significantly from inhumation practices, indicating different beliefs. More than fifty years of research have proved Wells right – we cannot lightly dismiss these twisted bones.


Gejvall, N. 1969. Cremations. In Brothwell, D. & Higgs, E. (eds.) Science in Archaeology (2nd ed.). London: Thames & Hudson. 468-479.

Rainsford, C. 2017. Animals, Identity and Cosmology: Mortuary Practice in Early Medieval Eastern England. Unpublished PhD thesis submitted to University of Bradford.

Waldron, T. 2013. Crooked Timber: The life of Calvin Wells (1908-1978). Journal of Medical Biography  

Wells, C. 1960. A Study of Cremation. Antiquity 34: 29-37

Williams-Ward, M. 2017. Buried Identities: An osteological and archaeological analysis of burial variation and identity in Anglo-Saxon Norfolk. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Bradford.

Calvin’s Slide Collection

Guest post by Meg Howe

Meg is a student of Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology BSc (Hons) at the University of Bradford and member of the Putting Flesh on the Bones team.

As part of my placement year I am working in the Biological Anthropology Research Centre (BARC) on the Putting Flesh on the Bones Project. Given my interest in Osteology and Forensic Anthropology, I have a significant interest in the Calvin Wells Archive and the many hundreds of slides in the collection.

A major part of the archive is the approximately 1600 35mm transparencies created and accumulated by Wells over the course of 30 years. The slides were used by Wells for research and lecturing purposes, and reflect his diverse professional, academic and personal pursuits. Having been donated to the University of Bradford in 1983, the slides were used for teaching and publication purposes before being overtaken by modern media. Despite their age, the slides are still of unique informational value and historical importance. Given the fragility of the format, it is our intention to digitise the slides and make them available online.

Dr Jack Roberts poses with a Mammoth femur (c.1960s)

In my role as Placement Student, I’ve been involved in the project since day one. While I was aware of Calvin Wells and the archive collection, I had little idea of its content or why it was important to preserve it. Originally, there were 12 slides boxes of all shapes and sizes. While some of the boxes we labelled by subject area, others remained a mystery. My first task was to catalogue slides in their original order. This entailed recording the labels on each slide, describing the image depicted, and noting whether it required conservation work. Most of the slides had Wells’ original numbers though many were missing labels or in wrong boxes. Moreover some of the slides are too fragile to handle and will be assessed by a conservator later in the project.

Osteoarthritis in archaeological remains

As previously mentioned, Wells had a diverse range of interests which is demonstrated within the slide collection. This includes human and animal palaeopathology, clinical and medical illustrations, and anthropological images from Africa, South America, Asia and Europe. It’s clear that Wells obtained the images from various sources, from his skeletal analysis work, museums and galleries, and from other publications or picture libraries.

Sling shot wound in skull from Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Human palaeopathology is the largest subject area in the collection, totalling 668 slides. Many of these slides are of bones which Wells analysed in his published skeletal reports. The palaeopathology subjects include fractures and blunt force traumas, infections, dental disease, histology and osteoarthritis.

The animal pathology slides contain very similar pathologies as the human

Deformed elephant tooth

palaeopathology. There is a mix of animals, such as elephant, deer and dolphin as well as prehistoric mammals and reptiles such as images of a mammoth femur and stretosaurus (a giant Pliosaur) tarsals and metatarsals.

Within the collection there is also a number of clinical photographs, which demonstrate pathologies such as tumours, elephantiasis and rhinophyma. Wells had a fascination with how such diseases were represented in ancient artwork and other cultural artefacts. This interest is further demonstrated in the numerous Anthropology slides, which are a mixture of photographs of figurines and paintings from around the globe. Most of the anthropological slides are pathology related, such as paralysis masks of in from the Makonde group in Tanzania and figurines or painting of individuals with tumours or scoliosis. Additionally, there is also a selection of slides classed as ‘erotica’ as depicted in ancient art and sculpture.

Slide Blog
Pottery vase in shape of a human head, Peru

One aspect of Wells’ research which was relatively unknown before starting the project was that of Ancient Egypt and the practice of mummification. Included in the slide collection are radiographs of pathologies in mummified remains, both human and animal, and microscope slides of mummified soft tissue.

While the collection is primarily related to Wells’ professional and academic life, there is a small number of personal photographs of family and friends. This includes pictures of Wells studying at home in Norfolk, holidaying in France and participating in his favourite sport – water-skiing!

The slide collection is now currently sorted into five key subject areas; Human paleopathology, Animal paleopathology, Anthropology; Africa, America/South America, Asia, Europe, Ancient Egypt and Personal.

Calvin Wells 1976 M102
Calvin enjoys a picnic in the South of France (c.1960s)

The next phase of the project will involve a conservator working on the slides and preparing them for digitisation. It is intended that many of Wells’ slides will be accessible via the University of Bradford’s Special Collections’ digital repository. This should be a valuable resource for those interested in palaeopathology, archaeology, osteology, and anthropology. Moreover the slides provide a visual historical record of Wells’ distinguished, varied and often eccentric life.

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?


Animal Minieral Veg Logo
‘Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?’ logo

The Calvin Wells Archive Collection has its fair share of weird and wonderful items which reflect the doctor’s endeavors in palaeopathology, archaeology, palaeopathology, and Egyptology. These items are primarily historical records in the form of research notes, correspondence, photographs, radiographs, transparencies, and audio-visual material. There are exceptions however, and one peculiar bird-shaped object has left the Putting Flesh on the Bones team stumped. See image and x-ray image below:

The object is approx 30cm x 7cm.

In the spirit of the classic BBC gameshow ‘Animal, Vegetable, Mineral’ – hosted by Wells’ close friend Glyn Daniel – we are asking our specialist audience to help us identify the object. If we cannot get the correct answer, we might at least be able to get a few interesting ones.

Feel free to post your answer in the Comments below. We have put the mystery to our followers on  Twitter and Facebook (BioAnthropology News, Paleopathology Association Student Group, Paleopathology)

Update :

To our happy surprise Calvin’s mystery object generated a lot of conversation among archaeologists, biological anthropologists and palaeopathologists on Facebook and Twitter. Some of the more interesting answers included a child’s toy, a replica human organ and a bag-pipe. The most common – and convincing – answer we received is that it is a fake mummified bird, or a fake mummified African sacred ibis to be precise.

IbisSpot the resemblance? An African sacred ibis feeding (via Wikipedia)

It was extremely common for the Ancient Egyptians to trade in mummified animals, and they often contained only traces or remnants of the original creature. These mummies served as votive gifts or effigies to be used in religious ceremonies and acts of worship. Given that Calvin had a deep interest in Ancient Egypt and the process of mummification it would seem fitting that he would own a mummified ibis.

Following this lead we contacted Dr Lidija McKnight, Egyptologist and expert in mummified animal remains, and Andrew Chamberlain, Professor of Bioarchaeology, at the University of Manchester. Based on our photographs, they have concluded that the object is not a mummy but rather a bird decoy. In Dr McKnight’s own words:

‘Rather than scaring birds away (like a scare crow), the sight of an ibis-type bird feeding, would have lulled other birds into a sense of security, perhaps allowing the opportunity for capture’

It is possible that at some point the object had a legs, hence the hole in the bottom of the torso, and could be placed standing up. Like our respondents, Dr McKnight suggested that we get the object carbon dated in order to verify whether it is indeed ancient. This is our next step and we will keep you posted.

Thanks to Dr Lidija McKnight, Professor Andrew Chamberlain and all our expert respondents on Facebook and Twitter.


Possible Calliphon Image
Calvin Wells a.k.a. Calliphon

Between 1953 and 1969 Calvin Wells wrote numerous columns for the Eastern Daily Press under the nom de plume ‘Calliphon’. Wells was a well-known physician of high social standing in East Anglia and it is possible he found greater freedom of expression writing through a pseudonym. Although many readers wrote letters of enquiry, Calliphon never revealed his true identity or the origin of the name. One correspondent who came closest to guessing was local artist and yachtsman G. Coleman Green who wrote

 “After some consideration I concluded I should approach the Muse in a masculine form, perhaps a man from Knossos or Greece itself.”

Given his fascination with the art and literature of antiquity it would seem fitting that Wells was inspired by a figure from Ancient Greece. The Historical Dictionary of Greek Philosophy gives the biographies of two prominent individuals named ‘Calliphon’. The first was a philosopher from 2 BC who is most closely associated with the Peripatetic school. There is little information about this Calliphon though Cicero condemned him several times for ‘making the chief good of man to consist in a union of virtue and bodily pleasure’. Despite being renowned for having a cheeky sense of humour, it is unlikely this particular Calliphon was admired by Wells. It seems more appropriate that it was Calliphon of Croton, a Pythagorean  physician and ‘man of great civic importance’, whom Wells sought to emulate. However it is also possible that as a linguist Wells appreciated the combination of the Greek word ‘Kali’ or Calli, meaning ‘good’, and Phon’, meaning ‘voice’ or ‘sound’. In essence Wells perhaps conceived ‘Calliphon’ to be a good or trusted voice for the people of Norfolk.

Taming a Hare

Initially Calliphon wrote lighthearted anecdotes and musings on family life in sections called ‘The Country Scene’ and ‘Norfolk Miscellanies’. These articles have a literary quality, and tell tales of Calliphon exploring abandoned castles with his children and training a wild hare to be a family pet. In one such article titled ‘Daddy, Is It True?’ Calliphon discusses the ethical and philosophical aspects of deceiving children about Santa Claus.

Santa Claus
Calliphon on the truth about Santa Claus

In every article Calliphon sought to impart some form of practical wisdom or advice, and he became popular with readers. Eastern Daily Press editor Stanley Bagwell encouraged Wells (only he knew Calliphon’s true identity) to tackle more serious subject matter and also to incorporate his medical expertise. At a time when the NHS was in its infancy and medical information relatively scarce, Calliphon provided informed analysis of important public health issues. In one such article ‘Doctors and the Vaccine’, Calliphon considers the debates surrounding the first mass polio vaccination programme in 1955. In judging the mood among the nation’s parents Calliphon writes ‘The Ministry of Health urges us to go; natural caution inclines many of us to hold back’. Without dictating to readers Calliphon argues that ‘despite all my cavilling, doctors do a sight more good than harm’ and after much ‘heart-searching’ concludes vaccination to be necessary.

Smoking Cancer edit
Annotation on Calliphon’s rejected smoking article

On other matters relating to public health Calliphon’s opinion was not always appreciated. In an article titled ‘Smoking and Cancer’ he discusses the link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer, which ‘only a generation ago was a rare disease’. Like most people at the time, even many in the medical profession, Calliphon was undecided about the connection. He wrote ‘whether the puzzle will be solved in our own lifetime or in centuries no-one can tell’. In the meantime Calliphon advises that ‘we must deny ourselves the solace of the cordial weed or puff it at our peril’. The article in question was left unpublished as it was deemed by Bagwell to be ‘too sombre for sombre times’.

This is not to say that the Eastern Daily Press shied away from printing Calliphon’s coverage of more alarming global events, such as the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. In an article titled ‘Brainwashing’, Calliphon delved into the various brainwashing techniques adopted by the Soviet regime to suppress dissenting political opposition. In the writer’s belief, a close examination of Communist brainwashing methods is ‘the best way of resisting its subtle attack’. Whilst Calliphon concedes that such advice may not be applicable to the average Norwich citizen, he warns that ‘the 20th century has shown that it cannot be trusted to leave the most idyllic places undefiled’.

Brainwashing Edit.jpg
‘Brainwashing’ (1956)

It was when writing about subjects related to Norwich and the Norfolk area that Calliphon received the greatest feedback from readers. This is most evident in his readers’ reaction to the etymological essay Norfolk Place-Names. In the article Calliphon declares that the village name of ‘Wormegay stole my heart away’ and goes on to discuss the rich variety of Norfolk place-names and their origins.

Norfolk Names
‘Norfolk Place-Names’ (1955)

However, it is the article’s blithe assumption that ‘most people can work out that Horsford means the ford of the horses’ which caused some to write in. Mr. John F.E. Alpe of Norwich argued:

“As for Horsford being a horse ford, if a horse could not cross, it would not be a ford. Horsford together with Horsham St. Faith and Horstead received their names from the little river Hor, or more correctly the Hor Beck.”

Norfolk Names Letter.jpg
Calliphon’s retort to a critical reader

Naturally Calliphon contested Alpe’s point and the debate played out for days on the letters  Eastern Daily Press. It culminated in an interjection by the linguist Dr. O.K. Schram of Edinburgh University in support of Calliphon’s original assertion. A similar article on the origin of Norfolk pub names proved less controversial. In this area Calliphon admitted that he was not a true expert as it “would need years of bibulous devotion and an almost professional thirst”.

U.E.A. article edit
Calliphon recalls his rebellious student days in an unpublished article on student activism.

Another area in which Calliphon felt inclined to apply his expertise was on the whereabouts of King John’s lost treasure. In assessing a highly publicised hi-tech treasure hunt by the Wash Research Committee in 1957, Calliphon wrote: ‘I cannot but suspect that they will have missed the treasure by the not inconsiderable margin of about six miles and seven hundred and forty years’. Like many of his readers Calliphon believed that little treasure was actually lost, and that any remaining items would have been quickly scooped up by fortunate locals.

Ancient Norfolk
Calliphon imagines prehistoric Norfolk.

Inspired by excavations of an Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Thornham , Calliphon was compelled to explore even further into Norfolk’s history. Assessing the various hereditary  links between Anglo-Saxons and Neanderthals, Calliphon gives a brief overview of the theory of evolution and natural selection.

“It was the discovery of Neanderthal man just a hundred years ago which gave the evolutionists the precise material they wanted in applying their theories to human development. A hundred-year-old discovery from a German cave may seem remote from our Anglo-Saxon excavation at Thornham, but in fact they are by no means unconnected.”

Not all of Calliphon’s readers agreed with his analysis of primitive man. W.E. Earl of Norwich complained that ‘to suggest man was originally descended from apes is grotesque and an insult to his Creator’. In Calliphon’s defence, F.J. Newton of Worlingham recommended that Earl ‘listen to the B.B.C. broadcast to children “How things began” on Mondays at 9.55am’. 

Something Good
From an article on Norwich’s street furniture

If Calliphon ever used his column to vent any strong ideology it tended to relate to matters within his more immediate surroundings. In an article on street furniture Calliphon bemoans ‘the rash of pillars, posts, telephone kiosks police boxes, traffic signs and other impedimenta’ cluttering the streets and pavements of Norwich. Whilst lamenting that he lives in ‘an age which dedicates its wealth to lethal weapons rather than works of beauty’, Calliphon insists that Norwich’s elected representatives pay heed to preserve his fine city.

As well as city councillors, Calliphon had strong words of advice for Norfolk’s holidaymakers. In response to a rise in fatalities on the Norfolk Broads, Calliphon urges that ‘something more is needed than the pious exhortations which fall on unresponsive ears’. Being a good citizen and competent sailor he then provides a guide on water safety, covering everything from boat maintenance to diving techniques. Whist Calliphon is confident his advice can help prevent fatalities; he admits that nothing can be done ‘for the pig-headed fool who still refuses to wear a life-jacket’.

life jacket
Calliphon strongly advocated water safety

It is uncertain why Wells retired Calliphon and ended his run at the Eastern Daily Press in the late 1960s. Correspondence in the archive collection shows that Wells enjoyed writing the articles and that he built a core fan base of readers. During this period Wells started to focus full-time on palaeopathology and perhaps felt he could no longer commit the intellectual energy required by Calliphon. Fortunately Wells kept a well organised file of Calliphon’s work in his archive which reveals a previously unknown side of his enigmatic and multifaceted character.