In assessing Calvin Wells’ contribution to the study of palaeopathology, it’s worth noting that he only committed himself full-time to the discipline in later life. At the age of 62 when many are settling into retirement, Calvin started to forge his legacy as a world renowned palaeopathologist. In the 30 years preceding this period Calvin worked primarily as a General Practitioner diagnosing disease and injury in the living. Completing his medical studies at University College London, Dr Wells served in the Royal Medical Corps for six years before setting up a general medical practice in Norwich city centre. According to reminisces of his wife Freddie, it was she who ran the business side of things while Calvin spent much of his work week motoring around the Norfolk countryside visiting his rural patients. Aside from Calvin’s student memoirs, there is very little archive material from his time in the medical profession. This is one of many factors which make this specimen report and accompanying photographs from 1957 among the more unusual items in the Calvin Wells Archive Collection.
Sebaceous horn (1957)
Sebaceous horn (1957)
Sebaceous, or cutaneous, horns are a rare condition and this particular case is even rarer considering the extent to which the tumour developed before being excised. Medical doctor and palaeopathologist Keith Manchester states that it is the largest specimen he’s encountered and makes a comparison with the case of Madame Dimanche. Also referred to as Widow Sunday, Madame Dimanche (pictured right: From Bailey and Love’s Textbook of Surgery, 1932) was a 76 year-old watercress seller from early 19th-century Paris. Over the course of six years, a 25cm sebaceous horn grew from her forehead before being removed by the famous French surgeon Joseph Souberille. Calvin’s patient was far more affected by her condition in the sense that it prevented her from forming any romantic relationships. There is added poignancy in the fact that the condition is easily treated with a simple excision and skin graft. In a similar manner with which he would later interpret high drama in ancient bones, Calvin ensured to convey a glimpse of humanity in this specimen report.
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:
To 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.’
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
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.
1st edition with cover design by Satra Wells (1971)
Scientific Book Club edition (1972)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 fromthebonesoftheland.wordpress.com. Follow Clare on Twitter.
“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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Spot the resemblance? An African sacred ibis feeding (via Wikipedia)
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.