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.


The Curious Case of the Skeleton in the Car

A particularly valuable part of the Calvin Wells Archive Collection is his correspondence files which have letters, note and postcards from prominent figures in the worlds of medicine, science, humanities, and arts. As the Putting Flesh on the Bones Project develops we will delve deeper into the conversations, collaborations, debates, and arguments which played out in Wells’ correspondence. Here is a just a selection of more informal communication from his friends and colleagues which serve as amusing vignettes into unique and often eccentric lives.

Detail of R R Clarke Postcard

A news cutting attached to a postcard from archaeologist and former Curator of Norwich Museums, Roy Rainbird Clarke. The article tells of Vilhelm Møller-Christensen driving across Denmark with a 500 year old skeleton in order to attract donations for Æbelholt Klostermuseum in North Zealand. This was not the first time the Danish palaeopathologist caused a stir by taking medieval skeletons on a long distance road trip. In 1953 he journeyed to the 6th International Congress on Leprosy in Madrid by car with ten leprous skeletons for use in a demonstration on bone malformations.

Above is a postcard from Møller-Christensen with an image of his aforementioned driving companion. Like Calvin Wells, Møller-Christensen’s reputation of being something of an enigmatic showman spread beyond the world of palaeopathology. Graham Greene included a reference to the Danish doctor in A Burnt-Out Case (1960) based on stories from their mutual friend, the famous leprologist Michel Lechat.

‘This character looks very distracted to me…’

Surprisingly schoolboy humour exhibited by the distinguished Welsh scientist, archaeologist and television personality Glyn Daniel. As editor of Antiquity, Daniel published, reviewed or declined Wells’ frequent contributions. In an unpublished article titled Editorial Arrogance and Bad Manners, Wells praises Daniel’s ‘scrupulous and gracious’ professionalism over the ‘discourteous tempering’ of other leading journal editors. The book referred to in the postcard is Bones, Bodies and Disease, which formed part of the Ancient People and Places series overseen by Daniel.

‘The brain is made in Germany’

A Thank You note to Calvin Wells from Folke Henschen, Professor of Pathological Anatomy at Karolinska Institutet and Chairman of the Medical Nobel Committee. The annotation ‘Gudden Del’ suggests that the image was created or featured in a publication by the renowned German neuroanatomist and psychiatrist Bernhard Von Gudden. Many of the books, journals and images in Wells’ archive collection show he had fascination with the human mind and mental health.

Felices Pascuas y Próspero Año Nuevo

A homemade Christmas and New Year card from the family of Peruvian pathologist Dr Oscar Urteaga-Ballon. During the 1960s, Calvin Wells corresponded with him regularly about the anthropology of ancient Andean societies. The front of the postcard shows the elongated head of a Paracas mummy aside a flower and potato plant. This unusual juxtaposition of images is made clear in Urteaga-Ballon’s accompanying correspondence. In ancient Paracas culture it was common practice for the dead to be mummified then buried in a funeral bundle with flowers, fruits and vegetables. However it remains unclear why the doctor thought this was a suitably festive concept for expressing Season’s Greetings.


The Global History of Paleopathology: Pioneers and Prospects Edited by Jane Buikstra, Charlotte Roberts New York, NY: Oxford University Press (2012)