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.


An Introduction

‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ is a collaboration between the University of Bradford’s Special Collections and Biological Anthropology Research Centre (BARC). With generous support from the Wellcome Trust, the project will undertake the cataloguing, digitisation and promotion of the Calvin Wells Archive Collection. It is intended that the collection will become a valuable resource for the study of palaeopathology and osteology.

Calvin Wells M110
Calvin Wells analysing a skull at his Norfolk home (c. 1970s)

Dr Calvin Percival Bamfylde Wells (1908-1978) is considered the father of palaeopathology in the United Kingdom and his work remains internationally influential today. Forty years after his death his publications continue to be cited around the world by academics and researchers from a wide range of disciplines. A practicing General Practitioner, his medical training informed how he diagnosed disease and injury in the bones of earlier people. In addition to being a pioneer in the study of cremation and inhumation, Wells published research articles on leprosy, tuberculosis, Paget’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and scurvy.

male and female brow images m7
‘Male and female brow’ (c. 1970s). 35mm slide from the Calvin Wells Archive Collection

Having worked on several major excavations Wells earned a reputation for writing extensive, informative and accessible bone reports. Passionate and prolific in his discipline, 76% of all bone reports in 1978 – the year of his death – were written by Wells. Not one to methodically follow procedure, his prolific output is partly due to a casual attitude to bone curation following examination.

‘Late Saxon skulls excavated at Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich, Norfolk’ (c. 1960s)

Once catalogued and described, it is anticipated that Wells’ bone reports, associated research notes, and radiographic and photographic material will inform and motivate new and on-going scientific research.

As Wells emphasised most emphatically in his renowned Bones, Bodies and Disease (1964), in order to truly understand disease in the past one must look beyond human remains. Therefore Wells readily adopted the roles of anthropologist, linguist, medical historian and art historian in order to study the history of human health and disease. Born into an upper-middle class family in early 20th century England, Wells’ writings on issues such as race, gender and culture have deservedly undergone extensive review and criticism. A substantial though controversial figure today and in his lifetime, this project aims to untangle some of the mythology surrounding his biography.

Couverture livre WELLS
‘Bones, Bodies and Disease’ (1964) Wells’ well reviewed and popular introduction to palaeopathology

The archive collection was donated to the University of Bradford in 1984 by Calvin’s wife Freddie, herself a medical professional and palaeopathology enthusiast. It holds material related to his professional and personal history, including research material, manuscripts and publications, photographic and audio-visual material. Bradford’s J.B. Priestley Library also holds a large section of his personal library. This vast and rich archive will appeal to anybody with an interest in the biological development and deterioration of humanity throughout the ages.

Over the next 18 months the ‘Putting the Flesh on the Bones’ project will draw on expertise from a range of specialist subjects in order to unlock the hidden potential of the Calvin Wells Archive Collection. Please subscribe or bookmark our blog to keep updated with news, publications, events and workshops centred around this complex and fascinating archive.

Paper Selection
A notebook, selection of postcards and correspondence from Calvin Wells’ paper archive