Monday, 23 December 2013

John "Longitude" Harrison display installed at Leeds City Museum

Audio visual content being loaded on to touchscreens.
The display is located near the front entrance of Leeds City Museum
A little tweaking to do, but the display is ready for visitors now. This display complements the displays at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (part of the National Maritime Museum) that are dedicated to navigation, precision timekeeping and John Harrison. It is the only display outside of London about John Harrison, and, by chance, is near to his birthplace, Foulby, Wakefield. Harrison's magnificent contribution to advancing precision timekeeping cannot be overstated, equally so its significance. It not only advanced navigation science, and map making, but has also had profound effects on engineering and technology. Harrison was an autodidact, his was an intellectual journey to achieve precision timekeeping as a means of finding longitude at sea, the lack of such means being a huge problem for mariners on their journeys. Pervasive throughout cultures around the world, in art, literature, poetry, music, film and faiths, are references to journeys and navigation, to time and stars. The star of Bethlehem, guiding the three kings on their journey for example, or Eccesliastes 3:1, "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens". Or in literature, fiction, and non-fiction equally, from Peter Pan, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, to the biographies of great people like Albert Einstein, Captain James Cook, or Charles Darwin, and the voyage of the Beagle, the putative beginning of Darwin's long thinking and reflection that led to the great truth he discerned, The Origin of Species. Whenever I have encountered them, these references, they have stood out to me.
Directions to Leeds City Museum:
Second star to the right, and straight on 'til morning. Free top-ups of fairy dust available from Tinker Bell via your phone network. Your network may charge for call time. Call TINK, or 8465, to top up.

Second star to the right, and straight on 'til morning, keep on trekking!
"Location aware music" contemporary performance art and GPS combined, in a great example of the human drive to create beauty, and seek moments of awe, and using new technologies to serve this human need.
Sidereal time is the time scale that is based on the Earth's rate of rotation measured relative to the fixed stars. This is a technique that was known and used by John Harrison in regulating his timekeepers. "All men have stars, but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides…."
John Harrison advanced precision timekeeping, by mechanical means, by an amount that had not been seen before or since. Today the time standard is kept by atomic clocks, that in a sense are gauging the entropy of the universe. We can understand what timekeeping is, but what is time itself? Perhaps the best explanation is the concept of the arrow of time. Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity also goes some way, perhaps, of explaining what spacetime is. Einstein also had a very good sense of humour: “When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder, a second seems like an hour. That's relativity.” This much is certain: time is a precious resource, not to be wasted, crack on, like smoke and oakum.

Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking,
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

The hard opening of the display was on 23/01/2014, and was marked with a very fine lecture, to an audience of nearly 180, by Dr Richard Dunn, Senior Curator, Science, Technology and Navigation, from the National Maritime Museum. 
Blog of the Board of Longitude project "Leeds leads"
Posted by Ian Fraser

Thursday, 12 December 2013

"Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree" - themed trees at Leeds City Museum

In the spirit of the festive season, 20 fabulous Christmas trees of different sizes have gone up around Leeds City Museum.  But these aren’t ordinary Christmas trees - they’ve each been decorated by members of staff and volunteers to represent Leeds Museums collections, historic sites, and the city of Leeds itself.  Yes they’re home-made and often the quality of the baubles is questionable (mainly the archaeology ones), but what a great way to celebrate all things LEEDS! 
So here’s a sneak preview of what you might see if you visit Leeds City Museum between now and 6th January…

Celebrating the coin collection

Pom poms and sailing boats

Baubles on the archaeology collection tree

Some of the tree-toppers are particularly inspirational.  A gold Anglo-Saxon ring pierced by a Neolithic arrow tops the archaeology tree.  Other top toppers include Armley Mills waterwheel and the famous Leeds antiquarian Ralph Thoresby, clearly having an amazing time.

But some trees also have a serious message.  This tree in the Life on Earth gallery represents the plight of the worlds oceans:

Festive greetings from the (not so happy) sea. 
See all of these Christmas trees and many more around Leeds City Museum until 6th January.  Merry Christmas!

Katherine Baxter
Curator of Archaeology
Leeds Museums and Galleries

Friday, 6 December 2013

Why we HAVEN'T put the bird skin collection in taxonomic order

Firstly, for those of the uninitiated here is a (hopefully) simple explanation of what taxonomy means:

Taxonomy is a scientific word which basically stands for the tree of life. Looking at the bottom of the trunk you have one living thing – the first organism that popped into existence around 3.85 billion years ago and there were no other species, just the one. It is from that first type of organism that everything else has evolved and by looking at the tree, i.e. studying taxonomy, you can see how things are related to one another. For instance, did you know that humans and chickens share 57% of the same DNA, and we share around 99% of the same DNA as chimpanzees? Birds are descended from the same line as dinosaurs and of the species that are alive today one of the first to evolve was the Ostrich, which appeared around 20 million years ago. Some of the birds that have appeared most recently are perching birds, such as the finches, around 10 million years ago. Below is a taxonomic tree, showing how from one common ancestor a group of different species evolved.

(Taxonomic tree showing the branch dealing with birds and their relationships to one another. You can see how the Ostrich branches off first, exhibiting that is the most primitive and flamingos, penguins and toucans are relatively recent.)
 Most Natural History Collections are sorted in this way, everything is in order and you can progress through the evolution of a group, from start to finish (although everything is still evolving!). For the bird skin collection we have decided NOT to do this. Call us crazy, but we're scientists and we like to experiment! We consulted the main users of the collection, which are the Visitor Assistants and the Education and Outreach staff. They said that often with groups of visitors they concentrate on different themes and that taxonomy was not useful to them; would we consider something else? Since the collection was being unpacked from storage and we could start from scratch we asked for ideas and they came up with the themes of: beak shape, foot shape, flight, hunters/insectivores, British birds, geography and colour. Many different subjects can be related to each of these divisions, such as camouflage, migration, methods of feeding, habitat, etc. As part of the project all of our bird skins will be databased with a location attached so we can find everything even if it isn't in order or together.

There is an argument that you should adapt your collection to accommodate the people who use it the most, and in many cases that will be researchers and students, so of course sorting taxonomically would be ideal, but that is not the situation at the Discovery Centre. Ultimately, if after some time it is decided that actually taxonomy would be more effective then we can rearrange the collection, but it will be interesting to see how this test will work out.

Excavation stories: A knuckle guard from Kirkstall Abbey Guest House

Research is currently underway on West Yorkshire Archaeology’s excavations of Kirkstall Abbey Guest House, conducted between 1979-1986. The publication will examine the various structures of the Guest House complex, and through the medium of the artefacts, look at the range of activities carried out within the buildings and the types of visitors and residents who used the facilities. As part of this work, the assemblage of artefacts recovered is being reviewed and catalogues up-dated.

ABOVE: The standing remains of Kirkstall Abbey Guest House complex.

Just one of the 11,425+ objects is mentioned here, to give an idea of the information that can be gained. Small Find no. 3244 is thought to be a finger-joint cover or knuckle guard from plate armour gauntlets. During the 13th century armoured protection for hands was provided by mail mufflers (Edge and Paddock 1988, 81), but from c. 1330-40 hour-glass-shaped metal gauntlets were developed. These gauntlets comprised a plate protecting and shaped to the side and back of the hand, narrowing to the wrist and then opening out to form a short cuff (Griffiths 1990, 1084). The fingers of the wearer were covered with two narrow metal plates, placed either side of the knuckle and riveted to an internal cloth or leather glove. The knuckles or joints of the wearer’s fingers were protected by curved plates like no. 3244, which over-lapped the finger plates, allowing complete flexing of the hand. These knuckle or finger-joint covers were attached to the leather via the rivet holes on either side. 
ABOVE: Finger joint covers or knuckle guards.  Left: from Kirkstall Abbey Guest House (c) Archaeological Services WYAS.  Right: from Coppergate, York (c) York Archaeological Trust. 

The finger-joint cover or knuckle guard from Kirkstall is damaged and the rivets missing, but the lack of iron corrosion suggests that slender copper alloy rivets were originally used, indicating a date in the second half of the 14th century (Ottaway and Rogers 2002, 2970). Similar finger-joint covers or knuckle guards have been found at excavations at Coppergate in York (Ottaway and Rogers 2002, 2969-70) and at Winchester (Griffiths 1990, 1084). The Kirkstall example is narrower than the examples mentioned and may possibly have protected the pinkie joint.

Hour-glass-shaped metal gauntlets can be seen on brasses (e.g. Sir John Harsick, Southacre (Norfolk), d.1384; William de Aldeburgh, at Aldborough (Yorks.) d. c. 1360) and are depicted on the St William window at York Minister (Griffiths 1990, 1084 and fig.139; Ottaway and Rogers 2002, fig. 1534).

ABOVE: Detail from panel 1b of St.William window, York Minster, showing metal gauntlets being worn.

Kirkstall Abbey Guest House was not for ordinary wayfarers, but a residence for visitors of rank and wealth to the Abbey, as the gauntlet finger-joint cover nicely illustrates.

Edge, D. and Paddock, J. M, 1988 Arms and Armour of the Medieval Knight (London)

Griffiths, N. 1990 ‘Finger-Joint Cover from a plate armour gauntlet’ in Biddle, M. Object and Economy in Medieval Winchester (vol.2), 1084-5

Ottaway, P. and Rogers, N. 2002 Craft, Industry and Everyday Life: Finds from Medieval York The Archaeology of York: The Small Finds 17/15

Author: Holly Duncan, Project Manager (Artefacts) at Albion Archaeology