Cabinet of Curiosities

Cutting Remarks

Poleaxed cow scull, 10th century

For many years I worked as an osteoarchaeologist specialising in the study of animal bones. I am particularly interested in the craft of butchery. I first pondered a career in this area when I worked in 1981 at the National Museum of Ireland’s archaeological excavations on the medieval site of Wood Quay in Dublin. Several thousand sacks of animal bones were recovered and, exposed to such a huge body of material, it was only a matter of time before the penny dropped. This twinned my lifelong interests in natural history and archaeology. I was hooked!

Sheep ‘stunner’

Until the adoption of the captive bolt pistol, cattle were killed using an implement known as a poleaxe. The head had a spike on one edge and an axe-like blade on the other and was mounted on the end of a long wooden handle. Once the animal was tethered, the butcher drove the spike through the frontal bone of the skull, the function of which was to stun the animal prior to slaughter. The skull in the photo dates from the 10th century and clearly displays the extensive damage caused by a poleaxe wielded over 1000 years ago. After killing, the horns were often removed and horn-workers who plied their skills in the medieval towns used them as raw material from which they fashiond a range of items including combs and spoons. The photo of the chisel-like implement I am holding was used for stunning sheep and was retrieved from a derelict slaughter- house some years ago.

Cattle pelvis with ‘caput’ of femur in position

In medieval times the bones, once the main meat had been removed, were usually reduced to smaller fragments and used in the preparation of soups and stews. The triangular-shaped bone in the photos is a cow’s pelvic socket. Initially caked in clay, I found the head or ‘caput’ of the femur still in place in the socket when I washed it. Around 800 years ago a butcher had hacked through the neck of the femur in order to separate the leg from the pelvis. One image shows the caput in place in the socket, the other removed from same. 

‘Caput’ removed from its pelvic socket

I vividly recall an incident when I was around 9 years old that was perhaps the initial catalyst for my later career. I was standing, peering up sheepishly, at the formidable hulk of our local butcher. I had been dispatched by my Mother to go and ask for a bone for the dog. Accustomed to such requests, he produced the distal or lower end of a cow’s humerus, though I didn’t know what bone it belonged to at the time, wrapped it up in a large sheet of paper and handed it to me. Tightly tucked under my arm, I headed home triumphantly. We hadn’t got a dog! The bone, in reality, was destined for the pot where it would help to bulk up a soup. Different times for sure and a fine example of continuity in culinary skills with the inhabitants of medieval Dublin.

Medieval combmakers discarded off-cuts

The last photo details a pair of antler off-cuts, waste discarded by craftsmen using this material to fashion combs, pins and such like. Red deer shed their antlers between April and May each year and in medieval times these were collected and sold as raw material to the combmakers whose workshops were based in the towns. The specimen on the right in the photo is the basal section of a naturally shed antler known as a burr. The one on the left is still attached to a section of skull which indicates that this particular animal had been hunted and killed before its antlers were subsequently removed. If you look closely you can see fine saw-marks on the flat cut surfaces of this specimen, a legacy of the craftsman’s skill.

Please take a moment to share with family, friends and colleagues.



Cabinet of Curiosities

Bobbing Along

photograph of 4 violet sea snail shells
Violet Sea Snails

I am going to take you to the western seaboard and share with you some of the unusual items I have picked up over the years while beachcombing with my wife Lindi. The warm water current known as the Gulf Stream, which originates in the Gulf of Mexico, blends into the North Atlantic Drift and passes along the west coast of Ireland on its way towards more northern shores. Carried along by this water conveyor-belt is a whole range of amazing items including plants and animals of various descriptions. One of my favourites is the violet sea-snail (Janthina janthina). This mollusc spends its entire life floating upside down on the surface buoyed up by a raft of bubbles. This buoyancy aid is formed by trapping air-bubbles in a mucus which the creature secretes from its foot and the shell is also very light. It feeds mainly on jellyfish and has a palate particularly partial to the Portuguese man-o-war and By-the wind-sailor. One of the more unusual aspects of the life cycle of violet sea-snails is that they are protandric hermaphrodites – born male but developing as they progress through life into a female – so that they get to experience the best of both worlds! They are found in equatorial and temperate waters and are blown ashore by strong winds. The specimens shown here were collected on a beach on Achill Island.

Photograph of 3 sea hearts
Sea hearts

Other Gulf Stream passengers from sunnier climes are the so-called sea-beans or sea-hearts. These are the seed of a tropical legume, (Entada gigas), a member of the pea family. Growing in profusion in central America and the Caribbean, the plant uses the support of trees to climb towards the light and in a short space of time can completely mantle expansive areas of the forest. Also going by the name of ‘monkey-ladder’, because primates use it to help them traverse the high tree canopy, the plant holds the world record for producing the largest pea pod, which can be up to 6 feet long. These consist of a number of individual compartments, each of which hold a single seed. The mature pods fall from the plants and as they decay the seeds are released. Many of these are washed into streams and rivers during tropical rains and are carried to the ocean where huge numbers begin their long sea voyage northward in the waters of the Gulf Stream. It has been calculated that the seeds take around 15 months to reach the west coast of Ireland where they are sometimes washed ashore. When Christopher Columbus visited Galway city in 1477 it is said that he was shown a collection of sea-beans which had been found locally along the coast. He apparently pondered that these were seeds from exotic plants growing in lands far to the west. In the Azores they are known as ‘fava de Colm’ – ‘Columbus bean’. Through the centuries they have excited interest and found a multiplicity of uses. In Norway a drink was made from the beans to alleviate pain during childbirth, British sailors carried them as a good luck charm for safe voyages and they were made into snuff boxes and lockets. The photo shows 3 sea-hearts, one each of which I found on beaches in Mayo, Donegal and Clare. The larger ones are 2 inches across.

I picked up the two coconuts, on separate occasions, on a beach in Clare. These are the fruit of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) and probably originated in the West Indies. The tree can grow to 80 feet in height. The nut is housed in a fibrous husk and both its flesh and liquid are nutritious. As Robinson Crusoe learned to his advantage, its leaves make an excellent material for thatching, umbrellas and baskets!! The tough fibres of the husk are processed for the manufacture of ropes and matting. The specimen below to the left in the photo has an intact husk. 


Join me for more curiosities in the coming days…..



Cabinet of Curiosities

Vincent’s Cabinet of Curiosities

Collecting ….

I have been an avid collector since boyhood. I read a book when I was twelve years old about the life of Charles Darwin. The tome detailed his voyage on the HMS Beagle where, in the role of expedition naturalist, he amassed a huge collection of natural history and geology specimens which were brought back to England for further research and study. It was while on that five-year-long voyage that the young Darwin, possessing consummate skills of observation and deduction, began to formulate his later ground-breaking Theory of Evolution which challenged accepted Church doctrine on Divine Creation. He was known fondly by his fellow shipmates as ‘the flycatcher’.

I was enthralled by the adventure and romance of it all and emulating my hero, by age fifteen, had transformed my bedroom into a veritable mini-museum in which I lost myself in the wonder of it all. Over the years I have amassed a considerable eclectic collection of items. I am blessed with a career which allows me to travel the world on expedition cruise ships to far flung locations on this wonderful planet of ours. The collecting opportunities that this has facilitated over the last two decades is apparent from even a cursory glance along the shelf-festooned walls in my home. In serried ranks the items showcase my wide-ranging interests. For decades now I have collected fossils, shells, rocks, minerals, animal bones, coins, vintage postcards, earthenware and glass bottles, bricks, clay pipes, stuffed animals, skulls, World War I artifacts, stamps, books, encyclopaedias, vintage Holy statues/pictures/crucifixes, vintage tobacco tins, sand, cannonballs, sea beans, cigarette cards, etc. etc. etc.

Gentoo penguin, Antarctica

Long before Mr Darwin first stepped on the deck of the Beagle, natural history and geological objects and antiquities had fascinated people, as witness the so-called ‘cabinets of curiosities’ popular since the 16th century. These collections were compiled by wealthy aristocrats who sourced unusual and interesting objects on their Grand Tours with which to impress their peers, and also by scientists and scholars as study material to further knowledge. Some of the larger ‘cabinets of curiosities’ later became foundation collections for museums. By the Victorian Period, collecting natural history specimens had reached new levels and Natural History Field Clubs and Societies were founded all over Britain and elsewhere. These provided a platform for what developed into a veritable mania for collecting. In Britain for example, a number of large fern species were almost picked into extinction in the contemporary fad for compiling herbariums.

So, continuing this fine tradition of fostering curiosity and encouraging interest, I am opening the doors to my ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ and invite you to have a peek in! Each day I will select a number of items from my collections and provide some interesting details relating to them. If nothing else, it may serve as a slight distraction from the current health situation we find ourselves caught up in. Please share with your friends, family and colleagues. The accompanying vintage postcard dates to 1914. Keep safe and well!