Many are surprised to discover that museum collections consist not only of paintings, statues and local history objects, but some much stranger items too.
This grapefruit-sized object in the Worcester City collection is one of the most baffling, having confused many visitors over the years when displayed at talks and tours – is it a cannonball? Is it a seed pod? Is it an iron weight?
It is in fact a hairball from a cow, probably originating from the early Worcestershire natural history society collection in the 1860s, before the museum, art gallery and library were amalgamated at the end of the 19th century.
Most people have heard of cat hairballs, but this natural phenomenon also known as a “trichobezoar” can also occur in cud-chewing animals such as cows, deer and sheep. It can be quite a serious problem for cattle, which cannot vomit and so the hairball is not usually discovered until after death, at which point it has often grown to a very large size. There is even a National Hairball Awareness day in April to alert people to the existence of these medical curiosities.
This slab of stone with Latin dedication has been described as a Roman milestone from the reign of Constantine the Great. It was discovered early in the 19th century in the kitchen garden of Court House, Kempsey, and used in a garden wall before finally finding a home within the Worcester City collection.
In-keeping with most Roman milestones, this slab records only the name of the Emperor, although does not offer the dates of his reign as in some instances. The word mile is derived from the Latin milia passuum, ‘a thousand paces’, for Roman miles were a thousand paces long.
Kempsey itself sits on the Roman road between Metchley and Gloucester – it was the site of a military camp, once situated close to the present church. Evidence supporting the presence of a camp was uncovered during the 19th century, including coins, tiles and the milestone itself.
A well planned and maintained road network was key in holding territory after the initial Roman conquest of Britain over three centuries before Constantine’s reign. The Roman road network connected settlements, allowing Roman trade, military might and cultural practices to spread throughout the country.
As this stone demonstrates, roads also allowed the image and name of the Emperor to travel where he could not go, stamping his identity upon new places and re-defining the boundaries of the Empire. Although the first line of text is missing from the stone, a key word in its translation is ‘INVICTO’, or ‘un-conquerable’. Whatever the stone was used for, we can assume its message was visible to the passer-by, who would have been assured of Constantine’s empiric character, and reminded of who was in charge.
In 1970, a field at Moseley Farm near Hallow was ploughed for the first time in 40 years, ready for a crop of potatoes. A sharp-eyed observer, identity unknown, spotted a peculiar piece of flint on the surface and took it to Worcester City Museum.
Hewn into a teardrop-shape by overlapping chips that left tell-tale ripples radiating from the edges, it is a Stone Age flint handaxe in remarkably fresh condition. It comes from the top of gravel deposits formed between 240 and 130 thousand years ago. During the earlier, warmer part of this period, small groups of early humans called Neanderthals moved along the river valleys, before climate change drove them from Britain for more than 120 thousand years.
But this find is at the heart of a scientific puzzle: tools like these were outdated by the time the Hallow gravel was formed. Some scholars argue that handaxes of this date had been tumbled in rivers for millennia by the time they ended up in the gravels where they’re discovered, but this example shows none of the battering you would expect from such treatment. So, is this artefact one of the final clues left by a dwindling band of Neanderthal settlers, the last to lay human eyes on Worcestershire for 6000 generations?
Lost Landscapes Project Officer
This is a Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus), a rare breed of flightless parrot native to New Zealand.
Sometimes referred to as an Owl Parrot due to its moon-like face, the bird is nocturnal and entirely vegetarian, feeding mainly on flowers, roots and leaves. Whilst our specimen is slightly faded in colour, the Kakapo is usually a bright mossy green with dappled yellow and black. This camouflage allows the Kakapo some protection against birds who hunt above the forest using sight, but is of little use against mammals who hunt using smell.
Before the arrival of humans the Kakapo was common throughout New Zealand’s forests, but became vulnerable to attack from introduced species such as rats and cats. The bird is now heavily monitored and managed on predator-free islands.
This specimen is believed to have travelled to Worcester City Museum in the latter half of the nineteenth century, although its precise history is uncertain. Worcester had become a lively centre for natural history research and learning by this period, with the founding of the Worcestershire Natural History Society and other dedicated groups creating and promoting their own collections.
Having visited the Worcester Museum and seen the collection of bird specimens on display, it is believed that famous ornithologist John Gould was inspired to carry out his own Australian expedition.
The Malvern Hills has attracted geologists since the early pioneering days of the 19th century. The rocks and fossils found in this important geological area tell a remarkable 700 million year story about changing environments and climates of the past.
The Colwall (Malvern) Tunnels are a pair of railway tunnels that pass under the Malvern Hills and connect Colwall and Malvern Wells on the Cotswold Line. The railway was built to supply the Birmingham manufacturing area with coal from South Wales and started in 1856 before opening on the 17th September 1861. In 1907 part of the tunnel collapsed and a decision was made to bore another wider tunnel which was built between 1924 and 1926.
Around 400 specimens from the first Colwall tunnel were given to Worcester Museum, founded in 1833 by the Worcestershire Natural History Society. It is an irreplaceable part of our geological heritage as specimens can no longer be collected as the tunnel is brick-lined and closed to public access.
This specimen is an example of part of a crown (the head) of a crinoid sea lily collected in 1861 by W. J. Else. It dates from the Silurian period, around 435 – 405 million years ago when the sea flooded over Central England and the Welsh borderland.
Although the bodies of the animals are not preserved, they have left behind evidence of their activities and are known as trace fossils.
Rosemary Roden, Honorary Geology Curator
In 1997-8, a discovery on the surface of a field near Pershore brought an ancient and unusual archaeological find to light.
It is a Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) handaxe: a stone multi-tool used by early humans for butchery. The once-sharp edges are worn smooth from millennia spent in river gravels. Whilst other materials would have been used by our ancestors, only durable stone tools survive for us to study. It was probably made during one of the warm periods within the Ice Age, between 300,000 and 424,000 years ago, by hunter-gatherer ancestors of both modern humans and Neanderthals named Homo Heidelbergensis.
Most local handaxes are made from flint or quartzite, but this one uses a rare and unusual black volcanic rock. The nearest matching sources are Cornwall or Yorkshire, so the rock was either brought to Worcestershire along seasonal migration routes, or carried here by glacial activity. Either way, our ancestors were drawn to its striking, unusual appearance when they selected it to make this tool.
Much of the archaeological research for this era focuses around southern England. However, there have been a number of important Palaeolithic discoveries in the West Midlands. The area holds crucial clues to our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain.
This object was researched as part of the wider Heritage Lottery Funded Lost Landscapes of Worcestershire project, a partnership between Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service and Museums Worcestershire celebrating the area’s Ice Age past through exhibitions, events and workshops.
Rob Hedge and Claire Cheshire
The Worcester City museum collection contains many wonderful objects that are not only amazing in themselves, but also have meaning and symbolism tied into them.
Take our Kpinga otherwise known as a Zande knife from our Ethnographic collection. It is a multi-bladed throwing knife, made from metal alloy with a patterned handle and is more commonly used by the Azande people of Africa.
They can be up to 22 inches long and have three blades. The blade closest to the handle represents a man’s masculine power. There are different types of these blades, but this variety is found in the region inhabited by the Zande and other groups near-by in the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo.
The iron weapon was employed by throwing it with force and the technique used ensured that the blades would revolve around the centre while spinning through the air. This meant that wherever the rotation was at, a super sharp blade would always inflict some damage when it connected.
Traditionally used as weapons, you had to be a real proven warrior to wield it. Which is why when they went out of use as weapons, only select men were able to keep them in their home.
These days the Kpinga is more of a symbolic object, used in ceremonies when honouring the ancestors. They are considered potent symbols of power and nobility.
The Huia bird (Heteralocha acutirostris), which has been extinct since 1907, originated in the mountain ranges and forests of the North Island of New Zealand. The female had a long thin beak that arched downwards to help extract insects and grubs from rotting trees, whereas the males had short, crow-like beaks that could chisel away at the wood in a similar fashion to woodpeckers.
The 19th century was a great age of travel and exploration, and when members of the Natural History Society formed a small museum in Worcester in the 1830s, they displayed the exotic forms of wildlife that they had collected, developing a very important collection of over 1300 specimens.
The origins of this Huia are so far inconclusive. One of the world’s most famous ornithologists John Gould was so impressed by his visit to Worcester museum’s collection of Australian birds that the Worcestershire Natural History Society reported at the time that he was impelled to travel to Australasia as a direct result. Here, he wrote his famous volume of ‘Gould’s Australian Birds’ and the society states in their report that the collection was “enriched with many beautiful specimens from Mr Gould himself,” making it possible that it was a gift on his return.
On the other hand, museum records from the 1850s show a donation of two Huia birds in July 1851 from a Captain Thomas, yet only one specimen remains in the collection.
The ‘mouse deer’ is the smallest known hoofed mammal in the world, which at full maturity is around the size of a rabbit and can be found in Southeast Asia. This specimen from the Worcester City natural history collection dates from around a hundred years ago, when the creature would have been a curiosity during an era of world travel and discovery.
The mouse deer evolved 35 million years ago. In several languages the creature’s name translates to “little goat” and in the wild they lead a solitary life, feeding on fruits, shrubs and other vegetation. However the habitat in this glass case is actually British, which indicates that it would have been sent back by an explorer and mounted in this country.
Although this does not show signs of being prepared by any well-known taxidermist, as the casing is not of a high quality, this object has clearly been well-loved during its time in the museum. The red velvet underneath the case suggests it was placed on a table to be examined and moved around, the front of the deer has faded and the label is in the handwriting of a former curator from Worcester, matching the labels on birds from the same era.