As old as the hills?

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

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The Allesborough Handaxe

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

Kpinga Knife

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.

Kerry Whitehouse
Registrar

Huia Bird

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.

Garston Phillips

Collections Ambassador
Museums Worcestershire

A Deer Little Creature!

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.

Seventeenth Century Silver Hawking Vervel

This seventeenth century silver hawking vervel now in the Worcestershire County collection was found by a metal detector user in the Stourport on Severn area in 2014. The vervel resembles a flat silver ring inscribed with E. EYTON OF and has a shield soldered to the front bearing the coat of arms of an unidentified member of the Eyton family of Shropshire.

Vervels were used to attach a hawk or falcon’s leather jesses to a leash, which, held in the hand, enabled the bird to be trained in short distance flight. The leash could also be used to fix the bird to its block or perch. They were usually inscribed or decorated so that the bird could be identified with its owner.

The discovery of the vervel was reported through the Portable Antiquities Scheme and as the vervel is made from a minimum of 10% precious metal and is over 300 years old it qualifies as Treasure as defined by the Treasure Act 1996. Consequently, Museums Worcestershire was able to acquire the vervel for the county collection in 2016.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme has recorded over 14,400 archaeological finds from Worcestershire, all of which have been discovered by members of the public and range from prehistoric hand axes to seventeenth century buttons. They are of national importance through to the common ‘everyday’ items, and their contribution to the archaeological landscape is breath taking.

The scheme has a network of Finds Liaison Officers covering England and Wales whose role is to record these finds and add the data to the publicly accessible Portable Antiquities Scheme database.

The rock that rolled

Erratics are large pebbles or boulders that have been transported and deposited often some considerable distance from their origin, usually by glaciers. By comparing the rocks with those from possible originating areas, it is possible to monitor and plot past ice movements across large areas.

Worcester city collection has three such specimens in its collection, all of which are on display in the Museum and Art Gallery.

Around 40,000 years ago, at the height of the Ice Age, these granite boulders were brought to the area by ice sheets. When the ice finally melted about 13,000 years ago, the boulders were left behind.

The two largest specimens were both found in Claines having travelled down from the Lake District and Criffel in South West Scotland.

The smallest specimen is a little more mysterious. Looking through our historical records, an entry states that in the early years of the 20th century ‘a large, smooth stone was dredged from the river Severn and taken to the museum’. We think this entry might well refer to our smaller boulder and that it was then added to the collection.

The Habington Chest

web-habington-chest-c-museums-worcestershireThomas Habington was arguably one of Worcestershire’s rebels. He was a member of a staunch Catholic family from Hindlip Hall near Worcester and was involved in two of the most famous Catholic plots to unseat the reigning monarch, the Babington Plot of 1586 and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. For the first he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for six years and for the second he was condemned to death.

Through family connections his sentence was reduced. Habington was arrested for sheltering Jesuit priests at Hindlip and indicted in London, but was spared by the influence of his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle. Over the next forty years he studied, parish by parish, the history of the county up to the opening of Elizabeth’s reign. He spent his time researching and writing and is believed to have been Worcestershire’s first historian. It’s likely that his books and papers were stored within the chest that bears his initials and the date, 1605, in roman numerals.

The chest has been restored, with support from the Kay Trust, and parts of it dated by dendrochronology to a tree which was felled in the sixteenth century. Research by Stephen Price, Worcestershire Archaeological Society Curator, has traced the history of the chest further. Thomas wrote in a letter, during the civil war, that he had buried the chest in the woods at Hindlip Hall to protect the contents from soldiers. The chest may also be one of those mentioned in two eighteenth century inventories of Hindlip. In 1814 the hall was demolished and the chest was rescued by Dr Peter Prattinton of Bewdley. The chest is now in the care of Worcestershire Archaeological Society.

Millicent the Mammoth

Every day thousands of motorists stop at Strensham Services, by Junction 8 of the M5 in south Worcestershire. Few are aware that, 200,000 years ago, Strensham was the final stop for a very different traveller: a young adult Woolly Mammoth, 20-25 years old.

She came to drink from a shallow pool and died there, her body settling into the soft mud. She was discovered by archaeologists during construction works in July 1990, along with bones from at least five other mammoths and a red deer antler. Initially christened Marmaduke, she was swiftly renamed Millicent once she was found to be female.

Mammoths are often associated with Arctic conditions, but the presence of cold-averse species of molluscs within the Strensham deposits reveals that Millicent lived in a climate similar to Britain today, during a warm period within Marine Isotope Stage 7 (243-191,000 years ago). The Strensham pool lay within a marshy meadow, surrounded by heath dotted with stands of trees. Millicent lived alongside familiar faces such as wolves, foxes and wild boar, but also woolly rhinoceros, cave lion, bison, and the fearsome cave hyaena. Millicent is just one example from half a million years of Palaeolithic prehistory in the region.

Rob Hedge
Lost Landscapes Project Officer