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Archaeological Finds: Human and Animal Bones from the First Museum

Spring, 2000

IN the previous issue of Sphæra the discovery of a large number of bones was reported during excavations for the current building work. The human and animal bones have now been examined by separate experts and a report submitted to the Museum which supports earlier suspicions about their origin and use.

The incompleteness of the skeletons is addressed in the report on the human remains. Whether or not the cadavers were obtained by illegal exhumation or from criminals executed on the Oxford gallows, the fact that there are no complete skeletons and that there is a preponderance of longer bones, particularly long bones of the lower limb, seems to suggest a selective anatomy collection.

However, from the 2,050 human bones, the absence of any freakish element (there are bones neither of dwarves nor of giants) suggests the possibility of a teaching collection on the growth and development of the skeleton. From the specimens that survive it is possible to see the growth of bones in utero, through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, to the degeneration of elderly examples. Even one of the rare examples of pathology fits this hypothesis – a developmental disorder of a tibia.

These observations correlate well with the record of Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach who in 1710 attended one lecture of an anatomy course given by Dr Lavater of Zurich in ‘a small vaulted room under the Ashmolean and behind the laboratory.’ No corpses were available for dissection, so Lavater ‘began with Osteology’, giving ‘an excellent account of the production, nutrition and classification of the bones.’ This being the first lecture in the course, he began at the beginning: ‘he showed the production of bones on the skull of an embryo very clearly, how, the fibres are quite soft at first and only in time acquire hardness and a bony nature per accretionem.’

Certain bones in the collection have been cut and others have had small holes drilled in them through which copper wires have been inserted. While evidence of sawing occurs elsewhere, drilling and wires for suspension and display do not and may be unique to the Museum.

As far as the animal bone is concerned, the finds can be divided into domestic animals and kitchen waste, a large group of dogs, and wild species. The dog bones predominate, numbering 632 out of a total of 852. There are probably as many as thirty distinct animals, which requires special explanation. Most are mature animals with few abnormalities, and of a range of sizes, but there is no evidence of drilling or wiring. Though questions remain regarding the purpose of these dogs, it has been suggested that they were probably associated with laboratory activities.

The bones from wild species number only fifteen. Eight are badger, from at least two individuals. Five are altogether more exotic, being bones from a North American raccoon, and one is from an African manatee (shown in the photograph above placed between the human and dog skulls). Both these finds are unique in British archaeology.

The manatee bone is particularly noteworthy in the context of museum collecting because it was the animal most commonly implicated in reports of mermaids. Von Uffenbach records seeing a mermaid’s hand on display in the nearby University Anatomy School, in what is now the Bodleian quadrangle: ‘The Hand of a supposed Siren, dried. It is about half the length of a man’s hand, and is quite like one.’ The Tradescant Collection, which Ashmole acquired for his museum, also had a mermaid’s hand, and it may well be the remnant of this that has now been recovered. Even if most of the recent finds are evidence for the study of nature normalized, systematized and rationalized, it is pleasing at least to find this one remaining relic of wonder.