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Exhibition: 'Solomon's House in Oxford: : New Finds from the First Museum' display label

The hand of a Mermaid?

Probably the most unusual find of the entire excavation, and another first for British archaeology, is that of an African manatee bone, commonly known as a sea cow. The bone, a radius (fore-arm), is from an immature animal and would originally have been collected as a curio rather than a zoological specimen: manatees were still commonly identified as mermaids in the period.

In the 1675 the Anatomy School, with its collection of rarities in the Bodleian Quadrangle, was recorded as having a Mermaid's hand in its display. Another account from 1710 records ' the dried hand of a supposed siren. It is about half as long again as a human hand and more or less like one in appearance'. Although it is unclear to what extent Ashmole's wishes were followed, it was a condition of his gift that the rarities in the Anatomy School not required for teaching should be transferred to the new Museum.

The bone may also have come to the Museum by another route. The foundation of the displays at the Ashmolean Museum was the Tradescant collection, previously housed at the 'Ark' in Lambeth. During a visit there in 1638, the German traveller Georg Christoph Sturn saw 'the hand of a mermaid'.

Such an object was clearly a prized and sought-after item in a collection of rarities in the period. Its contemporary context is suggested by Sturn's list of notable objects in the Tradescant collection:

...all kind of shells, the hand of a mermaid, the hand of a mummy, a very natural wax hand under glass, all kinds of
previous stones, coins, a picture wrought with feathers, a small piece of wood from the cross of Christ...

Even if most of the recent finds are evidence for the study of nature normalised, systematised and rationalised, it is interesting to find at least one relic of wonder - a mermaid's hand that may have been a marvel to many past visitors to the Old Ashmolean, and earlier still to John Tradescant's Ark in Lambeth.

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