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John Pointer's Egg Collection, 1690s-1730s

JOHN POINTER (1667-1754) studied at Merton College, Oxford, from 1687 to 1691, and then followed a standard Oxford career as clergyman and don. He became Chaplain of Merton College in 1693. His knowledge and interests ranged widely. Influenced by the Ashmolean Museum (opened in 1683), he centred them around the formation of a collection, which he called his 'Musaeum'. It included coins and medals, miscellaneous antiquities, old manuscripts, scientific instruments, chemical and medicinal preparations, and all kinds of natural history specimens - fossils, shells, plants, stuffed and fried animals, and much more. In other words, it was a typical 'cabinet of curiosities'.

Pointer's CATALOGUE, written during the 1730s, shows the pride he took in the numismatic part of the collection, his serious interest in natural history classification, and his considerable knowledge of the medicinal uses of many of the natural materials he collected. Like many clergymen of the time, he probably practised medicine to some extent. The chief use to which he put his treasures, however, was didactic: he taught a course on natural history and materia medica, with numismatics thrown in as a bonus, based upon the collection. A printed ADVERTISEMENT dated 1731 survives.

The 'Musaeum Pointerianum', apparently because of a quarrel with Merton College, was bequeathed to St John's College on Pointer's death in 1754. A great deal, of course, does not survive; yet it is surprising how much does, in view of the neglected state it had fallen into by the early years of the present century. It was retrieved from neglect by R. T. Gunther (1869-1940), and transferred to this Museum in 1925 (except for the numismatic collection, which is in the Ashmolean Museum).

Pointer's EGG COLLECTION consists almost entirely of the eggs of common British birds, most of them collected around Oxford by Pointer himself. An Ostrich egg was his only truly exotic item. The collection fills one drawer from his original cabinet, and amounts to 144 recognisable eggs plus many small fragments. Some of the compartments of the drawer are inscribed with birds' names in Pointer's hand, though the eggs are no longer in this order. Finding them in disarray, and many of them broken, Gunther identified and restored them to the best of his ability in 1925; the identifying labels are his, and are open to correction. Even so, his work has preserved for us what may possibly be the world's oldest surviving collection of birds' eggs, compiled in Oxford between the 1690s and the 1730s.


JOHN POINTER'S MANUSCRIPT CATALOGUE is open to show two of the four pages (pp.71-74) covering his birds' eggs. Only 50 are listed, plus a snake's egg and some variant Hen's eggs. Additional eggs were acquired after completion of the catalogue; but most of the extra numbers are probably accounted for by duplicates from some common species, such as House Sparrow, Yellow Hammer, and Jackdaw. Although brief compared to other sections of the catalogue, his concern to record the visible characteristics of shape, colour, and markings was part of the movement towards systematic identification and classification in science. The catalogue was written during the 1730s, and the last additions made to it in 1737.

This was made for Pointer's collection in order to represent the yolk (which there was no way of preserving) of one of his larger eggs. He has written on it 'Size of the Yolk of [????]s Egg'. The illegible word is probably Swan.

JOHN POINTER'S PRINTED ADVERTISEMENT of May 24, 1731, offered a course on natural history and materia medica, based on his collection, for one guinea (£1.05).

These are the surviving fragments of an egg which, according to Pointer's catalogue, was originally 1½ feet long, and the shell of which is nearly 2 mm thick. Except for some frequently imported or captive-bred species (such as the Canary and Guinea Fowl), it is the only truly exotic item in the collection. African Ostrich eggs were the most common eggs in the miscellaneous 'curiosity' collections of the 17th century.

Gunther identified this as a Plover's egg; but is it in fact a Lapwing's? Pointer described his Lapwing egg as 'citrine-colour [=lemony], stain'd with large Black spots'. It has the pronounced pear shape of many sea-birds' and waders' eggs, which are poorly represented in Pointer's collection (compared to William Jones's collection, in the display case to the right).

Apart from Pointer's note with the Kingfisher egg, the only original paper label that survives in the egg drawer is his little caption to the Nightingale eggs. These eggs are white, with brown speckles so fine and densely packed that they appear continuously brown.

Two eggs in the collection are inscribed by Pointer: a broken Pigeon's egg, and 'A Guinea Hen's Egg'. This imported breed came to be farmed alongside domestic fowl, and the eggs eaten. The Guinea Fowl was originally called a Turkey until it was discovered not to be from Turkey, to clarify which Pointer also had, as well as a Turkey egg, a 'Turkey-Hen' egg, which was not the egg of a Turkey but of a domestic fowl from Turkey.

Pointer's catalogue lists an interesting series of eggs of birds of prey - Kite, Hen Harrier ('Ring-Taild-Hawk'), Kestrel ('Wind-Hover'), and Sparrowhawk ('Hawk'). The latter egg he describes as 'Pale-colour'd, & generally dawbd with a great dirty Blot'. A very common bird in medieval England, the Hawk has suffered dreadfully from deforestation, chemical pollution, and, like other birds of prey, sustained persecution and abuse by 'human beings'.

Pointer's original note accompanying this egg is written on a strip torn from the edge of a newspaper, and reads 'Kingfishers Eggs Nov. 10. 1739. Given by Master Jackee Mackumil'. The date shows that Pointer (now aged 72) was continuing to add to his collection even after the last additions to his manuscript catalogue.

Other narratives:

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