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Specimen of the Month: The Glyptodon

Emma-Louise Nicholls, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, is looking into the world of the Glyptodon for her Specimen of the Month series.

A Glypto-what?

This beautiful model shows what Glyptodon (a type of Glyptodont) would have looked like, and is available to enthusiastic viewers in the Natural History Gallery. You’d be forgiven for assuming it was a huge great tortoise, but the hair gives it away as a mammal.

Early descriptions of Glyptodonts were made by some of the most famous palaeontologists in history, including Richard Owen (who invented the word dinosaur, and was almost single-handedly responsible for the Natural History Museum in London) and Thomas Henry Huxley, who worked side-by-side with Charles Darwin and helped to spread the word of the theory of evolution.

But when these initial scientific descriptions were being recorded in the mid-1800s, the affinity of Glyptodont had many guises. Descriptions included ‘feet of a hippo’, ‘skull of a sloth’, ‘shell of an armadillo’, ‘teeth of a capybara’, and a more general statement that described Glyptodonts as something between a rhinoceros and a giant ground sloth (Megatherium). I can’t see either of those myself but we have to remember early specimens weren’t complete and that the animated film Ice Age only came out in 2002. Glyptodon’s closest living relative is in fact the armadillo.

  • The Glyptodon, Our Glyptodon scale model is 1/12th actual size and was made by Edward Vernon.
    Our Glyptodon scale model is 1/12th actual size and was made by Edward Vernon.

Learn more about Edward Vernon, who made our model.

Perturbing pesky predators

In the mid-1800s a voyage to South America came back with two full boxes of bone fragments from a river deposit in Uruguay. These boxes were eventually emptied onto the desk of a curator at the Natural History Museum in Paris and took ‘four months of constant toil’ to piece back together. Once done however, the curator found themself looking at the huge shell of a Glyptodon.

The shell and bony coverings from elsewhere on the body could weigh up to 400kg, which meant Glyptodonts were lugging around a quarter of their body weight in armour plating. There are those among us that find Medieval Role Play on a Sunday afternoon a great deal of fun, but for a wild animal the energy cost of wearing this suit of armour is too great for it to be for anything other than pure necessity. Voracious predators were indeed stalking around the underbrush during the Pleistocene and an un-armoured Glyptodont would have had its goose cooked before it could say 'Which way to the Amazon?'

  • The Glyptodon shell, This rosette shaped fossil fragment shows part of the huge mosaic of interlocking hexagons that would have formed the huge dome shell of Glyptodon.
    This rosette shaped fossil fragment shows part of the huge mosaic of interlocking hexagons that would have formed the huge dome shell of Glyptodon.

Why stop there?

In two of the largest Pleistocene species, a number of small gaps left by the traditional spread of Glyptodont shielding were protected by bonus armour plates. As these are only present on species that appeared later in the geological timeline, it is reasonable to suggest they’re adaptations to the evolution of larger carnivores than their predecessors had to contend with. Indeed, the largest land predators ever to have inhabited South America lived during this time. Poor Glyptodonts.

As you can see on our model Glyptodon had a heavily armoured tail. A number of other Glyptodont species thought this wasn’t enough however, and decided to evolve a huge club on the end. Clever scientific bods have worked out that an adult Glyptodont with a 40kg tail club could smack into a predator at speeds of up 12 metres per second. In a fight with another Glyptodont, that blow had the power to shatter the armour of the adversary.

My advice as a professional scientist? Don’t mess with a Glyptodont.

  • Illustration of the Glyptodont, What did I say? Don't mess with a Glyptodont. Even if you have teeth as big as your face. Images used with kind permission from The Field Museum, Chicago., (c) The Field Museum, GEO80218 through GEO80221
    What did I say? Don't mess with a Glyptodont. Even if you have teeth as big as your face. Images used with kind permission from The Field Museum, Chicago., (c) The Field Museum, GEO80218 through GEO80221

Slow but steady

Most Glyptodon specimens have been found in Patagonia and Argentina. 

Despite its appearance as a lumbering cumbersome animal, the fossil record shows it managed to venture as far as North America on occasion. Presumably they managed this courtesy of the handy bridge of land that popped up in Panama during the Pleistocene. The same bridge of land in Panama that connects North America to South America in the modern day.

References

Alfredo Eduardo Zuritaa, A. E., Soibelzonb, L. H., Soibelzonb, E., Gasparinib, G. M., Cenizoc, M. M., and Arzanid, H. (2010). Accessory protection structures in Glyptodon Owen (Xenarthra, Cingulata, Glyptodontidae). Annales de Paléontologie 96 (1) pp.1-11

Benton, M. J. (2005). Vertebrate Palaeontology, Third Edition. Oxford, Blackwell Science Ltd pp.317-318.

Gould, C. N. (1928). The Fossil Glyptodon in the Frederick Gravel Beds. Oklahoma Geological Survey pp.148-150

Hubbe, A., Vasconcelos, A. G., Vilaboim, L., Karmann, I., and Neves, N. (2011). Chronological Distribution of Brazilian Glyptodon sp. Remains: A Direct 14C Date for a Specimen from Iporanga, São Paulo, Brazil. Radiocarbon 53 (1) pp.13–19

Huxley, T. H. (1864). On the Osteology of the Genus Glyptodon. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 155 pp.31-70

Zurita, A. E., Miño-Boilini, A. R., Soibelzon, E., Scillato-Yané, G. J., Gasparini, G. M., and Paredes-Ríos, F. (2009). First Record and Description of an Exceptional Unborn Specimen of Cingulata Glyptodontidae: Glyptodon Owen (Xenarthra). Comptes Rendus Palevol. 8 (6) pp.573–578

Making History: Horniman Youth Panel and Patrick Hough

The Horniman Youth Panel set out to explore how Egyptian culture and history is represented in Hollywood Movies.

We learned to think critically about the film props in these movies while having a chance to experiment with script writing, directing voice acting and basic filmmaking techniques with the video artist Patrick Hough.

The workshop began with a brief introduction to Patrick’s artistic practice, looking at early photography on Hollywood film sets in Morocco, to newer video works that use film props and green screen backdrops. We then briefly looked at a range of short clips from films depicting Egypt, ranging from the fantastical to the historically accurate and discussed the visual elements from the sets, costumes and props, lighting while comparing and contrasting the different ways Egypt has been shown on film.

Later on, we worked with real physical film props loaned from a London prop house that are used in Egyptian movies. We explored their different material qualities – comparing them to the amazing Ancient Egyptian objects in our Hands on Base. We also discussed the varying degrees of accuracy these objects have in portraying cultures.

Finally, we broke up into two groups to develop a short script together. We were given a chance to create our own short film scene that gave a voice to the film prop and placed it in a theatrical context.

Participants directed the voice acting, choose the camera angles, light the scene and create direction notes for the editor.

Here are the final results – we hope you like them!

Find out how you can get involved with our Youth Panel

Potty about Pots

There's been a fantastic discovery for the archaeology world today in Cambridgeshire of a Bronze Age house. Many of the finds may not seem that stunning, there's not really any gold nor even any bronze (that's a whole other blog post), but some of the most important finds were pottery.

  • Bronze Age pottery from Cambridgeshire, BBC News− © Cambridge Archaeology Unit
    , BBC News

Pots are essential for many archaeologists as ceramic can survive millennia (unlike materials like wood and textiles) and are less subject to looting if they do not contain precious stones, although this isn't always the case as the recent Red Lists from Syria show.

Pots can help with our dating of history, civilisations and ultimately how we have developed as human societies.

They come in a melange of shapes and sizes from the Ancient World, and we have a few gems in the Horniman Collection.

Krater

One of the most famous Mediterranean pot types, this vase was used to mix wine and water in the Ancient World. This one comes from Sicily, but was made in Greece. Pots like this help us map the movement of people around the Mediterranean, suggesting trade links between places such as Sicily and Greece.

Lekanis

Another Greek made pot, they are characteristically flattish with two handles either side to facilitate lifting, or perhaps to be hung in somewhere (bit unlikely as there's a stand, but you never know). The function of these pots isn't entirely certain, usually they have designs showing marriage scenes or women at their toilette. However our one just has a figureless repeating pattern, perhaps this had a more generic use?

Amphora

Amphora come in a range of sizes from large Panathenic to the smaller Type B, like this one here. Type B amphora (archaeologists aren't especially original with names) have a smooth 'echinus' foot, that means the base of it slopes down without a lip. This pot could have been made between 7th and 5th century, oddly it's listed as 'Ptolemaic' online, which is a bit misleading as that is an Egyptian period and this pot is Greek, but you get the idea.

I am also not sure this depicts the Judgement of Paris, as there are supposed to be 3 goddesses, one hero (Paris) and Hermes (male God), the other two males (on the right) are a mystery...

Oenchoe or Oinochoe

Another wine drinking vessel, these are staple of the pottery corpus and some are very old. The name means Wine (oinos) I Pour (Cheo), and they are found across the Mediterranean. I really love this object, it is decorated with two large water birds, perhaps geese or swans, in brown and black paint.

So never snub the humble pot, they have lots of different uses and designs, helping us make new discoveries every day.

Secrets from Olympus

Ancient Greece is perhaps one of the most famous periods of human history. The gods and goddesses of mythology are passed on to us through story telling, museums and some frankly awful (and some amazing) films.

With our Secret Late event this week it got me thinking about how much we actually know about these gods, and what secrets they had. Not everything is well documented and known, in fact some of those devious gods seem to have had a few secrets of their own...

Aphrodite

Aphrodite, the foam born Goddess of Love, is one of the oldest gods from the Greek pantheon. She is married to the god Hephaestus, but they didn't exactly have the most stable of marriages.

Aphrodite with her son, the winged Eros

In fact, Aphrodite kept many secrets from her husband and had affairs with other gods such as: Poseidon, god of the sea, Dionysos, the god of wine and Nerites a sea god who she turned into a clam when he refused to leave the sea for her.

Her long relationship with Aries, the War God, was her most famous clandenstine affair, and is even mentioned in Homer's Odyssey. Despite all her cunning, she wasn't the best at keeping secrets and inevitably her husband would find out.


Demeter and the Eleusinian Mysteries

Demeter is a personal favourite of mine, she is the mother of Persephone who was kidnapped by the god of the underworld but is eventually returned after sixth months. Demeter's changing mood at having her daughter with her were believed to influence the seasonal change.

Teracottas like this may depict the goddess Demeter

The Eleusinian mysteries were a cult honouring Demeter, but the activities were a secret and never written down. Only initiates to the cult knew what was hidden within the kiste (a sacred chest) and kalathos (basket), I'm guessing something shiny.


Mithras

Ok not Ancient Greek (originally a Persian deity renamed Mithras in Greek), but the cult of Mithras is perhaps one of the most famous secrets from the Ancient World.


This replica Greek cup represents a bull, a popular motif with the Greek god Zeus and the illusive Mithras.

Like the Eleusinian Mysteries this was Mystery Religion, meaning only the initiates knew what happened inside the temples. Mithras was popular with the Roman military, although he is a far older god, and often features Tauroctony, which means a bull slaying scene. No one really knows what this scene might mean, the bull is probably a sacrifice, perhaps he represents the Greek god Zeus and marks the end of the old rule and a celebration of the new Roman Empire, or perhaps it links to a Zoroastrian myth with a similar story?

We will probably never unfathom these secrets, and I for one love that!

If you fancy sharing in some secrets with us this week, be sure to pop along to our Secret Late this Thursday evening.

Horniman and Charles Townsend

As part of Open House London this year we are looking at some fellow institutions: The Bishop's Gate Institute and The Whitechapel Gallery as we all share a common 'ancestor', the famous architect Charles Townsend.

The original Horniman Museum Buildings designed by Charles Townsend 

Townsend was active throughout the 19th and early 20th century with a unique style combining Art Nouveau and the Gothic revival styles which were very popular at the time. Although Townsend was more familar with smaller scale builds, he completed three larger comissions: The Bishopsgate Institute (1892-94), The Whitechapel Gallery (1895-99) and finally our very own Horniman Museum completed in 1911.

  • Bishopsgate, www.londonarchitectureguide.com
    , www.londonarchitectureguide.com

The Bishopsgate Institute also by Townsend, credit: www.londonarchitectureguide.com

The Horniman Museum building was especially striking for its time, The Studio magazine in 1902 commented that it featured: "a new series of frank and fearless thought expressed and co-ordinated in stone".

Although it was a cutting edge design, Townsend still featured some traiditonal motifs, such as a classical(ish) mural by Robert Bell and the Tree of Life, a popular feature of Townsend's work

  • Tree of Life, Megan Taylor
    , Megan Taylor

The Tree of Life motif 

The Tree of Life and similar swirling floral motifs were very popular at the time with artists such as William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. The tree may link to Christian stories, such as the Garden of Eden or the garden of Gethsemane, but being an archaeologist I'm more a fan of the tree linking to 'Yggdrasil' a tree from Viking mythology.

This tree represents the cycle of life and death, as it provides the fruit the Norse gods eat to remain immortal, but its destruction marks the end of the world. This symbol is very old and can, debatably, be dated back to even before Nordic culture.

Although we don't have any trees that old, we have some beautiful oak trees which are hundreds of years old, as well as the trees on our building. 

Our focus on Townsend's masterpieces is part of Open House London's event this Sunday 20th September, please feel to come along explore our buildings, gardens and collections. Why not see if you can find these two impressive trees in the gardens? 

Exploring our Egyptian objects

Here at the Horniman, we host a collection of Ancient Egypt objects most probably excavated by Flinders Petrie, an eminent archaeologist who Emslie Horniman acquired the objects from.

A mummy case from our collection with the protective Eye of Horus at the top

Flinders Petrie was famous, well in archaeology circles, and a bit of an eccentric, having slept in a tomb during a dig and wearing pink pyjamas to startle people away from disturbing him whilst working. His meticulous attention to detail earned him a place in the academia hall of fame.

  • F Petrie, Sir William Flinders Petrie (1853â1942), Laszlo− © UCL Art Museum
    Sir William Flinders Petrie (1853â1942), Laszlo

William Matthew Flinders Petrie, UCL

Whilst still a teenager he surveyed Stonehenge, noting that he measured the stones to within 1/10th of an inch. He then applied this same forensic mind to Egypt, creating ‘Sequence Dating’, a theory that categorised Ancient Egyptian pottery into types and from these types into a chronological sequence.

  • Naqada Pottery, 4 types of Naqada pottery that are in the 'black topped' category− © Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL
    4 types of Naqada pottery that are in the 'black topped' category

 Egyptian Naqada ware that Flinders Petrie Sorted

Our Egyptian material is really beautiful, and many of the pieces are on display in our African Worlds Gallery. One of my favourites is currently not on display but is this fragmentary mummy mask:

 The moulded face is made of cartonnage, a sort of ancient papier mâché that could be shaped to make fine features of a head including, ears, eyes and lips. The mask dates from the Ptolemaic era (silent P, like Pterodactyl). The Ptolemies were a Macedonian family instated in Egypt by Alexander the Great (small chap who built a huge empire).

The Ptolemaic era is a fascinating period for Egypt, Africa and the Mediterranean. North African objects start to adopt Grecian styles and vice versa, as the movement of people around Greece, Italy, North Africa and the Levant led to a movement of ideas, art and culture.

Our African Worlds Gallery is open every day from 10:30am, and don't forget to experience African Summer at our events running until Sunday 30 August.

Taking a closer look at our Egyptian Collections

We recently held a workshop to explore our Ancient Egyptian collections connected to Flinders Petrie.

Flinders Petrie was an Egyptologist who excavated many of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt. Most of his large collection of Egyptian antiquities are now housed in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL.

Many of our collections relating to him came to the Horniman in two phases: firstly by Frederick Horniman collecting them, and secondly, through his son Emslie who was good friends with Petrie.

Although the collection has been researched in the past, not all of this info has made its way to our databases.

So we invited nine Ancient Egypt experts to come to our stores, look at the objects and tell us more.

Throughout the day, we learnt lots of interesting facts and information about the collections, including:

Our collections reflect daily life in ancient Egypt, including objects like ceramics,  combs and tools. Emslie Horniman was very interested in the daily lives of ancient Egyptians and comparing this to the lives of Egyptians in the early 20th century.

We found that we can connect many of our objects from graves with known and identified tombs, through a wide range of archive material such as letters, exhibition catalogues and archaeological photographs.

We also learned that the face on each Egyptian mask is unique, as it connected the person's soul with their body in the after-life.

We'd like to thank all those who came to the workshop, which we organised as part of our Collections People Stories project. Their insights have shed light on fascinating and important objects.

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