1879. Amphictene auricoma.

In 1879, physicist Albert Einstein (d. 1955) is born. In 1879, this polychaete worm, preserved in alcohol, is one of several hundred marine animals from the Norwegian cost purchased by the museum from Peter Christen Asbjørnsen (1812-85).*

NH-1879-350-151-c (800x600)

*See blog entry April 27th 2013.



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1879. Nylghaii/Nilgai. Boselaphus tragocamelus.

The nilgai is Asia’s largest antelope1. In February 1879, a stuffed nilgai was purchased by the museum for £18. £18 in 1879 is equivalent to somewhere between £1,430 and £7,180 in 2010 money, the most recent year for which figures are available2. The former figure is calculated based on a retail price index, and the latter is based on a comparison of average earnings between the two times.


For a further comparison of cost, it could be noted that in the very first Sherlock Holmes novel, 1887’s ‘A Study in Scarlet,’ Dr John Watson could proclaim himself to be “as free as air—or as free as an income of eleven shillings and sixpence a day will permit a man to be3.” Apparently, this sum was a government payment received by Dr Watson during his ninth-month convalescence as a result of injuries sustained as a surgeon in the army. Seeing as how there were at that time twenty shillings in a pound, and twelve pence in a shilling4, it would have required approximately thirty-one days, or one month’s worth of Dr Watson’s government income to pay for the nilgai, ignoring of course any inflation which may have occurred in the intervening years.

The nilgai pictured below can be viewed on the first floor of the Natural History Museum. When this nilgai was recently catalogued, no evidence of its provenance could be found. Such evidence would usually take the form of a label with a number, a taxidermist’s name, or some such piece of information. However, as the only stuffed nilgai in the museum’s collections, it seems plausible that it is indeed the animal alluded to in the register entry above. With further study, this could be affirmed with greater certainty: old photographs of the collections studied to ascertain how long the animal has been in the museum; register books and other documentary sources researched to discover whether there is mention of any other nilgai specimen; an expert sourced to appraise taxidermist’s technique, and link it with the firm mentioned in the registers. A great deal of time could be spent investigating the museum’s collections in this manner, and thus in their own way do museologues take on the role of Sherlock Holmes.

NH-2008-85-110-a or NH-1879-17-a (600x800) NH-2008-85-110-c or NH-1879-17-c (800x600)

1. (2010) The Natural History Book. Dorling Kindersley.

2. http://www.measuringworth.com/. Accessed on June 13th, 2013.

3. Conan Doyle, Arthur (1887). A Study in Scarlet. Version quoted is a Project Gutenburg EBook, and can be found here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/244/244-h/244-h.htm. Accessed June 13th, 2013.

4. http://resources.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/customs/questions/moneyold.htm. Accessed on June 13th, 2013.

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1879. Black coral.

In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the spirit Ariel sings to Ferdinand of his drowned father:


Full fathom five thy father lies.

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes;

Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange1.


Corals are marine invertebrates. The living animal is a small soft-bodied individual called a ‘polyp.’ These polyps are colonial: many individuals share a single rigid and durable calcium carbonate skeleton. In 1879, the ‘black coral’ pictured below was purchased and added to the museum’s collection.


NH-1879-13-1-b (800x600)

1. Greenblatt, Stephen (General Editor). (2008). The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd Edition. W.W. Norton and Company. P. 3076: The Tempest Act I, scene ii, l. 400-5, by William Shakespeare.

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1879. Peter Christen Asbjørnsen

Peter Christen Asbjørnsen (1812-85) was a Norwegian folklorist and naturalist. In collaboration with his friend Jørgen Moe (1813-82), Herr Asbjørnsen collected and published folk tales from his native Norway1. Perhaps the best known of the tales published by Asbjørnsen and Moe is that of the Three Billy Goats Gruff.

Another tale is that of the pancake who, not wishing to be eaten, escapes the frying pan. Rolling along as fast as it can, the pancake encounters several animals along the way, all of which try to catch and eat it. Finally the non-swimming pancake meets a river. Although Piggy Wiggy promises to carry the pancake safely across, the pancake is betrayed, gobbled up mid-stream by the perfidious swine2.

In 1879, a large collection of marine animals from the coast of Norway was purchased from Herr Asbøjrnsen, and added to the museum’s collections. Examples of two of these specimens, preserved in alcohol, are shown below. The specimen on top is the annelid worm Eupolymnia nebulosa. The second specimen is the hermit crab Pagarus bernhardus.

Peter Christen Asbjørnsen (3).

Peter Christen Asbjørnsen (3).


1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Christen_Asbj%C3%B8rnsen. Accessed 2013-04-27.

2. http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/gingerbread/stories/pancake.html. Accessed 2013-04-27.

3. The photograph of Herr Asbjørnsen was taken by Frederik Johannes Gottfried Klem (1823–95). Its copyright has expired, and the image is now in the public domain. It originally appeared in ‘Illustreret norsk konversationsleksikon,’ vol. 1, p. 502. This digital copy was taken from wikipedia. It can be viewed here: http://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fil:Peter_Christen_Asbj%C3%B8rnsen_by_Klem.png


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1879. Common gull. Larus canus.

Whilst vernacular names like ‘blackbird’ seem to be self-explanatory, the origin and meaning of even those names which seem easily explicable is not always straightforward. Although common by name, the common gull is not in fact the most common gull around the coasts of the British Isles1, 3. Maybe its relative abundance has changed over the centuries, or it was or is particularly common wherever the name arose? There is another theory: that our ancestors were observing the animals behaviour rather than its number2. In winter, common gulls often move inland, flocking together to forage on fields and meadows3. Land owned by the community at large was and is known as a ‘common.’ This category of land ownership was much more prevalent before Britain’s agricultural revolution.

In January, 1879, this specimen of Common gull was collected at Fassaroe, near Bray in Co. Wicklow. The common gull is also known as the mew gull.

NH-1916-124-33-a (800x600) NH-1916-124-33-d (600x800)

1. Sterry, Paul, and Mooney, Derek (2004). Complete Irish Wildlife. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, London.

2. http://www.birdforum.net/showthread.php?t=227460. Accessed 2013-04-07.

3. Hayman, Peter and Hume, Rob (2007). Bird. The Ultimate Illustrated Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. Octopus Publishing House Ltd.

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1878. Wood warbler. Phylloscopus sibilatrix.

Francis of Assisi (circa 1181-1226) was born into privilege, but gave up his inheritance and became an ascetic1. The Franciscan order, which he helped to found, takes their name from him. Francis is remembered as a man deeply connected with nature and is the patron saint of ecologists.

The following excerpt is taken from ‘The Little Flowers of Saint Francis,’ a collection of folk-tales based on the Saint’s life.

“And passing on, full of fervour, he [Francis] lifted up his eyes and saw certain trees hard by the road, whereupon was an almost infinite number of birds; whereat St. Francis marvelled, and said to his companions: ‘Ye shall await me here on the road, and I will go and preach to the birds my sisters;’ and he went into the field and began to preach to the birds which were upon the ground; and anon those which were in the trees came to him, and all of them stood still together until St. Francis finished preaching2.”

In November 1878, this wood warbler, from Co. Donegal, was presented to the museum.

NH-1878-512-1-a (600x800)

1. Davies, Norman (1997). Europe A History. Pimlico.

2. The Little Flowers of Saint Francis. 1906 translation by W. Heywood, chapter 16. Accessed at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/lff/lff019.htm. Retrieved March 13th, 2013.

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1878. Greylag Goose. Anser anser.

In November 1878, this adult greylag goose was purchased and added to the museum’s collections. The animal was taken near Kells, Co. Meath. One of several goose species recorded in Ireland, the greylag goose is the direct ancestor of domestic farmyard geese1.

NH-1878-566-1-b (600x800)

1. Arlott, N., Fitter, R., and Fitter, R. (1993). Collins Complete Guide to British Wildlife. HarperCollinsPublishers.

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