Out of Africa: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor

Volunteer archivist Ian Gregory shines his unique torch on another murky corner of Buxton Museum’s collections:

In 1921, miners working at Broken Hill, Zambia (then called Northern Rhodesia) discovered the skull of an ancestor of humanity. Reports of this discovery came into the collections at Buxton Museum, via the geologists William Boyd Dawkins and J.W. Jackson. Both men took a keen interest in scientific discoveries outside of as well as within the British Isles and in many different fields.

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It is interesting to compare scientific knowledge from the 1920s with that of the time of writing. Experts compared the skull from Zambia with the remains from Piltdown in Britain in the hope of shedding some light on it. They were wasting their time; the fossils from Piltdown were later exposed as a hoax. One expert lacking the benefit of hindsight, found the Zambian skull was less important than Piltdown in our understanding of early humans. Radiocarbon dating had not been developed so there were arguments over the African fossil’s age. Since it was buried under layers of stones and animal bones it was certainly old, but no one could be sure how ancient.

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Despite all that, I was struck by how contemporary some of the comments were. One report said that Charles Darwin had predicted that Africa would yield important fossil humans, indeed might be the cradle of humanity. This was a minority opinion until the 1950s but clearly not unheard of before then. Experts also deduced that the skull’s owner had walked upright as well as modern humans can. Comparisons were made with a fossil called Pithecanthropus which came from Java. This has then been re-classified as Homo Erectus but unlike Piltdown man, it is still accepted as a genuine prehistoric material. Remains of European Neanderthals were also used for comparison. One writer says “the Rhodesian man has one of the links in the chain of which many species would be found.” That turned out to be correct.

Today the fossil from Zambia is classified as Homo Heidelbergensis a probable ancestor of both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens that lived in Europe and Africa from 700,000 to 300,000 years ago. Scientists have dated their bones, measured their brain cases and collected their stone tools. Yet questions remain: Did they have language? If not, how close to it did they come? Did they bury their dead? Or tell stories? Or paint themselves with ochre? Many believe that they did but can we be sure? Even in 2019, we don’t know everything about our ancestors.

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The Crescent- A Stitch in Time

Nikki Anderson one of our Museum Attendants and Textile Designer has put together this blog about the 19th Century embroideries that are on display here at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.

To celebrate the reopening of ‘The Crescent’, the iconic hotel in the centre of Buxton, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery are exhibiting some rare and exciting art works dating back to the early 18th Century alongside some more contemporary paintings and prints.

The Crescent was built in 1788 and included a hotel at each end of the building and six town houses in the middle and was commissioned by ‘The 5th Duke of Devonshire’. Its purpose was to provide luxurious accommodation for visitors to the town. His vision, to create a spa town to rival Bath. Architect John Carr designed the building which was completed in 1788. It quickly became a popular visitor attraction and became a focus for artists whom would interpret ‘The Crescent’ in various art forms.

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Embroidery 1
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Embroidery 3

 

I was fascinated in particular with 3 pieces of embroidery on display. All 3 embroideries show the view of ‘The Crescent’ as the focal point from the slopes at St Ann’s Cliff. There is little known about the embroideries other than they were created in the mid 19th Century. The detail achieved in these works is incredible. You can see in the detail below the accuracy in very small detail. This photo has been magnified so the tiny stitch work can be seen.

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These embroideries have been created from etchings by Henry Moore which were made in 1819. Often the etchings were printed onto the silk fabric and the free hand embroidery was used to create the painting. On close inspection it appears that most of the embroidery would have been done by machine possibly using a pantograph method to transfer the stitches. Silk became very popular in the late 18th Century and by the mid 19th Century it became a common pastime to make these silk embroideries. I love the different contrasting effects used by the satin stitch on the machine and the hand stitching using running and seeding stitch (embroidery  3) whilst still obtaining such a delicate nature to the works. The fashioning of metallic threads of the 18th century have also influenced these works alongside the popularity of satin stitch and long and short stitch. In the magnified photo below a method called ‘couching’ has been used. This is where threads are placed on the surface of the fabric and then sewn stitched on by hand or machine. If you look closely you can see where the couching has unraveled showing the loose yarn.

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It is  interesting to note the fact these embroideries were worked upon in only 2 or 3 shades. Black and gold and/or beige silk. This may have also been influenced by’ Blackwork’, which was developed in the 16th and 17th Century and was incredibly popular.

These incredibly beautiful pieces of embroidery are on display alongside etchings, paintings and photographs until the 1st September at Buxton Museum & Art Gallery.

 

Dylan’s Blog: Derbyshire Blue John

The staff recently enjoyed the assistance of a young man called Dylan who gave up his Saturday mornings to sample life in a museum and art gallery. We strive to give placements to students aspiring to a career in the arts or heritage and hopefully, we don’t put them off!

We asked Dylan to write about his favourite objects in the museum and he chose one which attracts a lot of curiosity in this part of the world:

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Blue John crystals are only found in two places in the whole world: the Treak Cliff and Blue John caverns in Castleton. And is hailed as “Britain’s rarest mineral”, it is a mineral called fluorite. Yes I have nabbed this straight from the ’Wonders of the Peak’ exhibition, but none the less a fascinating crystal. It is still being mined and sold today but their peak in popularity was throughout the 19th century and Regency period with people making vases, columns, tables and even windows in many of the finest houses in Britain, most notably Buckingham Palace and Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.

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They also played a role in World War One; there was a rising need for supplies and machinery to help assist with the ongoing war effort. This meant that fluorspar also became in high demand as it was often used in blast furnaces. Blue John being a rare form of calcium fluorite was mined purely for this purpose throughout the war period. During this time tons of Blue John material had been extracted and transported to the nearby city of Sheffield. Leaving many of the recognised Blue John veins in very short supply and in some instances fully worked out, which meant that the larger Blue John pieces required to produce ornamental items had been lost during this period but at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, there is a collection of Blue John ornaments bowls, urns, cups and even souvenir eggs. You can plan your visit here.

Maps, dragons and tiger-leopards

A golden dragon sits on a crumpled map

First Hoards events

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

golden eggs

We never really know what’s going to happen on an event. We can be fairly sure of the materials we will use and the general direction of activity but it is hard, when planning for dragons, to anticipate Dandelion Cats

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Dandelion Cats

We have started plotting the stories of the hoards we are buolding through the events programme now

 

There were maps to take you to a hidden hoard if you are clever enough to decipher the clues and brave enough to risk the dangers…

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Under the sea?

In a pyramid?

Near the swings in the park?

On the other side of the moon?

Surrounded by trees and fiercely guarded by a cat!

Where will you hide your treasure? 

And how will you know how to find it?

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On Thursday, there were dragons hatching from golden eggs to guard golden hoards….or maybe not. Hence the Dandelion Cats who guard golden flowers for bumblebees. There were several very laid back foxes who could sort of, maybe, OK now and then, guard, well, something. Someone had said, you know, Someone asked them to…well, someone offered to pay…but what are pennies to a fox who is counting rabbits?

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What hoard would a Viking guard?*

And there is an ongoing question: what do you value?

What is the precious thing that you would keep safe for centuries?

Would it be golden wonders?

Or a pottery ball full of coins?

Or seeds for a future flowering?

Friendship?

 

And there was Molly, the Tiger Leopard, guarding her wonderful little Leopard Cub, the rarest cub in all the world. And there was Bessie the Bear with her Unicorns who were very interested in that same cub…..

Tiger leopard

 

The next Hoards events are as follows. All these events are at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery and all events are free and unless it says otherwise, you can just turn up and join in. With talks please arrive for the scheduled start. For other events allow 30 minutes at least for the activity.

 

1. Dave the Moneyer, Saturday 27th and Sunday 28th April, 12 – 3.30pm. Come and watch how money used to be made….

 

More details, here: https://buxtonmuseumandartgallery.wordpress.com/2019/04/24/a-glitter-of-coins-event/

Or here: https://www.facebook.com/events/830578163972722/

Dave’s own company, Grunal Moneta, can be visited, here.

 

2. Talk: Hoards and hordes – the Viking conquest and settlement of the East Midlands,

Tuesday 30 April, 11am–12noon Join British Museum curator Gareth Williams to find out how archaeological discoveries combine with historical evidence and place-names to shape our understanding of the Viking presence in Derbyshire and surrounds.

 

More information here: https://www.facebook.com/events/2214633065510425/

 

3. Managing your own Hoard

Thursday 2 May, 12noon–4pm

Get information on handling household finances and managing debt from the money advisors at Citizens Advice Derbyshire District.

 

4. Treasure Chests 

Sunday 5 May, 12 noon–3.30pm

Make and take a treasure chest for the hoard you haven’t got yet…or that you might be hiding under the bed. In a sock. With a dragon. Allow 45 minutes.

More information:

Here: https://www.facebook.com/events/2153931458047298/

 

Or here; http://creepingtoad.blogspot.com/2019/03/from-maps-to-dragons-events-at-buxton.html

 

Or call Buxton Museum and Art Gallery on 01629 533540

 

Hoards: a hidden history of ancient Britain

A British Museum and Salisbury Museum Partnership Exhibition

This exhibition runs from Saturday 13th April to Sunday 16th June, 2019 in Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

 

* Vikings: we had a Viking today with a very big, very fluffy beard who sailed away in an eggshell boat – probably following a treasure map drawn by a fox…. 

And many thanks to our friends from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust who joined us on Sunday on such a lovely day we had hardly any visitors!

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The Ecton Mine Child’s Shoe

Sometimes, even an object as simple as a shoe can tell a story. Once again, we’ve raided the brain of new collections assistant Bret Gaunt for a glimpse in to a murky part of Peak District history.

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In the Wonders of the Peak gallery at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery is a small, rather unassuming, battered leather shoe once belonging to a child. The shoe dates to the 18th or early 19th century and was found in Ecton Mine in the Staffordshire part of the Peak District. Despite its battered appearance the shoe forms part of the story of atrocious working conditions for children in the mines of Britain.

The mines at Ecton are unusual for the Peak District in that they predominantly produce copper, rather than lead and zinc, as so often seen at other mines of the area. There is evidence to show that Ecton has been mined for copper since the Bronze Age.

In the 17th century Ecton mine was the first in Britain to use gunpowder for extraction, and the engine house is believed to be the earliest surviving example in the world used for winding out ore.

The mines were owned by the Dukes of Devonshire and it was in the 18th century that the site was fully exploited; records show that the Duke made £300,000 profit in the latter half of the 18th century, the money being used to finance the building of Chatsworth and the Crescent in Buxton.

Children often worked in a range of dirty and dangerous jobs, such as chimney sweeps, or in mills, as they were essential to contributing to the household income; in the case of mining often whole families worked together in appalling conditions; children as young as five years of age would start work in the mines. The mines were cramped, poorly ventilated and highly dangerous and children were often injured or killed by explosions, roof falls or being run over by carts.

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Ecton Mine entrance

Children performed a number of tasks in the mines such as ‘door keepers’, who operated the ventilation doors to allow carts through; ‘drammers’, who pulled carts to and from the work face; ‘helpers’, who assisted with the actual cutting of the stone, usually alongside fathers and older brothers; and ‘drivers’, who led horses which pulled the wagons along the main roadways. The working day for a small boy would start at 2am, when the ‘caller-out’ came round. By 3am they were expected to be in the pits working and did not return home until the evening.

Many people in Britain were unaware of children working in mines and it was not until an investigation by the government was carried out between 1840 and 1842 that the full extent was realised, with inspectors visiting mines and speaking to many child miners. The horrific stories of dangerous conditions and abuse at the hands of employers and fellow miners were presented to Parliament as part of the Commission of Enquiry into the State of Children in Employment and would lead to the Mines Regulation Act being passed in 1842.

From 1843 it was illegal for women or any children under the age of ten to work underground in Britain. There was no compensation for those made unemployed which caused much hardship. However, evasion of the act was easy as there was only one inspector to cover the whole of Britain and he had to give prior notice before visiting the mines. It was only until the Sandon Act of 1876, which required all children to be in education, that the exploitation of children in mines fully came to an end.

In the 19th century the ores began to run out at Ecton mine and the site was eventually abandoned in 1891. Today it is now run as a trust promoting education in applied geology, chemistry, mining and mineral extraction.

See the shoe and many more intriguing items at Buxton Museum, admission free. Plan your visit here.