Friday, 27 January 2017

Elephants, Tigers, and Teeth! Oh My!

London has a longstanding reputation as being a city of global trade. From the Romans to the present-day, shipments of exotic goods have been making their way to this historic city from the Mediterranean, Asia, or even further afield. One site that illustrates this global outlook is Tobacco Dock, a Grade I listed warehouse located adjacent to London Docks in East London. Whilst there were a number of interesting finds on site, today we're going to be focusing on faunal remains and rather unusually a find from an undated deposit.

Fig. 1: Elephant tooth

Fig. 2: Elephant tooth

Generally speaking, bones from undated deposits are usually ignored or at best, briefly mentioned in animal bone assessment reports. This site, however, provided a rather unusual element from the topmost machined levels - an elephant tooth. PCA's animal bone specialist, Kevin Rielly, stated that 'this is clearly from an Indian rather than an African elephant, as noted by the compressed rather than diamond shape of the lamella'. Now, given the site and surrounding community's close connection with foreign travel and trade, it isn't exactly surprising to find the remains of such an exotic animal. The question is, how did it get here in the first place?

Well, there are a number of possible explanations. Perhaps it was a keepsake brought back as a souvenir from travels further afield or even a traded item. The latter stipulation could be expanded with the possibility that this item may in fact represent the remains of an imported elephant, as part of the well-known 19th century trade in exotic animals supplying various zoological collections. This would have included the zoological gardens in Regents Park, which was founded in 1829 and opened its doors to the public in 1847, charging the princely sum of 1 shilling admission. 

Fig. 3: Shipping Wild Animals in the London Docks
The Illustrated London News, 1864

Fig. 4: Bronze statue of boy and tiger

Chief amongst the companies profiting from this trade was Jamrach's Animal Emporium set up by German businessman, Charles Jamrach, operating in the East End of London in the latter part of the 19th century and followed by his son up to the outbreak of the First World War. Their premises, close to the docks and also within a short distance of the Tobacco Dock excavations, included offices and menageries in St Georges Street East (formerly known as Ratcliffe Highway) and Betts Street, as well as a warehouse in Old Gravel Lane. The arrival at the London docks of such exotic animals is shown in Figure 3, depicting a disembarking elephant as shown in the pages of an 1864 edition of the Illustrated London News. Today, a 7 ft tall bronze statue of a boy standing in front of a tiger commemorates the incident where a Bengal tiger, having escaped from its cage upon delivery, 'trotted out.... down the main street' when a curious eight year old boy, having never seen such a large cat before, reached out to stroke it.

Fig. 5: Jamrach tackling the tiger
The Strand Magazine, 1891
'A playful tap of the great soft paw at once knocked the child upon his face, stunned ; and, picking him up by the loose part of the jacket, the animal was proceeding up the next turning, when Mr. Jamrach, who had just discovered the escape, came running up. Empty-handed as he was, he sprang at the tiger’s neck from behind, and, grasping the throat with both hands, drove his thumbs into the soft place behind the jaw... at his scientific grasp the tiger, half choked, let his captive fall, when a couple of heavy blows across the eyes from a crowbar thrust into the naturalist’s hands by an attendant thoroughly cowed the great beast, who turned tail and meekly trotted back straight into the lair prepared for him, the door of which stood open for his reception. The little boy was without a scratch...'

Whilst neither the tooth nor its story are quite as dramatic as the above, they offer a unique snapshot into 19th century London and its connection to the wider world.

Join us next time as PCA continues to #DigDeeper.

Hahn, D, 2004 The Tower Menagerie, Penguin: New York
Larsson, E, 2015 Charles Jamrach’s Exotic Menagerie and the Victorian Wild Animal
The Strand Magazine, 1891
London Illustrated News

Friday, 13 January 2017

Here, Kitty Kitty: Ritual Mummification in Britain

The last thing one expects to find - or in this instance, have fall on their face - whilst soft-stripping a ceiling is a dusty, old, mummified cat. But that's exactly what happened to one of the demolition crew members at PCA's site on Staines High Street, a row of early-19th century shops. So, what was a possibly 200 year-old cat doing in the ceiling of a shop or floorboards of the house above? Well, we did a bit of digging (pun intended!) and the reasons are more shocking than you might think.

Dried cat, in-situ
Feline mummification is a well-known practice in ancient Egyptian culture. The reverence and respect with which cats were treated is evident by their significant presence in artwork and writing, to say nothing of how they were treated in death whether buried alongside their owners as a beloved pet or sacrificed as part of a religious offering. Nowadays, cats are mostly known as the former, being the second most popular pet in the country after their canine counterparts. However, in the past, they were also subjected to veneration of one kind or another and used in superstitious practices.

Up until the late-18th century, in Britain and northern Europe, it was customary to hide dried or mummified cats within the walls of one's home to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck to the inhabitants. Concealing objects to serve as magical charms is not a new practice in these Isles, with dried chickens and shoes being another commonly found item in chimneys, under floors, and even in roof spaces.

Whilst there are many examples of dried cats in the UK, most of them date up to the 18th century, however this doesn't mean the practice did not continue beyond this. As the building it was found in dates to the 1860s at the earliest, this would make it one of the most recent cases of ritualistic concealment on record.

Back at PCA's London office for closer inspection

Given the level of preservation, we know for sure it was a male. Based on our research and a thorough examination of the remains by PCA's Animal Bone Specialist, Kevin Rielly, it is unlikely that he simply got trapped underneath the floorboards. Aside from the fact that the owners would have had to put up with at least a week of howling and scratching before the poor animal died, it is likely that he would be in the foetal position had he starved to death. The visibility of the bones and ligaments as well as the lack of fur is the result of decades (if not centuries) of desiccation and decay, which has unfortunately taken away any evidence concerning his state of health at the time. A great amount of detail, however, such as the rolls of its skin and paw pads, are still well preserved and clearly visible.

Close up of the face, with whiskers still intact
Its positioning then, not consistent with death by starvation, is of particular interest, which brings us to another theory of why it might have been placed there. Cats are known for catching vermin and this particularly useful role in life was, in some cases, also expected of them in death. Dead cats, especially those displaying the running or attacking positions as though on the hunt, were also concealed in buildings in the hope that they would ward off vermin. The shop in which it was found was originally a fishmongers and poulterers, so it would make sense if the owners subscribed to this belief and deposited the deceased cat in order to protect their goods.

Perhaps it is a combination of the two and these felines were intended as deterrents not just for earthly rodents, but also spiritual vermin, at the hands of witchcraft. Charms may appear less macabre now, with horseshoes replacing desiccated animals, but the desire to attract good luck and repel evil is ever-present.

Ultimately, this fascinating find has brought on more questions than answers. Why was it put there? Where did it come from? Was it already dead or deliberately killed and if so, who killed it?

Join us next time as PCA continues to #DigDeeper

The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic
Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain