Who clothes there?

LEARNING ABOUT ANCIENT FASHION FROM NATURAL HISTORY COLLECTIONS


By Ella McKelvey, Web Content and Communications Officer


Tucked in a display case in the southwest corner of the Museum is a sculpture of an unidentified female figure, small enough to fit in your coat pocket. It is a replica of one of the most important examples of Palaeolithic artwork ever discovered; a 25,000-year-old carving known as the Venus of Willendorf. The Venus of Willendorf is one of several Palaeolithic statues found in Europe or Asia believed to depict female deities or fertility icons. Known collectively as the Venus Figurines, the carvings are similar in size and subject matter, but each has her own peculiarities. Many are naked, but some of the later examples are wearing distinctive garments, clothes we might describe today as ‘snoods’ or ‘bandeaux’. The Venus of Willendorf is easily distinguished by her statement headpiece; perhaps a spiralling hair-braid or ceremonial wig. But there is another, more exciting interpretation — this strange, thimble-like adornment might actually represent a woven fibre cap, making it the oldest ever depiction of human clothing.

The Venus Figurines are incredibly important to the study of human fashion because they significantly predate any direct archaeological evidence of ancient clothing. The oldest surviving garment dates back an astonishing 5,000 years; an exceptionally-preserved linen shirt discovered in an Egyptian tomb. But our species, Homo sapiens, has a much longer history, perhaps up to a quarter of a million years. How much of this time have we spent wearing clothing? And why did we even begin to dress ourselves in the first place?

By comparing human genes to those of our furrier primate relatives, researchers have been able to estimate that modern humans lost their body hair around 240,000 years ago. A mutation in a gene called KRTHAP1 likely led to a decrease in our production of the protein keratin, the building block of hair. The exact reason why this mutation spread through the population is still up for speculation. One commonly held theory is that, with less body hair, our ancestors could sweat and tolerate higher temperatures, allowing them to expand their habitats from sheltered forests into sun-drenched savannahs. But at some stage, our ancestors started covering their skin again — leaving us to wonder when nakedness became a nuisance.

An intriguing clue about the circumstances that led to the adoption of clothing has come from studying the DNA of our parasites — namely, clothing lice. In 2010, researchers used genetic sequencing to determine that clothing lice split from their ancestral group, head lice, between 170,000 and 83,000 years ago. When compared with genetic data from our own species, we can begin to weave a story about the origins of clothing that ties in with human migration. Gene sequencing has helped us work out that Homo sapiens originated in Africa but must have begun migrating towards Europe between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, a window which overlaps neatly with the evolution of clothing lice. Is it possible that clothing lice are a consequence of the widespread adoption of clothing; a result of humans migrating into more northerly latitudes with cooler temperatures?

Curiously, there are indications in the archaeological record that human clothing could date to an even earlier stage in our species’ history than the expansion of humans into Europe. In 2021, researchers uncovered 120,000-year-old bones from a cave in Morocco believed to be used to process animal hides. There is a strong possibility that humans would have used these tools to make wearable items out of hunted animals, including blankets, cloaks, or perhaps more structured garments.

It seems likely that the first clothes humans made from hides were loose-fitting capes or shawls, which may have been more important for protection or camouflage than keeping warm. There are numerous reasons why other animals cover themselves with foreign objects besides thermoregulation. ‘Decorating’ behaviours occur in animals as diverse as crabs, birds, and insects, allowing them to disguise themselves from predators, or protect themselves from UV radiation. While early humans might have only needed simple clothing items to aid with disguise, as the climate began cooling 110,000 years ago, cloaks probably wouldn’t have cut it; our species must have learned how to make multi-layered and closer-fitting garments to maintain high enough body temperatures. Archaeology provides a similar estimate for the adoption of constructed garments, based on the discovery of 75,000-year-old stone awls — tools used for puncturing holes in hides to prepare them to be sewn together.

Homo sapiens‘ ability to make complex clothing items may have helped give our ancestors a competitive edge over the Neanderthals in Europe. Researchers have studied sub-fossil material in museum collections to learn about the changing distributions of European mammals throughout human history, allowing them to deduce that Neanderthals only had access to large animals like bison to make cape-like clothing from. But, in addition to bison, Homo sapiens lived alongside other, fluffier animals like wolverines during the last Ice Age, which could have been hunted to make warm trims for our clothing. Studies like these are highly speculative, but with such a threadbare archaeological record, they contribute valuable insight into the landscapes of ancient Europe.

The Neanderthals might have been less well-dressed than our Homo sapiens ancestors, but we can’t be certain that humans of our own species were the only prehistoric fashionistas. The oldest sewing needle to have ever been discovered dates to 50,000 years before present and was actually found in a cave associated with Denisovans — a group of extinct hominins we know little about. The Denisovans may be an extinct subspecies of Homo sapiens, but they might also have formed an entirely separate species altogether, perhaps learning how to sew independently of modern humans.

Following the invention of sewing was another crucial innovation in the history of human clothing — the ability to make textiles. In 2009, a group of researchers discovered 36,000-year-old evidence of textile-based clothing in the form of microscopic flax plant fibres that had been dyed and twisted together. There are many potential uses of twisted fibres such as these, but scientists have been able to study the organisms associated with the fibres, finding the remains of skin beetles, moth larvae, and fungal spores that are all commonly associated with modern clothing. Humans do not simply fashion clothes, we also fashion microhabitats, capable of supporting organisms as diverse as insects, fungi, and bacteria.

The discovery that humans have been making textiles into clothing for 36,000 years lends credence to the theory that the Venus of Willendorf is wearing a woven cap — but we might never be able to draw any certain conclusions about such an ancient artefact. Until just ninety years ago, humans could only make textiles from biodegradable materials, meaning that we have very little evidence about the clothing that our ancient ancestors wore. Thankfully, however, the story of human fashion is closely interwoven with the natural histories of hundreds of other species, allowing us to stitch together a patchwork history, utilising evidence from all corners of the kingdom of life.

The outside and inside of a box, showing its contents

Boxes, Bags, and Bones

NO, THERE WEREN’T HARMONICAS IN THE JURASSIC!


Looking through the collections at OUMNH never gets boring, but sometimes a drawer will open up to reveal something even more eye-catching than the fossils usually found inside. Whilst working on the Museum’s Jurassic marine reptiles a few weeks ago, I came across something particularly surprising: a jewel-green box with a fantastic piece of art on the front. I was instantly intrigued and reminded of all the other times I had encountered a holder as fascinating as the specimen inside it.

Storage in museum collections is an ongoing pursuit of balance between ideal environmental conditions, specimen accessibility, and efficient use of space. This balance applies to all levels of storage: from building to room, cabinet to specimen tray. OUMNH’s Earth Collections are stored in conservation-grade, acid-free boxes or trays made of plastic or cardboard. These boxes are sometimes layered with low-density foam or ‘plastazote’ which can be carved to fit the specimen and keep it from being jostled or damaged. Holders with lids can also provide a micro-environment for specimens to help minimise their exposure to changes in humidity and temperature. The use of these standard materials not only helps protect specimens from degradation but can also deter pests from harbouring in collections spaces.

However, historical collections like those at OUMNH may retain holders that are not standard use. Sometimes, a clean and empty plastic Ferrero Rocher box is the perfect size for that small mammal skeleton that needs storing! Other times, an unusual holder might have been the only thing a field collector had on hand to transport a specimen to the Museum.

A harmonica box containing pliosaur teeth, a marine reptile that lived during the Jurassic (145.5 million – 201.6 million years ago).

One example of an unusual specimen holder is this ‘Echo Harp’ box by pre-eminent German harmonica manufacturer Hohner, likely from the 1960s. The box no longer holds a harmonica, but instead accompanies pieces of Jurassic pliosaur teeth from Weymouth, Dorset. Pliosaurs were a kind of carnivorous marine reptile related to plesiosaurs, with four flippers, and long tails and necks. If they hadn’t gone extinct in the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event 66 million years ago, perhaps they would have come to appreciate the harmonica and its artistic packaging!

Aside from their artistic value, museums may sometimes retain unusual holders because they contain primary source information on the specimen. One such example is a ‘Bryant and May’s Patent Safety Matches’ box in our Earth collections, bearing a packaging design from the early 1900s. The box actually houses a chicken tarsometatarsus bone excavated from “High St. New Schools” in Oxfordshire and is accompanied by a label which describes the particular layer of gravel the specimen was found in — important information for any archaeological or palaeontological find. Although the specimen is stored alongside Pleistocene fossils (10,000 – 2.6 million years ago), chickens did not originate in the UK, so the bone is likely from much more recent times. Someone still must have thought it was important enough to keep in its own special holder!

A Tate and Lyle sugar bag containing a Jurassic specimen, with handwriting on the outside describing the stratigraphy the fossil was found in.

Similarly, this ‘Tate and Lyle Granulated Sugar’ paper bag features a handwritten original notation in blue pen on the outside. The bag originally contained a specimen found in a collection of Jurassic gastropods and bivalves from Somerset, with the handwriting describing the fossil’s stratigraphic information. The bag also features a recipe for cinnamon apples on the reverse, which we have yet to try!

A wooden box and the Quarternary fossils (up to 2.6 million years ago) it originally housed. An accompanying letter describes the delivery of the fossils to William Buckland, Oxford University’s First Reader in Geology.

In addition to primary source information, original holders may also provide specimens with provenance. This ovular wooden box filled with organic stuffing material originally contained Quarternary fossil specimens found in Peak’s Hole, Derbyshire. The Museum archive also holds a handwritten letter describing the specimens inside the package and how they were found. The letter dates to 1841 and is addressed to Oxford University’s first Reader in Geology, William Buckland.  The specimen holder forms part of a group of objects with such a strong interconnection, and such strong documentation, that retaining the box is a matter of course.

All in all, it’s great that we’ve come so far in the advancement of safe and stable housing for specimens. At the same time, it’s always fascinating to see what else has made its way into collections, just by nature of being able to hold things, either for a short time or a long one. Despite living in the Earth Collections – among fossils, rocks, and the geological past – these objects offer us a little bit of human history too.


By Brigit Tronrud, Earth Collections Assistant

The Beginning of the End: Do locusts still spell danger for humanity?


By Ella McKelvey, Web Content and Communications Officer


A few days ago, I was working from home when a delivery driver arrived with a strange parcel – a cardboard box stamped with the letters FRAGILE that seemed to be producing a peculiar, scratching sound. Tentatively, I opened the cardboard box and pulled out a plastic punnet filled with newspaper, old egg cartons, and… wait! Was that an antenna? 

The parcel turned out to be a box of locusts, ordered by my housemate who uses them to feed her pet reptiles. I set the punnet down beside me and tried to continue with my morning’s work. But over the next few hours, the locusts grew increasingly restless, bouncing against the walls of their punnet like hot, microwaved popcorn. The sight and sound of the insects began to return memories of the infamous locust swarms of 2020 — one in a series of near-apocalyptic events that befell us that fateful year. Worryingly, climate change is set to make locust swarms increasingly common, with Sardinia currently facing its worst locust swarm in thirty years.1 

Left: A poster for The Beginning of the End (1957) about a fictional invasion of giant, mutant locusts in Illinois. Right: A real-life locust swarm near Satrokala, Madagascar (2014).

Throughout history, locusts have been widely understood as symbols of maleficence and misfortune. One of the oldest written references to locusts is, of course, the Biblical story of the ten plagues of Egypt, in which locusts were sent as a punishment from God. Since then, these infamous insects have been featured in art, books, music, and films as harbingers of destruction. Americans of the mid-twentieth century were somewhat obsessed with giant locusts and grasshoppers which were featured everywhere from cartoons to postcards. 1957 saw the release of the movie The Beginning of the End – a schlocky Hollywood sci-fi tale about a swarm of giant, mutant locusts invading Illinois. The film’s principal Entomologist describes locusts as “deadly killer[s]”, both “intelligent and strong”. Real-life locusts are, indeed, very strong for their size, with back legs that can catapult them up to a metre from standing. This means that it would be feasible for the human-sized locusts in The Beginning of the End to jump as far as forty metres — a terrifying thought!2  

While The Beginning of the End is ridiculous both in premise and execution, I can’t deny that I find the concept of giant locusts pretty nightmarish. Earlier in the week, I sent an email to the Life Collections team to enquire about the possibility of looking through our pinned locusts and snapping a few photos of the biggest and grisliest specimens. As I walked upstairs to entomology, I braced myself for an encounter with some fearsome insects. But what I found were a few drawers of modest-sized locusts that looked about as benign as garden grasshoppers. Many of them were even stuffed with wool; more like teddy bears than agents of Armageddon. 

Left: Anacridium aegyptium or Egyptian Locust from the Collections at OUMNH. Right: Underside of a locust specimen showing cotton wool stuffing.

According to Collections Assistant Rob Douglas, stuffing large insect specimens with cotton wool used to be a common entomological practice. Insects with fatty insides, like locusts, must be gutted to ensure good preservation. Following the removal of the insects’ insides, cotton was often used to return their abdomens to their usual size and shape. Locusts’ ample fat stores contribute as much to their physical prowess as their powerful hind legs; sustaining them through migrations of up to 310 miles a day.3 Such migrations occur when locusts are exposed to a dry spell followed by wet weather, allowing for the sudden regrowth of vegetation. These conditions will cause locusts to switch their solitary lifestyles for gregariousness, coming together to chomp their way through crops and vegetation at a density of 80-160 million insects per square mile. A large migrating swarm of locusts has been estimated to need as many calories in a day as 1.5 million human males, explaining why even ordinary-sized locusts are capable of causing agricultural annihilation.

If it weren’t for government and international interventions, the 2020 locust swarms in East Africa could have caused up to $8.5 billion in economic damages by the year-end.5 But locusts can do much worse. One of the most notorious locust swarms on record was that of the Rocky Mountain locust in the USA between 1874 and 1877. According to some accounts, the swarm caused damages to agriculture equivalent to $116 billion in today’s money, leaving behind piles of locust carcases up to six feet high.6 

When it comes to protecting crops from locusts, prevention is better than cure. Likely locust outbreaks can be pre-empted by studying weather patterns and using satellite imagery to keep an eye on vegetation growth.7 Once a (potential) locust swarm has been identified, traditional methods of locust management involve the use of pesticides to wipe out the insects as soon as possible. Back in the 1950s, this meant dowsing locusts with DDT. But as the drawbacks of synthetic pesticides become increasingly apparent, chemical interventions are being replaced with the application of naturally occurring ‘pesticides’ like the fungus Metarhizium acridum.  

Our understanding of locusts has come a long way since the release of The Beginning of the End. One of my favourite news stories of the past month was the announcement by a laboratory at Michigan State University that locusts have been successfully used to ‘sniff out’ mouth cancer.8 It turns out that locusts no longer just spell danger for humanity — they can smell danger for humanity too! These cancer-detecting locusts are, in my opinion, far more ‘sci-fi’ than the giant bugs imagined by scriptwriters of the 1950s, reminding us that, when it comes to science, the truth is often stranger than fiction. Reports like these demonstrate that scientific research has the power to transform our relationship with the pests that have tormented us for thousands of years.


[1] Sardinian farmers suffer worst locust invasion in over 30 years | Reuters 

[2] https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~wjh/jumping/perform.html

[3] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/facts/locusts

[4] Weis-Fogh T. 1952 Fat combustion and metabolic rate of flying locusts (Schistocerca gregaria Forskål)Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B2371–36http://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.1952.0011

[5] Dominy, Nathaniel J., and Luke D. Fannin. “The sluggard has no locusts: From persistent pest to irresistible icon.” People and Nature 3, no. 3 (2021): 542-549.

[6] Lockwood, Jeffrey A. Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier. London: Hachette (2004).

[7] Zhang, Long, Michel Lecoq, Alexandre Latchininsky, and David Hunter. “Locust and grasshopper management.” Annu. Rev. Entomol 64, no. 1 (2019): 15-34.

[8] https://www.technologyreview.com/2022/06/21/1054532/cyborg-locust-brain-hacked-sniff-out-cancer/

two swifts looking out from their nesting area

A Swift Return to Summer

By Chris Jarvis, Education Officer

Amidst reports during the last week of Swifts being sighted feeding over the nearby Farmoor reservoir, Museum staff have kept their eyes to the skies eagerly waiting to be the first to spot our resident birds returning to their breeding site in the nest boxes of our tower. A wet and windy weekend caused by a deep depression over Britain meant little opportunity to feed on their diet of small flies and other invertebrates that make up the aerial plankton they relish, and which normally drifts unseen above our heads in large numbers on still summer days.  The high winds would certainly also have made any attempt to land, for the first time in a whole year since they left their nest boxes and for the first time ever for those just reaching maturity, extremely precarious, and so it seems our Swifts headed farther afield, possibly back to continental Europe, for a few days to await better conditions.

swifts flying around the museum tower against a cloudy sky
Swifts flying around the Museum tower by Mark Garrett

However, this morning, the 5th of May and right on cue, we were treated to the first two Swifts performing a low, high speed fly-by of the tower. Having flown around 14,000 miles in the last year from the Museum’s tower to their winter feeding grounds in southern Africa and back again, the Swifts have arrived on exactly the day of their average time of arrival over the last couple of decades.  We know this because the Swifts in the tower are part of an ongoing study which is the longest running study of any bird colony in the world, started by David Lack in 1947, our Keeper of the Swifts, George Candelin still climbs the spiral stone stairs and ladders each week under red lights to carefully and quietly monitor each nest box throughout the breeding season an count and ring each chick noting down all sorts of other data as he does so from wind speeds to egg rejections, weights and even altercations between birds in boxes over rights to nest sites.  Whilst you can’t be involved in the weighing and ringing of the birds, we do offer the next best way of getting involved; our nest box webcams, which you can find on our ‘Swifts in the Tower’ page, allow you to watch all the action live as it happens from the arrival of the adults to the final fledging as the next generation takes wing for the first time. Hidden microphones will also allow you to hear as screaming parties bang their wings against the nest box covers in order to ascertain if they are occupied and the keening noises of begging chicks!  George’s stats and comments will also be downloaded to the Swift’s Diary each week enabling you to get a full picture of what’s happening across the colony’s 147 nest boxes as the season progresses.

Swifts have markedly declined in numbers over the last few decades, and their breeding season is one of the few times anyone has to measure population changes and you can get involved, too.  Check out if there is a Swift City project near you like Oxford Swift City @oxford_swift or @EdinburghSwifts to get directly involved in monitoring projects or just record your Swift sightings to the RSPB at their Swift Mapper site. All your observations give us a really good idea of how these enigmatic summer visitors are doing!

Update-in the half hour it has taken to write this blog post: the number of Swift’s flying around the tower is up to 5-and they’re screaming!

Summer is here!

The astounding story of the fake butterfly specimen Papilio ecclipsis – would you be fooled?

For April Fool’s Day, our Senior Collections Manager Darren Mann recounts the story of an elegantly fake butterfly – Papilio ecclipsis – asking whether it was a piece of scientific fraudulence or practical joke that went awry.

James Petiver, a 17th-century London apothecary, was renowned for having one of the largest natural history collections in the world. Petiver (1665-1718) published some of the first books on British insects and created common names for some of our butterflies.

Volume 3, Plate II of Jones Icones – the two lower images are of Papilio ecclipsis

On plate 10 of his Gazophylacium naturae et artis — an illustrated catalogue of British insects (1702) he figured a unique butterfly that “exactly resembles our English Brimstone Butterfly were it not for those black Spots, and apparent blue Moons in the lower wings”. It was given to him by his late friend and butterfly collector William Charlton (1642-1702). This butterfly was later named Papilio ecclipsis by the father of taxonomy himself, Carl Linnaeus, in his 1763 work Centuria Insectorum Rariorum, and it became known as the Charlton Brimstone or the blue-eyed brimstone.

Petiver’s collection was purchased by Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), who later donated his entire ‘cabinet of curiosity’ to the nation, becoming the foundation for the Natural History Museum, London, originally part of the British Museum. It was here that wine merchant and naturalist William Jones (1745-1818) examined and later figured Petiver’s specimen in his Icones, an unpublished masterpiece of some 1,500 watercolour images of butterflies.

Jones’ Icones, held in the Museum’s archive, is the subject of numerous articles and is still examined by butterfly specialists the world over. Many of the specimens figured by Jones are no longer in existence, being ravished by pests or lost over time, so all that remains of these butterflies are the painted images within.

A drawer of British butterflies from the cabinet of William Jones. The Common Brimstone butterfly is the fourth from the right on the top row

When visiting London, Danish entomologist Johann Christian Fabricius (1745-1808) studied the paintings that Jones made and described over 200 species of butterfly new to science. Fabricius also visited the British Museum where he examined Petiver’s specimen of ecclipsis. In Entomologia systematica (1793) Fabricius revealed the enigmatic ecclipsis to be no more than a painted and “artificially spotted” specimen of the Common Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni). So, the dark spots and blue eyes were merely artistic licence, but whose?

Iconotypes, published by Thames & Hudson, will be available from October 2021

Petiver’s specimen, seen by both Jones and Fabricus in the British Museum in the late 18th century, had mysteriously disappeared by the following century. It is said that when Dr. Gray (1748-1806), Keeper of National Curiosities at the Museum, heard of the deception he became so enraged that he “indignantly stamped the specimen to pieces.”

It is still unclear whether this was an example of scientific fraud by Charlton, or if it was intended as a practical joke that went awry.

There remain two specimens of ecclipsis in the collection of the Linnean Society. Although it is uncertain who created these, it is believed that these replicas were made by none other than our very own William Jones, as he was one of the few who had the artistic skills to undertake such work. The forthcoming publication of Iconotypes, showing Jones’ Icones in all its splendour, will hopefully demonstrate how he had both the knowledge and the skill to recreate these fascinating fakes.

Links and References
Salmon, M., Marren, P., Harley, B. (2001) The Aurelian legacy: British butterflies and their collectors. University of California Press.
The Linnean Society https://www.linnean.org/
Vane-Wright, R. I. (2010) William Jones of Chelsea (1745–1818), and the need for a digital online ‘Icones’. Antenna. 34(1), 16–21
Artwork by @CatherineRRye

Drawn to Nature

By Chris Jarvis, Education Officer

With lockdown and the long winter nights shuffling the nation’s emotions like a ham-fisted magician with a damp deck of cards, we have no doubt all suffered from a case of the winter blues at some point recently. While the Museum and its inspiring specimens have been closed to visitors we have tried out some new approaches to bring you the solace and creative inspiration that nature can provide.

events manager Laura is seen leaning over a lighting set-up that is shedding light on a table with specimens.
Events manager Laura hard at work on a lighting set-up for a Drawn to Nature live stream.

Drawn to Nature is a new series of online events designed to lift people’s spirits with a combined art and science activity. Originally planned as a wellbeing event to take place in the Museum, the online version was created in response to the last lockdown. We start each session with a short talk by a member of the Museum’s collections or research team, who share their passion for a selection of favourite specimens. The talk is followed by a chance for viewers to explore their creative sides by drawing the specimens, while learning more by about them through some Q&A.

It’s not an art lesson as such, but more a chance for people to find inspiration from some of the jewels of the natural world held in our collections. We hope it helps people to relax, find inspiration, immerse themselves in a creative activity, and learn a little natural history at the same time.

Click the gallery images to zoom and see credit information.

Our first session came from Life Collections manager Mark Carnall, who talked us through the natural history of Nautiloids, the fascinating shelled molluscs that are related to other cephalopods such as squid and octopus. Lit and arranged beautifully by our Events Manager Laura Ashby, their intricate chambered shells and 100 tentacles proved a challenging subject, but one that resulted in an array of wonderful artworks in a variety of styles and media shared on social media.

Following Mark’s talk, we explored some of the wonderful specimens from our entomology collections with our expert speaker Zoe Simmons, Head of Life Collections. Zoe picked out some of the most beautiful flies from our five million-plus insects. Using microscopes, specialist lighting, and careful placement, the specimens were a real hit and again followed by some inspired artworks posted online by attendees from across the world (‘best night of lockdown yet!’ enthused one attendee).

Click the gallery images to zoom and see credit information.

And there’s more to come. Tomorrow evening (Wednesday 10 March), Earth Collections Manager Dr Hilary Ketchum introduces the strange-looking carnivorous marine reptiles of the Jurassic – the plesiosaurs. We hope to bring you yet more of the inspirational well-being the natural world has to offer.

You can watch the Drawn to Nature streams online in the playlist on our YouTube channel:

To sign up for our next event, visit www.oumnh.ox.ac.uk/events

Top image: Artwork by @CatherineRRye