A Damaru hand drum in Sikkim 1943 and Lhasa in the Present

My father was fascinated by a hand drum he saw a man using in a Gangtok market in 1943.

He took two photographs, which are reproduced below. The drum itself has come out very blurred due to its rapid movement.

He later (1993) recalled, "We spent a few days with the Political Officer for Sikkim, entertained and were entertained by the Maharaja and his three grown up children." The Maharaja was Tashi Namgyal, ruling Chogyal of Sikkim from 1914 to 1963. He was born in Tibet and crowned by the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso.

Back in England, he photocopied part of a book on "Heritage of Tibet"  (W. Zwalf, 1981, ISBN 0-7141-1420-0) and highlighted a 19th century skull drum (damaru) which reminded him of the ritual drum seen in use in Gangtok during WW2. The text states that the damaru was inherited from India, appearing as an attribute of deities in both Hindu and Buddhist sculpture. "The drum could be made of wood, painted with designs, or two skull tops, closed…

Wallace's "Rainbirds" - a Night-time Encounter on the Kinabatangan River

Last June I wrote about broadbills, trogons and barbets described by Alfred Wallace in "The Malay Peninsula" (1869).

This Monday 30th April, looking for wildlife along the Kinabatangan River of Sabah (and staying at the delightful Sukau Lodge) there were several encounters with Wallace's "blue-billed gaper," now known as the black-and-red broadbill.

Here is the quote from Wallace (1869) again:

"The very first time I fired my gun I brought down one of the most curious and beautiful of the Malacca birds, the blue-billed gaper (Cymbirhynchus macrorhynchus), called by the Malays the 'Rainbird.' It is about the size of a starling, black and rich claret colour with white shoulder stripes, and a very large and broad bill of the most pure cobalt blue above and orange below, while the iris is emerald green. As the skins dry the bill turns dull black, but even then the bird is handsome. When fresh killed, the contrast of the vivid blue with the rich colours o…

1797 Discovery of Celestine near Bristol

I very much enjoy connecting J.C. Sowerby's early mineral illustrations and descriptions to actual specimens.

In Sowerby (1804), he illustrates a distinctive specimen of celestine, shown below, from Aust in Gloucestershire, near Bristol.

He reports that a Mr. Clayfield had discovered "Sulphate of Strontian" here in 1797. "He observes that he discovered detached veins in different parts of the cliff. The strata in which the veins are found are nearly horizontal, consisting of Limestone of different hardnesses, and argillaceous Sandstone intermixed with Clay and Gypsum, and some of the fissures were filled up with Sulphate of Strontian from 3 to 12 inches in thickness."

I have an old specimen (shown in the three photographs below) which shows the same crystal form and orange staining. The specimen is 9 cm long and displays crystals to 3 cm. The label states an origin from the nearby Yates mine, but the crystals do not seem to be typical of specimens from there. …

Amazing Pittas of Kuala Lumpur

Pittas are small short-tailed, multi-coloured ground-dwelling birds and a visual treat to encounter. General information on the pittas can be found here.

In this region, Alfred Russell Wallace (1869) used the distribution of pittas in nearby Sumatra to discuss problems in palaeobiogeography, noting the discovery on the small rocky island of Banca of "two new ground thrushes of the genus Pitta, closely allied to, but quite distinct from, two other species inhabiting both Sumatra and Borneo, and which did not perceptibly differ in these large and widely separated islands. This is just as if the Isle of Man possessed a peculiar species of thrush and blackbird, distinct from the birds which are common to England and Ireland." The Malay Archipelago, Chapter 9.

In and around Kuala Lumpur there are three species of pitta to be found; the mangrove pitta, blue-winged pitta and the hooded pitta.

I had met the mangrove pitta (Pitta megarhyncha) this June on Pulau Indah, near the port …

An Ancient Cornish Specimen of "Cubical Copper Pyrites" from Dolcoath

Old mineral specimens can acquire fascinating veneers of history in addition to their scientific and aesthetic interest.

Shown here is one such example; not beautiful on the face of it, but full of interest, nonetheless.

An ancient mineral specimen from the Dalcoath Mine, Cornwall, about 7 cm across. Large chalcopyrite crystals, to 35 mm across, grow on a bed of quartz crystals, each to 3 cm long. Two generations of the iron carbonate siderite later partially encrusted both quartz and chalcopyrite, the last generation being a "dusting" of microcrystals.

On the evidence of its oldest attached label, the specimen was probably mined around two centuries ago. How can we tell? The oldest of several labels describes the specimen as follows:

"Black Oxide of Copper 
coating Cubical Copper Pyrites and 
Carbte of Iron on Quartz
Dalcoath Mine

The old handwritten label accompanying the specimen illustrated above.

"Black oxide of copper" is a synonym for tenorit…

Svend Estridsen and the Vinland Colony

I recently received an attractive coin of Svend Estridsen, which I like for the link with the North American expeditions of around a thousand years ago.

Svend Estridsen (Sveinn Ástríðarson in Old Norse) was born in England (ca. 1019), son of Ulf Jarl and Estrid Svendsdatter. Estrid was the daughter of King Sweyn (Svend) Forkbeard (son of Harald Bluetooth) and was sister to King Cnut the Great.

Adam of Bremen, the medieval chronicler, visited Svend's court and recorded accounts of Vinland he heard there in his "Descriptio Insularum Aquilonis."

"Moreover he[Svend Estridsen]spoke of an island in that ocean discovered by many, which is called Vinland, for the reason that vines grow wild there, which yield the best of wine. Moreover that grain unsown grows there abundantly, is not a fabulous fancy, but from the accounts of the Danes, we know to be a fact. Beyond this island, it is said, that there is no habitable land in that ocean, but all those regions which are beyond…

The Quokkas of Rottnest and early European encounters with marsupials

18 km offshore from Perth, SWA, lies an island called Rottnest. It has rocky coasts with beautiful sandy bays. It also famously has quokkas and, as I am just starting to get to know this part of the world, I was keen to see some of these local marsupials. I spent a lazy day wandering around the island on Saturday 2nd September 2017.

Rottnest, just offshore Perth. Notice the spectacular submarine canyon further offshore.

The sandy beaches and rocky coastline of Rottnest.

Disembarking from the ferry, I went for a walk in a nearby forest to look for quokkas. It didn't take long before I encountered the far-from-active specimen shown below.

My first encounter with a quokka, a sleepy individual in a small forest

A sweet and docile couple

A friendly face

The first Europeans known to have landed on the Rottnest were 13 Dutch sailors from the Waeckende Boey who touched ground near Bathurst Point on 19 March 1658 while their ship was careened nearby. The ship had sailed from Batavia (later…