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Showing posts from 2014

A speculative connection between Fortuna and Viking "Valkyrie" figures

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Distinctive small Viking Age figures showing robed females in profile, often carrying a horn, are widely interpreted to represent valkyries. The horn is typically inferred to be an offering of drink to heroic warriors reaching Valhalla (e.g. Graham-Campbell 2013 Viking Art pg 39). Price (in Vikings: Life and Legend 2014) is more cautious, however, writing, "Representations of female figures can be understood in a number of different ways, and may represent a range of supernatural forces including goddesses, valkyries, norns and disir."


A silver figure of a robed woman holding a horn found in Birka, Sweden.
A small pendant figure found in Ukraine on the banks of the Dnieper and attributed to the Kievan Rus' led me to the idea that perhaps these Viking horn-carrying females could be a Scandinavian adaptation of the figure of Fortuna, Roman goddess of luck.

Kievan Rus' pendant amulet of a robed female in the round, probable cornucopia in right hand, likely to be a repr…

A visit to the equatorial African wildlife reserve of la Lopé, Gabon

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In the heart of Gabon is a fascinating wildlife reserve known as the Réserve de la Lopé. This is one of the few places in Africa where a visitor has the chance of encountering a western lowland gorilla, a family of chimpanzees or a band of the colourful forest baboons called Mandrills. A variety of other animals, such as the small forest race of African elephants, dwarf forest buffalo, several types of antelope and many monkeys are more easily seen.

The reserve can be reached by bush taxi or train from Libreville, or by chartering a small plane. Our group of 15 set off in a chartered Twin Otter (this was February 1995) from the town of Gamba in south Gabon. Ahead of us was a one-hour flight towards the centre of the country. The flight traversed a vast extent of the forest, which covers most (about three quarters) of the country, the ground becoming hillier towards the northeast. On the way we saw beneath us the orange-red laterite road to Lambaréné, famous for Albert Schweitzer’s ho…

Lobtailing, Spyhopping and Breaching in Gabon

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The sad story this week of a stranded humpback whale in Port Gentil, Gabon reminded me of encounters with these whales in the Baie du Cap Lopez (I wrote the following short account in 1997).
Humpback whales are regular dry season visitors to the coastal waters of Gabon. They are the most acrobatic of whales and have been said to have the most complex vocalisations of any animals after ourselves.
In 1987, after an oceanography conference in Woods Hole, I went looking for Humpbacks off Cape Cod. Their scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae (big-winged New Englander) refers to their giant pectoral fins and common occurrence offshore Massachusetts and Maine. So, It was the right place to be looking. That trip was no disappointment, with several Northern Right Whales and a pair of Fin Whales (the second largest creatures on the planet, over 20m long) putting in appearances. Not a single Humpback showed, however.


13/7/97. Baie du Cap Lopez. This is why they’re called Humpbacks.
Since then I h…

Forest Elephants of Gabon

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I was saddened to read about the 26 forest elephants recently slaughtered at the Dzanga Bai in the Central African Republic. My affection for forest elephants dates to a spell of five years living in Gabon in the 1990s and I wrote the following short article at that time, before forest elephants were separated from Savannah elephants as separate species, Loxodonta africana africana and Loxodonta cyclotis.


Pygmy Elephants, Forest Elephants and Savannah ElephantsWhat do all those common names mean?
The Pygmy Elephant as a separate race of elephants has always been controversial. In 1906, a zoologist named Noack invented the new sub-species Elephas africanus pumilio for a small elephant measuring only 1.2 m at the withers (the ridge between its shoulder blades). Unfortunately for him, the animal continued to grow until it reached 2.03 m at its death, nine years later, a perfectly normal size for a forest elephant! Several other elephants also continued to grow after they had been classif…

Jan Gordon and Tin Mining in Malaysia

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I just arrived home from a trip to Malaysia to find a 1923 volume of Blackwood's Magazine waiting for me, in which Jan Gordon remembers his early Malaysian tin mining experiences.

The title of the piece is "An Experiment in Adventure".


The story begins with him (under assumed name "William") peeling off old labels from a sea cabin trunk in order to use it as a seat for a party. The very last label to be removed dates from his early voyage to Malaysia to begin his career as a mining engineer. He then begins to reflect on that journey: "He had not given it a thought for how many years? Sixteen or so."

Tin mining in Malaysia, pursuing the oxide ore cassiterite, began in the the 1820s through the efforts of Chinese immigrants under the leadership of Chung Ah Qwee. I do not have any specimens of cassiterite from Malaysia, but this Myanmar example gives a good idea of what it looks like. In Malaysia, tin mining expanded during the 1870s with the establishme…

Jan and Cora Gordon in the Library of Lady Ottoline Morrell

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Lady Ottoline Morrell was a celebrated patron of the arts and society hostess who lived from 1873 to 1938.  She was a contemporary of Jan and Cora gordon, a well known pair of artists, writers and musicians. Her residence at 44 Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, London served as a salon for friends, including many authors, poets, artists and sculptors, some of them members of the "Bloomsbury Group". Members of this group were also invited to weekend retreats at the Morrells' Garsington Manor near Oxford.



Ottoline Morrell had a copy of "Poor Folk in Spain" (1922) by Jan and Cora Gordon in her library. The book bears her signature inside the front cover.


The back of the book contains notes in her hand that are not entirely clear to understand, though I can recognise the words "Studio", a magazine in which both Jan and Cora Gordon published works of art, and "Romanesque". I also see the names "Williams" (after "Undeserved .....") a…