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The Albatross

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Yesterday I made an impulse trip to Bempton Cliffs on the Yorkshire coast, hoping to see the lone albatross who arrived here in March this year (2022). An albatross in the northern hemisphere is a great rarety. I photographed puffins, razorbills, guillemots, gannets, kittiwakes and fulmars while I waited for "Albie" to show. Hands were becoming frozen in the icy wind at the cliff edge. And then he appeared from below the cliff, flying circuits over the elephant rock at Staple Newk. Vast long narrow black-topped wings, effortless movement, sweeping above the gannets on the rock and the flying kittiwakes below. I'm looking down from the top of the cliff. There's a kittiwake down below. The wingspan reaches about 2.4 m. The size is particularly impressive on a close fly by. Flying over the massed gannets on Elephant Rock at Staple Newk. Effortless flight. Banking above the kittiwakes. This morning, at breakfast, I suddenly remembered Bruce Chatwin's short story about

A Distinctive 19th century Fang Knife from Gabon and the Journeys of Mary Kingsley and Oskar Lenz

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Mary Henrietta Kingsley (1897) recorded her experiences during a journey to Gabon in 1895, travelling as a trader and collecting freshwater fish for the British Museum. She admired the Fang peoples she met and travelled with (she refers to them as Fans), describing them as " full of fire, temper, intelligence and go ." She also admired the quality of their iron work (page 323). " The iron-work of the Fans deserves especial notice for its excellence. The anvil is a big piece of iron which is embedded firmly in the ground. ... The hammers are solid cones of iron, the upper part of the cones prolonged so as to give a good grip, and the blows are given directly downwards, like the blows of a pestle.   The bellows are of the usual African type, cut out of one piece of solid but soft wood ; at the upper end of these bellows there are two chambers hollowed out in the wood and then covered with the skin of some animal, from which the hair has been removed. " She had a go w

A Fang Axe and accounts by Du Chaillu, Burton and others in 19th C Gabon

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The traditional art of the equatorial west African country of Gabon has fascinated the world. There has been particular emphasis on the products of the Fang in the north, the Kele-Tsogo groups in the northeast, the Mbede-Teke groups in the east and the Punu-Shira groups of the southern coast and adjacent inland areas. Sculptures and masks are very well known from these areas, but distinctive styles of decoration can also be found on objects of daily use such as knives, axes and neck collars. I recently acquired a Fang axe from the north of the country (shown below), which matches illustrations from the mid 19th century and pieces collected during the second half of that century. A 42 cm Fang axe with decorated blade,  light and very well balanced.  The shape is distinctive, with handle flaring upwards to a forward pointing projection before tapering back to an angular termination. The thin iron axe blade displays elegant decoration, though less elaborate than some examples (Tessmann 19

Land of Lemurs

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The great allure of Madagascar is the uniqueness of its wildlife, first and foremost the spectacular variety of the endemic lemurs (see Herrera 2017 for a discussion of their adaptive radiation). On a journey in August 2019, I finally had a chance to encounter these wonderful animals in the wild, in the distressingly few remaining areas of forest. At one end of the scale is Indri indri, the largest extant lemur (the gorilla sized Archaeoindris being now extinct). At the miniature end of the scale are the charming and tiny mouse lemurs, including the smallest primates on the planet. And then, there are the different styles of locomotion to observe and enjoy, from the ballet-like leaps of the sifakas to the all-fours scampering of the Eulemurs and the scurrying of the mouse lemurs. There is also a prize for weirdness, which goes to the nocturnal aye-aye. Eight families of lemurs have been recognized, three of which are extinct. Cheirogaleids are the dwarf lemurs, including the smal

A Merovingian Croix Ancrée Tremissis, Sutton Hoo, and Declining Gold Content in the 7th Century Coinage

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In the recent Netflix film "The Dig" there is a scene in which Basil Brown's character shows a small gold coin, known as a tremissis, to Edith Pretty, confirming that the ship burial at Sutton Hoo is of Anglo Saxon age as he had previously suspected. A Merovingian tremissis found in Kent, 10 mm across 37 such coins, all from Merovingian Francia, were found at Sutton Hoo, associated with the remains of an elaborate purse. These coins have commanded a great deal of attention as a potential means to constrain the date of the burial. This is a highly imprecise process (the coins are not datable to within a range shorter than 16 years), relying on recognising issues associated with known rulers, identifying the youngest of these, speculating from there as to how much younger the undated coins may be, and then how much later the assembled group was deposited in the ship burial. Plan of  the Sutton Hoo Mound 1 burial chamber in Burger et al (2016), combined from versions by Phil

A New Statue of Alfred Wallace and Ali - and a Standardwing Bird of Paradise - in Singapore

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Friday 30th August 2019 saw a delightful gathering at Singapore's Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum . The event, in Singapore's 200th anniversary year, was the unveiling of a new bronze statue of Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, and his trusted Sarawakian assistant Ali. Wallace had arrived in Singapore in April 1854 and used the city as a base for his explorations, including his ascent of Mount Ophir later that year. The crowd assembled for the unveiling gathered in the foyer of the museum and was then ushered out by a keen group of volunteers to a tented area in front of the museum's steps. A curved poster announcing "Launch of Wallace & Ali statue" stood behind a dark green sheet covering the hidden statue. After a lively introduction by Professor Peter Ng, senior minister Teo Chee Hean delivered an elegant speech on the significance of Wallace and Ali for Singapore and the merits of a spir