Playing with Time

Cave palaeontology collections as vessels of truth and creativity…

Big Beasts Stalk The Mind of Sir William Boyd Dawkins. Two pages from a flip-book showing animated giant deer, steppe bison, spotted hyaena, horse, pages from Sir William’s notebook relating to the excavation of the Hyaena Den at Wookey Hole and a Palaeolithic hand axe unearthed there. (C) Sean Harris.

Beasts of tooth and claw have always stalked the darker corners of my mind. But we could probably all say that couldn’t we? However, a recent creative collaboration – for which Wells and Mendip Museum’s seminal collection of Pleistocene mammal bone provided the focus – presented a new slant on the mind/ cave analogy.

My grandparents, who exerted such a powerful influence on my formation, did their very best to nurture a natural scientist of some shape or form. They would, I think, have been proud of a geologist, ornithologist, zoologist – also perhaps an archaeologist; maybe even an anthropologist. Someone of great standing and integrity, qualities probably manifest in a really solid moustache.

Consequently, growing up, I spent a lot of time in museums, in hides and ranging across fields with a geologist’s hammer; all activities accompanied with a notebook and pencil. However, to the considerable bafflement (and perhaps frustration) of my well-intentioned elders, a compulsive urge to express the images and narratives that formed themselves in my mind’s eye – ironically borne of hours gazing into cases at the minutiae of taxidermied creatures, patinated bones, geological specimens – won out and instead of a scientist they got an artist and animator.

However, having now, over the course of a career, worked with a diverse array of researchers in museums and conservation organisations, I know that I’m on the same spectrum as a great many of them – albeit perched at a slightly different position along it. Whilst our motivations and the languages we use to communicate our discoveries may be different, we’re all explorers of a type. I wish I could have the opportunity to explain that to my grandmother – though maybe she knew it anyway.

Nevertheless, my family propagated in me an inquisitive nature, sowing the seeds of a fascination with both the natural world and the mechanisms by which we attempt to come to terms with it – and if they could see the fruits of this I like to think they’d be quietly proud. And I still love museums.

The Conflicting Universes of the Rev. Dr. Buckland Two pages from a flip-book; hyaena bones, coprolites and teeth from Milton Hill Fissure and the Hyaena Den, Wookey Hole. (C) Sean Harris.

My most recent eruption of moving image-making was enabled by an enlightened project called Muse: Makers In Museums which granted me unfettered access to the marvellous and inspirational cave palaeontology collections held in the Wells and Mendip Museum in Wells, Somerset. This not only indulged my long standing predilection for the narrative surfaces of geology-infused ancient bone – the key to a whole universe of imagined mammalian locomotion – but also shone a new (for me) light on a rich metanarrative concerned with the emergence of modern science from a universe largely defined by mythology and traditional knowledge.

For echoing from Pleistocene animal bone unearthed in the Mendip caves, alongside very distant animal bellows and grunts – gently at first but with increasing volume and vociferousness – emanated the Ante- diluvial voices of Jaquetta Hawkes’ ‘Victorian gentlemen’; Buckland, Pengelly, Boyd Dawkins et al, who gradually supplanted those of (amongst others) Bishop Usher and Rev. Alexander Catcott.

Then, in the twentieth century and reflecting the shifting demographic of scientific research, that of the first curator of the museum, retired Postmaster of Wells Herbert Balch. And in the twenty first century strong female voices; Danielle Schreve, Professor of Quartenary Science at Royal Holloway University London and Angharad Jones (also of RHUL – and who was to reassure me that it was perfectly natural and entirely acceptable to have a favourite hyaena tooth).

The Cave In The Mind Of Professor Schreve Two pages from a flipbook; narrow-skulled vole jaw, rodent incisor, mountain hares and graph showing temperature fluctuation over a 50,000 year period. (C) Sean Harris.

Miss Jones’ Incredible Shrinking Hyaena! Two pages from a flipbook; hyaena, hyaena teeth from the Hyaena Den, Wookey Hole and marine oxygen isotope record indicating temperature change and global ice volume over 800,000 years. (C) Sean Harris.

Here then, emerging from the detritus of The Deluge, was nothing less than a concise history of climate change truth and how we form it. And in forming a response to this most timely tale of the journey from myth to science (and perhaps, in the Trump Era, back again), time itself became elastic, stretching and contracting like a bungee rope. For here, in the physical form of a collection of small clockwork animation machines, it’s march was expressed simultaneously in increments of one twenty-fifth of a second and tens of millennia, and sometimes – as, seemingly, in the cave or the case – arrested in silent stasis.

Turn the handle on the side of the flipbook-box and time travels at a rate designated by the operator (and not the computer). Wind away and the images – composited from a rich melange of archived and contemporary excavation diaries and data, palaeontological specimens and, of course, the beasts themselves – spring to life, providing animated windows on the minds of ‘Cave Hunters’ ancient, modern and not-so-modern.

Placed amidst the collections held in the Balch Room, these little hand-cranked kinetic sculptures seemed to have the effect of cranking into life the imaginations of the visitor, facilitating new dialogues and stimulating new connections with the previously dormant ossuaries within the cases.

And, writing this on a day in which I learned that three Google searches are – in terms of energy usage – equivalent to a 60 watt bulb being turned on for a minute, the deployment of a bit of human-powered imagery seems more apt and valuable than ever…

Turn the handle and the little cinema springs to life. (C) Sean Harris.


A close up. (C) Sean Harris.


H.E. Balch surveys the bear skull he unearthed in the Badger Hole – and newfound company in his august perch above the hearth. (C) Sean Harris.


William Beard of Bone Cottage Pages from the journal of William Beard, custodian of Banwell Bone Cave and bear (Ursus arctos) skull from the Badger Hole, Wookey. The famous Banwell bear skull is in the Museum of Somerset. (C) Sean Harris.


Palaeo-dandelion Clock (Our Dreamtime). (C) Sean Harris.


Prof. Danielle Schreve scrutinizes the contents of her mind-cave. (C) Sean Harris.


Even more intense scrutiny – pupils from Selwood Academy engaged in speleological investigation in the course of a visit to Wells and Mendip Museum. (C) Sean Harris.


Shadows in the Mind of H.E. Balch MA FSA Pages from Balch’s journal chronicling over a decade of excavation within the Badger Hole, Wookey Hole, mammoth, giant deer, horse and hyena. (C) Sean Harris.

Look out for Playing With Time on tour in 2019 – coming to a museum near you!

Sean Harris is an artist, animator and film-maker working in museums and the landscape – whose website is currently hopelessly out of date(!) but can be reached at
More about Playing With Time and Muse: Makers in Museums can be found here.

Muse: Makers In Museums was funded by Arts Council England, Heritage Lottery Fund, InspirEd and South Somerset and South Hams District Councils. It was led by South West Heritage Trust with partners The Devon Guild of Craftsmen, Somerset Art Works and South West Museums Development Programme.

Written by Sean Harris, Artist, Animator and Film-Maker

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