Talks and Workshops Day One – SPNHC2014


The SPNHC conference got off to a great start yesterday with a speech from the Welsh Minister for Culture and Sport. This was proceeded by quick intros from representatives of SPNHC, GCG, and our Paolo on behalf of NatSCA.

The keynote was delivered by BBC’s Ben Garrod. He talked about the important role that museum professionals play in associating context and meaning with specimens. Also that museums should be tapping into the amazing resources they already have because organisations like the BBC will go to the ends of the earth to film the right specimen and only museum professionals know where they all are. He gave us a hint of a program on bird evolution coming up (I for one will be riveted to this).

Prof Alice Roberts was next – taking umbrage with something the director general said (a sentiment shared by several): he had referred to Ben, Alice, and Rhys – the next speaker – as “presenters” and made a distinction between them and the “scientists” in the auditorium. She rightly pointed out that the presenters speaking were all scientists and experts. I suspect the blame for this visceral misconception lies with Discovery Channel and similar who portray actors as scientists in their dramatised documentaries (Mermaid: the Body Found, anyone?). Alice Roberts spoke of her recent expeditions to the arctic peninsula of Russia in search of another mummified mammoth specimen. You may recall the review I wrote about the mammoth baby Lyuba. The new mummy was an older individual and the first expedition came home empty handed. The second time, Alice’s Nenet guides tried to hold out for a better offer. The BBC didn’t take the bait and eventually the guides took her to the specimen. They may have taken their pound of flesh first though: the mammoth’s skull had been removed. The Nenet people insisted that it had been removed in antiquity. If so it will be the oldest case of such a practice being done. More likely the skull was removed to sell to ivory traders. Micro CT scans will settle the matter once and for all. Alice also told us about the tusk cross-section project she was involved with, which revealed the huge scientific treasure trove that is ivory: when you cut a tree in half you can see the rings and count them to see how old the tree is in years. The same holds for mammoth tusks, only each yearly band can be viewed under the microscope to reveal 365 DAILY rings – we can literally tell whether a mammoth had a bad day. It can also be used to count the number of offspring a female mammoth had by looking at the pattern of malnutrition in these rings.

Hot on the heels of Alice’s talk came our third BBC presenter: Dr Rhys Jones. I had just heard about mammoths with personal diaries – I didn’t think anything could top that. It did: Rhys has been working with the South Wales police to track down the origin of two rhino horns that found their way onto EBay. What started as an intellectual challenge soon became a labour of love as one of the rhinos – a hefty male named Max – was killed for a pathetic scrap of horn. Somehow the black market marketing team have managed to convince the world that rhino horn is the cure for hangovers, cancer, erectile dysfunction, loneliness, … You name it and people are falling for it. He had to develop a technique for slow drilling into horn, as the DNA¬†cooks very easily. even at slow speeds, drilling horn smells like burnt hair. With a little help from the other museum collections containing rhino horn material, a database was put together cataloging every known rhino haplotype and where it came from. Not only was he able to state categorically that the two horns belonged to the same animal, he also could tell that it was Black rhino and that it came from Tsavo national park – a hugely impressive result!


I sat in on most of the afternoon’s Bruker workshop. It was supposed to be led by Mike Dobby but sadly he was called away to Athens and Trevor Emmett stepped in. Looking like the illegitimate child of a 70’s stun gun and a thermos flask, The Artax is an interesting piece of kit. Its main application seems to be in chemical analysis of various substances through targeted spectroscopy. Despite Time Team making it look so easy to just point and shoot, it really does work much better fixed to a stand.

Trevor explained the safety filter and how the Artax was designed to not zap unless there’s something under its sensor. Sometimes you need to scan something that doesn’t completely cover the safety filter so we were told that a label can be stuck across it to fix this. Like the complicated password on a post-it note stuck to the computer, security and safety are only as good as the people that use it.

Other Meetings

I attended a few SPNHC open meetings after, including the Emergent Professionals Group and the Meetings Group. I’m very much looking forward to the signing of the MOU on Thursday and seeing how our three organisations can work together more closely.