Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The woodwoses of Suffolk

On the track of medieval wildmen in the Curious County

(This first appeared in Fortean Times FT 318, September 2014)

Woodwose on a font at Barking-Cum-Darmsden, near Needham Market

SUFFOLK, mainland Britain’s easternmost county, last year briefly adopted the controversial slogan “the Curious County”. The churches of mostly rural Suffolk do harbour a curiosity - woodwoses (literally “wild-men-of-the-woods”), hirsute manimals brandishing clubs. Particularly in Suffolk Coastal District, few churches are without at least one woodwose. Believed to date from the 15th century (“the 1400s”), these are carved on the staves of stone baptismal fonts, or as a reliefs hewn into the porch of a church, where they are usually to be found with a club and shield raised as they close in for combat with a dragon of wyvern.

The woodwoses on the font of St Andrew’s Walberswick are ruined – some of their heads are gone and you can just make out the wavy hair on the torsos that remain. When I first saw the ruined Walberswick woodwoses, I mistook them for a particularly hairy Adam and Eve.

The Protestant religious reformers – enforcing an edict of 1540 from the Tudor boy king Edward VI ordering the smashing of statues in churches – showed intolerance to these and other Suffolk woodwoses. Some local woodwose-bearing fonts only survive because the idolatrous bits were plastered over until the commissioners had gone away.

Ruined woodwose on the font at St Andrew's Church, Walberswick. Possibly defaced by the commissioners of Henry VIII enacting an edict ordering the destruction of religious statues, or other instructions in the short reign of Edward VI, or by self-appointed local Cromwellian iconoclast William Dowsing and his deputies.

While the seaside village of Walberswick is a famously fashionable holiday resort, the haunt of Hampstead literati and the Freud family in particular, Suffolk’s woodwoses tend to be in out of the way places that are unlikely to feature in glossy Sunday supplements any time soon. The area of the county with the greatest density of “woodwose churches”, inland from the “Suffolk Heritage Coast” and west of the A12, is so far off the map there's actually a Lonely Wood there, and several “Lonely Farm” addresses. (I later learnt that this region is known officially as the Blyth Valley, although how you know you're in a valley in such a pancake-flat county isn't clear to me.)

Cross-legged woodwose, with shield, Halesworth St Mary

You could take in most of the woodwoses of Suffolk Coastal District and the western edge of Mid-Suffolk District in a day by car. A determined, fit cyclist in good weather could do them in a full day. I made a woodwose run from Halesworth station to the villages of Crediton, Cratfield, Badingham and onward to Darsham station in a day's cycle ride before sundown, including pub and tearoom stops for the rainy bits. Peasenhall and Sibton are do-able by bike in a long afternoon from Darsham or Saxmundham stations.

The diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich even lay on occasional “woodwose bike routes” that cover two or three “woodwose churches” in a day at a more leisurely pace than my Stakhanovite two-wheeled woodwose road trips of well over 20 miles each.

Holidaying “smart set” Radio 4 listeners (and – a few summers back – then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, up for his hols in the trendily retro holiday resort of a Southwold, where beach huts change hands for over £100k) mostly dash into the town of Halesworth just long enough to fill the 4X4 up with posh dinner party ingredients and then speed out again. Halesworth has its own miniscule museum, and is famed among trainspotters for its “moving platform”, a combined railway platform and level crossing. But souvenir postcards of the less chic destination of Halesworth, however, are hard to find in any of the town’s shops. The parish church of St Mary's Halesworth does, however, have woodwoses on the font.

The standard woodwose-on-a-font configuration is four woodwoses facing outward, rarely more than a foot high, generally flanked by sitting lions, along with the angels and winged animals representing the Four Evangelists - Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Most of Suffolk’s woodwose-bearing fonts conform surprisingly closely to this arrangement. The head of the bull signifying St John in Halesworth Church looks strangely satanic, while some of Halesworth’s font woodwoses stand with their legs crossed, their clubs resting on the ground.

Griffon representing one of the Four Evangelists, and a strangely Christ-like woodwose, both on the font at St Mary's Church, Chediston

From Halesworth the road to my next woodwose stop, the very small and mostly thatched village of Chediston, took me along a “roadside nature reserve” and then through miles of rape fields with the occasional field of alpacas.

Fields of yellow rapeseed - such as this one on the Halesworth road, on the borders of Chediston Civil Parish - are a common sight in the Spring in Suffolk's Blyth Valley

The churchyard of St Mary’s Chediston is a thoroughfare, with a battered “Please drive very slowly in the churchyard” sign. The woodwoses on the 15th century font in the otherwise bare church of St Mary's Chediston looked almost exactly like Halesworth’s, except that some of the woodwoses have surprisingly Christ-like beards and expressions, and the seated lions flanking them had broad grins.

Another woodwose on the font at St Mary's Chediston, flanked by the traditional smiley lions. There are well over a hundred of these octagonal fonts, usually with just the lions, across Suffolk

The next woodwose font halt was St Peter’s Sibton, (you can see the ruins of a Cistercian abbey in a distant field, although St Peter's was a parish church, never an abbey church). The four Sibton woodwoses have more muscular limbs and thicker hair, and stare suspiciously at you as they guard the font. Most beasts in medieval art were in some way allegorical, and woodwoses were said to represent strength. They’re also the right shape to fit neatly within the space of the upright staves of a font – tall and thin, holding up a club.

A wary looking woodwose at St Peter's Church Sibton, catches the evening light through the windows.

The Church of St John the Baptist lies on the edge of ancient market town of Saxmundham, right next to its Tescos and Waitrose superstores. St John’s has just two woodwoses on the font of its church, and I have to agree with the assessment of church’s own guide: “a splendid specimen in an excellent state of preservation.”

A Renaissance work of art - Saxmundham's woodwoses wear contemporary late 15th century woollen hats

Saxmundham's woodwoses are 18-inch Renaissance works of art – why they aren’t as well known as the works of Michelangelo is beyond me. Their extraordinarily detailed little faces have all the dignity of Biblical patriarchs, their features could past muster as a slightly retro Neanderthal reconstruction. Flanked by the standard smiling lions (these ones have their tongues out), the burly, thick-limbed “Sax” wildmen sport late 15th century woollen hats and are otherwise naked under their thick, superbly detailed fur. One has his club raised, another has his club resting on the ground, his legs crossed.

More imposing than little woodwoses on font staves – in the humble opinion of this woodwose aficionado, at least – are the woodwoses carved on Suffolk church porches. Sometimes they're well over two feet high.

The porch of St John the Baptist Badingham has a very worn outline of a woodwose with long hair on its head and a thick club raised at an equally worn wyvern. Either the elements have eroded both protagonists away, or the religious reformers have defaced him. In any event, you can barely see their outlines. Out in the middle of nowhere, nearer Badingham than anywhere else, I came across a stately hall whose name had long faded from its sign in the drive, leaving only the words “No Salesmen” legible.

The barely visible outline of a badly eroded (or defaced?) woodwose on the porch at John the Baptist, Badingham

The (from a woodwose enthusiast's viewpoint) boring old font is St Mary’s Church, Cratfield has realistic Biblical human figures, possibly damaged by Tudor Church reformers. Cratfield’s woodwose on the porch may be less than two feet tall, but he’s impressive. With his legs tucked into the space available above the arch over the door, he has an angry expression, short curly hair on his head and a pointy beard While most woodwoses on Suffolk church porches are fighting two-legged wyverns, this one's closing in for a fight with a fat dragon with two sets of legs. (I appreciate that the font depicting the seven sacraments - plastered over when the King's commissioners came round and restored in Victorian times - is regarded as one of the better examples of devotional art in England, but from an atheist woodwose-spotter's point of view it's less interesting.)

Woodwose on the porch at Cratfield church closes to do battle with a wyvern (not shown)

The wyvern with whom the Cratfield woodwose is about to do battle

Badingham and Chediston are far enough away from anywhere else that those doing the woodwose run might consider a stop at the King’s Head (aka The Low House) in Laxfield. The King's Head's listed as a “heritage pub”, which could be code for “eccentric layout", as it's a pub with no bar. I walked into a dead end with taps and barrels, and a price list hanging up, and a sort of partition where the crisps and peanuts were on display, and someone asked if they could help me. (I won’t call her the barmaid, there being no actual bar.) “I'm looking for the bar,” I said. “We haven't got one.” They bring the drinks to your table, someone in a warren of multiple snugs with what look like high-backed pews. (I later found out there's another pub-with-no-bar locally at Sweffling, and that the dead end with the beer pumps is called the "pump room".)

Arriving at Peasenhall, you get a sense you are back in civilization. Not only are there signs for the A12 again (East Suffolk’s link to London, and the nearest it gets to a motorway), there are two tea rooms.

Woodwose spotters hold up as the finest example of the genre either Cratfield or Peasanhall porch, and I have to say the latter particularly magnificent example is my favourite. The woodwose above the porch at St Michael’s Peasenhall is in slightly better condition than Cratfield’s, he has the happier face of a serene although slightly comic yet slightly disturbing noble savage. Peasenhall Man’s body hair falls in luxurious curls, and he has a lot of fine detail on his shield, while the wyvern apporaching him across the porch is more wriggly and serpentine than Cratfield's obese wyvern.

In my humble opinion the finest example of a Suffolk woodwose, at Peasenhall ("the valley where peas grow").

I was impressed on my three woodwose tours how all the local churches are left open to the public all day. The proprietor of the Halesworth wine shop said St Mary’s Halesworth had been robbed just the week before, with money taken from the office and a Mother’s Day flower display ruined. The dragnet was closing in on in the ecclesiastical thieves, though, with both Norfolk and Suffolk Constabularies on the case. Just over the Norfolk border in Gillingham, someone had robbed an undertakers, and left an identical shoeprint to whoever had plundered St Mary’s Halesworth. A sign up at Badingham featured a pick-up truck silhouette with a red line through it, and warned of “CHURCH THEFT!” The sign noted; “Trucks and workmen will be accompanied by a church warden. If not – there are probably stealing the roof.”

One of numerous "CHURCH THEFT" posters - this one is at Badingham

Missing person poster for the then recently stolen John the Baptist font cover at Saxmundham

Nobody really knows what the woodwoses are doing there, and why there are so many of them in Suffolk. Are they just for show, or do they commemorate some kind of local English wildman-of-the woods, a British Bigfoot, or what cryptozoologists call “relict hominids”? There are indeed accounts of two historical Suffolk wildmen, including a capture of a wildman in the Suffolk port of Orford whose description was remarkably similar to the manimal depicted on so many of the county’s churches.

Cistercian abbot and historian Ralph of Coggeshall, writing in approximately 1200, recorded in his Chronicon Anglicanum how around 1161, “In the time of King Henry II, when Bartholomew de Glanville was in charge of the castle at Orford, it happened that some fishermen fishing in the sea there caught in their nets a wild man. He was naked and was like a man in all his members, covered with hair and with a long shaggy beard.”

Ralph added that the Orford wildman “would not talk, even when tortured and hung up by his feet… He was allowed to go into the sea, strongly guarded with three lines of nets, but he dived under the nets and came up again and again. Eventually he came back of his own free will. But later on he escaped and was never seen again.” When I last visited Orford Castle a few years ago, there was an atmospherically dimly-lit display with a realistic model of a bald, man-sized captive Orford wildman with a long beard. There are still woodwoses on the font at the church St Bartholomew in what Visit Suffolk call the “diminutive gem” that is Orford today.

Woodwose on the font at St Bartholomew's Church, Orford

And there’s a Wild Man Inn the village of Sproughton, on the western edge of Ipswich. This pub’s said to owe its name to a creature who during its construction, roughly contemporary with most of the woodwoses in the county’s churches, “terrified the builders in a nearby waste.” (Phenomena – a book of wonders, p. 111, John Michell and Robert J. M. Rickard, Thames and Hudson, 1977.)

It turns out my woodwose tours were just scratching the surface, taking in a mere eight examples of woodwoses in churches in the part of the county where they are most abundant. In the course of my investigations I discovered that Suffolk also has woodwoses in its churches at Woolpit (as in “green children of Woolpit”), Waldringfield (with goat’s feet), St Andrew’s Alterton (north of Felixstowe), Wissett, the Church of the Assumption in Haughley, Framlingham, St Mary’s Yaxley, the church of St Mary in Harkstead and the church of St Mary, Newbourne, (in whose churchyard George Page, “the Suffolk giant” is buried).

Ruined woodwose in the church at Theberton, which also has on display fragments from the Theberton Zepplin Crash of 1915.

Framlingham woodwose

Ruined woodwose in the church at Woolpit, West Suffolk, "a symbol of strength and evil... said to come from India" according to a label in the church. It could possibly have come from the well shrine of Our Lady at Woolpit, demolished by Henry VIII's reformers

Since this article first appeared I've also tracked down woodwoses on the fonts of the churches in Barking-cum-Darmsden, St Michael the Archangel, Holy Trinity Middleton(-cum-Fordley), and some ruined woodwoses at church of St Andrew's Covehithe, and in Theberton.

Slightly damaged woodwose in Holy Trinity, Middleton-cum-Fordley. The damage to the head, as in many woodwose fonts I've seen, may have been to accommodate hinges to a font cover, added later.

Ruined woodwose on the font at St Andrew's Covehithe. A leaflet for visitors of the church says they were defaced by William Dowsing's men in Cromwellian period. But Dowsing's journal makes no reference to woodwoses or any images on the font, only to religious "pictures" including stained glass images and images of "cardinals". It's possible they were defaced earlier, either by Henry VIII's commissioners, or (more likely) by Edward VI's officials.

Outside Suffolk, woodwoses in churches are rare in the rest of England, although there’s one over the Norfolk border in All Saints, Hilborough. Zuilen, now part of the Dutch city of Utrecht, proudly displays woodwoses on its coat of arms, as do the Earl of Atholl and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, and there was even St Onuphrius, a woodwose saint in both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. He was a fourth-century “Desert Father” of Egyptian Christianity who lived as hermit for many years and had thick body hair and a loincloth made of leaves.

It’s tempting to think Suffolk’s woodwoses remember an actual briefly captive wildman, or even a species of relict hominid living among us in the flat plains of East Anglia, But folklorist Gregory “The Wildman Inside and Outside Europe”, (Gregory Forth, Folklore volume 118, no 3 Dec 2007) points out that unlike the Asian and American traditions of Bigfoot, almasti and so on, there are very few surviving accounts of actual sightings of hairy wildmen in Europe. At the time most of Suffolk’s woodwoses were carved on the county’s church fonts and porches somewhere in the 15th century, they were “thought to be mythical” or at least to “live outside Europe,” according to Forth.

Unlike the Asian and North American big hairy men, who were viewed as a different animal to humans, the Christian doctrines of Man made in the image of God and of The Fall meant that woodwoses had to become “‘feral men’, originally human but who had grown apart due to ‘outrageous hardship’” or turned wild through an “upbringing among wild beasts.” The woodwose’s coat of hair was regarded as a consequence of their “wildness… not their natural state”, according to Forth. One distinguishing feature that set Europe’s woodwoses apart from the wildmen and big hairy men outside Europe was that they had long hair on their heads, and beards, making them more human-like.

Some of the attributes of European woodwoses were that they didn’t speak, they seemed to enjoy thunderstorms, they had some kind of Tarzan-style “sympathy” with animals, as well as knowledge of medicinal plants. Sometimes woodwoses snatched and ate human children. Male woodwoses were said to occasionally abduct human women, while “wildwomen" (female woodwoses) had the power to disguise themselves as more mainstream women to seduce male humans.

The Renaissance saw a rebranding of the woodwose as an extinct creature, or a savage human, like the “savage” peoples that were then being discovered outside Europe. By the 17th century, “wildman” had pretty much vanished from English literature and written sources, as a fascination for the newly discovered non-European “wild” races had instead taken hold.

But to bring the Suffolk woodwose mystery up to date, the Paranormal Database received a report from a lorry driver who in May 2011, en route to Suffolk's busy international container port of Felixstowe, was passing through fields near the village of Elveden along a busy stretch of the A134 road in the north-east corner of the country. He saw from his cab a light brown-grey ape-like creature, at first walking on all fours, with an “almost hyena-like movement”, before it got up its hind legs. The “semi-human like” creature looked up at the witness, showing its “forward facing eyes, long snout but a shorter face than a deer” and “small upright dog-like ears,” before bounding off on all fours again.

And shortly after my woodwose rides I interviewed “Phillip” (not his real name) who told of a strange late afternoon encounter in the summer of 2011 while walking with his partner back from a festival in Peasenhall towards their tiny campsite in Sweffling. From his description, Phillip’s sighting was along a stretch of Rendham Road, with woods immediately to the east.

In an experience he estimated lasted two or three minutes, Phillip “became aware something was watching us, following us… almost parallel with us.” He “didn’t know what it was,” it was at first “just a feeling I got,” Phillip's “periphery vision on the left side saw this figure… if I turned my head I didn't see it.” The entity was “(a) vague impression, it didn’t look directly at us.” He felt whatever it was “looking sideways at us, not turning its head.” Phillip caught the occasional “fleeting glimpse, like a snapshot." It was “there one minute and not there.” (The description of an entity walking “parallel” but not visible if you look at it directly is noteworthy. Some of the “Black Shuck” phantom dogs in the traditions of Suffolk appear alongside witnesses on lonely country roads at night and walk in step with them, and are benign and protective – but only if you avoid looking them in the eye.)

Sketch by "Phillip" of the entity he encountered on the road to Peasenhall in 2011, copyright "Phillip"

Phillip’s partner didn’t see anything. Phillip described what he saw: on two legs, “seven or eight feet tall… silver grey, dark.” He had the sense that it was “friendly". He’d had a similar encounter earlier in woodland in Wales, with an “impression of a tall and hairy” entity, “not as distinct” as his Suffolk manimal encounter.

An artist by profession, Phillip sent me a pencil drawing of the apparition on the road from Peasenhall. It showed a tall, very hairy, bulky biped in profile with stooped shoulders and an indistinct head, with trees in the background, more Bigfoot that woodwose. He confirmed that neither he nor his partner knew at the time of the wildman on the porch of the nearby St Mary’s church, Peasenhall. Could it be that the little woodwose carvings actually commemorate some local protective spirits, like the “tall, hairy entity” that Phillip experienced – glimpsed fleetingly, yet giving the people of that corner of Suffolk in the fifteenth century the impression of something “friendly”?

www.suffolkonboard.com has details of local bus services, and the book-in-advance Suffolk Links “Demand Responsive Transport” services (Blyth, Loes and Pathfinder) on which you can take bikes. Abelio Greater Anglia’s East Suffolk Line has hourly trains to Saxmundham, Darsham and Halesworth from Ipswich and Lowestoft, also with space for bikes. For diocesian woodwose bike routes see the diocese of St Edmundsbury website.
Orford Castle's website is here

Regular FT contributor Matt Salusbury is freelance journalist based in Dunwich. His Mystery Animals of Suffolk (CFZ Press) is due out in 2015, and meanwhile has its own Mystery Animals of Suffolk Twitter feed already.

In response to the article that originally appeared in Fortean Times, there were a couple of letters. There was a suggestion by Stephen Mickelewright of Hampshire that East Anglian woodwoses commemorate the "Silvatici", who fought on after the Norman conquest and became experts in subterfuge and camouflage and guerrilla warfare against Normans. May also have inspired Robin Hood and his merry men. Very few accounts survive, Herward the Wake in the East Anglia Fens and also Eadric Wild in Shropshire, who became immortalised in local Wild Hunt legends. A group of masons in East of England may have incorporated them as an in-joke, own little act of defiance against Norman churhcgoers. Mickelwright quotes The English Resistance by Peter Rex.

Mark Utting of Thornham Magna, Suffolk in a letter to FT suggests the Biblical wild men such as Nebercubnezzer, "humbled by God" and ejected from society, living like a beast, represented those cast out and later redeemed by baptism. Fonts were not "objects of veneration", so were left alone by the religious reformers. Those depicting religious scenes, crucifixion, etc, were plastered over until Victorian times (Cratfield) scraped away (Blythburgh) or smashed, including woodwoses ( at St. Andrews church, Wickham Skeith)

Words and images (except "Phillip's" drawing of his road-to-Peasenhall entity encounter, © "Phillip") © Matt Salusbury 2014. Images will follow shortly, plus slight amendments in the light of more info via letters to FT in response to the article.)

None of this would have been possible without Simon Knott's excellent Suffolk churches website.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Front page story in this month's Fortean Times

My feature on the woodwoses of Suffolk seems to have pushed the Daleks off the front cover of this month's Fortean Times, having been updgraded from a humble Fortean Traveller piece at the back to the cover story! (That's FT 318, September 2014).

It'll be up on this site as soon as the First British Serial rights have reverted to me, ie when the October issue is out.

I note that I'm all over the editorial of this month's FT as well, in which FT claims they "sent" me to my "native" Suffolk. Not strictly correct - I pitched a story to them, and arranged (minimal) expenses for some of the trip and some photocopying at the Suffolk Records Office, and I have been "native" to Suffolk only since I started getting my bank statements sent there, joined the Suffolk Coastal electoral roll and registered as a "temporary resident" with the doctor's surgery there back in May. (Suffolk Coastal's MP has still not replied to my letter on changes to copyright law, which I sent her in June, please note!)

Here, are a couple of my photos of woodwoses similar to the ones in the Fortean Times feature. (They are of woodwoses whose photos do not feature in the article, from St Bartholemew's Orford (top) and a damaged woodwose at St. Peter's, Theberton (bottom).

I also get a mention in this month's FT in Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo section, for which I am grateful to Karl. He bigs up my researches into Baron Maurice de Rothschild's tusk "of enigmatic origin", which was the subject of my recent Weird Weekend talk, and which will be the subject of a future Fortean Times forum piece just as soon as I can find a way to describe it all in 800 words. See Dr Karl's recent blog post on his own researches in this area - he's got further than me, and has much better French!

Oh, and I'm in the "clipping credits" too, for sending in a suitably bizarre news headline. If I recall correctly, it was the Guardian's "Ghost ship packed with cannibal rats not likely to crash into UK, say officials."

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Pygmy stegodons in "Twilight Beasts"

My blog post on "Of dwarves and dragons" - pygmy stegondons in the Twilight Beasts blog for "neglected Pleistocene taxons" is here.

Stegodons were, of course, close relatives of today's elephants.

And here is the possibly inaccurate drawing of Stegodon sondaari, a dwarf species of stegodon, legging it from a monitor lizard on the island of Flores, half a million years ago, which didn't make it into the post, but which Twilight Beasts were kind enough to tweet out. As ever, Dr Victoria Herridge corrected me, contributing an update which notes relatively recent research suggesting that the precursors of the Komodo dragons that arrived in Flores, Indonesia, probably from Australasia, didn't change their size much over the years.

The illustrations feature in my book Pygmy Elephants.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Solar flare apocalypse ahoy!

This article first appeared in Fortean Times FT 312, March 2014

Richard Carrington's illustration to his write-up of his 1859 solar flare observations is now out of copyright

Shortly before the 21 December 2012 end-of-the-world due date, a confident NASA released early its "Why The World Didn't End Yesterday" video. This rubbished the "Mayan prophecy" baktun long count Doomsday scenario, and anticipated the next end of the world panic – solar storms!

We've now just passed the peak of 11-year long Solar Cycle 24, which ends in 2020. The nightmare solar storm scenario would be a repeat of the Carrington Event of 1859.

The Carrington Event (named after the Scottish astronomer Richard Carrington, who observed it) was what we now call a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) – it sent a burst of charged particles out of the sun and slamming into the Earth's magnetic field. So powerful was the Carrington Event that the telegraph machines of the day caught fire, and continued to type even after they'd been disconnected. The aurora borealis was visible as far south as Cuba, and woke up campers in the Rockies in the middle of the night – they thought they were in daylight.

Back in 1859 there was no heavy reliance on GPS satellites, and little by way of a national grid. There have been warnings of the havoc that 21st century solar storm could wreak

In the "Quebec blackout" of 1989 something – probably a solar storm – crippled a power station and cut power to millions of Canadians, while triggering what NASA now call "electrical anomalies" across the US. There is a danger, it seems, that solar storms can turn the electrical power grid into something like a giant convection heater. And the "Halloween storms" of 2003 disabled instruments on dozens of orbital satellites, some permanently.

With the expectation that the solar cycle would peak around mid-2013, it was predicted that GPS would go down – and that wouldn't just mean motorists losing their way. All sorts of crucially essential stuff from nuclear power stations to some very expensive hospital life support kit, and most technology driving the financial markets, would fail. We could be a single solar storm away from the end of civilization.

Not a sunspot, but another solar phenomenon, a "sun dog", observed in the sky over Saxmundham, Suffolk, September 2013. Photo copyright Matt Salusbury

And such geomagnetic storms could knock planes out of the sky. (Delta Airlines admitted at the end of 2013 it had – at some expense – diverted 12 transpolar flights away from the Poles that year, fearing solar storms.)

Given the readiness of so many people to get excited about some misunderstood Mesoamerican calendars, it was puzzling how extraordinarily blasé the world was about the impending civilization-ending Solar Cycle 24 peak.

Lika Gukathakurta, head of NASA's Living With a Star Program, reassured the world in the "Why the World Didn't End Yesterday" video that "this is the wimpiest solar cycle of the last 50 years, reports to the contrary are exaggerated." But strangely, the world didn't need any reassuring. Here was the very real possibility of the End of Civilization no one seemed even to have heard of it, let alone care about it.

Where were the tin-foil hat brigades, ranting their misanthropic solar storm rants in the bus stations and shopping centres? Nothing. Perhaps Armageddon fatigue had set in after the Great Mayan Prophecy Disappointment. Or the solar storm scenario's technological aspects had made doom prophets wary, causing recollections of the Millennium Bug that never was.

Rather than heading for the hills, the vast majority of people weren't even aware of the absolutely gigantic X9 solar storm that erupted from the sun on 9 August 2013. ("X" denoting the strongest class of solar storm.) Fortunately for us, the burst of plasma it spewed out was on a trajectory that was "not Earth-directed", as Joe Kunches of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told the space.com website. "We did luck out," added Kunches. (Another, earlier, weaker CME in April of that year also failed to be "earth directed, but dealt the Curiosity rover a harmless glancing blow as it travelled on its way to Mars, after Mission Control had temporarily switched off Curiosity as a precaution.)

We also appeared to luck out on October 25 2013, when two "monster" X-class solar flares left the sun, but in the event weren't up to much and were widely unnoticed.

While Spaceweather.com did report some VLF and HF radio blackouts, the dearth of CME-based apocalypse-mongering turns out to have been right on the money. By the end of 2013, Stanford University's Leif Svalgaard told the American Geophysical Union, "none of us alive have ever seen such a weak cycle." In the course of Solar Cycle 24's peak, we had learned that the lower than usual pressure of the heliosphere – the mass of charged particles and magnetic fields surrounding the sun, meant that CMEs were able to expand more as they shot through space, dissipating their strength by the time smacked into our own atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the aurora was visible in the Essex summer skies of 2012, and a travel agent promised "with astronomers predicting the peak of the solar cycle and incredible sightings already reported, winter 2013/14 looks likely to be the best time to see the magical Aurora Borealis." The end of the world was cancelled instead we got the world's greatest light show.

Fear not, disappointed apocalypse watchers! The Met Office has announced that, as of Spring 2014, it would run space weather forecasts to "allow government and businesses to take swift action to ensure services are maintained." The Met Office warned it wasn't over yet – the "largest impacts can occur at any time during its 11 year cycle" up to 2020.

Some Doomsday enthusiasts may be losing faith in the capacity of solar storms to frazzle us back into the Stone Age. They may take comfort in 2013 TV135, a "massive asteroid" identified by the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory in October as heading our way – to arrive with a force of some 2,500 megatons on 26 August 2032. Hurrah! Until you read the small print – the chance of it actually striking the Earth is around one in 63,000. The End of the World ain't what it used to be. (Time magazine 17 October 2013; The Guardian 13 October 2013)

© Matt Salusbury

Monday, 23 June 2014

Weird Weekend, "Tooth of enigmatic origin" crowdsourced identification

Archives de Zoologie Experimentale et Generale, 4th series, volume VII, October 1907 (for non-commericial purposes)

Copyright Horniman Museum & Gardens, used with permission. THe specimen at the bottom is accession no. NH.A3008

The "Tooth of enigmatic origin" in the drawing at the top was found in the ivory market at Addis Ababa in 1904 by Maurice de Rothschild's East Africa expedition will be the subject of my talk at Weird Weekend 2014 this August. See the programme for Weird Weekend 2014.

I'm on at 12 noon on Sunday 17 August, so if you're going, don't go getting too much of a hangover on Weird Saturday. For background, see my short article on the "enigmatic" tooth here.

My talk is down on the programme as "Baron Maurice de Rothschild's dionthere caper". At the time CFZ director Jon Downes and I put together the "pitch" for the talk, an article in the journal La Nature from 1910 suggested the "tusk of enigmatic origin" resembled that of a long-extinct group of elephant relatives, the dinotheres. Closer examination shows a misidentification may have been at work. Jon and I agreed to keep the title, it may not be a dinothere anymore but it's still a caper.

The original title for the talk had the wrong Rothschild - Walter, he of the zoo at Tring, and not Maurice (better known for racehorses, his art collection and being a Senator of the Republic of France.) As I plough slowly through the 50+ pages of the original French that is "Tooth of enigmatic origin", it has become apparent that Walter Rothschild does feature after all. He expressed enthusiasm for Maurice's find, and reportedly gave a presentation on this to the Zoological Society of London in September 1905. The ZSL library are on the case, but it's all still on card indexes so it'll take a while.

As a result of a Twitter appeal some crowdsourced identification of the "enigmatic" tooth has come in from three zoologists and a professor of paleonotology. I don't want to give away too much away ahead of the Weird Weekend talk, except to reproduce here, by kind permission of Paolo Viscardi, natural history curator at the Horniman Museum & Gardens, a photo (above) of their specimen of a walrus tusk (bottom of photo) compared to a hippo tooth (top of photo).

Meanwhile, there was a report on Maurice de Rothschild's East Africa expedition in book form, Voyage du Baron Maurice de Rothschild en Afrique orientale 1904–1905, and a very rare English language edition, Maurice de Rothschild’s Journey to East Africa 1904–1905. This is so rare that the British Library don't have a copy, the only place that has it is the Rothschild Archive in the City of London.

(Fortean Times are interested in a short "Forum" piece on this.)

Friday, 6 June 2014

Can anyone help identify this "tooth (tusk?) of enigmatic origin"?

Above is a sketch of "a tooth of enigmatic origin ("une dent d'origine énigmatique" in the original French). It was obtained by Baron Maurice de Rothschild and Henri Neuville (he worked on the preparation of specimens at the National Museum of National History, Paris, and was a comparative anatomist and by some accounts an anthropologist too.) It was bought from Indian ivory merchants in the ivory market at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1905. Its discoverers do refer to it as a "tusk" ("defense"), but they hesitate to describe it even as a tusk in most of their write-up, which is in the Archives de Zoologie Experimentale et Generale, 4th series, volume VII, October 1907.

The Indian ivory merchants from whom Rothschild and Neuville bought the tusk had no idea of its origin, and had trouble selling it as it was smaller than most elephant tusks that came their way. (The drawing is "life size" and is just under 60cm, or 24 inches, across.) Neuville said that he had talked to Somali herders and hunters who told him that it was from a big animal with an "aquatic" lifestyle, "of singular strength" and "of great size more or less comparable to a hippo" that lived in the bigger lakes of that region. Mention was made of Lake Marguerite (now known as Lake Arbeya, and a lake on the Kenya-Uganda border.

The above quotes are from my own translation, which I am still working on (it's a work of over 50 pages.) A glance at the photographs suggests that Neuville compared the tusk to numerous "anomalous" elephant tusks, mostly from the Natural History Museum London's collection, and that it didn't look anything like the tusk of a hippo, elephant or any kind of pig, and that the tusk "does not resemble any tooth of a fossil or living animal up to the present." It was not fossilised.

Other photo captions in the article suggest that a cross-section of the tusk under a microscope did not match the "grain" of a hippo, elephant or any kind of pig either.

Michel Raynal, of the Institut Virtuel de Cryptozoologie, told me he'd been in touch with Bernard Heuvelmans about this enigmatic tusk some 20 years ago, and that Heuvelmans had told him the Museum in Paris had a "numero de registration" (presumably an accession log number) for the specimen, but that "the piece was not there (lost??)"

The enigmatic tusk will be the subject of my talk at Weird Weekend this August.

Any suggestions as to the tusk's possible identity greatly appreciated. Any tips as to who to approach at the Natural History Museum, Paris also appreciated. (I understand French well, and with the help of a French-speaking colleague at work I can put a letter together, if I know what to ask.) And any offers to write a letter for me explaining what I am researching, for the benefit of the Rothschild Archive in the City of London would also be gratefully received. They need two letterheads from academics to let me look at their archive, which has a copy of the English edition of Voyage du Baron Maurice de Rothschild en Afrique orientale - so rare that the British Library don't have a copy.

On the provisional programme for Weird Weekend, I got the wrong Rothschild. Maurice was best known for owning winning racehorses and for his art collection, and for being a Senator of the Republic of France. Apart from a specimen collecting trip in Egypt, his East Africa expedition was his only zoological venture. He did sent flea specimens to his distant cousin Charles Rothschild, and I have found a reference to correspondence between Maurice de Rothschild's team and Walter Rothschild's Zoological Museum in Tring (now the Natural History Museum, Tring.)

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Haringey Paleontology Museum in reduced circumstances

The Museum's glass display cases from the side

The Haringey Paleontology Museum's collection of over 300 scale model dinosaurs (and skeletons, and other prehistoric animals that aren't dinosaurs) has been forced to move from its current accommodation in Haringey, just round the corner from The Salisbury pub.

Sauropods (left), Cetiosaurus (in dark blue, a British sauropod, by Invicta, for the Natural History Museum, centre) and one of the Haringey collection's more recent acquisitions, a Siberian mammoth skeleton. Photo from a couple of weeks ago, when they were all still on display.

Birds and dino-birds from the Haringey collection, including a 1980s "terror bird" in purple and an Archaeopteryx, with some miscellaneous armoured dinosaurs (bottom, centre).

The Hall of Therapods. The big one is a Gigantosaurus, and the grey-green one on the left with the narrowish snout and the ridge along its back is a rare Acrocanthosaurus model. There are also overflows from the iguanodonts (front, to the left) and from the Hall of Mammals, including Andrewsarchus (the one that looks like a dog) and a modern aardvark.

Well over a dozen Dimetrodons, left, including one dating from the early 1960s that I found in the garden. Other non-dinosaur reptiles are shown, including a rare Longisquama model from Poundland, Moschops (a licensed Marx retread from Dapol from their factory shop in Llangollen, and several takes on mammal-like reptile Cynognathus. And some modern reptiles.

In the centre is a rather expensive Kaidyo model of a Camarasaurus all the way from Japan.

The diplodocus annex.

Iguanadonts, some in the kangaroo-like pose of early 1970s reconstructions. Centre left is a rare Camptosaurus model by Mini-Machines.

Numerous ceratopsians and iguanadonts.

Top left: headbutting dinosaurs including Stygmoloch, centre: terror birds, bottom right: ankylosaurs, nodosaurs, Scelidosaurus, armoured dinosaurs. Background right: standing Diplodocus model by Safari. The big, mostly white long-necked mammal is a very expensive indriocothere (aka Baluchitherium).

The Hall of Marine Reptiles

The Pterosaur Wing

Therapods, including "strange therapods", Baryonyx, and a scratch-built Crylophosaurus conversion (with yellow crest,from a pound shop Dilophosaurus). In the background in various shades of grey is an obscure Delta Dromeaosaurus

Top left: Camarasaurus, case of therapods at the top, top right: an obscure ceratopsian and a Natural History Museum Troodon, in the case at the bottom left: giant ground sloth (a Marx Toys knock-off?), Brontotherium (ditto?), Saltasaurus, Triceratops, head of a Plateosaurus.

The collection, some of whose dinosaur models date to the early 1960s, was mostly built-up when cheap dinos flooded the market in the wake of the first Jurassic Park film. A surprising number of really obscure species of dinosaur turn up as models on sale in poundshops to this day.

Negotiations are currently under way for a limited Haringey Museum of Paleontology display, that will eventually be established in Finsbury Park. In its new form, it will be a rotating display, with - for examples - "This month: therapods" or "This month: Dimetrodons" or "This month: prehistoric probiscidians", or "This month: Dinosaurs from Africa" or some such.

Some of the Museum's collection already boxed up for the move.

For another Haringey Museum facing homelessness,the Haringey Museum of Egytpology for Under £5, see here.