Monthly Archives: August 2021

A Mexican polished pebble at Carnac

By Nathalie Richard, Le Mans Université

In the storerooms of the Carnac Prehistory Museum there is an ordinary-looking pebble, labelled as a “pre-Columbian archaeological polished pebble”. Protected in a plastic bag, it rests in a box alongside other objects also identified as pre-Columbian, authentic or facsimile, several of which are broken.

Nowadays, this pebble has no place in the permanent exhibition of the museum dedicated to the rich local archaeological heritage. However, although it has been put away in the storerooms, it still has a lot to say to the historians of science and collections when they look at it from all sides and analyse the old labels and annotations that are attached to it with the help of the museum archives.

The first story that this pebble recounts is that of the museum and its transformations. Founded in 1882, in a village famous for its Neolithic remains, notably its enigmatic alignments of menhirs, the museum was created thanks to the donation of a private collection and funds for the construction of a dedicated building. As indicated by the number on the pebble and the notation on the sleeve that protects it, this object was part of the collection of the founder, James Miln (1819-1881). This wealthy Scottish aristocrat is a representative of a type of 19th-century science enthusiasts who are sometimes called “grand amateurs”. Given their level of education, leisure time, financial means and social networks they were able to mobilize, these amateurs practiced a science that was little or no different from that of the few professionals. A heir to important estates in Scotland, James Miln practiced the arts and sciences. Before coming to Brittany, he was a member of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and is also known as a pioneer photographer. He drew and painted. He came to visit Carnac where he became fascinated with archaeology and carried out excavations. The artefacts he discovered formed the core of the museum’s collection in 1882. But James Miln was a man of his time and the collection he donated also contained ethnographic objects and pieces that were very fashionable at the time and which any archaeological collection worthy of the name had to include. Such was the case of the remains then called “pre-Columbian”, “Mexican” or “Peruvian”, the vestiges of a civilization whose richness was discovered in the 19th century, and that, viewed from Europe, was located in a rather imprecise space and in time. It is not surprising to find such objects in James Miln’s collection.

As this pebble, the first handwritten inventories and printed catalogues indicate, the Carnac Museum was not always as specialized as it is today. Like all museums, it is not a rigid institution and like many of them, it has gradually become specialized, leading to the relegation to its storage rooms, or the outright disappearance, of pieces that belonged to its collections. Alongside the local archaeological pieces and a few ethnographic and “pre-Columbian” objects of the Miln collection, the James Miln Museum displayed collections of natural history and objects related to the local economic activities, notably oyster farming which was developed and modernized in the last decades of the 19th century. The museum’s archives reveal that a lot of energy and funds were devoted to building up a collection of stuffed birds that has now disappeared. These disappearances are not rare, contrary to what one might think. Some collections, such as those of ornithology or entomology, are fragile and when they ceased to be of interest to the museum, they could eventually deteriorate and disappear. The pieces that survived, like this pebble, remind us of this.

The label pasted on the polished pebble tells yet another story, that of the trade in archaeological remains in the 19th century. In the field of archaeology, the worlds of excavators and collectors did not completely overlap. Many collectors did not discover the objects that formed their collections but obtained them through exchanges, gifts or purchases. Auctions of archaeological objects, including prehistoric ones, played an important role in this period. Collectors could also buy from specialized dealers. For “Mexican” antiques, the dealer Eugène Boban (1834-1908) played an important role. After living, collecting and selling archaeological objects in Mexico, Boban opened a Parisian store around 1870 and became one of the leading experts and suppliers of Pre-Columbian objects in the Parisian marketplace. He donated and sold collections to museums and renowned collectors. The objects he sold may be authentic or facsimiles, but some had a provenance that was difficult to establish. Boban’s name is associated with a famous case of forgery, when he sold allegedly Aztec crystal skulls in the 1880s. His name and the address of his store are still visible on the label of the pebble, showing that Miln was one of Boban’s many clients and that he was integrated, as a collector, in the networks dominated by expert dealers.

Thus a simple polished pebble, forgotten in a crate in the basement of a museum, tells us multiple stories of science, collecting and trade. It connects a Breton village of the end of the 19th century to networks of circulation of people and objects on a global scale. In small museums and in their storages, many objects similar to this pebble exist.

Bust of the Neanderthal Man

By Marina Laura Sardi, Universidad Nacional de La Plata

[read in Spanish]

This bust is inspired by the fossil recovered in 1856 in the Feldhofer cave, in the Neander Valley (Germany). It is one of the first Neanderthal specimens which informed the representation of the Cave Man in the imaginary of the 19th century. This fossil – vault fragments, with a great development of the supraorbital torus, and fragments of postcranial bones – intervened in the first controversy around human evolution in which transformist intellectuals disputed against those who adopted creationist and catastrophist perspectives. The former interpreted in this specimen a race antecedent to a period of the Germans and Celts; the second, a modern individual who suffered from some physical or mental disease that deformed his skull.

According to Brian Regal (2004), the images about life in prehistory had an immediacy and a power that rocks and fossils could not. Thus, museums included visual representations -scientific or supposedly scientific- about evolution, such as sculptures, drawings, paintings, and dioramas, sometimes derived from scientific spaces, or from spaces more linked to popular culture. They were destined to satisfy the interest of an audience curious to know phenomena distanced in time and space. Judith Berman (1999) suggests that an iconographic history was built around the Cave Man where characteristics such as the long and wild hair and the hairy body were visual signifiers that constituted our ancestors as “Not Us” or “Not Quite Us”, and those signifiers were associated with connotations of primitivism, animal behaviour, amorality, perversion, and madness; qualities also attributed to the natural world. The individual represented in the bust, in addition to the hirsute body, has a frown, red eyes, and shows his teeth, signs associated with aggressiveness and anger.

This sculpture (height of 54.6 cm) is housed at the División Antropología of the La Plata Museum (Argentina) and was exhibited for decades together with other plaster casts representing the Fossil Man. It was sold at the end of nineteenth century by the Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, in Rochester (United States) with a price of 7 (white) to 8 (bronzed) dollars. The Catalogue promotional text stated: “This bust is an ideal restoration, based upon the famous “Neanderthal skull,” found in 1857 in the Neanderthal, near Düsseldorf, Rhenish Prussia. Prof. Huxley says of the skull: “First, that its extraordinary form is due to a natural conformation hitherto not known to exist, even in the most barbarous races. Secondly, that it belongs to a period antecedent to the time of the Celts in Germany, and was in all probability derived from one of the wild races of north-western Europe. Thirdly, that it is beyond doubt traceable to a period at which the diluvium still existed.” As an effort to represent a Primitive Man, this bust is of interest to Archaeologists, and finds a very appropriate place over a case or cabinet of archaeological relics.” (p. 77).


Berman, Judith C. 1999. Bad Hair Days in the Paleolithic: Modern (Re)Constructions of the Cave Man. American Anthropologist. 101(2): 288-304.

Regal, Brian. 2004. Human evolution. A guide to the Debates. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc.

Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, inc. 1893. Catalogue of human skeletons, human and comparative anatomical models, botanical models, busts and masks. 6th ed. Rochester, N.Y.: Ward’s Natural Science Establishment.

Busto del Hombre de Neandertal

Por Marina Laura Sardi, Universidad Nacional de La Plata

[leer en inglés]

Este busto está inspirado en el fósil hallado en 1856 en la cueva Feldhofer, en el valle del Neander (Alemania). Es uno de los primeros ejemplares de Neandertal y comenzó a representar en el imaginario del siglo XIX al Hombre de las Cavernas. Este fósil – fragmentos de calota, con un gran desarrollo del torus supraorbitario, y fragmentos de huesos postcraneales- intervino en la primera controversia en torno de la evolución humana en la que intelectuales transformistas confrontaron a quienes adherían al creacionismo y al catastrofismo. Los primeros interpretaban en este espécimen una raza anterior a la de los germanos y celtas; los segundos, un individuo moderno que sufría alguna enfermedad física o mental que había dejado marcas en su cráneo.

Según Brian Regal (2004), las imágenes acerca de la vida en la prehistoria tuvieron una inmediatez y un poder que las rocas y los fósiles no lograron. Por eso, los museos incorporaron representaciones visuales -científicas o pretendidamente científicas- sobre la evolución, como  esculturas, dibujos, pinturas y dioramas, surgidos a veces en los propios espacios del saber, o en espacios más vinculados a la cultura popular. Estaban destinados a satisfacer el interés de un público curioso por conocer aquello que estaba distante en el tiempo y en el espacio. Judith Berman (1999) sugiere que en torno del Hombre de las Cavernas se construyó una historia iconográfica en donde características como el cabello largo y salvaje y el cuerpo peludo fueron un significante visual que constituyeron a nuestros ancestros como “No nosotros” o “No del todo nosotros” y a dicho significante se le asociaron connotaciones de primitivismo, comportamiento animal, amoralidad, perversión y locura; cualidades atribuidas también al mundo natural. El individuo representado en el busto, además del cuerpo hirsuto, tiene el ceño fruncido, ojos enrojecidos y muestra sus dientes, señales asociadas a la agresividad y enojo.

Esta escultura (54,6 cm de altura) se encuentra conservada en la División Antropología del Museo de La Plata (Argentina) y estuvo durante décadas exhibida junto a otros moldes de yeso en representación del Hombre Fósil. Era vendida a fines del siglo XIX por el Ward’s Natural Science Establishment de Rochester (Estados Unidos) con un precio de 7 (blanca) a 8 (bronceada) dólares. El texto de promoción en el Catálogo de venta indicaba: “Este busto es una restauración ideal, basada en el famoso ‘cráneo Neanderthal’, hallado en 1857 en Neanderthal, cerca de Dusseldorf, Rhenish Prussia. El Prof. Huxley dice del cráneo: “Primero, que su extraordinaria forma es debida a una conformación natural que hasta ahora no se sabía que existía, aún en las más bárbaras razas. Segundo, que pertenece a un período antecedente al tiempo de los celtas en Alemania y fue con toda probabilidad derivado de una raza salvaje del noroeste de Europa. Tercero, que es sin duda fácil de ubicar en un período en que el diluvio todavía existía.” En un esfuerzo por representar al Hombre primitivo, este busto es de interés para los arqueólogos, y encuentra un lugar apropiado en una caja o gabinete de reliquias arqueológicas.” (p. 77).


Berman, Judith C. 1999. Bad Hair Days in the Paleolithic: Modern (Re)Constructions of the Cave Man. American Anthropologist. 101(2): 288-304.

Regal, Brian. 2004. Human evolution. A guide to the Debates. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc.

Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, inc. 1893. Catalogue of human skeletons, human and comparative anatomical models, botanical models, busts and masks. 6th ed. Rochester, N.Y.: Ward’s Natural Science Establishment.

Collecting for Seed Testing

By Anaïs Got, University of Angers

In agriculture it all starts with a seed. In 1869 the German agronomist Friedrich Nobbe founded and theorised a new agronomic speciality called “Seed Testing”. From the end of the 19th century, it spread as a set of practices and knowledge built and mobilised by scientists, also called agro-botanists, who identified seeds as fundamental elements on which States should intervene in order to improve national agriculture. To this end, they developed a set of methods and techniques essentially based on the scientific examination of characteristics and faculties of seeds. From then on, seed agro-botanists asserted themselves both as agronomists, i.e. with a resolutely agricultural perspective and purpose, and also traditionally as botanists of a botany intended to be applied to the seeds of cultivated species as plant reproductive organs.

Seed testing stations had their own seed collections, as here in the French station around 1910 (Archives of the French National Seed Testing Station, 2 ARCH 390, glass plate, 18×13cm, by. 1910)

Agro-botanists operated in laboratories called seed testing stations where they undertook to answer technically and scientifically all the questions that agricultural and industrial seed application raised. To this end, they carried out both technical analyses and examinations of seed samples sent to them by the seed industry, as well as a variety of scientific research on seeds.

From the beginning, the practice of collection has therefore been fundamental and recurrent in Seed Testing. If analytical activities generated punctual collections of samples, they also made it possible to collect a variety of agricultural seeds preserved by the seed testing stations in order to be used as a guide and reference for subsequent manipulations. The experimental work also allowed seed collections to be made. Finally, from a transnational perspective, it appears that the agro-botanists of different seed testing stations, who have been very connected to each other since the end of the 19th century, frequently exchanged seeds in order to participate in comparative campaigns or to feed their respective collections.

Inventories kept track of seed samples kept in seed testing stations. This extract lists the varieties of wheat and their origins (Archives of the French National Seed Testing Station, 1 ARCH 18, manuscript notebook, 1902-1907)

In short, Seed Testing Stations started to collect seeds as the basic material, in turn support and referent, of their scientific and technical activities. In addition, collecting was at the heart of scientific process aimed at identifying and referencing the normal and the abnormal in order to understand and rationalise knowledge. Thus, new samples were listed, identified, analysed and then preserved in a scientific approach. During the 20the century, photography renewed traditional seed collection practices for obvious practical reasons: collections of Seed Testing Stations became then more iconographic.

The armadillo from the Maulny collection at the Musée vert

N° MHNLM 2003,28,200

by Nathalie Richard and Nicolas Morel

From its scientific name Tolypeutes matacus, the three-banded armadillo lives in central South America. Generally, this small mammal lives alone in dry habitats. Its carapace formed of plates protects it from predators. Unlike other armadillos, tolypeutes have the ability to curl up entirely on themselves in the presence of danger. This nocturnal animal is an insectivore but its diet can vary according to the seasons. Its excellent sense of smell and its sharp claws allow it to collect its food. Unfortunately, this species is considered threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature because of the destruction of its habitat and hunting. Its reproduction is also slow with only one young per litter.

This dried specimen is native to Brazil. On its carapace, the inscription “Armadillo” is visible. It comes from the curiosity cabinet of Louis Maulny (1758–1815), a collector and naturalist from Le Mans who probably bought it in a natural history shop.

The collections of naturalias kept in the Musée Vert are the result of more than 200 years of acquisitions since the opening of the first museum in Le Mans in 1799. With more than 450,000 objects, they correspond to a wide variety of objects related to nature and the environment: naturalized animals, insects, shells, herbaria, fossils, minerals, rocks… Unique specimens from 18th-century natural history cabinets, including two other armadillos, are among its most valuable collections. This armadillo is just one example of specimens that travelled to European collections and then passed from one collection to another. Another specimen with a similar history, a nine-banded armadillo, is kept in the Museum of Natural Sciences in Barcelona and was part of the Salvador Cabinet.

Le tatou de la collection Maulny au Musée vert

N° MHNLM 2003,28,200

par Nathalie Richard, L’Université du Mans, et Nicolas Morel, Musées du Mans

De son nom scientifique Tolypeutes matacus, le tatou à trois bandes habite le centre de l’Amérique du Sud. Généralement, ce petit mammifère vit seul dans des habitats secs. Sa carapace formée de plaques le protège des prédateurs. Contrairement aux autres tatous, les tolypeutes ont la capacité de s’enrouler entièrement sur eux-mêmes en présence d’un danger. Cet animal nocturne est un insectivore mais son régime alimentaire peut varier en fonction des saisons. Son excellent odorat et ses griffes acérées lui permettent de collecter sa nourriture. Malheureusement, cette espèce est considérée comme menacée par l’Union internationale pour la conservation de la nature du fait de la destruction de son habitat et de la chasse. Sa reproduction est également lente avec un seul petit par portée.

Ce spécimen desséché est originaire du Brésil. Sur sa carapace, l’inscription « Tatou » est visible. Il provient du cabinet de curiosité Louis Maulny (1758-1815), collectionneur et naturaliste manceau qui l’a probablement acheté dans un commerce d’histoire naturelle.

Les collections de naturalias conservées au musée Vert sont issues de plus de 200 ans d’acquisitions depuis l’ouverture du premier musée au Mans en 1799. Fortes aujourd’hui de plus de 450.000 objets, elles correspondent à des ensembles très variés liés à la nature et à l’environnement : animaux naturalisés, insectes, coquillages, herbiers, fossiles, minéraux, roches… Des spécimens uniques issus de cabinets d’histoire naturelle du XVIIIe siècle, notamment deux autres tatous, font partie de ses collections les plus précieuses.

Ce tatou est un exemple parmi d’autres des spécimens qui ont voyagé jusqu’à des collections européennes et qui sont ensuite passés d’une collection à une autre. Un autre spécimen avec une histoire comparable, un tatou à neuf bandes, est conservé au Musée des sciences naturelles de Barcelone et faisait partie du Cabinet Salvador.