Monthly Archives: May 2022

Fossil collections from Pleistocene South America in the MNHN

By Richard Fariña, Sebastián Tambusso and Luciano Varela, UdelaR

Formed in the highly prestigious school of medicine in Paris, Teodoro Vilardebó must have experienced great concern when the cruel symptoms of the yellow fever he was all too familiar with when treating his patients were observed in himself. What must have been his worst fears were sadly confirmed: Vilardebó died in March of 1857, leaving a tremendous legacy as a physician, politician, compiler of words in native languages and, among other aspects of his ingenuity, as a palaeontologist and fossil merchant.

Precisely, this latter activity turns out of our interest, since he happened to have been involved in selling to the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris a fine collection of South American (mostly Argentinian) fossils of the impressive Pleistocene megafauna, an assemblage of giant mammals that includes glyptodonts, ground sloths, sabretoothed felids and many other very large species.

Another person of importance was François Séguin, referred in some documents as a confectioner in Buenos Aires, but an adventurous collector (and, most importantly, fossil vendor as well) that deserves more attention than traditionally assigned.

Both collectors had their fossils sold to the MNHN and many important specimens are highlighted here as examples of the treasures of the past that, having been found in the then new republics of the Plata along the 19th century, moved to one of the centres of intellectual endeavours in Europe. Among many other examples, we analysed the following material in our visit of April 2022 to that venerable institution, cradle of the vertebrate palaeontology and comparative anatomy. As can be seen in the photos, the fossils are diversely labelled and conserved, the hallmark of the changes in techniques and criteria over the past decades, even centuries.

Fig. 1. A fossil bone showing different labels used during different times, as well as different techniques used for preparation. In particular, a layer of varnish is clearly seen, making the surface of the bone extremely shiny.

A nearly complete skeleton of the ground sloth Glossotherium (actually, the type species of today’s synonymised genus Pleurolestodon) from the Vilardebó’s collection was carefully photographed with the aim of digitally reconstructing it. The technique used, called photogrammetry, consists in taking pictures of an object from many different angles to make a digital 3D model that can also be physically printed or reproduced otherwise.

Fig. 2. Digital 3D reconstruction of the forelimb of the specimen of Glossotherium robustum from the Viladebó collection.

Other materials from Uruguay are found in the collections of the MNHN (but not necessarily collected by the people mentioned above), a cast of glyptodont osteoderms was donated by the great Argentinian palaeontologist Florentino Ameghino, revealing the tight network of fossil travelling of the time.

Fig. 3. Gypsum replica of a fragment of the armour of a species of Panochthus (P. morenoi, no longer valid) erected by Ameghino.

Also of interest, especially for those that study fossils, some fragments of the caudal sheath of Panochthus nodotianus, a no longer valid species created by Ameghino in 1889, were observed. Surprisingly enough one of the pieces seems not to belong with the two others, according to their preservational characteristics, a subject we might want to further study in the future.

Fig. 4. Labels of the type material of Panochthus nodotianus, a no longer valid species.

Other fragments, possibly collected by Vilardebó in Uruguay, of the impressive armour of a glyptodont show a curious story: kept under the code PAM 216 to 218, they are referred to as the type of Boreostracon and corrected as Hoplophorus. However, the figures in the publication that describes those remains show a rather different material.

Fig. 5. Glyptodonts scutes of South American Pleistocene glyptodonts and excerpts from the publication that described it glued on an annotated common paper long time ago.

Further curiosities are the skull of a juvenile ground sloth Scelidotherium, originally lacking the skull roof and the snout, reconstructed as that of an armadillo. Despite the donations and purchases of cast is nowadays as frequent as in those times, there are several specimens labelled as from “Museo de La Plata” but with no indication of them having been donated or sold.

Fig. 6. Humerus assigned to Glossotherium robustum (PAM 120) labelled as “Museo de La Plata” Number 38.

Finally, the type of the giant sloth Lestodon armatus, from the Vilardebó collection, is mentioned by the French palaeontologist Paul Gervais in the publication that created it in 1855 as having only one mandibular ramus, but the specimen has the two rami artificially glued together. It can be speculated that the second ramus was found after the material was published in some of the boxes of the Vilardebó collection and it was noted to belong to the same individual. Further research in the yet undigitised archives might shed light on this subject.

Fig. 7. Mandible of the sloth Lestodon armatus representing the type material of the species and the drawing of the original description of the material showing only half of the mandible.

In another publication from 1873, more material from Séguin’s collection was added to the description of Lestodon armatus. Found together with them, there is a hip fragment that, due to their size, might belong actually to a smaller ground sloth, perhaps Glossotherium robustum. The hip was mounted on display along with the complete leg for a century and all these elements were taken down a couple of years ago.

Fig. 8. Hindfoot of Lestodon armatus mounted on display for several years in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

Further reading:

  • Podgorny I. 2001. El camino de los fósiles: las colecciones de mamíferos pampeanos en los museos franceses e ingleses del siglo XIX. Asclepio 53: 97-116.
  • Podgorny I. 2011. Mercaderes del pasado: Teodoro Vilardebó, Pedro de Angelis y el comercio de huesos y documentos en el Río de la Plata, 1830-1850. Circumscribere9: 29-77.

From Le Mans into the World Wide Web: The Advantages of Digital Techniques for Curating, Networking and Exhibition-Making

By Simon Hirzel, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

As a young scientist from Bonn, who is affiliated with the ethnological and archaeological Museum of the Bonn Collection of the Americas (BASA Museum) and who has just started his PhD project there, I was allowed to travel to Le Mans for a month and exchange ideas about digital curating with local and regional museums as part of a sub-project of SciCoMove. The goal of this sub-project is to create a concept that will be used to develop a joint digital exhibition of all museums and collections involved in this sub-project. The Bonn team, led by Karoline Noack and Daniel Grana-Behrens, has taken on the coordination of this project.

First of all, I was able to get an impression of the collections and thematic focus of the museums of the city of Le Mans by visiting the different exhibitions and a partial inspection of the depots. Subsequently, I had the opportunity to exchange views with the SciCoMove coordinator of the museums of Le Mans, Nicolas Morel from the Musée Vert (zoological and mineralogical museum), about the collections, individual objects and about the connecting themes between our different disciplines.

Until now, the city of Le Mans was only known to me from the field of motor sports, after all, the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans are held here. This event has been portrayed in movies several times, for example in the movie “Le Mans” (1971) with Steve McQueen. However, the city is also known for its medieval inner city district Cité Plantagenêt, whose building facades are largely still preserved in the style of the 15th century. This part of the city also serves as a location for movies of national and international renown, such as “Cyrano de Bergerac” (1990) or “The Man in the Iron Mask” (1998). The Cité Plantagenêt, which at first sight resembles an open-air museum, is surrounded by a city wall from the Gallo-Roman era, which has been largely preserved. This period is characteristic for the entire region and one of the focal points of the archaeological-historical Museé Jean-Claude Boulard on the edge of the Cité Plantagenêt.

The collection of this museum, like that of the Hôtel Cabu – Musée d’Histoire et d’Archéologie in Orléans, houses numerous objects from the ‘cultural clash’ between Romans and Gauls. The Roman god Mercurius seems to have been particularly venerated in this area due to the large number of representations of him as a bronze figure. It is interesting to note that some of these figures were not made in the Roman style, but in the Gallic style. Certainly one of the most outstanding objects of this kind is the bronze figure of a wild boar in life size, which can be visited in the Hôtel Cabu. I was also impressed by a large bronze cauldron for heating over fire and by a Gallic drinking horn made of glass, both objects in the permanent exhibition of the Musée Boulard.

Based on other objects from the Musées de la Ville du Mans, I have been able to identify some revealing cross-connections both between participating institutions and between the different disciplines represented. Among others, by means of staurolites of the Musée Vert, natural mineral formations in the shape of crosses, originating from Coray, Finistère in the west of France. In the past, these stone crosses were interpreted by devotees of the church as a sign of God, thus attributing a religious-cultural meaning to these mineralogical objects.

To my surprise, I found institutional connections between the Musée de Tessé (Museum of Fine Arts) and the colleagues from the Egyptological Museum in Turin, whose director Christian Greco had given the opening speech of the second SciCoMove workshop. In the basement of the Musée de Tessé, as part of the permanent exhibition, there is a replica of Nefertari’s burial chamber. Her husband Ramses II had it built around 1250 BC. The original tomb is located in Thebes and was discovered in 1904 by the Turin Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli.

Further cross-connections between museums of different affiliations and disciplinary orientations can be drawn through well-functioning databases. Nicolas Morel was so kind to introduce me to some of the basics of digital curating in France, which surprised me positively based on my previous experiences as a museum employee in Germany. In addition to the museum’s own databases for documenting and inventorying objects, I was amazed at the digital infrastructure that exists and is being used in France. In particular, the “pop” database created by the French government for the area of cultural patrimony is fascinating ( This database contains all objects from art and culture that are in the collections of French public museums as well as state-recognized private museums.

Using the search function, Nicolas Morel gave me a basic illustration of the structure and function of the database. After he typed the word “Bonn” into the search mask, a multitude of objects appeared on the screen that historically depict my hometown of Bonn. From photographs taken at the turn of the 20th century to porcelain plates, engravings, lithographs, and technical drawings of the main building of my university, there was much to see. Two photographs of a hussar regiment on horseback, taken in 1898 that are contemporary historical documents of Franco-German relations, caught my attention in particular. In no other context have I ever seen so many pictorial representations of my city before the destruction and changes caused by the two world wars or even from the interwar period.

These and other databases are used extensively by French museums to plan exhibitions and request objects on loan. This promotes networking between museums and holds enormous potential for mutual knowledge gain and for the creation of joint exhibition and research projects. On an international level, our SciCoMove project therefore also holds this potential, especially the sub-project on digital exhibition.

However, the French museums that I visited in the region and with whose staff I had the opportunity to exchange ideas are using the digital and virtual possibilities not only for the management of databases and the search for exhibition objects, but also for the analog exhibition design. Storytelling has gained in importance; visitors should and can no longer read information exclusively from the accompanying texts attached to sterile display cases. Knowledge about the objects and their contexts can also be conveyed by means of graphic novels, comics, podcasts, introductory videos, music and animations. New and further target groups are reached, knowledge is spread, polyphony in storytelling is allowed.

In short: Museums are being democratized to a certain extent.

Five SciCoMove researchers at a workshop in Bologna (May 12-13 2022)

José Pardo-Tomás, Irina Podgorny, Serge Reubi, Nathalie Richard, and Aina Trias Verbeek participated in the workshop “Paraobjects: Natural History Collections through the Margins”, organized by Francesca Antonelli and José Beltrán, at Bologna University.

Irina Podgorny presented the case of assembled fossil bones from Argentina discovered in Copenhagen Museum of Natural history; Serge Reubi presented his research on labels at the Neuchâtel Museum of Ethnography; Nathalie Richard presented a paper on the “paraobjects” kept in smaller collections of prehistoric artefacts in provincial France.

Giovanni Capellini Museum of Geology, Bologna University

On May 13, a visit at the Giovanni Capellini Museum of Geology provided the opportunity to present our project to the new curator.

Taburete de elefante se decomisa

Por Irina Podgorny y Susana V. García, Archivo Histórico del Museo de La Plata, Argentina

Visita a las colecciones Zoológicas de la Universidad de las Islas Baleares en Mallorca, donde se destacan los objetos decomisados por la Guardia Civil y allí depositados en guarda provisoria hasta la finalización del juicio por la tenencia de partes de animales protegidos por las leyes europeas.

Museo Nacional de la Cerámica de Sèvres, primer piso, obras de artistas contemporáneos.

Museo de la caza y la naturaleza, París.

Una vitrina en el Aeropuerto internacional de Turín conteniendo una serie de objetos de origen natural cuya importación y transporte se hallan prohibidos por las leyes italianas están sujetos al decomiso e incautación por parte de los carabinieri. Entre ellos, los huevos de tortuga, las caparazones de especies en peligro y el marfil, tallado o en estado “natural”.

Cuatro lugares diferentes, desconectados entre sí por la geografía, la función y la lengua.

El primero, visitado en el transcurso de la misión de Susana García en Barcelona, febrero y marzo de 2022. Los últimos, por Irina Podgorny en el marco de su estadía en el Museo Nacional de Historia Natural de París y su participación enTaller sobre la colección de cráneos en el Museo Lombroso de la Universidad de Turín.

Diferentes pero unidos por la presencia de un objeto más que particular: los taburetes o paragüeros hechos con patas de elefante, una tipología que habla de épocas no muy lejanas y de un comercio subsidiario a la explotación del marfil y la caza mayor en África.

Un objeto surgido en el siglo XIX pero que, a pesar de todas las prohibiciones, se sigue comercializando y produciendo y se ofrece a la venta como pie de una mesa ratona de vidrio, de unos 40 cm de altura, provista de  un sistema  de iluminación eléctrica.

O  transformados en puf, con un almohadón rebatible. O solos, con fecha de manufactura que data de hace 100 años de manera de cumplir con las condiciones del Reglamento CE 338-97 de 9 de diciembre de 1996 art. 2 sobre la venta y circulación de animales vivos o muertos que integraran la lista de especies en peligro. Se trata de un caso que entra en la categoría  de

            « spécimens travaillés acquis plus de cinquante ans auparavant » : les spécimens dont l’état brut naturel a été largement modifié pour en faire des bijoux, des objets décoratifs, artistiques ou utilitaires, ou des instruments de musique, plus de cinquante ans avant l’entrée en vigueur du présent règlement et dont l’organe de gestion de l’État membre concerné a pu s’assurer qu’ils ont été acquis dans de telles conditions. De tels spécimens ne sont considérés comme spécimens travaillés que s’ils appartiennent clairement à l’une des catégories susmentionnées et peuvent être utilisés sans être sculptés, ouvragés ou transformés davantage ».

En este caso, una base para un mueble o un adorno dude unos 40 cm hecho con la pata de Loxodonta africana, el elefante de ese continente.

Los paragüeros, por su parte, rondan los 49 cm, poseen un círculo en metal (cobre, la mayoría de las veces) que rodea la abertura y su interior se encuentra forrado en latón para que no se arruine con el agua de lluvia. La pata del elefante asiático  (Elephas maximus) no está ausente de los catálogos y se ofrece, como los otros, a un precio relativamente bajo: alrededor de 200 euros. Las casas de remate los fechan en el siglo XIX y en los inicios del siglo XX: su historia, sin embargo, resta por hacerse a sabiendas que forma parte de esa industria ornamental que apelaba a las partes de animales como elemento decorativo o estructural.

Entre otras, eran producidos por la empresa del taxidermista británico Rowland Ward (1848–1912), dedicada también a las guías y trofeos de caza deportiva. Miembro de una familia de taxidermista y comerciantes de historia natural, su negocio estaba situado en el centro de Londres y alimentó la moda de los tinteros de pezuña de cebra, los ceniceros de tortugas, los muebles de asta y los paragüeros, apoya pies y tabaqueras de pie de elefante. En 1883 patentó una serie de diseños de lámparas, porta velas, tabaqueras y taburetes hechos con las pezuñas de los animales trofeo de la caza deportiva, advirtiendo sobre la mala calidad y el mal gusto de las imitaciones baratas de los competidores. 

Las patas de elefante hoy han pasado también al arte contemporáneo, una obra humana, tanto como las otras, pero que, en este caso, recurre al barro, a los pies y a las manos de Hervé Rousseau (1955-), un ceramista y escultor francés que desde 1981 trabaja en su taller en Boisbelle, commune d’Henrichemont (Cher), cerca del centro ceramista de La Borne. A partir de 1997, Rousseau comenzó a esculpir sus primeros “bloques” utilizando el torno y escarificados con las huellas del pulgar, la palma y el pie sobre la tierra “salvaje”, es decir ni lavada ni filtrada donde hunde su puño, su brazo y sus pies. En Sèvres, el museo ha adquirido dos patas de elefante realizadas en 2003. Se trata de dos jarrones de gres con restos de fuego y ceniza, dos formas troncocónicas estrechadas en la parte superior, fondo redondo y plano, tres bandas horizontales en la parte inferior, otra en la superior, dentada; en medio, barras inclinadas y verticales que, como las disecadas, tienen alrededor de 40 cm de altura.

El futuro de las patas de elefante disecadas parece dudoso, no solo por la ley sino porque la sensibilidad contemporánea los rechaza con disgusto y culpa. En África, un continente donde reina la controversia entre la prohibición y la matanza regulada de las poblaciones de elefantes, las cosas no están tan claras: en mayo de 2019,  los mandatarios de Namibia, Zambia y Zimbabue se reunieron en Botsuana y allí, su anfitrión, el presidente Mokgweetsi Masisi, les obsequió con un taburete a cada uno, una provocación a sus pares europeos y una celebración de cómo, un objeto creado por el comercio colonial, puede transformarse en el símbolo de la resistencia a adoptar los criterios elaborados en otras geografías.

How two amateur botanists from peripheries assembled important herbaria from different parts of Europe

By Neus Ibáñez, Museu Ciencies Naturals Barcelona (Institut Botanic de Barcelona)

Eugene Louis Honoré Monguillon (1865-1940) (Figure 1) was a French teacher and botanist who worked at various public schools in the department of Sarthe. After 1923, he retired at Le Mans (France). He published the “Catalogue descriptive des lichens du department de la Sarthe” (Le Mans, 1901), among other important publications. He described new species and varieties of mosses and lichens (i.e. Sticta plumbea Mong. and Bacidia arceutina var. punctiformis Mong.) (Figure 2) as a part of making 14 recombination of the names of lichens.

Figure 1. Portrait extracted from the article “Galerie des Naturalistes Sarthois” Bulletin de la Société d’agriculture, sciencies et arts de la Sarthe, LVII, 1939-1940. p. 222. © Archives of department de la Sarthe.
Figure 2. Type specimen of Bacidia arceutina var. punctiformis Mong. LMS-2015.0.1.758 © Le musée Vert

His herbarium (Figure 3) is conserved in Le musée Vert in Le Mans. It includes 17,150 specimens of mosses and lichens with several dozens of types with all data computerized. The collection conserved specimens dated from 1811 to 1939 and collected from France, Europe and the rest of the world.  This collection has been formed by exchanges with more than hundred French and European botanists, and it represents an interesting network of circulations in the “provinces”. E. Monguillon made the donation of his herbarium to the Société d’Agriculture, Sciences et Arts de la Sarthe in 1928 and 1929, according to the catalogue conserved in Le musée Vert (Figure 4). The main collection is conserved in this museum, but there are other specimens of E. Monguillon conserved in P (Paris herbarium), COLO (Colorado University of Colorado Museum of Natural History), BR (Meise Botanic Garden), BC (Botanic Institute of Barcelona) and DBN (National Botanic Garden Irland), among others.

Figure 3. E. Monguillon herbarium. © Le musée Vert
Figure 4. Catalogue of E. Monguillon herbarium conserved in Le musée Vert © Le musée Vert

The other botanist studied in our research is Longí Navàs i Ferré (1858-1938) (figure 5). He was one of the most prominent entomologists of the first third of the twentieth century: a naturalist, botanist, priest and Jesuit teacher. He was a very active scientist and disseminator; he described more than 3,300 new taxa, between genera, species and varieties, almost 2,200 correspond to the order of neuropterans. He was professor at Colegio del Salvador in Zaragoza (Spain), where he was in charge of the museum of natural history of this school. He made different herbaria of lichens and in 1902 founded the Sociedad Aragonesa de Ciencias Naturales and organized the first congress of naturalists in Zaragoza (1908). The most of the specimens can be found in Colegio del Salvador in Zaragoza, and also in the Museum of Natural Sciences of Barcelona, British Museum in London, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, museums in Brussels, Tervuren (Belgium), Turin (Italy) and Tucumán (Argentina). He donated his herbarium, the same as E. Monguillon, to an academy of sciences, in this case, la Real Academia de Ciencias y Artes de Barcelona in 1896 (figure 6). Nowadays, these 135 specimens are conserved in Botanic Institute of Barcelona.

Figure 5. Portrait of Longí Navas. From © Academicos. Real Academia de Ciencias de Zaragoza
Figure 6. Catalogue of Longi Navas herbarium conserved in the archives of Botanic Institute of Barcelona. © Botanic Institute of Barcelona

About the specimens exchanged between these two botanists, we have studied 22 specimens collected by Longi Navas conserved in herbarium E. Monguillon from Saragossa, Madrid, Olot, Gipuzkoa, Castellon, La Rioja, Tenerife, La Palma and El Hierro (figure 7) and 4 specimens conserved in Botanic Institute of Barcelona (BC herbarium), all belonging to the exsiccata Colegio del Salvador-Zaragoza with exactly the same label that those conserved in Monguillon herbarium (figure 8).

Figure 7. Specimen of Cetraria islandica L. var. vulgaris Schaer. collected by Longi Navs and conserved in E. Monguillon herbarium. LMS_2015.0.1.2357. © Le musée Vert
Figure 8. LMS-2015.0.1.2390 specimen on the left  (© Le musée Vert) and BC-983792 specimen on the right (© Botanic Institue of Barcelona) with the same label. These specimens are Alectoria crinalis Ach collected in november of 1898 in Ortogisa (Logroño, Spain) by M. Vicente. Exsiccata of COLEGIO DEL SALVADOR – ZARAGOZA

We also have studied the specimens from Spain and/or collected by Spanish botanist conserved in E. Monguillon herbarium (100 specimens). Among these specimens we have found three types (a type sheet means that a new species was described on base of this specimen), that are currently being studied by our team for typification and publication in a scientific journal. The most interesting thing about these specimens are that from Olot (Catalonia) from volcanic zone, where new species were described in that time, and where the knowledge for volcanoes and by such phenomena increase in that century.

A part of these, E. Monguillon exchanged specimens with Ramon Bolos i Saderra (1852-1914), grandchild of Francesc Xavier Bolos i Germà (1773-1844), a naturalist who took an important part in the discovery of the Garrotxa volcanoes (an isolated region in Catalonia at that time), who published a description in Noticia de los extinguidos volcanes de la villa de Olot (first edition, 1820; second edition, enlarged, 1841). (Figure 9). After the study of this specimen, we have recognized the authorship thanks to the handwriting of the label.

Figure 9. The specimen collected by Ramon Bolos in Olot (Catalonia) and conserved in E. Monguillon herbarium (© Le musée Vert)

All these results show us that local herbaria made in provinces, by such amateur botanists like E. Monguillon or Longí Navas, two regional teachers, can become of great interest to the scientific community and to the history of science at the European level and explain how the exchanges took place at that time.