The stinky slinker at the heart of the matter…

Coprolite (fossilised hyaena poo!) excavated from the Hyaena Den at Wookey Hole by William Boyd Dawkins

Working with museum collections, it’s nigh on impossible to develop an interest in objects and specimens themselves without also becoming fascinated with why they came to be where they are and the people that played (and continue to play) a central role in collecting them. Basic museum practice aside, the ‘why’ seems to vary a bit from culture to culture, being influenced by the unique values each holds. In Wales, the etymology of ‘amgueddfa’ (the Welsh language word for museum) is ‘place of beloved things’, implying a distinct nuance derived from its own unique social and cultural philosophy. Broadly speaking though, at the heart of it all is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.

But some objects – many – reach deeper within than that. As I’ve already said in these pages, in the Wells and Mendip Museum I am, in intuitive and emotional terms, drawn to its fabulous collection of Pleistocene animal bone. These reach out to me on a visceral level, speaking to all that fascinates me as an artist and maker; narrative surface texture, muted earth colour, a quietly powerful sense of time – of being somewhere within a transitory phase between zoology and geology. The impact of all this is very difficult to articulate verbally – which is why my output is predominantly expressed in visions, sound, the tactile and movement. This all happens in its own chamber – a cavern perhaps (or similar dark place within).

But, moving past this persistent and powerful ‘calling’ – the numinous glow that is the principal creative driver – with a just a small amount by of contextual research, one very quickly comes to learn just how important and relevant the ossuary of the Balch Room is. For here lies not just a box of bones – but an extraordinarily important chronicle; of the means by which we form Truth, assign resonance and make sense of the universe. Grandiose though that may sound, it’s really only a very slight rhetorical overstatement – and on delving further into this story, it transpires that both Somerset and Devon are central locations within it.

Sir William’s notes on hyaena dentition….

Just two centuries ago it was thought that the strange bones that were being unearthed in caves across England, Wales and elsewhere had been deposited by Noah’s flood. Extinction was not an acknowledged component of the mechanism of nature – for God, surely, could not abandon any part of his Creation. Society was essentially inhabiting a mythologically defined universe – as had been the way for millennia. The worryingly inexplicable, unpredictable or unexpected was accounted for, compartmentalised (and therefore made safe) through ritual; story, song, image and dance. The story of the Deluge transcends cultures – and in Christianity is an integral part of the Old Testament; The Word. All cultures have a creation myth.

But in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, all this began to change rapidly with the rise of scientific investigation and the acceleration of global exploration and communication (though that’s not to say that Europe can lay claim to having ‘invented’ science… the Arabs and Chinese, to name just a couple, got there first)

The excavation of ‘bone caves’ at Brixham and Wookey Hole proved that, rather than there having been a relatively recent Creation (and a purging Flood), humanity had for much longer shared the land with extraordinary beasts – and in variable climatic conditions very different to those we experience today. A good deal (but not all!) of this research was undertaken in a very thorough and deeply analytical way and connected to findings in a far wider field – in scientific fashion

And so, through the evolution of geology as a field of study, the concept of climate change – which, it strikes me, our twenty first century media seems to present as a contemporary concept – was born; a constantly evolving field, always responding to new findings (some fundamental laws apart, science does not pretend to present rigid, incontrovertible ‘truth’ but is plastic. Society, however, places it on a pedestal as the miraculous cure-all and vessel of truth, so that cynics, nay-sayers – and those whom its interpretation of the way of things does not suit – can shout disparagingly and sneeringly when new discoveries necessitate revision).

The people that made this study their lives changed the way we see the world and all that has – and continues to – inhabit it. And this globally significant research, that created the collections held here at Wells and Mendip Museum, continues today – still drawing on the finds from the Hyaena Den and Badger Hole at Wookey Hole, Milton Hill Fissure and more, all of which are on display.


H.E. Balch’s notes from his excavation of the Badger Hole – more hyaenas….

So, to behold, say, the femur of a steppe bison is not only to marvel at its sculptural form, surface colour and texture. But also to wonder what the beast meant to the hunters of long ago; why they chose to invest valuable energy and resources in depicting it in two and three dimensional form and what landscape it inhabited. And also to reflect on the fact that, as science has shown, since it ceased to be part of a living being, ice ages have come and gone – and that we live not in a static universe but one in a state of constant flux.

Also – and not least – that these two ways of finding truth and meaning – myth and science – are bound by one natural phenomenon; fear of flooding. Which itself seems to have moved from being a mythical notion to a pressing reality, predicted by science…

And, perhaps rather unexpectedly, at the heart of all this, panting gently, sits a hyaena.

Paper cut-outs for a collagraph plate – hyaena puppet
Cut out, partially assembled collagraph hyaena
SHarrisWMMpostcard image
Still from a composited 24 frame flipbook test