Archive for June, 2011

Over a half of the visitors of the Manchester Museum’s Entomology department are researchers. Many of them undertake interesting inter-disciplinary studies. For instance, Ms Kim Vickers, a Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield, works on the research project called “The shielings of Reykholt in Snorri Sturluson’s time“, looking at the environmental impact of medieval seasonal settlements in Iceland. This project is run from the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. Here is her brief report on how the museum beetle collections can help in revealing of the medieval climatic conditions.


Insect remains, including the Coleoptera (beetles), may be preserved in ancient deposits by charring, desiccation, mineral replacement, or in contexts that have remained consistently waterlogged. Since the 1960’s the insects found in archaeological deposits have been used as a tool in the investigation of past environmental and climatic conditions and to tell us about the activities and living conditions in the past on archaeological sites. 

 Many insect species require specific habitats and climatic ranges. The morphology and ecology of beetle species and communities appear to have remained constant since the early Quaternary so we can be confident that the habitat requirements of beetle species deposited in the past are directly comparable with those of the same species observed today. Using this information past local conditions can be investigated through the assessment of species and communities found in sub-fossil beetle assemblages.

 For example, if we find the saw toothed grain beetle (Oryzaephilus surinamensis) in archaeological deposits we can be confident that this is evidence that grain was present on the site. Furthermore, because this species has a strict temperature range in which it can breed, in parts of the world with cool climates, such as in Iceland, if this beetle is found it is usually interpreted as being evidence of imported grain rather than a locally cultivated crop.

Kim Vickers examining beetles from the Manchester Museum entomology collection.

 Identifying disarticulated sub-fossil beetle sclerites can be quite difficult, so it is important to use a reference collection of complete modern specimens, together with published keys when identifying insects from archaeological sites. The Manchester Museum has kindly allowed me to use their extensive Coleoptera collection in order to identify specimens from my sites. The work I have conducted there includes identifying beetles from around a British Bronze Age settlement (c. 2000BC), and from Norse sites inIceland(c. AD 1200). These have allowed me to draw conclusions about the function of sites and the activities taking place there as well as information about the surrounding ancient environments.

 Further reading:

Atkinson, T. C., Briffa, K. R. and Coope, G. R. 1987. Seasonal temperatures in Britainduring the past 22,000 years reconstructed using beetle remains. Nature, 325, 587-592.

 Buckland, P. C. 1990. Granaries stores and insects. The archaeology of insect synanthropy. In: Fournier, D. and Sigaut, F. (eds.) La Préparation Alimentaire des Céréales, Rapports Présentés à la Table Ronde, Ravello au Centre Universitaire pour les Biens Culturels, Avril 1988. PACT, Rixensart, Belgium, 69-81.

 Coope, G. R. 1986. Coleoptera analysis. In: Berglund, B. E. (ed.) Handbook of Holocene Palaeoecology and Palaeohydrology. J.Wiley and Sons,Chichester, 703-713.

 Kenward, H. K. 1978. The Analysis of Archaeological Insect Assemblages: a New Approach. Archaeology of York, 19/1. Council for British Archaeology for York Archaeological Trust.

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A taxonomic research is one of the activities undertaken by natural history curators, and it includes a need to illustrate studied specimens. Here is the insight into the viability of traditional illustrating of animal and plants by Ms Gina Allnatt, one of the Manchester Museum’s Biology Curatorial Trainees (funded by the HLF).


In the age of digital photography, many people question whether the need for scientific illustration is still relevant. They argue that the average camera is so powerful these days that hiring an illustrator seems pointless. Even the Royal College of Art seemed to agree with this, as they recently shut down their long running MA course in Natural History Illustration.

However, the tide is turning. People are beginning to realize that science illustration is useful and an important part of science. The Natural History Museum in London recently opened its new Images of Nature gallery to great acclaim.

So why is science illustration important? One of the most important reasons is that it is a visual record of a specimen or species. In some cases, the particular species illustrated may no longer exist, and an illustration will be the only record we have to reconstruct that species.

Similarly, museums and scientists sometimes rely on what are called iconotypes. An iconotype is type specimen that is represented by a painting or drawing instead of a physical specimen. This sometimes happens because a physical type has not been collected when it was described, or because it has been lost. An iconotype is also useful for keeping a record of specimen colours. Animals like fish and cephalopods have colours that fade very quickly after death. Further deterioration of colour happens if the specimen is placed in alcohol. The iconotype tells us what the specimen looked like in life. You can view a video about iconotypes here.

Fig. 1. A herbarium sheet (left) and an illustration of the sugarcane.

 Botanists also benefit from the use of illustration. Leopold Grindon collected newspaper cut outs and book plates to supplement his collection of cultivated specimens. When botanical specimens are pressed on a herbarium sheet, the colour often fades (Fig. 1).

Fig. 2. Photo of a Geotrupes (Dor Beetle) with drawing magnifying details.

Scientific illustration can also draw attention to a particular part of specimen’s anatomy. This is particularly useful if the specimen is tiny. Though digital cameras can take close up macro shots of specimens, they cannot display the level of detail an illustration can. Illustration can show us cross sections, hairs and other minute details (Fig. 2).  The specimen can also be scaled up via a drawing, which is extremely useful for publication (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Drawing of a Holotrichapion weevil along with what it would look like to the human eye to scale.

As well as being functional, illustrations can sometimes be more aesthetically pleasing than a photograph (Fig. 4).  Both mediums have a place in publication, and using both can make a publication richer and more visually appealing.

Fig. 4. Page from a children’s book on pandas and their anatomy. Showing a skinless “living” panda via illustration makes the image “safe”.


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