Amgueddfa Blog: Hanes Naturiol

If you visit the Snakes exhibition at National Museum Cardiff (open till 15 September), you will see a 16th century book from the Library collections.

 

This unusual book is known as Hortus Sanitatis (although it is also written as Ortus Sanitatis) which roughly translates to ‘The Garden of Health’ in Latin. It is an early example of a herbal, a book containing descriptions of plants, along with how to prepare and use them as medicinal remedies.

 

It started life in 1485 as a German ‘Herbarius’, also called the Gart der Gesundheit, before an extended version, translated into Latin, was published in 1491. Unlike the German version, the new Latin version didn't just focus on plants, but also included remedies involving animals, birds, fish and minerals.

 

Over the next 50 years the book was published in many more editions and languages. As well as new Latin and German editions, it was also translated into Dutch and English (although often in shortened versions). The English edition is called the Noble lyfe & natures of man, of bestes, serpentys, fowles & fisshes, and was produced around 1527. All these editions indicate just how popular this book was in the 15th and 16th centuries. Perhaps it saw so many reprints because unlike most herbals of the period, it covered more than just plants. But by the 1530s it was being replaced by the herbals of the 'German Fathers of Botany', Bock, Brunfels, and Fuchs.

 

Our copy of Hortus Sanitatis is one of the Latin editions published in Strasburg in 1517 by Reinhard Beck. The full title is Ortus sanitatis de herbis et plantis. De animalibus et reptilibus. De avibus et volatilibus. De piscibus et natatilibus. De lapidibus et in terre venis nascentibus. Urinis et earum speciebus.

 

It has no known author, as was common with herbals of this period, and is heavily illustrated. The illustrations, along with the purchase of the paper for printing, would have been the most expensive part of producing the book, and so were re-used from other works. Unusually for the period, many of the woodcuts are coloured.

 

Our copy of this book is from the Willoughby Gardner Library, but also has a bookplate identifying it as part of the former collection of Charles Butler. Charles Butler, Esq. [1821-1910] was an English politician and collector. He held a very extensive and valuable library at Warren Wood, Hatfield, which was sold off at Sotheby’s in 1911.

 

It’s most likely that Willoughby Gardner purchased the book from that sale, either directly or indirectly from a rare books seller. He regularly purchased books from famous libraries, and so would have been well aware of such a significant auction.

 

The title page of the book also gives us a clue to a much earlier owner. Written in ink are the words ‘Monasterii Montis S. Georgii 1659’, indicating that it might have formerly been in the possession of a monastery in Austria.

 

The monastery of St. Georgenberg was founded on the site of a hermitage, near Stans, and held an extensive library. In the 17th century the abbot decided to reorganise it and give the books new marks of ownership, written on the first and last folios, and usually dated (most often in 1652, 1659, and 1661).

 

In 1850 the monastery sold a number of books from their library in order to raise money, and many of them have since ended up in public collections in the UK. It is quite likely that Charles Butler acquired Hortus Sanitatis from that sale.

 

 

Further reading;

Anderson, Frank J. An illustrated history of the herbals. New York, Columbia University Press, 1977

Arber, Agnes. Herbals: their origin and evolution, 3rd edition. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986

Hi all, I’m Pip Diment from the Exhibitions team, and I'm one of a group of staff volunteering to care for the six live snakes we are housing as part of the 'Snakes’ exhibition at National Museum Cardiff.

Our exhibition is now open and runs to 15 September 2019. I was part of the team who cared for the snakes for the second two weeks of the exhibition run. We were trained by Guy Tansley from Bugsnstuff and he showed a group of us volunteers how to check on the snakes safely and provide basic care.

We are not required to feed the snakes – we have Dr Rhys Jones generously helping us with that. Our tasks are to change the water daily, remove any poo, ureic acid crystals (wee!) and calcium plugs, also to remove any shed skin and to check the snakes are not too cold or hot and that they are ok. These checks are all done daily by a team of two or three volunteers.

On my first day volunteering I worked with Melissa Hinkin (from Artes Mundi, who is a snake enthusiast) and Vic le Poidevin (from our Events team). There was great excitement the first morning as Prestwick, the Jungle Carpet Python had shed her skin and had an enormous poo!  She’s a fairly large snake so it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was huge! Like a large dogs! The skin itself came off in two parts and is now being used as part of the handling collections (not too much handling as it is fragile!). Underneath all that shed skin Prestwick has now emerged even more beautiful with her skin a stunning irridescent effect. And this was still only day one.

On day two I worked with Christian Baars (from Conservation) and Robin Maggs (from Photography). Once again, much excitement as Keith, the Royal Python, shed his skin overnight. Much smaller poo – smaller snake, so made sense! He also looked much more beautiful after shedding his skin.

Days three and four were not as eventful – only water changing and general checks required. Everyone seems very healthy and happy, and we are following their care instructions meticulously to ensure they stay that way. 

I admit I have an unhealthy interest in snake poo – and for the end of my first week we’ve had another poo! This time, again, from Keith. I am not the only one now excited by snake poos – see Robin and Christian admiring Keith’s offering (look closely it has substrate on it which makes it looks like it has eyes!)

I’m so glad I agreed to volunteer. I’ve held snakes before, but never spent so much time with them. I love that they all have great names and their own characters:

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks for reading. You can read some of our other snake blogs here, here and here.

The exhibition runs till 15 September 2019, entry charges do apply, and all your contributions go towards bringing you even bigger and better exhibitions in the future.

Please note that there is no live handling of the snakes within the exhibition. In August we’ll be having snake handling sessions for the public – see here for details of booking.

Also, make sure you come and visit us this saturday (10 August) for our Venom Open Day!

Our summer exhibition, Snakes! gives us a sneak peek into the secretive and captivating life of the snakes of the world. We are posting a series of snake blogs over the summer to share some of our snake related stories.

At the back of our Snakes gallery we have made a map of the snakes of the world. Here you can find out which are the longest, the fastest, even the one that has the longest fangs! And this is where you'll find a picture of rarest snake in the world – the Saint Lucia racer.

Unbelievably, there are fewer than 20 individuals of this relatively small, non-venomous snake left in the world. And they are all confined to a tiny, nine-hectare islet off the mainland of the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI), is an international conservation charity dedicated to protecting our planet’s threatened wildlife and habitats. In partnership with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and national agencies, FFI is working to bring back these snakes from the brink of extinction.

This species was once the second most common snake on Saint Lucia. So what happened?

In the 19th century small Asian mongooses were introduced to the island. They found the ground dwelling racers easy prey, and their population plummeted to the point that they were thought to be extinct. So now an emergency project has been set up to protect the remaining racers and spread the word about their importance.

But with such low numbers, can they really be brought back?

The answer is a resounding yes! Until fairly recently, the world’s rarest snake was considered to be the Antiguan racer, another Caribbean snake species found only on a handful of offshore islands in Antigua and Barbuda. In 1995, only 50 individuals remained, but thanks to the help of FFI and other national and international organisations, they are making a comeback. Their numbers have increased 22 fold in that time, with numbers now exceeding 1,100 individuals. So there is still hope.

How did they do it? They have focused a lot of work on eradicating the harmful invasive species – particularly ship rats – that have been introduced to the islands and introduced strict controls to help protect these sensitive ecosystems.

Snakes are often maligned and misunderstood, so they have also focused on changing attitudes and raising awareness. This has been so successful that many Antiguans and Barbudans have become enthusiastic advocates of their unique snake and its unique island ecosystem.

So, the hope is that by protecting the remaining Saint Lucia racers, and the tiny islet they live on, their populations will begin to stabilise and grow. It is so inspiring to hear a positive conservation story. I wish them all the luck in the world.

If you are interested in finding out more about snakes – come down to our exhibition! It is on until 15 September. For more details check out our What’s On page.

You can find out more about Saint Lucia racers and the work of FFI here, here and here.

You can find out more about Antiguan racers and the work of FFI here.

You can find out more about FFI here.

You can find out more about Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust here.

You can read our read our previous blogs here and here.

Written by Caitlin Jenkins, MSc Conservation Practice student, Cardiff University

I’m Caitlin, an MSc Conservation Practice student from Cardiff University and I have just finished my summer placement at National Museum Cardiff. I’ve been working with conservator Julian Carter on the natural history collections, with the last five weeks focused on preparations for the museum’s summer exhibition, Snakes!

The first week saw me elbow deep in jars full of snakes, as we worked our way through getting 32 fluid preserved specimens ready for display. Although the snakes had already undergone previous treatment, many were very old and in need of attention. After checking the jars’ condition, we added or replaced conservation fluid as required.

Many snakes needed to be rehomed in new jars. Some preservationists use wires or mountings, but we chose to follow the natural shape of the snake and its flexibility to guide its positioning within the jar. My favourite of the specimens was a grass snake that had been preserved in the act of eating a toad (with one leg dangling from its mouth...poor toad!)

I was also able to assist with preserving a new addition to this collection – a boa constrictor named Aeron. After formaldehyde injections and several fluid changes, we needed to find an extra-large shiny new jar, because he was over a metre long. Aeron has now bagged a starring role as the centrepiece of his display case. I really enjoyed this experience, and it has given me a fantastic insight into the complexities and potential of fluid preservation.

My other major project was the treatment of three snake models destined to be part of a large interactive exhibit within Snakes! Two were painted plaster models of a rattle snake and a king cobra. These incredibly detailed antiques were perhaps cast from real specimens. The third was a moulded rubber and polystyrene grass snake model from the 1960s. The models had survived in remarkably good condition given their age, they just needed a little ‘zhoosh’ to make them display-ready. Light brushing and swabbing with water and mild detergent was all that was needed to remove ingrained dust. Any loose or flaking areas were consolidated to ensure that they didn’t become further detached from the model.

Nevertheless, small elements were missing from each model. The grass snake model posed a specific conservation risk, as rubber and plastics can become unstable over time. Its tongue became fragmented during cleaning and unfortunately proved too badly degraded to reattach. Using photographs of the real-life snake species as a guide, I fashioned replacement tongues for this and the king cobra model from a strong plant-based fibre known as Japanese tissue. They were secured in place and painted to blend them into the jaw area. Being able to see the immediate improvement after each snake ‘facelift’ was very satisfying - this took cosmetic surgery to a whole new level!

Finally, the finished models were settled into their new home for the summer – a large interactive exhibit affectionately dubbed ‘the snake pit’. I’d become so immersed in their treatment over the last five weeks that I was kind of sad to see them go – but it was satisfying to see them looking their best and used in the spirit for which they were originally created.

I’ve really enjoyed working on Snakes! from preparation to completed display – it’s been a fantastic experience. If you are in the vicinity of the museum, pleasssse pay them a visit.

The exhibition runs till 15th September 2019, entry charges do apply, and all your contributions go towards bringing you even bigger and better exhibitions in the future. Please note that there is no live handling of the snakes within the exhibition, there will be a series of bookable handling sessions throughout the summer as well as a Venom themed Open Day in August. To find out more about all of this, go to our What's On page.

On the 22nd June our new summer exhibition opened. This family friendly exhibition runs until September and delves into the captivating life of snakes, helping you to find out more about these extraordinary and misunderstood creatures. We are hoping to feature more detailed stories about all of the things mentioned below in a series of blogs running through July and August so keep tuning in to find out more.

Snakes is a touring exhibition created by a company called Blue Tokay with added bonus content generated by our team. Work began on bringing together all of this way back in September 2018 and since then we have been busy researching, writing text and preparing some great specimens for you all to enjoy.

The main exhibition covers all aspects of the lives of snakes, so we focused our efforts on highlighting our collections at the museum. We hold over 3.5 million natural history specimens here, and as you can imagine, not everything is on display. We hold a small collection of 500 reptiles from all over the world. These are mostly preserved in alcohol and stored in jars, but we also have skeletons, skins and eggs. We chose 32 of our best snakes to go out on display. Each of these were carefully rehoused and conserved as many of the specimens were old and in need of work.

But it’s not just snakes in jars. We have also displayed some fantastic casts of 49 million years old fossil snakes, and 3D printed the vertebra of Titanoboa, the largest snake that ever lived.

One of my favourite features of the exhibit are our objects dealing with snake folklore and mythology, featuring a 13th century manuscript showing how snakes were used in medicinal remedies. Also some fantastic ‘snakestones’, actually fossil ammonites with snake heads carved on to the top.

You may also recognise the statue of Perseus that has long been displayed in our main hall. Perseus is enjoying his new surroundings, with Medusa’s snake ridden head looking positively sinister with the new lighting.

The exhibition features six live snakes and as I’m sure you can imagine, bringing live animals into a museum requires a LOT of preparation. We have done a great deal of work to ensure that their time with us is spent in 5 star accommodation. Their ‘vivaria’ are purpose built to ensure our snakes are well cared for, including warm and cool spots, as well as a water feature for a bathe. We have a fantastic (and very brave) set of staff who are volunteering their time to looking after them including changing water bowls, and clearing up their poo! Dr Rhys Jones (Cardiff University) has been fantastic with helping throughout this whole process, including coming in every week to feed them. The snakes are all provided by a company called Bugs n Stuff, you can see a video of them installing the live snakes here.

Finally, our fantastic learning department, design team and technicians have worked hard to add some fun activities for all to enjoy. Our Spot the Snake pit features, amongst other things, two beautifully conserved models of a cobra and a rattlesnake that date back to 1903, and a real freeze-dried adder! We also have a snake expert quiz, a world map of snakes, and drawing and colouring stations. Volunteers will be in the gallery periodically across the summer with snake handling specimens including a real full length skin of an African Rock Python.

The exhibition runs till 15th September 2019, entry charges do apply, and all your contributions go towards bringing you even bigger and better exhibitions in the future. Please note that there is no live handling of the snakes within the exhibition, there will be a series of bookable handling sessions throughout the summer as well as a Venom themed Open Day in August. To find out more about all of this, go to our What's On page.