Our instruments without a trace

We chose three artifacts for display in the “Instruments Without a Trace” case, for which we have little or no information regarding their use.  Photos of these mysterious items and their exhibit labels are shown below.  Maybe you can help us identify them.  Please share your ideas with us!





Sometimes traces left on instruments can actually provide more confusion than clarity.  This piece of wood seems ordinary but it was wrapped and labeled ‘Keep | Of historical interest | FAB’.  It is unknown if this refers to the piece of wood itself or an object that the piece of wood was part of.  It might have come from Oxford’s Radcliffe Observatory because it is likely FAB refers to F. A. Bellamy who worked at the Radcliffe Observatory in the late 19th century.  If not for the label, this piece of wood would have not made it into the museum’s collection.  In this instance, the trace created an unknown historical object rather than helped with the identification process.


Islamic Gauge


This gauge dates from circa 1200.  The writing on the side of the gauge tells us the name of its maker followed by an inscription stating ‘There is no god but God [and] Muhammad is the Prophet of God.’  It is numbered along the side from 1-19 and so may have been used as a measuring device.  An object might have been placed between the two end-stops, which have the ability to rotate 270°.  However, neither the shape of the instrument nor the inscription give any hint as to what it was used to measure.


Unidentified Pivoted metal Plates


The name really says it all for this mysterious instrument.  The two bars can snap together or be separated.  Is something supposed to be pressed in between?  Why do the holes in one plate align with six dimples below?  The questions are numerous, the answers few.



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4 Responses to “Our instruments without a trace”

  1. Nick Davies Says:

    Depending on how old they are, perhaps the metal plates could be a Braille press; slugs could be fit into the holes and kept in place by the metal frame while sheets of paper are pressed between the plates.

  2. Lynsey Shaw Says:

    I was privileged enough to be invited to the opening event of the Traces exhibition. I found it both intellectually stimulating and informative. I found the microscopic writing machine particularly fascinating. It really gets you thinking about the thought processes behind making these instruments. That is what made this exhibit really interesting for me. A lot of museum exhibits require no thought whatsoever but the students involved have designed this in such a way that it stimulates conversation and the sharing of ideas.

    I applaud them for their efforts and I really hope they get excellent grades for their hard work.

    Lynsey Shaw
    DPhil Candidate in the History of Medicine
    Wolfson College

  3. Deborah Woodhouse Says:

    I agree with Lynsey Shaw’s comments. This is an excellent, thought provoking idea. I hope the students do get a high grade for producing such an interesting, and useful project, and that the objects origins and purpose are identified.

    I will now go away and think about what use these objects were created for, and encourage my friends and family to come in to take a look.

    Deborah Woodhouse, B.A.(Hons)

  4. Kevern Randles Says:

    Thought provoking and interesting. I like the three aspects of the idea of traces. The labelling reminds us how important it is to consider future interpretation which, without the context, may be impossible – as with some of these.

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