Posts Tagged ‘wood’

Our instruments without a trace

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

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.



Unidentified Piece of Wood Marked “25 Aguilas”, Mexico?

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

We came across this object in the museum’s collections very early on, and it immediately struck us as an obvious contender for the ‘objects without trace’ category. This piece of mahogany wood has the letters ’25 Aguilas’ stamped on one side. It would seem therefore that this piece of wood might come from Las Aguilas in Mexico, and the museum label suggested that it was perhaps part of a cigar case. This is all we really know about it. What this object really shows however is the power that the whimsical decisions of curators have over our understanding of the past. No one knows how this piece of wood, which would otherwise probably have ended up in the rubbish, ended up in the museum collection, but it has been diligently stored and catalogued and so survives to this day for us to ponder over.

This piece of wood is an enigma in so many ways- when was it made? Who stamped the letters on the side? What do the letters mean? What was is it used for? Did someone scoop it up into their pocket, paying the cigar salesman as the ferry was leaving, transporting it across the ocean? Did  they exhibit it proudly at Oxford dinner parties as they regaled their colleagues with tales of their Mexican adventures? Did it slip out of their pocket in Broad Street one rushed morning, to lie helpless on the ground, crushed into pieces by a passing vehicle, until only the proud frontispiece testifying to its heritage remained? Was it spotted by a young curator assistant on his way into work, entranced by its exotic markings, who begged his employer that it deserved a place in the museum’s collection, only for it to be shut up in the depths of the store room, labelled and quickly forgotten as more exciting finds came in?

Sadly the vision of this zealous curator will not be ratified by this exhibition: it would seem that at one time the Museum had a great fondness  for conserving mysterious pieces of wood, and we have found a piece of wood even MORE enigmatic than this one (coming soon). For now, at least, this piece of wood will remain in obscurity. But we’re certain there’s a story there somewhere.

If you have an alternative suggestion of where this piece of wood came from we’d be delighted to hear it! Please leave a reply below or email us at