Saturday, 7 March 2015

Tradescant's Ark

In the 16th and 17th centuries there was a mania in Europe for collecting curios from all over the world being newly opened up by the great age of exploration. The collections were made by anyone with a bit of money, and a great collection of international junk and antique curios were a bit of a status symbol; most gentlemen with any pretence at erudition had a cabinet of curiosities or wunderkammer. Eventually these eclectic and peculiar collections were rationalised and the collectors became scientists and specialists.

John Tradescant the Elder (1570s to 1638) was a garden designer to the aristocracy and evenually King made him Keeper of his Majesty's Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace in Surrey. His trips to Russia and North Africa netted him some great curios for his personal collection and botanical garden at Turret House on Walberswick Street in Lambeth in South London, just down the road from the Bear Pit and Playhouse on Bankside.

In 1642 his son, John Tradescant the Younger, still keeps the collection and has added to it, travelling to Virginia to acquire new plants and Native American artefacts. Though he inherited his father's position as Royal Gardener he has stayed in Parliamentarian London to keep an eye on it.

Eventually the Tradescant collection would be acquired by Elias Ashmole under dubious circumstances and forms the foundation of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. But in 1642 gentlemen of quality could get invitations to view the miscellaneous mess at Tradescant's house and garden called the Musaeum Tradescantianum, or 'The Ark'.

Despite the outbreak of the English Civil War Tradescant is always on the look out for new peculiar wonders and will pay good money for something unique, historical or maybe a little macabre. Needless to say, there a few objects that are actually magical, not that Tradescant knows it, though he has protected his house with Witchmarks to put off pilfering magicians, and he employs a couple of burly and well armed footmen.

Some objects from the Musaeum Tradescantium

These may be real, fake, genuinely magical or just reputedly so...


The Sea Parrot
– During the Middle Ages Islamic and Jewish scholars could not make their minds up whether the puffin was a fish or a bird, and this specimen, a scaled puffin with a fish like tail and odd flipper like wings possibly shows why. It was collected on an island in the Atlantic west of Ireland where a group of these bird-fish had allegedly occupied an ancient Irish monastery made of beehive stone huts and had taken up Christianity, preaching fruitlessly to the stubbornly pagan gulls and guillemots before being massacred by a passing shipload of devout Puritans bound for Massachusetts.


The Stone Princess – an actual lithopedion, a fetus that died before birth and became calcified in the womb. Allegedly the unborn spirit of the stone baby can be spoken to by witches and can impart secrets of heaven from which all human souls emanate before they inhabit their shells of earthly flesh, and which all forget in the trauma of birth. This one (it is whispered) was removed from the body of 'Bloody' Mary Tudor, Queen of England, who claimed to be pregnant for years but never gave birth. If it is alive it has a better claim on the English throne than the upstart Stuarts, though Tradescant suspects that it may have inherited its mother's Catholicism.

Made and sold by Brown Fido on Etsy!

The Devil's Dung
– a peculiar gold nugget shaped exactly like a piece of human faeces that sits in a sealed jar of water and gives off a continual stream of bubbles. A gas valve is fitted into the lid and a servant opens this once a month in a spot on the edge of Lambeth Marsh as the gas has an unbelievably noxious stench. The water will also be observed to glow a faint blue in darkness, and adding a drop of holy water will result in a red bloody stain which disperses over the space of several minutes. Mr Tradescant has invited Mr Arthur Dee, son of the famous Dr John Dee, to experiment with the gas and he has found it toxic to plants, animals and spiders, but curiously not worms or cockroaches.

A still from Lair of the White Worm, dir. Ken Russell. Watch it!

A Scale from the Lambton Worm
– A large white translucent scale three inches across of the same general shape and conformation as a snake scale. Faint patterns may be discerned if it is held up to the light, perhaps words written in an unknown alphabet. Mr William Kember, a scholar, translated these words and though Tradescant doesn't have an exact transcript he was told that it is a poem of the most extreme lasciviousness and lewdness unsuitable for Christian ears.

From Image Arcade

The Maquahuitl of Montezuma
– an example of the Aztecs' favourite wood and obsidian hand weapon, kept alongside a rather threadbare but still brightly coloured feather and bead cloak. The maquahuitl is missing a couple of obsidian blades, has Aztec glyphs running down the shaft on both sides and a fanged monkey skull threaded onto the thong on the human skin bound handle, plus dried lumps of bone, hair and tissue from the last person brained with the thing stuck between the extant blades on one side. A gloriously gruesome and exotic relic, even hardened mercenaries from the Wars of Religion in Europe quail a bit when they see it, and few dare wield it. Tradescant keep it in a specially made wooden case as it scares the willies out of his servants when they come down to the Ark to do the cleaning and his pet bulldog, Hector, is banned from the room as he always sits by the box howling piteously.

From, can be seen in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford

The Mantle of Powhatan – Powhatan was the father of Pocahontas, a Native American girl who created quite a stir when she visited London in 1616. Anyone familiar with the Tsenacommacah of Virginia will recognise it as a ceremonial wall hanging, not a mantle or cloak, and has a simple design of a human figure flanked by two deer against a pattern of circles, all made by sewing shells to a piece of deer hide. Tredescant acquired it in Virginia, he says he bought it from Opechanacough, Powhatan's successor as paramount chief of Tsenacommacah, but those who know of him might realise this is unlikely as he hates the English with a passion and was responsible for the massacre of 1622 when a third of the colonists in Virginia were killed in a surprise attack in the James River valley. Tradescant also has a bottle of poisoned whiskey from the batch Dr John Potts used to kill 200 Tsenacommacah at a 'peace feast' in Jamestown in 1625.