Alan Pipe MOLA Zooarchaeologist

Tortoise shell to Triton’s Trumpet: London’s Exotic faunal remains

Alan Pipe
04.06.2015

Senior Archaeozoologist Alan Pipe tells us about some of his favourite exotic faunal remains from post-medieval London.

As an Archaeozoologist, I am constantly surprised by the stunning variety of faunal remains we uncover on our excavations. The archaeological record is teeming with these finds, from ivory knife handles and bone whistles to sawn mollusc shells. Every so often, however, we come across artefacts that are much rarer.  

Keratine-based faunal remains often deteriorate once buried. In certain conditions, though, they survive giving us the opportunity to learn from these exotic objects. For example, a turtle shell fragment found at 24-26 Minories, survived only because of the oxygen-poor environment of the site. Known as ‘tortoise shell’, it is in fact from the outer layer of tropical turtle shells, particularly green turtles. Craftsmen would detach this material from the underlying bony plates through heating and boiling. They could then be used to make small items, like spectacle frames, inlays and combs.

The same burial environment has given us a series of offcuts from elephant ivory production. These triangular cross-sectioned pieces are the trimmings of the raw tusks, made during the manufacture of small decorative items like furniture inlays, gaming pieces and piano keys.

Rare faunal remains like these can also tell us about the trade activities of the time. The imported Queen Conch, for example, is a 300mm Caribbean snail with a pink and glossy shell. Along with its larger cousin, the 490mm Triton’s Trumpet from the Indo-Pacific, it was mainly harvested for its meat. However, both these shells were also commonly traded as ornaments and collectors' specimens.

Elsewhere in London, the site of Ten Trinity Square has produced the largest deposit of windowpane oyster shells found by archaeologists in London. Four sacks were recovered from the site in a cellar. These translucent shells can grow to over 150mm and have been used in the manufacture of glue, chalk and varnish but their main use, as their name implies, is as small window panes. This species is commonly found between east Africa and northern Australia. Charles Dickens Junior mentions them in his Dictionary of the Thames, whilst describing the nearby East India Company warehouse.

“The cellars are fitted up with a half deck, thus largely increasing the amount of stowage room here devoted to fancy shells, mother-of-pearl, green ear, Japan ear, bull mouth, &c., with hides, leather, skins, straw- plait, shellac, lac dye, and cochineal.” Dickens Jr., 1883.  

Exceptional finds like these give us a glimpse into the complex world of post-medieval trading networks. From the Pacific to the Minories, from the 18th century to the 21st, the history of trade can be traced through the faunal remains of our archaeological sites.

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