How a Giraffe made its way to Ming China, via Bengal


Tribute Giraffe with Attendant (16th century). Photo Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

Tribute Giraffe with Attendant (16th century). Photo Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

It’s in lots of the books about early Ming China, the picture of a giraffe presented to the Yongle emperor on 20 September 1414 by Saif al-Din Hamzah Shah, Sultan of Bengal. One or other of the surviving versions of the image of this marvel (and there were surely once lots more of them) was always a dead cert for inclusion in the exhibition Ming: 50 Years that Changed China, shown at the British Museum from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015, exactly six hundred years later. My co-curator (Jessica Harrison-Hall and I) discussed and argued our original enormous want-list down to something more feasible in terms of space and budget over several years, but the inclusion of the giraffe painting was never in doubt. We even fantasized at one point about installing a full-scale stuffed giraffe in the BM forecourt; there was after all just such a zoological rarity in the nineteenth-century British Museum, before the naturalia and artificialia were split between two different institutions, as the category of Natural History claimed its own “scientific” space in South Kensington.  This didn’t happen, but you were able to buy a cuddly giraffe toy in the exhibition shop.  I didn’t look at the label, but it’s pretty much a certainty that, along with most of the Ming tea towels, Ming USB sticks, Ming phone covers, Ming fridge magnets, Ming T-shirts, Ming umbrellas, Ming coffee mugs and Ming tin plates (if not the Ming stem ginger biscuits), the cuddly giraffes were made in China.  Today so much stuff moves around the world in giant ships that the idea of a marvel, a thing not seen before, becomes hard to capture.

The giraffe painting was a big hit with the exhibition audience, and I often stopped in front of it when doing tours and introductions. Someone said to me that they knew about giraffes and that the artist had definitely seen one, that the animal’s physiology was right (not like Albrecht Dürer’s rhino), but its markings were obviously wrong, substituting regular chevrons for the lion-confusing blotches a real giraffe would have.  I said I thought the attempt was being made to give it scales, to match the description in the Confucian classics of the marvellous beast called the qilin, token of the rule of a paragon emperor. It must have been a brief marvel.  No record survives of this, but my guess is the poor creature would in reality have suffered mightily in Beijing’s frigid winter climate, which probably was enough to carry it off exactly six hundred years before the exhibition’s closure. The arrival of a qilin is worthy of note, but its passing goes unremarked.

The painting commemorates an act of gift giving, and I was suddenly moved to check out the name “John T. Dorrance”, who himself gave this work to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It turns out he was the son of the man who invented condensed soup, and was himself chairman of the Campbell Soup Co, as well as a generous patron of the Museum and Chairman of its board for many years, dying at the age of 70 in 1989. My mind could not but fly at once to Andy Warhol, whose relationship with the Campbell Soup Company and its products was not a simple one. The giraffe was painted in multiples because it was a wonder, a thing never seen before; Warhol’s soup cans were painted in multiples precisely to underscore their ordinariness. The beast was famous for a little over (not much over) the canonical fifteen minutes; I like to think it was occasionally thought about after it was gone.

Craig Clunas is Professor of the History of Art at the University of Oxford. He was the co-curator of the recent exhibition, Ming: 50 years that changed China held at the British Museum. Details regarding the exhibition can be found here:


The last Westland Wapiti


A Westland Wapiti aeroplane (Photo courtesy Aashique Iqbal)

A Westland Wapiti aeroplane (Photo courtesy Aashique Iqbal)

The Indian Air Force museum situated at Palam, New Delhi is the resting place of the last surviving airframe of the Westland Wapiti aeroplane. This is apt given that the Westland Wapiti occupies a place of great importance in Indian aviation history since it served as the first plane flown by the Indian Air Force (IAF). Today the IAF is one of the world’s largest air forces and features some of the most sophisticated aircraft in the world. Nevertheless its beginnings can be traced back to the humble Westland Wapiti.

The Wapiti was commissioned by Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1927 to serve as a multi-role combat aircraft and served in the air forces of a number of countries including Canada, South Africa and Australia. Reliable but not remarkable, the Wapiti appeared destined to pass into obscurity as many of its contemporaries have. However, aeroplanes like people sometimes have destinies that are difficult to anticipate. The Westland Wapiti’s fate was to serve as the first aeroplane of the Indian Air Force.

The Indian Air Force was established on 8th October 1932 as a sop to Indian political opinion. Indian legislators in the Central Legislative Assembly had long demanded greater Indian control of the armed forces. They argued that having more Indians in positions of power in the armed forces would both reduce costs as well as put India onto the road to self-government. To pacify Indian demands the British Government of India had conceded control of token units in the Indian army. Now as demands for the admission of Indians into the RAF grew louder the decision was taken to set up a tiny Indian Air Force. The air force so created was kept very small and equipped with aeroplanes passed down from its better equipped and larger British counterpart.

The Westland Wapiti had been dubbed the “What-a-pity” by RAF pilots. It often had to be manhandled by large groups of airmen into take-off position. Its air gunner was chained to his seat to prevent him from flying out of the plane. It threw up great plumes of dust as its rotors came on and went off and it often flew carrying a caged carrier pigeon to be used when radio communication was not possible. It was handed to the first, and for a very long time only, squadron of the Indian Air Force on the 1st of April 1933.

The Indian Air Force which was never conceived of as much more than a token was confined to glorified policing or “Air Control” operations on India’s rough Northwest Frontier province from 1937 onwards. Air control involved the bombardment of recalcitrant Pathan tribes such as the Hurs and the Waziris into submission to British Imperial will, something that bears curious similarities to the present. Here Indian pilots learnt to navigate rugged terrain and to perform photo reconnaissance. Equally importantly Indian Airmen or “Hawai Sepoys” (air soldiers) on the ground learnt to repair and maintain the aircraft on the ground in tough conditions.

The imminence of war in 1939 led to the steady replacement of the Wapiti by the Hawker Hart even, in the IAF. However the Wapiti remained in service well into the Second World War and was responsible in addition to its old air control duties for the patrolling of India’s coastline where it helped in the timely spotting of a great Japanese fleet in the Bay of Bengal in 1942.

The Second World War saw a flood of new kinds of aeroplanes enter the service of the Indian Air Force as well as the expansion of the force itself from one to ten squadrons by 1946. The Wapiti went quickly from mainstay to memory. To dismiss the Wapiti at this point however is a mistake since it was the experience gained from flying and repairing the Wapiti that enabled the Indian Air Force to gain the success it did. Indian pilots had developed a distinct style of flying low and slow in the Wapiti to avoid detection that served them well in the jungles of Burma even as Indian air men won praise for keeping planes running in tough conditions.It is thus perhaps as a tribute to this that the Indian Air Force has preserved the last airframe of its first plane.


Select Bibliography

A. M. Chaturvedi,History of the Indian Air Force,Vikas Publishing House, 1978

B. Prasad, The Official History of the Indian Air Force in World War II, History Section, Orient Longman 1961

B. Prasad, Expansion of the Armed Forces and Defence Organisation, Orient Longman, 1956

D. E. Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control; The Royal Air Force 1919-1939, Manchester University Press, 1990

H. Singh, Birth of an Air Force, Palit and Palit, 1977

J. Singh ,Defence from the Skies, Centre for Air Power Studies, 2007

P. Singh, History of Aviation in India, Society for Aerospace Studies, 2007

P. Satia, The defense of inhumanity: Air Control and the British Idea of Arabia, AHR, 111, 1, February 2006

T.S. Rana Chinna,The Eagle Strikes,   Centre for Armed forces historical research, 2006

Aashique Ahmed Iqbal is a DPhil candidate in History at the University of Oxford.


Captain Cook in the Holophusikon 2: An Eighteenth-century ceremonial club from Vancouver Island


[This is Ruth’s second post on material culture in the 18th century]

Holophusikon club (photo courtesy Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia)

Holophusikon club (photo courtesy Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia)

In March 2012, a mid-eighteenth-century ceremonial club, made by the Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island, was donated to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. The club was carved from a single piece of yew wood, in the shape of a hand clasping a sphere. It is beautiful and extremely rare, a hawilmis, or “chiefly treasure” of Canadian Aboriginal people. As the Musqueam First Nation artist Debra Sparrow told reporters at the time of the donation, the club, “was carved with a purpose,” and is thus “not an object, it is a reflection of a people’s history.”[1]

For UBC’s press department, the primary significance – or at least one of the most interesting aspects – of the club was the brief role in its life of a famous British individual, Captain James Cook. The title of the UBC media release describes it as “the last privately held object from Captain Cook’s collection.”[2] Almost every national and international news report of the story followed this lead by headlining the name of the explorer, who was presented with the club during his third Pacific voyage in 1778, a year before he died. The Vancouver Sun opened their report in 2012 with an account of the donor, Michael Audain, and his fan-like relationship with Cook. This began when “as a child, [he] was fascinated with the story of Capt. James Cook,” and seems to culminate in his emotional response to seeing and handling the club, which offers a kind of physical connection to the long-dead explorer. Audain, the report details, felt “a tremor of excitement” and asked “Can I touch it? Can I hold something in my hand that James Cook must have held?”[3]

The information board which now accompanies the club continues to quietly emphasise this link across the centuries to Cook, referring to the object’s presence in Hawaii at the time of his death, as though it somehow acts as an inanimate witness to the event.[4] The Nuu-chah-nulth club’s status as an emotional conduit to Cook, then, may be, for many visitors to the museum, a key part of their experience of the object. For some cultural theorists, such extraordinary revaluations by collectors and museums of objects linked to Cook, and especially his death, resemble the processes of “celebrity endorsement” or even “the status of sacred relics.”[5]

A form of this celebrity effect was already central to the early acquisition and exhibition of Pacific artefacts in eighteenth-century London, where the club was displayed between 1780 and 1806 at the Holophusikon in Leicester Square. Visitors to this museum were expected to be thrilled by the opportunity “to see several of the identical articles which were once the property of the celebrated Captain Cook.” An encounter with Cook’s collection could not “fail to excite a melancholy pleasure, while we reflect on his eminent abilities, and his unhappy fate.”[6] This “unhappy fate,” a mysterious and violent death in Hawaii, created an aura of tragic celebrity around Hawaiian artefacts. This might explain why the Nuu-chah-nulth club seems to have been mislabelled in the museum catalogue as a “curious war instrument” from Hawaii.[7] Such objects had a more personal association with Cook, and so would be more likely to appeal to visitors. The club was probably displayed in the Hawaiian room, one of the Holophusikon’s most heavily advertised attractions. This room displayed a portrait of Cook, and an inscription “To The Immortal Memory of Captain Cook.”[8] Most visitors seem to have understood the display as “devoted to the memory of Captain Cook, which is here effectually preserved by a collection of arms, dresses, utensils, idols, &c.”[9]

In the 1780s and 1790s, a sensational version of Cook’s death, sometimes including unfounded allegations of Hawaiian cannibalism, spread in British popular culture. As a result, the club (like many genuinely Hawaiian artefacts such as the feather ‘ahu ‘ula discussed in the last post) was stripped of its original meanings and made to fit into a highly emotionally-charged, somewhat Gothic story in which Cook, an Enlightenment hero, was sacrificed to a glamorous but barbaric Hawaiian society. It made sense to Lever to label the ceremonial Nuu-chah-nulth club a Hawaiian “war instrument” when, for many of his visitors, Hawaii was the most warlike setting imaginable. A bestselling elegy, for example, compared Cook to Jesus and Orpheus. It dramatised his death as a gruesome confrontation between good and evil “On a far distant, and remorseless shore”:

Where treachery, hov’ring o’er the blasted heath,

Poises with ghastly smile the darts of death,

Pierc’d by their venom’d points, your favorite bleeds,

And on his limbs the lust of hunger feeds![10]

The horror of fictionalised scenes like these became a filter through which the objects in Cook’s former collections were often viewed by metropolitan tourists. While they added a sensational edge to the exotic wonders of the Holophusikon, they also worsened British perceptions of Pacific island cultures, and created the myth of Cook’s heroic status, which continues to guide many responses to artefacts around the world today.



[1] “A West Coast icon comes home after round the world journey”, Vancouver Sun (21 March 2012)

[2] “Last privately held object from Captain Cook’s collection donated to UBC Museum of Anthropology.” University of British Columbia media release (20 March 2012).

[3] “A West Coast icon”, Vancouver Sun (21 March 2012).

[4] “Ḥaẃilmis: a chiefly treasure.” Information board at UBC Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver (2012)

[5] Lissant Bolton, “Brushed with Fame: Museological investments in the Cook voyage collections” in Discovering Cook’s Collections, edited by Michelle Hetherington and Howard Morphy (Canberra: National Museum of Australia Press, 2009), pp. 78-91, p. 79; Amiria Henare, Museums, Anthropology and Imperial Exchange (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2005), p. 43.

[6] A Companion to the Museum, (Late Sir Ashton Lever’s) (London: n.p., 1790), footnote to p. 7.

[7] The UBC media release (2012) quotes (unattributed) Catalogue of the Leverian Museum, Part I. Including the First Eight Days’ Sale (London: Hayden, 1806), p. 278.

[8] Companion to the Museum, p. 6

[9] Benjamin Silliman, A Journal of Travels in England, Holland and Scotland (New York: D. and G. Bruce, 1810), vol. 1 of 2, p. 208

[10] Anna Seward, Elegy on Captain Cook (London: J. Dodsley, 1780), pp. 14-15


Ruth Scobie is an Early Career Research Fellow at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). She is also a member of the Celebrity Research Network .

A Single-Sheet Archive on Papyrus: The Case of a Sixth-century Amulet


P.Oxy. 1928 (Image courtesy of the Imaging Papyri Project, University of Oxford)

P.Oxy. 1928 (Image courtesy of the Imaging Papyri Project, University of Oxford)

Excavations reflect the problematic of archival practice. Archaeologists reflect their own priorities and historical narratives by which artefacts they choose to preserve and document. The process of digging is also a process of sifting which inevitably privileges certain objects and information as more desirable.

Most extant manuscripts from Late Antiquity were preserved in the dumps of ancient Egyptian cities such as Oxyrhynchus, where arid conditions protected documents written on papyrus (“papyri”) until excavators uncovered them around the turn of the twentieth century. While fragments were often found discarded together in baskets, the papyrus hunters—in this case Oxford’s own Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt—concentrated on potential reconstructed texts. Their priority was a text-critical project, searching for textual witnesses to early Christianity and the Greek classics. Except for the approximate dating of texts found in the same trash mounds, Grenfell and Hunt disregarded the material culture of textual artefacts and the sociological implications of artefacts juxtaposed in their initial excavated locations. As a result, any number of links between individual objects were severed as excavators sifted through baskets and baskets of fragmentary textual remains, deciding what to keep and what to discard. Although a material turn in manuscript studies has taken place over the last couple of decades, modern publication continues to concentrate on the papyri as witnesses for the reconstruction of abstracted literary texts. Through the process of archaeological discovery and academic publication, the jumbled contents of an ancient dump have been converted into a collection sharing the same methodological challenges as any other sort of archive—certain sorts of information are privileged, largely because they respond to questions posed by a particular set of narratives.[1]

This decontextualising process of excavation poses particular challenges for my research concerning papyrus amulets. For the textual critic, “paraliterary” texts like the amulets hold only a secondary interest as representatives of “literary” texts, but seem equally foreign to the demographic and historical inquiries for which the so-called “documentary” papyri are used (to borrow the conventional, if somewhat problematic, terminology of the discipline). Further, archaeologists interested only in textual data discarded the material evidence for how the amulets were used. Many appear to have been folded. In others, holes were made to facilitate wearing on a string or cord. Yet for the most part, the material settings for these amulet texts have been long lost. Casings, whether leather or papyrus, simply were not important enough to box up and ship home. Further, publication generally privileges the object as text more than anything else—something perhaps partly justified for the text-critical projects of classics or biblical studies, but inherently problematic when working with unique objects that were not only read, but actually worn.

If sifting the city dump frequently obscured connections between artefacts, perhaps a more attentive handling of smaller original collections might allow us to see textual juxtapositions with fresh eyes, while still recognising that our data remain inescapably tainted by the processes of discovery and publication. One promising example is cartonnage—a sort of ancient papier maché that recycled used sheets of papyrus into funereal masks. While this sort of rediscovered archive is not inherently balanced, the textual juxtapositions are not a function of the same sorts of conscious information-collection that shape conventional archives.

The simplest sort of unconventional archive, however, is a single sheet of papyrus—originally written on one side, and later reused with an unrelated message on the reverse. While material from ancient dumps has been haphazardly collected, and even the components of a cartonnage might be separated and sold unprovenanced on the antiquities market, it is rather hard to separate the two sides of a single papyrus sheet.[2] What this means is that even when the archival bias of an overarching collection is questionable, it still contains a plethora of mini-archives within it.

As an example, consider the sixth-century amulet P.Oxy. XVI 1928, which re-uses a portion of a legal document dated to 5 October 533. While in this case both sides have been published together (frequently not the case), the original publication by A.S. Hunt in 1924 did not address, let alone adequately problematise their relationship. For Hunt, the legal document merely provided a terminus post quem for the amulet and the edition treated the two sides as entirely discrete. Yet this legal document connects the amulet with the Apion family, wealthy landowners holding elevated positions in Byzantine imperial administration of the late fifth and early sixth centuries. Such a link raises a number of questions:

–        Is this simply recycling of a discarded document, or does it suggest that the legal text on the one side has an inherent connection to the one either writing or using the amulet?

–        What does it say about the perceived function of the amulet that it could be written on the backside of another document without any apparent perceived diminution of efficacy?

–        What does it indicate when a provenanced amulet is found far from the location relevant to the legal document on the recto?

–        In an era when theological authorities discouraged the use of apotropaic magic, is an amulet linked to a family of prominent imperial administrators a datum of significance?

Even if the processes of excavation and publications have irreversibly jumbled the papyri, the material reality of recycling allows us to juxtapose two apparently independent documents and gain a thicker reading of both.

P.Oxy. 1928 (Images courtesy of the Imaging Papyri Project, University of Oxford)

P.Oxy. 1928 (Image courtesy of the Imaging Papyri Project, University of Oxford)



[1] See the original excavation reports in Oxyrhynchus: A City and Its Texts (chapter 28). Of course, it is slightly ironic that in order to explore the process by which an unsifted archive (a dump) was converted into a peculiar sort of academic archive (the Oxyrhynchus papyri), I have had to resort to  a third sort of archival material, the archived excavators reports.

[2]Because of how papyrus is formed into a writing surface, it strictly speaking is possible to separate the two sides, but as such a procedure significantly compromises the structural integrity of an already-fragile artefact and has no financial benefit, it is hard to imagine a context in which that would happen.


Brief Bibliography

Bagnall, R.S., ed. 2009. The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology. Oxford; New York: Oxford U.P.

Bowman, A.K., ed. 2007. Oxyrhynchus: A City and Its Texts. Graeco-Roman Memoirs 93. London: Egypt Exploration Society.

De Bruyn, T.S. and J.H.F. Dijkstra. 2011. “Greek Amulets and Formularies from Egypt Containing Christian Elements: A Checklist of Papyri, Parchments, Ostraka, and Tablets,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 48: 163–216.

Frend, W.H.C. 1991. “Apion, Family of.” In The Coptic Encyclopedia, ed. A.S. Atiya. New York: Macmillan. 1: 155a–156a.

Gamble, H. 1995. Books and Readers in the Early Christian Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven: Yale U.P.

Luijendijk, A. 2010. “Sacred Scriptures as Trash: Biblical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus.” Vigiliae Christianae 64: 217–254.


 Jeremiah Coogan is reading for an MPhil in Judaism and Christianity in the Graeco-Roman World at the University of Oxford.