As part of the preparations for Manchester Museum’s latest exhibition Humans in Ancient Britain: Rediscovering Neanderthals, which opens today (22nd April 2016), Mlle Loren Souchard conserved three plaster casts of Neanderthal skulls dating from the end of the 19th century. Their condition, although good overall, required conservation treatment in preparation for the exhibition, and research allowed us to learn more about their history.
As conservators, it is important to collect much information as possible about an object and its history in order to select the most appropriate conservation intervention.
On these labels, handwritten information tells us about the name and the subject of each object, and the typeface on the label informs us more widely about its origins. We were able to bring together documentation about the skulls, including descriptions, names, locality and provenance.
The Compagny “Dr F.Krantz / Rheinisches Mineralien-Kontor / Bonn” printed on the labels is still a widely known and respected business. It is actually the oldest geological supply house in the world, and its history is well documented. The Mineralogal Record, a database on the internet shows ‘Label Archives’ of the company from its creation to the 20th century, and was very helpful for comparing, and providing approximate dates for the labels on the skullcaps.
So we learned that Adam August Krantz founded the firm in 1833 and “Dr. F. Krantz”, his nephew, bought the firm in 1888, and changed the Company’s name from “A. Krantz” to “Dr. F. Krantz” and the «Rheinisches Mineralien- Kontor» in 1891. Regarding the label inside the skullcaps, the fact that it is marked “F. Krantz” instead of “A. Krantz” attests the skull casts were sold after 1891.
From the lack of detail on the casts compared to the originals, we concluded that the casts were probably moulded from existing moulds and not from the originals, and may have been part of a series, as suggested by the numbers written on labels. Then we observed on the Spy skullcap cast two colours on different surface levels, which seems to distinguish the original bone (upper area) from fillings made in order to complete the shape (lower area). This finding could verify a hypothesis that these two levels and two colours are indicative of use in an educational context to help students.
The circulation of archaeological and anthropological discoveries by means of moulded specimens was very important at that time, and collections, teaching models and exhibition pieces from the Dr F.Krantz / Rheinisches Mineralien-Kontor were sold to customers all over the world. So, these casts are probably part of a set. In the Manchester Museum, William Boyd Dawkins, the first Curator, presented two photographs of the model of a restored head of a Neanderthal skull to the Museum in 1904-5. So Neanderthals were certainly of interest to the Museum at that time.
By comparing the Museum’s copy with the original Gibraltar Neanderhtal Skull kept in the National History Museum of London, we were also able to have a better idea of what was missing on the Manchester Museum cast. Old adhesive on the broken area confirmed that the piece was already broken and had been stuck some time before its loss.
After condition reporting, the casts were dusted down. The labels and the polychrome areas were cleaned with a cosmetic sponge, lightly applied, and the shiny surfaces, with patina, were only cleaned with moist cotton. It was a light cleaning, intended to preserve the patina, as an integral part of the skulls’ authenticity and their history. The plaster surface on the damaged areas was minimised.
We choose not to remove old adhesive on the Gibraltar skull cast broken edge because it’s a part of the object’s history, we simply retouched the edge to make it less intrusive.
These three skulls thus have historic and documentary value, they testify about the period of manufacture and are typical of products sold by the company Dr F.Krantz, Rheinisches Mineralien-Kontora ll around the world. To say that we were dealing with plaster casts of Neanderthal skulls, this study proved to be surprisingly interesting and rewarding, more so than we might have imagined before we started. And of course, it allowed us to learn a little more about these objects.
I am grateful to my supervisor Samantha Sportun, Senior Conservator in the Museum, for having allowed me to work on these casts, and to Bryan Sitch (Curator of Archaeology) for his help with my historic research.
Loren Souchard is a conservation intern from Manchester Museum and is studying Conservation Studies in the National Institute of Cultural Heritage in Paris. Merci beaucoup Ma’moiselle.