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Life of a Scotch Naturalist, Thomas Edward
Chapter XVII. Antiquities Kitchen-Middens


Edward had now been working for about ten years along the sea-shore—collecting crustacea, mollusks, fish, and marine objects. He had won his honors, and lost his health. His medical attendant had often warned him to give up night-work, and avoid exposure of all kinds. But though Edward had given up night-work, and partly recovered his health, he would not give up the study of nature.

He was now, however, compelled to abandon it altogether.1 The doctor was called in again, and found him utterly prostrate. It was the old story—fever and sore throat, the results of exposure, and perhaps of insufficient sustenance. His illness was more serious now than it had been before. In course of time, however, he recovered. The doctor again had a serious talk with him. He even threatened him with a lunatic asylum if he did not altogether abandon his outdoor researches.

When Edward was able to move about, he learned, to his unutterable grief, the truth, which he would fain have concealed from himself, that his career was at an end as regarded his further researches into the mysteries of nature. Though his mind remained as vigorous as ever, his bodilv constitution had been seriously injured. He had lost the elasticity of manhood, and never recovered it again.

Edward was so completely broken down, that he was in a great measure disabled from working at his trade. What, then, was he to do? His doctor thought that it would be better for him to give up the trade of shoe-making, and try something else. He advised him to study electricity, with the view of setting up a galvanic battery. He gave Edward books for the purpose of studying the subject. But, on considering the matter, Edward came to the conclusion that he did not know enough of the mechanism and economy of the human system to apply the power medicinally. Still the doctor urged him. Numerous patients came to him to be galvanized, and he had not time to attend to them himself; he would send all his customers to Edward. But Edward had no desire to be a quack, and to pour galvanism, of which he knew little, into a body of which he knew less. At length he came to the determination not to take up the system of treating disease by electrical methods.

He was next advised to obtain some situation in connection with natural history—such, for instance, as the curator of a museum. He was already the curator of the Banff Museum, but the remuneration was almost nominal. In 1852 he had been appointed curator, at a salary of two guineas a year. After about twelve years’ service, his salary was increased to four guineas a year. Even that was but a nominal consideration. Edward naturally desired to obtain some position with a salary sufficient to maintain him. But he possessed no influence; he was too shy to push himself forward; he had no one to help him to obtain any situation; and he eventually gave it up as a hopeless project.

His attention was next turned to photography. He obtained a treatise on the subject; he read and studied it; and then he purchased chemicals and a camera. To obtain these, he again drew upon his savings-bank by selling another portion of his natural-history collection. He found the practice of photography very agreeable, and he was at length enabled to take a very fair portrait. But he found that really good portraits could not be taken except in a glass-windowed apartment provided for the purpose. He had no such apartment, and he had not money enough to build one. His portraits were taken in the open air. Perhaps, too, he wanted that deftness of hand and delicacy of treatment which, had he been younger, he would more readily have mastered. For by this time Edward was growing old and stiff-handed. Besides, there were other photographers in the town, better provided with capital and machinery, and it is scarcely to be wondered at if his trade in photographic pictures should have been but small. Yet some of his portraits, more particularly of himself and his family, are exceedingly well done.

In the mean time, however, the activity of his mind and the closeness of his observation would not allow him to remain at rest. He had done what he could for science. But there were other things to be thought over and written about. One of the subjects that attracted him was antiquities; and he began with the antiquities of Banff. Several articles on the subject appeared in the Banffshire Journal, which were thus introduced by the editor: “We recently mentioned that our townsman, Mr. Thomas Edward, was engaged in preparing notes on the antiquities of the town and neighborhood. We have pleasure in giving the following extract from his MSS. The extract, it will be seen, embodies two important practical suggestions—one as to the obtaining and re-erecting in the town the Old Cross of the burgh; and the other as to the erection of a drinking-fountain.”

What Edward said about the ancient cross of Banff and the proposed drinking - fountain may best be given in his own words:

“Banff, like every other town, bad its ‘cross.’ Where this ancient relic of ours had stood during the various revolutions of the burgh, we are not aware. We are told, however, that its last stance was on the Low Street, nearly opposite the foot of the Strait Path. From this we believe it was suffered to be removed (to our praise as a community be it spoken) to adorn the top of a dove-cote about a mile from the town, and on ground with which the public have nothing to do. On inquiry, we learn that it is still the property of the town. If this is correct, then we say, Get it back. Yes, we say, Get back our venerable and time-honored cross. No one can fail to observe the almost universal restoration of the old works of antiquity which is going on throughout the country. Although nothing of this kind has yet taken place here, our ancient cross must be redeemed, and the sooner it is done the greater will be the credit due to those who accomplish it.

“Our charitable bequests, as is well known, are many and valuable. Still, we lack at least one—one which would cost but little, and at the same time be a universal good. There are many very wealthy individuals in and belonging to the burgh, some of whom may yet be persuaded to give us this desideratum. We allude to a drinking-fountain. These things, too, be it remembered, are becoming universal, although we have none of them. We maintain that it would be a great and an inestimable boon to the place.

“But some may ask, What has this to do witb antiquities? Well, perhaps not much yet, but we trust it will soon have. We have said that a drinking-fountain would cost but little. Once erected, the interest of a small sum annually would pay for the water, and keep the place in repair; and besides tending to be a blessing to thousands, it would be an interesting and conspicuous ornament to the town, and one of the most refreshing which modern ingenuity and gratitude could devise or rear. Supposing that some of our philanthropic friends, who may wish to have their names carried down to future generations as being benefactors and lovers of their species, might yet think well of our suggestion, and give us a fountain, could not our cross be placed upon it as a crowning stone? We think so. And sure we are that no better emblem, nor one more expressive, could be given to a place of the kind. But although nothing of this kind may take place, still we would urge the restoration of our old and venerable cross.”

The article produced no results. The suggestion about the cross trod upon the toes of some person of local influence, and the idea of its restoration was soon stamped out. The drinking-fountain also remains to be erected.

Edward was more successful in his investigations of the Kjokken-modding at Boyndie — a much more interesting piece of antiquity. Kitchen-middens, or refuse heaps, have been discovered in large numbers along the shores of the Danish islands. Not less than a hundred and fifty have already been found in Denmark. They consist chiefly of castaway shells, of the oyster, mussel, cockle, and periwinkle, intermixed with the bones of quadrupeds, birds, and fish. Some of them also contain fragments of pottery and burned clay, and rude implements of stone and bone, which were evidently dropped by those who took their meals in the vicinity of the heaps, or who throw them away as useless.

These shell-mounds vary in height, in breadth, and in length. They are from three to ten feet high, and sometimes extend to a thousand feet in length, while they vary from a hundred to two hundred feet in width. It is evident, from these remains, that some prehistoric people were accustomed to live along the sea-shore, or to frequent it when food failed them in the interior, and live upon mollusks and fish. That they ventured out to sea in canoes hollowed out of the trunk of a single tree (such as are occasionally found in Danish peat-bogs) is obvious, from the fact that the bony relics of deep-sea fish, such as the cod, the herring, and the skate, are occasionally found in the shell-heaps. No remains of any agricultural produce, nor of domesticated animals (excepting the dog), have been found in them; so that it is probable that the people who then occupied the land were exclusively hunters and fishers, and that they knew nothing of pastoral or agricultural pursuits.

Who these ancient people were has been the subject of much conjecture. It is not improbable that they were Lapps or Esquimaux. The most ancient skulls which have been found in Denmark, near the shell-mounds, are small and round, indicating the small stature of the people. Sir Charles Lyell says that they bear a considerable resemblance to those of the modern Laplanders. It is probable that a great part of Europe was originally peopled by Lapps, and that they were driven north by the incoming of a more civilized race from the east. There are still remnants of the Lapps in the island of Malmon, off the coast of Sweden; in North Connaught, and the island of Arran in Ireland; in the island of Lewis, off the western coast of Scotland; and in several of the Shetland Islands.

When the discoveries in Denmark came to light, and were republished in this country, investigations began to be made as to the existence of similar shell-mounds on the British coast. We do not know whether the first investigations were made along the shores of the Moray Firth, but they are the first of which we have any account. Numerous shell-heaps had long been observed along the coast. They were raised above the level of the highest tides; and the impression which prevailed was, that they had been collected there at some early period by an eddy of the ocean. The shelly deposits were also adduced in proof of a raised sea-margin.

The kitchen-midden at Boyndie, near Banff, had long been known as a famous place for shell. Hence, probably, its name of Shelly-bush. About forty years since, Edward’s attention was drawn to it by a man who had picked up shells from it when a boy. Edward set it down in his mind as an old sea-margin, and although often passing it in his journeys by the sea-side, he never thought of it as any thing else. When Professor Macgillivray, of Aberdeen, was walking with Edward along the links, about the year 1850, the latter pointed out to him the shell-bank. The professor remarked that it did not look like any other raised beach that he had ever seen.

Years passed; but what with cart-wheels going over it, and rude hands picking at it, the shells and bones which it contained at length became more clearly exposed. Still it was held to be but an ancient sea-beach. Then came the news from Denmark about the kitcben-middens. A paper by Mr. (now Sir John) Lubbock appeared in the Natural History Review for October, 1861, which had the effect of directing the attention of. archaeologists to the subject. “Macgillivray’s remark,” says Edward, “instantly flashed upon me. I looked at the Shelly-bush shells in our collection, and compared them with the raised beaches of King Edward and Gamric. I saw the difference in a moment, and smiled at my own stupidity. Away I went to the Bush, and the happy result was, that before I returned I had the inexpressible delight of ascertaining that the old sea-beach was neither more nor less than a veritable kitchen-midden.”

The Rev. Dr. Gordon, of Birnie, near Elgin, had already found a similar accumulation of shells on the old margin of the Loch of Spynie, formerly an arm of the sea. The mound is situated in a small wood on the farm of Brigzes.

It had been much diminished by its contents having been carted off from the centre of the heap, as manure or top-dressing for the adjoining fields. The mound—or rather couple of mounds, for it has been cut into two parts—must have been of considerable extent. It measured about a hundred yards in length by about thirty in breadth. The most abundant shell found was the periwinkle, or the edible “buckie,” as it is usually called. Next in order was the oyster; and magnificent natives they must have been. The Bay of Spynie was then a productive dredging-ground. On the extensive flat around it, wherever a canal or ditch is dug up, the shells of oysters are yet to be met with, seemingly on the spots where they lived. Yet the oyster, as well as the primitive people who fared on it, have long since passed away.

The third shell in order, in this bank of shells, is the mussel, and then the cockle — all edible. “There is evidence enough in these mounds,” says Dr. Gordon, “to show that they have been the work of man, and not the effect of any tidal current, or any other natural cause. The shell-fish which the remains represent are, with scarcely an exception, edible, and continue to be eaten to this day. In all deposits by the sea, there is abundance of species that have ever been rejected as food. The shells are full-grown, or adult shells. In collections made by the sea, the young animals are abundant, and often predominate. Now, no movements of wind and water could have thus selected the edible and the adult, and left behind the noxious and the young. They must have been gathered by man, and for the purpose of supplying his wants. Many other arguments have been brought forward to prove this, so that no doubt is now entertained about the matter. One strong proof is, that the oyster and the periwinkle are never found living and mingled together in the same part of the sea. The former exists between tide-marks, the other in deep water. The cockle delights in sand; the mussel must be moored to a rock or hard bottom. In different parts of the masses of shells at Brigzes, there are to be seen many stones that have been subjected to considerable heat. They probably have been used in this state for cooking, as is known to be the case among people of primitive habits to tins day.”

The shells found by Edward in the kitchen-midden at Boyndie corresponded in a great measure with those found by the Rev. Dr. Gordon at Brigzes. Thus, he found the periwinkle, the highly esteemed bitckie, the limpet, the horse buckie (in some places called the dog periwinkle), the mussel; bones of various kinds of wild animals, such as the deer, the hare, and the rabbit; the remains of several species of fish, such as bones of the state; a few of the crab family ; fragments of pottery, and small bits of charred wood and ashes. The ashes are just like those left from a wood or peat fire. Small stones, also, were got, partially blackened, as if they had been used for cooking purposes. One very common ingredient among the fish was that part of the head known as the “lug been” — a bone usually given to the children of the family to pick.

“A remarkable fact,” says Edward, in his account of the Boyndie kitchen-midden, “ and one not mentioned in any account of a similar place is, that while some of the shells crumble to dust almost with the least touch, others are still so hard that they would require the fingers of a giant to pound them. The enameling of some of the limpet and mussel shells is still as beautiful as almost to persuade one that the animal had been but newly taken out. On the other hand, some are so far gone and so soft as to feel like a piece of wet blot-sheet. But what appears to be the most remarkable peculiarity in these two very opposite extremes is, that the shells thus spoken of may be found in the same handful and from the same spot. Another very striking feature is, that in handling the old ‘muck,’ one’s fingers soon get nearly as black as ink. Here, also, as in all the other shell-accumulations, the larger bones are broken—not cut, but broken up longitudinally, or what might rather be called splintered. This has been done, it is thought, to get at the fat or marrow, of which these early people seem to have been very fond. They broke the bone, just as we break up with some heavy instrument the large toes of a lobster or parten, in order to reach the food.”

M. Engelhardt, in describing the kjokken-moddings of Denmark, says that 110 human bones have been found among the sliell-heaps. Sir John Lubbock has also said that “the absence of human remains satisfactorily proves that the primitive population of the North were free from the practice of cannibalism.” Recent investigations have, however, cast some doubts upon this statement. For instance, Mr. Laing, M.P., read a paper before the Ethnological Society on the 14th of December, 1864, in which he described the results of his investigations of the kitchen-mid-dens at Keiss, in Caithness, about eight miles north of Wick. Large masses of periwinkle and limpet shells, mixed with bones, flint splinters, and bone instruments of the rudest sort, were found. Among the bones, part of the jaw of a child was discovered, which had been broken as if to get at the marrow; and affording ground for presumption that cannibalism was prevalent, or, at least, was occasionally resorted to among the race to which the remains refer.

No human bones were found in the shell-heaps of either Boyndie or Brigzes; so that Mr. Laing’s remarks may, after all, prove to be a mere conjecture. “One thing,” says Edward, “must be observed—that no implements have as yet been found mixed up with our shells; but whether this would indicate an earlier or a later date, it would be premature even to hint. Flint flakes, a portion of a flint knife, and a stone axe or hatchet, have been found near some of the Morayshire mounds, but not in them. They are, however, considered to belong to the same period. In the same way, the flint flakes, arrow-heads, elfshots, found in the lower part of Banffshire, as also the two curious rough-looking bits of stones formed like knives, lately dug up near Banff, and now placed in the Banff Museum, doubtless belong to the same by-gone days. Of this, however, we have a proof beyond doubt, that those who had for a time sojourned at Boyndie had, like the men of Denmark, gone out to sea-fishing. This we learn from the fact that spines of large rays or skate, bones of other big fish, such as the cod, ling, and haddocks, bits of old sponge-eaten shells, as the scallop {Pecten maximus and operculcu'is), the cow shell (Cyprina fslanclica), and the roaring buckie (Fnsus anti gnus), are found in our shell-mound. Now these can not be got except in pretty deep water; and although no traces of any of their vessels have as yet been met with near the mound, still one, a canoe—very similar to the ancient Danish canoe —was dug up some years ago from a piece of marshy ground betwixt Portsoy and Cullen.

“During a recent excavation of the mound in the presence of a clerical friend, we came upon the two following species of shells not previously noticed — the flat-topped periwinkle {Littorina littoralis), and the gray pyramid shell (Trochus cinerarius). These shells are both very common among the rocks at the present day. As the list indicates, the periwinkle was the most frequent shell in the mound; but we went deeper down, and the farther we. went into the bank, the limpet was most predominant, and, in fact, was almost the exclusive shell.

“Taking all these circumstances into account, and weighing the matter carefully over, we can not come to any other conclusion than that the kitchen-middens must be of a very remote age. We know nothing of the people who formed these mounds of shells and bones. Tradition and history are altogether silent. Archaeology seems powerless to help us, and ethnology’s vision fails to penetrate the depths of obscurity. It would appear to be one of those mysteries of the past which baffle even the wisest.”

Edward collected further samples of articles taken from kitchen-middens for the museum, including a series of shells — the oyster, the cockle, the periwinkle, and the brown buckie, or whelk — gathered from the shell-heaps on the farm of Brigzes, near Elgin. He had also several other fragments of antiquity collected in the museum, one of the most interesting of which was the joint-bone of some extinct animal. The story connected with this bone is rather curious.

Before Edward had any official connection with the museum, he visited it one day in company with his master, and there he first saw this particular bone. He was struck by its size, thickness, and peculiar shape. The idea flashed across his mind that he had seen something like it in a picture, but he could not remember where. Seeing his intent glance, the curator asked him if he knew any thing about it? “Nothing,” said he, “except that it appears to me to be a semi-fossilized bone of some of the pre-Adamite monsters that are dug up now and then ; but what it is I can not tell.” “It looks to me,” said the curator, “to be nothing more than the root of a tree : in fact, I am sure it is. If it were a bone, as you say, surely some of the gentlemen composing the Scientific Society would know.” “Give it time,” replied Edward, “and some one will yet be able to tell us all about it.” “Time, indeed!” said the curator; “we have had it lying here far too long. I have often thought of throwing it into the fire, and I will do so when I have next the opportunity. It would never have been here hut for that old fool [naming a previous curator], whose only aim seems to have been to get the place filled up with useless trash.”

In the mean time the previous history of the bone may be given. Some sixty years before, when a mill-dam was being enlarged at Inverichny, in the parish of Alvah, near Banff, one of the workmen came upon a dark-looking object imbedded in the bank among clay and shingle, about six feet from the surface. After being disengaged, it was found that the object was very like a large hour-glass, though not tapering so much toward the middle. There were differences of opinion among the workmen about the nature of the tiling. One said it was a “been,” another said it was “an auld fir knot.” One man tried to break it into pieces with a spade, but he failed. '1 lie hard bone turned up the edge of the spade. It was handed about, to ascertain if any body could make any thing of it. At last it got into the hands of Captain Reid, of Inverichny. lie showed it to the three most important persons in his neighborhood —the minister, the doctor, and the dominie.

The minister, though he could say nothing about the bone, knew that there were great leviathans in the waters, for he had read about them in the Scriptures; but he had never seen any notice of such things being found in clay-banks. The doctor, after looking at it, and turning it round and round, said that if it was a bone, at least it did not belong to the human structure. The dominie, like his other learned friends, could throw no greater light upon the subject. He did not think it was a bone at all, but only a monstrous piece of petrified bamboo! Then the men of science of the Banff Institution were applied to, but they could make no more of the object than the minister, the doctor, and the dominie. Finally Captain Reid presented it to the museum of the Banff Scientific Society, and there it remained until Edward first saw it.

It would appear, however, that the curator had become tired of the bone, or whatever else it was, and wished to get rid of it. He removed it from the case in which it was deposited, and threw it among the rubbish of the museum. When Edward was appointed sub-curator of the museum, about nine years afterward, his first natural impulse was to go to the table where the bone had been deposited, but, lo! it had been removed. He searched the whole place, but no bone was to be found. He feared lest the curator had carried out his intention, and burned it.

Next morning Edward received orders to destroy a lot of useless stuff which lay on the floor, consisting of broken-down astronomical and philosophical instruments, moth-eaten beasts, birds, and fishes, together with other wrecked specimens of the long-neglected museum. Edward went to work, and while grouping among the rubbish at the bottom of the heap, he came upon a round dark object. He brought it up, and, lo! it was the “auld been”—in other words, the old bone! It had not been burned! He cleaned it and put it in the old place.

When the curator next made his appearance to ascertain how far the burning had gone, he gave a glance at the case where the bone had been replaced. He stood aghast. “You have put this thing on the table again!” he shouted. “Yes,” replied Edward. “Do you know,” rejoined the curator, “that by so doing you are insulting myself, and the gentlemen of the society, who requested all objectionable matter to be removed from the collection?” “I am very sorry for that,” said Edward. “Then remove it at once, and burn it with the rest.” Edward removed it accordingly, but he did not burn it. He took it home, and kept it there until he was able to replace it in the museum.

When the curator next entered the apartment, he glanced at the place where the bone had been, and seeing that it had been removed, he said nothing further about it. Shortly after, Edward was himself appointed curator, and, having the control of the collection in his own hands, he restored the bone to its former place. He was still most anxious to know of what animal the bone had constituted a part. He never failed to direct the attention of visitors to the bone, and to inquire of them whether they could give him any information about it. Thus time rolled on, and, despite of all his endeavors, the bone still remained unknown and unnamed.

At last Sir Roderick Murchison and Professor Ramsay honored the museum with a visit, in September, 1859. Edward was sure that Sir Roderick would be able to tell him all that he wanted to know respecting the bone. It was the first thing that he put into Sir Roderick’s hands. “Can you tell me what that is, sir?” He took it up, turned it round and round, and over and over, and remarked, “That is a most extraordinary bone and then he asked when and where it had been found. Edward told him all the facts he knew respecting it, and added, “But can you tell me to what animal it belonged?” “No, I can not tell,” replied Sir Roderick. Neither did Professor Ramsay know any thing about the bone. “You see,” said Sir Roderick, “this does not lie in my way. This is not exactly a geological specimen. I am more a stone man than a bone man. Besides, it is often a difficult matter to distinguish small fragments or single bones of a skeleton, especially such a remarkable one as this, and to determine with certainty to what creature it belonged. But,” he added, “if you have any stones in your collection unnamed, or any particular rock in your neighborhood that you can show us, and which you and the stone men of the district are in any doubt about, my colleague and I will be most happy to sort them out for you. As regards the bone, I’ll tell you what to do. Send the bone to London, to Professor Owen. He’s your man. He’s made up of bones. He’ll soon tell you all about it. And more, you can give him my compliments, say you saw me, and that I told you to send it.”

Edward did not, however, send the bone to London. He knew, from experience, that such things, when sent so far away, rarely came back. That had been the case with many of his Crustacea. He therefore kept the bone at home, and continued his inquiries of the savans who from time to time visited the museum; but he never succeeded in obtaining any favorable answer to his questionings.

Years sped on, and still the bone remained unknown. At last, when Edward was rummaging over some old books, he came upon the second volume of the Penny Magazine. While turning over the pages by chance, he saw a picture of old bones which had much puzzled his brains some thirty years before. And now he remembered that it was the picture of the bones here drawn that had first given him the idea that this bone in the museum was the remnant of some extinct animal. And here was the creature itself from which the bone had been taken. It was the Plesiosaurus dolichodeiras; the bone in the museum being one of the femurs of the fore-paddle of that long-extinct monster.

To make assurance doubly sure, Edward took a photograph of the bone, and sent it to a scientific correspondent in London; when he had the pleasure of being informed there was no doubt whatever that the bone was one of the femurs of the fore-paddle of the Plesiosaurus. Here, then, was a discovery well worth all the care, the trouble, and the anxiety which the bone had occasioned. It may also be mentioned that, so far as is known, no other fragment of the Plesiosaurus has yet been found in Scotland. They have been met with in England in the secondary strata, and on the Continent, principally in the Oolite and Lias. The bone in question is now one of the most cherished relics of the Banff Museum.


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