Jason Finch - Elephant Tusks

Podcast Transcript

Elephant Tusks

Hello, my name is Jason Finch and I'm one of the curators in the history team based at Aberdeen Maritime Museum.

In a collection as large as ours it's impossible to have just one favourite object, but one of my favourites is the pair of elephant's tusks we have on display in the Maritime Museum. They are different sizes and definitely from two different elephants.

It's their background story that fascinates me; these were not some souvenir from an explorer or tourist from years gone past, but come from Shetland, which is not renowned for having very many elephants.

We have to back to January 1934 when the trawler Evelyn Nutten which was operating out of Aberdeen at the time was fishing off the Shetlands and it trawled up two tusks in one of its catches. As you can imagine for fishermen this is a bit of an unusual find. They brought the tusks back to Aberdeen and were taken to the University where experts had a look at them. They decided they must have been around 50,000 year old and must have come from mammoths. Either from a time where the North Sea was dry land and obviously mammoths were living there or they drifted down from the Arctic on an iceberg and sunk as the iceberg melted away.

The reports of the find were recorded in local and national newspapers and the tusks were actually exhibited around the whole of the UK at branches of MacFisheries, a national chain of fishmongers at the time. And so the tusks remained known as the 'Shetland Mammoth Tusks'.

So, let's go forward a bit to 1988 when it was decided to do some fresh tests on the tusks, including having radiocarbon dated. And much to everyone's surprise at the time, it was discovered the tusks were in fact only 3 to 400 years old, so they couldn't be mammoth tusks they might have been elephant tusks.

But, how did they get there? Like I say there are no elephants in Shetland. The idea is they must have been part of a shipwreck that was wrecked off Shetland at some stage. But in the 17th and 18th century it was likely ships that were coming back from the Far East were usually carrying tusks. But these ships would usually sail up the English Channel going to either London or Amsterdam. This was where the workshops were, where people would use ivory to make objects. So, how did they end up there? Well, there was some trade between Denmark and Sweden in the Far East at that time, so it's possible that these were ships from going to Sweden and Denmark that got wrecked off Shetland. But we don't have any records of this, however sometimes Dutch ships coming back from the Far East actually ran aground the top of Scotland to get to Holland. So, it's possible that it was a Dutch ship. We do have records of eleven Dutch ships being wrecked near Shetland about this time. In fact in mid-1690 four such ships were sunk in a single storm off Fair Isle, one of them was called the Wapen van Alkmaar and that ship is said to have ivory as part of its cargo.

To bring the story right up to date, in 2016, the harpol model of the Evelyn Nutten, the trawler who found the tusks, was donated to us at the Maritime Museum by the descendants of the trawlers original owner. They had never heard the story at all about the tusks and were amazed to hear it.

I think the thing is it just goes to show there are always new things we can learn about our collections, it also shows how new techniques can change our understanding of objects. But most importantly of all it shows that museums are places where ideas can change.