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The Taung Child’s Box:
A Twentieth-Century Reliquary

Dr Lydia Pyne

 

In 2009, the University of Witwatersrand Philip V. Tobias Hominid Laboratory inducted a new-old object into its fossil vault.  One of South Africa’s most famous fossils – the Taung Child, an Australopithecus africanus – was trading out its prior portmanteau, after decades of use, for a new acrylic container.  The old wooden box, however, entered the fossil archive, truly becoming a cultural extension of a fossil hominin discovered almost ninety years earlier.[1]

So what? most might ask.  Why would upgrading the storage container for one fossil be interesting or significant outside of a strictly curatorial process?  What could a small wooden box contribute to the cultural identity – or even the stories and narrative tropes – of a fossil?

Adding the Taung Child’s box to the Hominid Laboratory says a lot about what we archive and how and why.  As the laboratory stores many of South Africa’s famous hominin specimens, the addition of the box poses an interesting juxtaposition of a scientific object and a narrative story.  It asks us to consider why we curate what we curate – on a more esoteric level, one could say that the addition of the wooden box shows the fluidity of a collection.  The Hominid Laboratory holds fossils – the actual, physical, tangible fossils – but it also holds the history, the stories, and the associations of those fossils with paleoanthropology writ large.  The Taung Child and its box are no exception.

The Taung Child fossil’s box at the Hominid Laboratory.  Note specimen number. Image c Lydia Pyne; courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand, 2014.

The Taung Child fossil’s box at the Hominid Laboratory. Note specimen number. Image © Lydia Pyne; courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand, 2014.

Between the fall of 1924 and early winter of 1925, the Taung Child fossil was discovered, published in Nature by Dr. Raymond Dart, and entered public and scientific communities as a then-controversial human ancestor.[2]  The fossil was quickly nicknamed the Taung Child (or Taung Baby) by Dart due to the Taung area where the fossil was discovered and the young age at which the hominin died.  (The then-living hominin was approximately three years old at time of death, after being carried off by a bird of prey.)  The fossil is composed of three parts: the boney part of the face, a jaw, and an endocast, or mold, of the brain.  (The rock breccia matrix that Dart pried the fossil out of has been saved with the fossil as well.)  The world was introduced to the fossil thanks to newspaper media coverage and the fossil’s entre into the paleo-world where a cast of the fossil was shown in the 1925 British Exhibition at Wembley.

The author holding the Taung Child fossil. Image © B. Zipfel; courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand, 2014.

The Taung Child fossil in its new (2009) acrylic box. Image © L. Pyne; courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand, 2014.

After the Exhibition, Dart had a small wooden box made to store the fossil.  (It’s rumored that the original wooden box was replaced in the 1950s by an identical one.)  Stained a medium-dark brown, the only artistic details on the box are the delicate floral tendrils on the brass latch.  The nicks and scratches on the outside speak to years of being carried and handled.

In August 1931, Dart’s first wife, Dora, accidentally left the fossil – rumored to have been in its wooden carrying case – in a taxi in London.  (Dart relished telling the story of the shocked taxi driver opening the box, finding the fossil skull inside, and promptly turning it over to the London police.  The police, in their own stunned turn, reunited the fossil with Dora the following morning.)  In more recent decades, showing the fossil with the box was simply de rigueur.  When Professor Philip Tobias showed the fossil to different groups, pulling the fossil out of its box – with all of the theatrical flair of vaudeville – was part of seeing the fossil. In 2007, University of Witwatersrand curator Dr. Bernhard Zipfel suggested a more modern storage for the famous fossil.  By 2009, the Taung Child was moved to a small, well-formed acrylic box, with foam cut for each of the fossil components.[3]  The wooden box, however, was part of the story; indeed, a cultural extension of the fossil.

When it was announced that the fossil would be moving containers, media in Johannesburg turned up at the laboratory for the Changing of the Box.  The retired box was given a specimen number in the hominin vault, corresponding to Taung 1, the specimen number for the Taung Child, itself – thus inexorably tying the box to the Taung Child and vice versa.  The box now sits, neatly labeled, next to the Taung Child.  Interestingly, it is the only “cultural” artifact in the fossil archive.

The Taung Child fossil in its new (2009) acrylic box. Image © L. Pyne; courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand, 2014.

The author holding the Taung Child fossil. Image © B. Zipfel; courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand, 2014.

With that unique situation, the Taung Box takes on an interesting dimension in its object-ness.  It has materiality, history, and identity.  The box, and the stories of the box, are part of the cultural identity of the fossil and its place in the archive – the box, in many ways, serves as a twentieth-century reliquary for the Taung Child fossil.  It gives us a very human dimension to a long-dead hominin.

Reliquaries are the physical things that contain holy relics. The relic – the body part of a saint or venerated person in association with some type of religious object – takes on meaning because it is the physical remains of someone significant, someone venerated.  There is in explicit relationship between the body, life and death, and the afterlife of the relic.  Particularly significant relics can include the bones of martyred children, and the act of pilgrimage, or attending the relic, takes on special meaning as the viewer travels to see the object.  Other material objects (dirt, clothes, etc.) become associated with the relic and become part of the object – object defined most broadly.  The relics – the bones, specifically – take on particular significance in negotiating the corporeal with the non-material, regardless of religious group.[4]

The Taung Child offers an interesting allegory.  The fossil bones, curated breccia matrix, and the small wooden box serve as a reliquary for the paleoanthropological relic – the fossil bones of a famous, venerated discovery.  The Taung Child could even, arguably, be described as martyred by its environment – carried away by a raptor to die.  Pilgrims come to see the fossil, to study it, to have their picture taken with it.  Even the story of Dora Dart, losing the Taung Child in the taxi and being reunited with the fossil speaks to the conceit of lost and found relics.

Do I think the fossil, its box, and its stories are somehow religious in nature?  Of course not.  The discussion of iconography is meant to offer observations and to be illustrative of humanistic themes and certainly not to detract from the fossil, its box, and its historical place in paleoanthropology.  The fossil-matrix-box suite of objects offers a means to broaden the tropes we use to make sense of objects, certainly objects that we might be quick to categorize as “only” scientific.  Yes, the Taung Child is a scientific object, but it also is more.  The fossil, and its box, speaks to archive, identity, and narrative just as it speaks to its science.

The Taung Child fossil, the acrylic box, the wooden box. (Photo: L. Pyne, courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand, 2014.

The Taung Child fossil, the acrylic box, the wooden box. Image © Lydia Pyne, courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand, 2014.

The Taung Child’s box and its life history occupy a significant place in the fossil archive.  Indeed, the dimension of cultural materialism demonstrated by archiving the box with the fossil is absent in other famous hominin fossils within the history of paleoanthropology (e.g. Piltdown or Lucy).  The box demonstrates a commitment to symbol, narrative, and materiality in history of science more broadly.

Photo 5 author's artistic rendering sm

The author’s “artistic” interpretation of the Taung Child and Box, created from laser cut plywood for the box and cardboard for the skull.
Image © Lydia Pyne, 2014.

 

Acknowledgements: The author would like to acknowledge Drexel University’s Pennoni Honors College; Dr. Bernard Zipfel, curator, University of Witwatersrand; conversations with researchers at the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of Witwatersrand; and the Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Suggested Reading: Raymond A. Dart, Adventures With the Missing Link (Better Baby Pr, 1982); John Gurche, Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins. (Yale University Press, 2013); R. Lewin, Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins, vol. 2nd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); John Reader, Missing Links: The Hunt for Earliest Man (London: Penguin Group, 1981).

REFERENCES 

Barbara Drake Boehm, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. “Relics and Reliquaries in Medieval Christianity | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Text. Accessed August 12, 2013. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/relc/hd_relc.htm.

Brown, Peter. The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Dart, Raymond A. Adventures With the Missing Link. Better Baby Pr, 1982.

Freeman, Charles. Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Gurche, John. Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins. Yale University Press, 2013.

Lewin, R. Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins. Vol. 2nd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

“New ‘home’ for Taung Child.” Accessed March 4, 2014. http://www.maropeng.co.za/news/entry/new_home_for_taung_child.

Reader, John. Missing Links: The Hunt for Earliest Man. London: Penguin Group, 1981.

Zipfel, Bernhard.  Interviewed by Lydia Pyne, informal interview.  Johannesburg, South Africa. 1 July 2013.


[1] A hominin refers to any species (fossil or living) that includes the genus Homo and other members of the human clade.  In other words, a hominin includes modern humans and their ancestors.  Australopithecines – the Taung Child species – belong to the genus Australopithecus – a genus found in southern and east Africa whose species date to the Plio-Pleistocene between 2-4 million years ago.

[2] For those interested in more details about the paleo-controversies associated with the fossil, I would suggest Raymond A. Dart, Adventures With the Missing Link (Better Baby Pr, 1982); R. Lewin, Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins, vol. 2nd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); John Reader, Missing Links: The Hunt for Earliest Man (London: Penguin Group, 1981).

[3] Dart, Adventures With the Missing Link; “New ‘home’ for Taung Child,” accessed March 4, 2014, http://www.maropeng.co.za/news/entry/new_home_for_taung_child.; Dr. Bernard Zipfel (fossil curator at the University of Witwatersrand), in discussion with author, 1 July 2013.

[4] Raymond A. Dart, Adventures With the Missing Link (Better Baby Pr, 1982); “New ‘home’ for Taung Child,” accessed March 4, 2014, http://www.maropeng.co.za/news/entry/new_home_for_taung_child.

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Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A. If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: objectoftheweek@gmail.com

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Lydia Pyne, PhD – 

I am a writer, editor, and historian with interests and training in archaeology and history of science. My writing focuses on the history of paleoanthropology and archaeology; my fieldwork, archival research, and writing projects have ranged from South Africa, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Iran, and the American Southwest. My current book project, Famous Fossils, Hidden Histories, sketches the histories of eight hominin fossils as they move from scientific circles to iconic cultural symbols. http://pynecone.org

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© Lydia Pyne, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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