Being Human Festival 2018

Written by Victoria Green

© National Leather Collection

This week, the National Leather Collection hosted ‘Origins of Leather’ in celebration of the Being Human Festival – a nationwide event encouraging research and out-of-the-box thinking in the humanities. After a very successful pilot event last year, we were excited to engage with the festival theme of ‘Origins and Endings’ to bring something exciting, and a bit different, to Northampton.

Leather, as an organic material, lends itself easily to the theme of Origins and Endings. We certainly had lots of ideas to work with! Each piece of leather is, in itself, both an origin and ending.

After a few weeks of head-scratching and throwing ideas around the office, we produced a special exhibition, looking at different types of origins and endings within the collection. This ranged from the ‘origins of leather’, represented by bark used for tanning and stone tools used for de-fleshing and preparing hides, to the ‘end of Tutankhamun’, with gilded leather fragments from his tomb, via the shipwreck of the Fraumetta Catharina, genetic experimentation at Cambridge University and a Native American peace blanket.

In addition to a dedicated display, we hosted a series of lunchtime lectures. We wanted to encourage visitors to think around some of the biggest, and most challenging questions related to leather.

On Day 1, we welcomed Professor Matthew McCormack from the University of Northampton. The first talk of the festival focused on the origins of national identity in the 18th Century and how the humble shoe and boot helped to shape this. Believe it or not, both men and women wore high heels in the 18th Century. Upper class individuals travelled by carriage, sedan chair or horse, so boots weren’t made for walking! Furthermore, it wasn’t until much later that men and women were clearly distinguished by what they wore; as men’s heels flattened and black became popular, women were wearing delicate pumps tied with ribbons. Practical men’s footwear allowed for walking in the great outdoors, but flimsy women’s shoes restricted them to domestic roles within the home.

It was interesting to see the impact of politics upon footwear too; during times of war, leather was reserved for military use, and wooden clogs became more common. Clogs were a ‘working class’ shoe, with inflexible soles and exaggerated shape, making your feet appear large and clumsy, your posture poor. Not a good look during the 19th Century when dainty feet were en vogue. Also fascinating was the idea of wooden shoes as a political symbol. In France, the clog was used for protest, and in England it was used to caricature the French. Charles II came heavily under fire for allying with France, and a rejection of wooden shoes echoed this. Parisian slaves wore clogs; they were not seen as shoes for the leather-wearing Englishman!

O the Roast Beef of Old England ('The Gate of Calais') 1748 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Presented by the Duke of Westminster 1895 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01464

O the Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’) by William Hogarth, 1748. Held by the Tate.

Symbolism like this, including leather, suggested that the English were better off than their foreign counterparts.

We travelled back in time for Day 2, as we delved into prehistory and ancient technologies. Dr. Mike Redwood of the University of Bath tackled a tricky question; ‘when was leather invented?’ Of course nobody really knows the answer, but Dr. Redwood knows more than most on the subject! The lecture started 3 million years ago with Lucy, an early modern human found in Ethiopia. It is our assumption that as soon as humans started to walk upright, they needed something to protect their feet, clothing to keep them warm, and shelter to keep them dry. And what did they use? Leather, of course, was readily available and a natural by-product of hunting. Prehistoric animals were much bigger, and yielded larger hides; the problem was that raw hides were full of bacteria, and gradually rotted away. The first potential evidence for treating leather came with Java Man, 1 million years ago. From archaeological excavation, we can see that he was using skin shelters with fires set inside. The smoke had a tanning effect on the leather, and so, by fortuitous accident, his hides became more durable. This method of smoking was widely used by Native Americans, along with brain tanning!

A little known fact (well, little known by me) is that leather wasn’t officially leather until the 17th Century. In 1604, Parliament passed an act declaring that everything tanned, tawed or salted “shall be … reputed and taken for leather”. This is despite the fact that traditional techniques and technologies for tanning and manufacture had remained the same for centuries! But leather was about to be part of a new era, dragging Britain into the future. Leather literally turned the gears of the industrial revolution, and made mechanisation possible. This unique material has been present in all aspects of history, and has shaped society as we know it.

© National Leather Collection

The Codex Amiatinus c. 716 AD

Our last day had more of a science focus! Professor Matthew Collins from the University of Cambridge talked to us about ‘creatures in the collection’, and what we can learn about society from the proteomic analysis of leather. Matthew’s project is focusing on the animals that are turned into parchment, which is done very cleverly by sequencing ancient, archaeological genomes of animals. It’s not wildly different to modern technologies developed around humans, but can be applied in a whole new way. While the genetic sequencing side of things may be complex, the sampling process is actually fairly simple. A technology called ZooMS (zoological Mass-Spectrometry) was developed as a non-invasive method of obtaining DNA from pieces of parchment. It’s all done with a school-style eraser; those little eraser crumbs or ‘erdu’ produced are wrapped in collagen fibres, which can then be extracted and analysed. This method has saved a number of manuscripts from the scissors, as it only requires a small amount of material from the surface layer.

The project has been a huge success so far, with hundreds of organisations getting involved to provide over 5,000 samples! We are no able to ask questions like “is this really sheep?”, and get answers about what it is and where it came from. This has shed light on well-well-known texts like the Codex Amiatinus, which is currently on display at the British Library. A 0.5m tall, 34kg tome, the Codex is the earliest complete Latin Bible, made around 716 AD. Originally thought to have been made of over 500 English calf skins, proteomic analysis has revealed that it is actually composed of Italian goat and sheep. The skins were likely shipped to Britain, so the book could be made in Northumbria before beginning its long journey back to Rome.

So, a huge thank you is due to all of our lecturers for giving such interesting talks! Thanks also to all of the museum volunteers for their support, and to our attendees for joining us and asking such thoughtful questions.

If you missed out on Origins of Leather, all lectures will be available to view on our Youtube channel. Alternatively, you can read back through our live lecture Tweets by searching for #OriginsOfLeather on our Twitter.