Animal attraction

Manege, Jardin des Plantes, ParisTerm 6

It was half-term and I was in Paris. Wandering through the Jardin des Plantes on a chilly Monday morning I wondered what to do. Hitch a ride on the Dodo manège?  Or join outdoor tai chi to warm up?

Tai Chi in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris

But a trainee Alexander teacher never sleeps. The siren call of skeletons sang out from the nearby Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Paleontology. The lure of bones was too strong and I stepped inside.

Skeletons, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Over 600 skeletons came at me in a stampede as I walked in. It’s hard to believe these animals are long dead – they arrived in Paris in the 18th and 19th centuries, brought back by French explorers from overseas expeditions.  Many lived in the nearby Menagerie and eventually the collection formed the basis for the study of comparative anatomy, then in its infancy.Manege, Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Bird skeletons, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Turtles, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Spines in Museum of Comparative Anatomy in Paris

The layout and display seem little changed since the gallery opened to the public in 1898, but it’s surprisingly light and full of life. Parisian children on half-term visits seemed content to wander, point and discover as they moved from hippo to giraffe, gorilla to whale or headed for the heavier bones of the fossil gallery upstairs.Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Palaeontology, Paris

Prehistory, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Fossils on the first floor

At first I was overwhelmed. But as I spent more time among the bones, I saw the value of a collection like this.  It’s entertaining and quirky, but it also forces you to compare and contrast and think for yourself. What are the differences between species, between modern and prehistoric, young and adult and ultimately between animal and human?  I haven’t got the answers, but the questions are still ringing in my head and the impact of being with so many skeletons in one huge room will remain with me. I now have a clearer sense of how important bones are in providing structure, alignment and internal space. They give the framework for life and dynamic movement, and maybe that’s why it was so cheerful and full of energy and the children were so absorbed and engaged.

Feet of Bactrian camel, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Feet of Bactrian camel – thick pads between the toes stop it sinking into the sand
Deer skeleton, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Deer use strong muscles in the hind legs to jump. Front legs act as a pivot for changing direction.

There wasn’t just science on offer but art too. All the displays had historical and anatomical value, but there was also beauty in their form and arrangement.  And it was artists, not anatomists, who first used the écorché  standing at the entrance – a model of a flayed human body produced to help understand muscles and how they work. The one here was made for art students in Aix-en-Provence in 1758.

Model of human foot, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Further on the arteries of the brain were as much an artwork as a scientific specimen.

Arteries of the brain, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

And in 2016 the artist Quentin Garel made twelve giant animal skulls from wood and bronze, hiding them in the mass of skeletons for visitors to discover. It was difficult to tell if they were still there or not.

Lunchtime approached. The attraction of the animals began to fade and it was time to go. There was one last treat on my way out – Garel’s giant whale vertebra still sits in the gardens outside. Like the gallery itself, it was the perfect French marriage of art, science and delight.

Dodo Manege, Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Vertebrata by Quentin Garel
Vertebrata by Quentin Garel

Close to the bone

Bones from the Museum of London's teaching collection
Bones from the Museum of London’s teaching collection

Summer holidays

Continuing my explorations into bones of all types, I spent an evening at the Museum of London in the company of Jelena Bekvalac. She’s Curator of Human Osteology at the Museum’s Centre for Human Bioarchaeology. A large crowd joined me to hear about the skeletons under London’s streets.

The Centre looks after 20,000 human skeletal remains. These emerged from archaeological digs (think Time Team) ahead of construction projects in London’s recent building boom.  Nothing in the collection is less than 100 years old – it starts in prehistoric London, continues through the Roman, Anglo-Saxon and medieval periods and ends in the 19th century. Mostly they unearth bone, very little is soft tissue. On a good day they find a high-status lead-lined coffin, perhaps revealing hair, eyelashes, eyebrows and moustache, often still vibrant with colour.

“It’s difficult to stay in one place in perpetuity” Jelena commented in a deadpan voice. It seems careful burial rites at the time of death are important. But digs show that in the past Londoners randomly moved or rearranged skeletons from old burial grounds as the city grew. Most people are buried lying down on their backs – if someone is face down they’ve done bad deeds while alive. Face and ribs are often damaged, being more fragile than other body parts.

My interest is in the living, moving body. But Jelena is like a detective, interrogating bones after death, often centuries later. I was surprised how much she can tell about movement patterns, illness and general health just by analysing bones.

There can be changes from arthritis, scoliosis or gout. Male and female skeletons are different, usually in size and shape of skull and pelvis.  She estimates age from teeth, bone length, wear and tear, and whether bones have fused and cartilage ossified. The younger the skeleton, the more accurate the estimates. It seems the body can age assymetrically, so some bones seem younger than others. To deal with this she looks at both sides of the body before deciding on age.

An acute disease, like Black Death or fever, kills quickly and leaves little trace in the bone. But chronic illnesses have plenty of time to change bone health. She can’t often identify what did kill someone, but to her it’s obvious what didn’t. Old fractures, amputations, holes in the skull can heal over time, even from a period before antibiotics. A life lived with osteoporosis or arthritis is visible in the bone – painful but not fatal.

The evening left me pondering what story my own bones would tell.

Skeleton from the Black Death

The skeleton above was a victim of the Black Death in London from 1348-9. It belongs to a man who died between the ages of 18 and 25. Bone analysis suggests he moved to London from central or eastern England around the age of 5. He was breastfed in infancy, suffered nutritional health stress, and had a largely plant-based diet.  He had dental caries and gum disease. The skeleton was lent by the Museum of London to Charterhouse Museum, which was built on top of London’s largest cemetery for Black Death victims, and where it is now on display.


Dances with whales

Blue whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum
The blue whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum

Summer holidays

When I started having Alexander lessons my own bodymap was woolly or non-existent, I didn’t know what was where. Slowly it’s shifting closer to reality. I’ve refined it this summer by looking at the skeleton of something very different to me – the whale.  I’ve visited the whales exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum and paid my respects to their newly installed blue whale skeleton, Hope.

Before I went I knew whales were mammals, like us. I wasn’t aware they started out as four-legged land-based animals. Over time, as they moved from land to water, their back legs disappeared, along with most of their pelvic bones. Their front legs became flippers.  They’ve adapted to life in water, but their skeleton is mammal not fish. When they swim, fluke-powered using their strong boneless tails, the movement is up and down along the backbone, not side to side like a fish.

The blue whale skeleton has 356 bones, compared with the 206 in the human skeleton
Gracefully diving to feed

I stood under the vast diving skeleton of the blue whale. I imagined its undulating spine powering it gracefully through the sea. I don’t live underwater, but it’s time for me to trust my back and ‘forget about my legs’ when I move.

Blue whale flipper
Blue whale flipper – no bending at the elbow

Whales have short, stiff necks, and fused neck vertebrae. This stabilises the head, so there’s not much mobility. Movement comes partly from their front limbs. These are now like paddles, with shorter bones than our arms, and fixed elbow joints.  Shoulder joints and shoulderblades remain, connecting flippers into the spine.

Shoulders and arms have been a bugbear for me – letting go of tension, becoming aware of joints, using less effort to pick things up. The sheer size and otherness of whalebones is helpful here – like me and not like me at the same time.

Flipper of the northern bottlenose whale that became stranded in the Thames in 2006
Paddle-like flipper of the northern bottlenose whale
Shoulder joint and scapula (shoulderblade) of blue whale
Blue whale shoulderblade and shoulder joint
Ganges river dolphin flipper, looking eerily similar to a human hand
Ganges river dolphin flipper, not unlike a human hand

It’s the skull of the whale that’s most altered since its ancestors walked on land. Whales have no external ears. Instead they have sophisticated internal systems to hear and communicate under water. Their nostrils now sit on top of the skull, with one or more blowholes. The skull shape has altered to make space for elongated jaws. Toothed whales have asymmetric skulls, no sense of smell, and teeth. Baleen whales, like the blue whale, are toothless. They use baleen plates to filter fish or krill from large mouthfuls of water.

To my sorrow I’ve never encountered a live whale. But I saw my first dead one in a whaling station in Iceland in 1983. I dug out the photos of enormous whale innards being matter-of-factly cut up and hosed down, and remembered the overpowering smell and noise.

Back to this summer, and my dances with whales are over.  Their eerily beautiful water-soaked bones have given me food for thought about living and moving on land and my own bodymap.

Skull of Cuvier's beaked whale
Skull of Cuvier’s beaked whale – elongated jaws, nostrils and blowhole on top
The Thames whale - a northern bottlenose that became stranded in the Thames in 2006
The Thames whale that became stranded in the river in 2006
Twisted spine and fused vertebrae from a white-beaked dolphin
Twisted spine and fused vertebrae from a white-beaked dolphin
North Atlantic right whale spinal vertebrae, fused from old age, dug up in London's docklands in 2010
North Atlantic right whale spinal vertebrae, the two on the right are fused from old age
Baleen from a young North Atlantic right whale – there are more than 400 baleen plates
Baleen from a young North Atlantic right whale
Pygmy right whale skull showing baleen plates. These grow only from the upper jaw, over 200 on each side
Pygmy right whale skull showing baleen plates
Corset stays made of baleen plates (known as whalebone) from the Museum of London
Breathe in: baleen plates were used to make stays for whalebone corsets