• Jessica Evans

Just another pocket of scientific history

Updated: Aug 28, 2019

Makhanda/Grahamstown is a hotspot for science. You wouldn't think it. It's just a small city, and it's claims to fame are Rhodes University and the National Arts Festival. But this small city is bubbling with science and history, and as the home of SAIAB, Rhodes University's science faculty, and the Albany Museum, it's a place where the two collide.

The Albany Museum is the second oldest museum in the country (first is the Iziko Museum in Cape Town). Beyond that, it's home to scientists conducting all sorts of research in the fields of archaeology, paleontology, biology and geology.

A drawer from the collection of cattle stomach contents. These facilities were designed with the purpose in mind.

It was founded in 1855 and is home to Rhodes University's herbarium for the department of botany. It was the first museum to have specific facilities made for analysing cattle stomach contents. That might seem strange, but it comes in handy when cattle drop dead from eating strange plants. And it's extra handy here in the Eastern Cape, a province where cattle roam free A LOT.

The herbarium is a cross between a typical library and the specimen collection at SAIAB. Instead of jars of dead things, it stores books of pressed and dried plant specimens. It acts a database in the same way SAIAB does.

Tony Dold, the collection's curator, showed me a glimpse of some of the toxic plants kept in it. Here he's holding a Euphorbia voucher he collected. In collections like this one and that of SAIAB, a voucher is the name given to a specimen that acts as proof for a claim. For example, if a person were to claim that a species of plant can be found somewhere it previously was not known to exist, the voucher will prove that the plant they saw was in fact the species they claim it to be.

There's more to the collection than pressed plants. In the thousands of pages stored at the herbarium are a few hidden gems. This is a specimen collected by William John Burchell, the same guy who named Burchell's zebra (Equus quagga burchellii). If you're like me you'll geek out over that fact.

Even if you have no clue who Burchell was, it's so cool to know that a little museum in the Eastern Cape has artifacts from the 1800s in it. Artefacts real people used, saw, made and touched. Artifacts that remain long after their makers. Artifacts that scientists will refer to for ages to come.

All photos in this story were taken by Jessica Evans.

©2018 by Bite-sized Sci | Jessica Evans