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PhD’ing on tactile access to microscopic objects. All about anthropology, archaeology, museums, cats and bad puns. Tell me your favourite history fact.

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Right, so I am now a week and a bit back from living at Hellens Manor for ten days. You know what? For being in a stables with 15 other people every day, we all got on really well. And by the end of it, we’d even managed some science!


Have you ever been told about an object when you walk through a historical house that just stands out a bit? A good story, a bit of mystery, maybe just something unusual? Well that’s exactly what sparked our interest in doing research on a painting whilst on our field trip down to Hellens.


During our tour through the house, the manager Justine told us a story about the portrait of Jane Halswell. She was the last of the Halswell line and only living child to her parents. As such, she was an important person in the household and when her portrait was done, she was given the thread and handkerchief as a symbol of her rising adulthood.


This was the bit that stood out for us. Instead of merely painting the needlework on the wooden panels, we were told that the artist had actually incorporated a bit of thread into the painting. No one was entirely sure where the thread was, but the loose piece hanging between her hands was definitely raised and looked to be the potential candidate.


Out of all the other paintings in the house, this portrait and her mystery thread stuck in our minds, and at the end of the tour we asked if we could do analysis on her to see if the story was true.


We were limited in this experiment by only having imaging equipment to test with, but we did end up finding some points of interest throughout the process.


We took a series of photographs of Jane in what is called multispectral imaging. If you think of the spectrum of visible light – on either end are wavelengths that can’t be seen by the human eye, but we know they are there – so multispectral = multiple spectrums. You’ve probably heard of the types we worked with this time – infrared and ultraviolet. Infrared light is often what you see in movies being used to map heat in a building or on a person. To do this, we had a commercially purchased SLR camera that had the filters inside the lens removed after we got it. With no lenses, the camera will no longer capture images that look like what we see – more of a blue-ish tinge. To capture the infrared, we attached a filter onto the front of our lens with a red hue, allowing only infrared light to pass through into the camera. In this case, we know that underdrawings are likely to show up in infrared, due to the carbon in initial sketches. We hoped we might find evidence of the thread in this manner, but although it stood out it didn’t prove anything concrete. It merely showed us that the threading in the portrait was done thickly and with great precision.


Next, we delved into ultraviolet imaging. Ultraviolet, or UV, is most commonly known as a blacklight – the kind that makes white material glow in the dark. Again, this required an additional filter to be placed on the camera instead of the infrared one. Our blacklight was not the variety for parties and actually emitted a fairly potent dose of UV radiation, akin to a very powerful sunbed. With safety gear in place, we turned it on and took some photos. Again, we could not see anything stand out in the thread region.


However, we did find some interesting touch-up work had been done in the modern era. This portrait is dated to 1612 on the top left corner, but the purple and black marks showing up on the handkerchief are showing evidence of a different type of paint being used to fill in portions.


We saw this across the painting in the light and white areas, which suggests the lighter hues did not fare so well over time and needed a little help over the years. Also prevalent under the two spectrums was touch up work done along the large crack forming along the middle of the portrait. In person, this painting is very visibly warped and bowing in the middle. It makes sense to find attempts at a restoration done in this region as it would certainly have not been a part of the original artist’s idea.


So, what can we say at the end of this? Not much I’m afraid. The thread area is definitely raised markedly and it would have been a simple enough matter to paint a line, affix the thread, and then paint over it again to secure it in place. The thread at that time would also be of high enough quality to remain an equal width throughout the strand, so the uniform line of the portrait doesn’t rule it out.


At this point, a chemical analysis would be required of the region to determine if something such as linen, cotton, or wool was underneath the layers of paint and varnish. Perhaps a challenge for the next round of students to come to the property?


Regardless, it is a lovely portrait that has survived over 400 years and comes with an interesting story at that. I personally don’t see the problem in suggesting that there may be thread in the paint, but am incredibly curious to see if they ever get testing done to prove it. Science and history do blend ever so nicely together!


— Kate

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  • Kate

As I type this, I’m sat in a cafe at Euston Station, comedically early for a train. But we’ll get back to that.


Where was I last? Oh yes, having a New Year’s in. ‘Twas lovely, except for having to give M grief for answering work emails at midnight. I suppose doctoring never truly stops does it? Anyway, we rang in the New Year the next morning with a delightful cooked breakfast and M put up a curtain in our kitchen that we’ve been meaning to get for ages. You can now sit at our kitchen table without the neighbours being able to see you in PJs from their bedroom window. Progress.


It was quiet for most of January, with a few forest wanders. Mostly it was just wrapping up my experiment paperwork from my last module. By the middle of the month though, we were back up to Norwich to celebrate our 3rd wedding anniversary. (How has it already been three years??) M spoiled me and booked a room in the fancy hotel in the city centre, and even though we half froze through the evening, we had a great time!


Came back to a very needy cat who demanded ALL the fuss after an entire evening by herself, and then prepared for the next module of my master’s programme, due to start that Monday. This one was a really useful module, in which they showed us how to write project proposals and scientific posters for conferences. Short of grant writing magic, it couldn’t have been more handy for long term use. That paperwork is now turned in and ready for grading. Should hear back next month I think.


By the end of January we had a few freak snow flurries, but nothing like last year. It only stuck to the grass and was gone in a few days, as it should be.


February rolled in, and with it sunsets past 5 PM! Growing up in the southern US did not prepare me for a world where the sun sets before 4 for a good few months. Everyone was perked up by this slow change. Even Ophelia was more prone to hang out in the garden in the tiny sunbeam that hits the back gate.


Towards the end of the month we took a short holiday and met up with the family down in Padstow. We got extremely lucky and didn’t get any rain the few days we were there. This will never happen again. With the good weather though, we tried to soak up the beach and the water and the harbour side fun to the best of our abilities.


It went like a flash and so did the rest of February. We’ve now inched into March, and keep hoping the sun will stay out for the day. Sometimes however, you just have to go out in the rotten weather, and so M and I made a trip to the nearby Cressing Temple Barns. They’re one of the oldest wooden structures still standing in the world, being built around 1250. They are GIGANTIC. Honestly, I wasn’t prepared for something so large. But when it’s something built for the Knights Templar, I suppose it would be. Totally free to visit and park as it’s owned by Essex County Parks, and I would definitely recommend a visit. I’d like to go back in the summer when the gardens are in bloom.


And now here we are, sat in the train station for a train that’s now only an hour away from departure. Time for lunch and hopefully the more reasonable humans in my cohort to arrive soon. Speak more when I have wifi again!


— Kate

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  • Kate

Updated: Jan 2, 2020

Honestly, I pay for this domain name. I need to stop abandoning it for long stretches. Also, if I keep it alive this year it’ll be a 5 year old blog. I don’t think I’ve ever kept a plant alive that long.


So. Anyway.


When last we spoke, it was the beginning of a long, dry, hot summer in the UK. We didn’t see rain here in Essex for over 50 days. It normally rains here at least once a week if that gives you an idea of how crazy it was. Ah, but ignoring the parched earth it was glorious. We roamed the local country park a few times both with and without picnics. We went to Mersea Island and played on the beach. We even accidentally came at high tide and had to drive through the sea a little bit. Don’t worry, the Mini did fabulously.


Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this summer was the need to leave the windows open as much as possible, especially at night to try and drop the temperature in our bedroom from 29º down to 25º (if we were lucky). During the daytime we mostly had to chase flies and the occasional rogue wasp out of the living room because of this, but then the Flying Ant Day Accident occurred.


Flying Ant Day is a strange British phenomena. Normally, these pavement ants do not have wings and are happy to live their lives underground. However, there is a point in the summer that they reach breeding season and all seem to grow wings and fly en masse. (Apparently it’s not just a single day and happens across the UK all summer long, but it’s still an impressive swarm when it happens near you.) This type of swarm is like midges or gnats, but much larger. They don’t really do anything to you other than get in your face, but in a swarm it’s awful.


HOWEVER, they do seem to like the light, very much like moths. And we have a streetlight outside of our bedroom window. “Well that’s a bit creepy to watch, but surely no harm right?” you say to me. Oh but wait. One of us accidentally left the bedroom light on when we’d gone up to open the windows and then shut the bedroom door so the cat couldn’t get out of the house.


Perfect. Storm.


M was still having a glass of water and otherwise getting ready for bed downstairs whilst I came upstairs to sort out my clothing for work the next morning, only to be confronted with something that looked like a scene out of a horror film. HUNDREDS OF FLYING ANTS ALL OVER THE ROOM. They were in the windowsill, the curtains, the lampshade, the bedding, the laundry, and all over the floor. They were crawling the walls and ceiling. Honestly, the photo doesn’t do justice to the horror of it.


My initial reaction was just to stare at them and then scream for M to bring up the fly spray. (Why I thought a can of fly spray would fix this I don’t know.) I stood, riveted in the doorway, somehow thinking that if I took my eyes off of the swarm that they’d all come down the stairs and into the rest of the house. Thankfully, M came up and had more common sense in how to deal with the scene.


Long story short, M emptied an entire can of Raid in our room and half filled a Dyson vacuum with flying ants before we went to bed two hours later, sleeping in the guest bedroom. Everything in the room that could be washed was washed, including the bedding that I had just changed that afternoon. 😥


Plagues of ants and drought aside, nature decided to just get a bit rude in general. The heat spiked to new and exciting levels, and the train network is not currently equipped to deal with weather so extreme. This had happened last year and there was about a week that it was nigh on impossible to get on a train into or from London.


This year they did try to do some things to help with the heat. A lot of the rails in the stations had their sides painted white in an effort to drop the heat whilst the trains were at the platforms and prevent the tracks from buckling and warping. However, when the weather stations starting predicting a heat spike so intense that it could make new records, the train companies just decided “sod it” and preemptively cancelled trains at about 9:30 the night before. Awesome, right? At one point they could only run a train an hour from Colchester to London, and I’m amazed those trains didn’t get stopped more from overcrowding and overheating inside of them. It was insanity.


Supposedly, Greater Anglia is getting new trains out in 2020 and they’ll all come equipped with blessed air conditioning. Why do I feel like the seats are going to be even smaller though?


When I was able to get into work, I was able to work on my last project as staff at the NHM. We’ve already processed all the Toxodon fossils that Darwin sent back from South America on his Beagle journey and posted them online, but the chance came to reunite two portions of a Giant Ground Sloth skull that haven’t been together since Darwin cut them into two pieces. Not only did I get to witness the event, but I got to scan said pieces! It was all very cool, and a fitting way to end my work.


You see, I had applied and been accepted to do a PhD at UCL whilst working alongside the NHM. But we’ll get back to that later!


FINALLY, we got rain in Essex again. It took weeks for the grass to go back to green and the cracks in the earth to heal, but it was amazing to have it back. We joked that my mother in law is apparently a water spirit, as every time she comes to Essex it rains. If we’d have known, we’d have had them over much sooner!


Towards the end of the summer it was finally beginning to cool down, and the Heritage Open Days EU project kicked off, opening access to historical places that are either usually closed to the public or paid entry only. Most everyone went to the castle, but I had a list of some of the more obscure and usually closed buildings that I desperately wanted to see, and a husband with an infinite sense of patience for my love of all things old.


We were only able to do one of the open days, but in that day we went up and down Colchester and managed to see the inside of the Anglo-Saxon church (the oldest in town), the facade that houses the archaeological discovery of a Roman theatre (you can easily walk by it), the interior and the view from the upper floor of the old abbey gate (the only thing still standing of the abbey), and most of the structure of Tymperleys, home to William Gilberd, scientist and physician to Elizabeth I (and now a place with most excellent scones).


Autumn began to creep in with cooler weather, and with it came the time to go back to school again. I could have sworn I was never going to do a PhD, but here I am. In fairness, my future predictions have been pretty wildly off the mark so far, so it’s not exactly surprising.


Before the official start of term, all of us in the SEAHA program (Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology) convened in a village outside of Brighton for an induction into the way of things, and a chance to get to know and bond with our fellow students. I am so, so glad they did this for us, and not just because the hotel was amazing. Getting to know everyone in advance really helped make the first few weeks much easier.


One can’t stay in opulent hotels forever, and after the weekend retreat we were ready to begin lectures. Of course, this is SEAHA and we are anything but standard, so they included a trip to Stonehenge halfway through the first module, so we could write up a presentation in the second half about what we would do to modify the current A303 Stonehenge tunnel plans to make them better, using our mixture of experiences. It was more of a challenge than expected, but we ended up with new friends out of the experience and I can now tell you far more about the proposed tunnel project than I ever thought I could.


With autumn also came the harvest season, and this year I was feeling crafty. There are shedloads of sloe berries and growing on the side of a quiet road near the fields I jog past, and eventually I got up the idea to go harvest them and attempt a batch of sloe gin. You aren’t supposed to pick them until after the first frost, but the hot summer had rather killed a fair few of them, so I just picked them and froze them in the freezer at home to make up for it.


They were then added into a jar with obscene amounts of sugar, and of course, some gin. We left them to infuse until just before Christmas, then strained and decanted them out. Some have been given as little Christmas trinkets, with the firm advice that they’ll be better if they’re left until about mid-January to drink. I for one am excited to try ours out, perhaps mixed in with some prosecco, or even by making a proper sloe gin fizz!


As it does every year, my birthday snuck up on me. This year is the last year of my twenties. M thought it amusing to get a tiny cake and put 29 candles on it, so I brought out the fire extinguisher just in case. (Did you know you can buy fire extinguishers and fire blankets on Amazon Prime? Best late night purchase M’s made in some time!)


I didn’t really have any grand goals to achieve by the end of this year, and I’m still not sure what I want to do for my 30th birthday party. On one end, I could have a bunch of people around and make a big do of it, or it could just be the two of us on an adventure somewhere. I should probably sort it out before springtime.


Regardless, this birthday was a fabulous birthday, with cake, a new coat I’d been lusting after, and an evening out in the lovely medieval section of Colchester. 🙂


Classes back in swing, birthday survived, and coats brought out of storage, we trundled into the cool autumn air. Except this time, I had friends from the US coming around with me! As is the Great American Tradition when coming to the UK, we managed to traverse across a wide swathe of the country in a little over a week. The two of them even carried on into Wales, but alas, I had to get some work done for the module. We did try to give them a weird and wonderful ride through bits of the country that not everyone goes to see on a typical tourist tour, but some things you’ve just got to see – like Stonehenge!


It’s always so exciting when people come to the UK, whether or not they’re coming to say hello. Being on an hour’s ride into London means it’s usually easy to catch up with people, schedules permitting. It was hard to part ways, but back to the States they eventually had to go, and the cat finally decided to come out of hiding and take up her roost in the living room again.


Module one was completed with much grumbling and typing, but completed successfully. I’m now at the tail end of module two, which had a bit of a twist to it this time. We had the option to do a basic laboratory procedure in the lecture hall, or we could liaise with our supervisors and do one elsewhere that might further relate towards the PhD. Needing to learn how to run an SEM and process photogrammetric data anyway, I opted to go back to the NHM. Over the course of two weeks I have learned how to dehydrate a specimen, coat it for SEM, run the basics of an SEM, and process photogrammetric images! It all sounds rather fancy for staring at a fly face for two weeks. I’m currently tweaking the write up of my experiment, and it goes in for submission next Monday. Looking forward to what the next module will hold!


In between modules, M and I left the country again. My parents were going to see one of our exchange students and her family, and they were kind enough to invite us to stay at their house as well. We took them up on their generous offer and ended up with an absolutely unique experience of the Netherlands that one could only get from a local, and got to see my parents! I would definitely like to go back to the Netherlands, but perhaps when it’s a bit warmer. Those winds coming off of the ocean have nowhere to go but straight into your bones.


Whilst there, we took a train over for a day trip into Germany as my mom had never been. It’s fascinating to see the sharp difference between the Netherlands and Germany, seemingly just across the border. We’d hoped to see the Christmas market in Dusseldorf, but arrived a little too early. It wasn’t a lost trip though, as we got to see the famous Rhine River and a painstakingly redone Altstadt, built back up after the war.


Christmas showed up soon afterwards in a big way. When not covering our house in tinsel and Christmas cards, we were out and about and enjoying the festive spirit of it all. Got the chance to pop into Paycocke’s House and the Grange Barn out in Coggeshall for their special Christmas hours. It really did feel like going back into Tudor Christmastime, and I only wish I hadn’t gone by myself as it seemed like it’s really meant for company to come along.


Getting closer to Christmas, we managed a long weekend journey up to York to catch up with our Northern friends. I probably should have known better than to go into the Christmas Markets in York, but we braved the crowds and found some fabulous little trinkets and all kinds of snacks! Even managed to score a table with seats in The Three Tuns at peak pub hour in the rain, of which I was far too proud. Finally, late into the evening, we saw the Shambles quiet and then took ourselves back to the AirBNB for the night.


And then before we knew it, the last few weeks had passed and it was Christmas! We went up to Manchester to celebrate at M’s big sister’s new home. It’s a gorgeous new build with a massive back garden. Their days of househunting really paid off. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much of it, as I appear to have caught food poisoning off something just before we arrived. Thankfully the sickbed was comfortable and M made sure to keep a steady supply of Sprite, so it could have been far worse. Other than that hiccup, it was really good to see everyone, especially our ever growing nephew of whom nobody can rival in Marvel knowledge. Honestly, I’d call that kid first on any game show.


We got back home for New Year’s, had a quiet night of it, and then slowly dragged ourselves back into the real world.


So here we are, a lightning trip into the present. Now that I’m not on the trains for 4 hours every day, I should hopefully be a bit better about popping in every now and then. Until we see each other next, hope you’re having a good one. 🙂



— Kate

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