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The shells collected during Captain Cook's last journey were rescued from being thrown away.
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The shells collected during Captain Cook’s last journey were rescued from being thrown away.

A significant global assortment of seashells, containing samples from Captain Cook’s last expedition, has been found again after 40 years since it was believed to have been discarded into a dumpster.

English Heritage has received over 200 shells that will be showcased in Northumberland sometime this week.

This tale is truly remarkable as it sheds light on colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade, and the impact of humanity on the environment. At its core, it shares the lesser-known story of Bridget Atkinson, the woman who gathered these items.

Frances McIntosh, the collections curator for the north-east at English Heritage, expressed her joy in being able to share the story of an extraordinary woman. This woman may not be a duchess or a member of high society in London, nor has she been recognized in historical records, but her accomplishments are truly remarkable.

Although Atkinson came from a wealthy background, she spent most of her time on her family’s farm in Cumbria. Her love for shells was constant throughout her life, and she utilized her extensive network to collect approximately 1,200 shells from various locations around the globe.

Although some people gathered shells for ornamental purposes, Atkinson was fascinated by their scientific and geographic significance. These shells were handed down within her family, eventually ending up in the possession of her grandson, John Clayton. Clayton grew up with Chesters Roman Fort in his backyard and his collections now serve as the foundation for the museum at the English Heritage site.

During the 1930s, Atkinson’s items were relocated to present-day Newcastle University. However, in the 1980s, they were discarded while moving offices.

It was believed that they were permanently lost; however, it has been discovered that a visiting professor, marine zoologist John Buchanan, rescued them from being thrown away. His family, while clearing out the house after their mother passed away, generously donated them to English Heritage.

McIntosh was reminded of the email sent by the Buchanan family. She was shocked and couldn’t believe her eyes. She initially thought the situation was incredible, but then she realized that she was a Roman archaeologist and wasn’t sure how to proceed next.

Experts from Shell have assisted in compiling and organizing the group of items, which contain specimens that were given to Atkinson by George Dixon, a weapon specialist who was part of Cook’s third global expedition, during which he passed away.

McIntosh explained that the temporary exhibit will not avoid addressing the challenging elements of the story, such as the truth about Cook’s voyages.

Atkinson also wrote letters to her sons, some of whom owned sugar plantations in Jamaica, while others were employed by the East India Company. In her letters, Atkinson requested that her children search for certain shells to add to her collection. Some of these shells may have contained live creatures, with Atkinson instructing them to boil the shell until it turned red.

The project has received assistance from Tom White, the head curator in charge of non-insect invertebrates at the Natural History Museum. He noted that the collection includes many uncommon species and praised Atkinson as one of the first known women to assemble a scientifically valuable collection of shells from various parts of the globe.

According to White, during the 18th century in Britain, these items would have been highly coveted due to the peak of shell-collecting. It was common for individual specimens to be sold at prices reaching thousands of pounds.

McIntosh expressed amazement that the shells were found in good condition after having not only survived, but also being stored safely.

Atkinson had a wide range of interests and was particularly captivating due to her extensive collection of recipes and remedies for various ailments, such as worms, insanity, and bites from “mad dogs”. One of her remedies, though lacking a specific ailment, calls for a combination of rhubarb, laudanum, and gin mixed with a pint of milk. It should be noted that laudanum is a blend of opium and alcohol.

Source: theguardian.com