350 Years of History: Worm’s Jawbone

A 17th-century Danish physician known as Ole Worm collected curiosities, among which are the remains of a horse’s jawbone enveloped by a treeroot. This mandible still exists, and it happens to have had quite a history. Finnish researcher Taika Dahlbom has tracked the curiosity through its 350-years-and-still-going-strong journey.

The earliest depiction of the mandible come from the frontispiece (=an illustration facing a book’s title page) of a catalog of Ole Worm’s collection, published in 1655 after his death. The frontispiece of his catalog, Museum Wormianum, is full of knick knacks:

Frontispiece Museum Wormianum

The Smithsonian Libraries via The Guardian.

In the center of the back wall is the mandible:

Worms Frontiepiece Horse Mandible

A close-up of Worm’s frontispiece, showing “the mandible of a horse grown in a treeroot”. The Smithsonian Libraries via The Guardian.

It seems that the mandible was originally a gift from King Frederick III of Denmark, who re-acquired it after the good doctor died. It stayed in the Danish royal family until the 1820s, when it was transferred to the Royal Museum of Natural History and thence to the Zoological Museum of the University of Copenhagen in the 1840s or 1860s. The mandible was rediscovered in 1898, having been in stored in an attic for decades, and displayed to the public. It is at this time that it seems to have first been exhibited as a historical rather than zoological specimen. The mandible was moved to storage again in 1963, only to be highlighted in a temporary exhibition (All Things Strange and Beautiful) at the Geological Museum of the University of Copenhagen in 2011.

What’s the significance, then, of curiosities like the Worm’s mandible? For one, Ole Worm’s collections, together with Frederik III’s royal collections, formed the basis of the Natural History Museum of Denmark. More importantly, as Ms. Dahlbom says in the abstract of her article in a Jan 2009 issue of the Museum History Journal,

“Specimens began to be collected to be used in the production of scientific knowledge during the late Renaissance; they have since been seen as the vessels that carry the truth or fact of nature to the reach of the scientist. Under the scientist’s gaze, the specimen is then studied with proper methods and instruments to reveal the secrets of nature it is seen to be in position to disclose. The biographies of these specimens are studied here in a preliminary effort to understand how specimens are used in a collection environment, how and why they are used in the production of knowledge and how these functions of the specimen may change over time.”

Because the study of the “useless” and “peculiar” tells us more of what it is to be human, what we’re curious about and, above all, how our values change through time.