The mystery of Augustus Hamilton’s bird bone system

The mystery of Augustus Hamilton’s bird bone system

Melanie Ioane-Warren, one of our Natural History interns, talks about the important collection of bird bones gathered by the late Augustus Hamilton. Melanie is working on this bone collection together with Curators Alan Tennyson and Rodrigo Salvador, and GNS scientist Karyne Rogers.

In 1875, the clipper ship Collingwood departed England and set sail for Aotearoa New Zealand. As tonnes of iron voyaged across salty seas, those aboard were English emigrants including Augustus Hamilton (1853-1913).

Augustus Hamilton, 1904-1906, by James McDonald. Te Papa (MU000523/001/0455)

Hamilton was primarily a botanist and ethnologist. While in Aotearoa, he collected a wide range of fascinating specimens and beautiful Māori artefacts.

In 1903, after becoming the director of the Colonial Museum in Wellington, Hamilton began to store and display much of his collection there. The Colonial Museum then became the Dominion Museum, Te Papa’s predecessor, where we continue to store his collection.

Colonial Museum, Wellington, 29 September 1934, Wellington, by Leslie Adkin. Gift of G. L. Adkin family estate, 1964. Te Papa (A.005434)

Pieces of history that are a mystery

This year, one of Hamilton’s fossil bird bone collections is the heart of a Natural History project. Nine large caramel-coloured boxes currently hold 1765 (and counting) bird bones that derive from endemic, introduced and extinct species.

Many bones are clean and the shade of French vanilla ice cream, while others look like a gravy-stained roast bone topped with a sprinkle of sand.

Shag (Phalacrocoracidae) humeri bones in box 5/9. Photo by Rodrigo Salvador. Te Papa

The most intriguing part is many of the bones have been marked with a number. It appears that Hamilton had a system in place. The big questions are ‘what do these numbers mean and where exactly have these bones been collected from?’

A natural history investigation

Three of the ways we may be able to find answers include; studying Hamilton’s journals, searching for clues by analysing other bird bones collected by Hamilton, and lastly, X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy measuring their chemical elemental composition.

Inconclusive evidence

Hamilton’s handwriting coats a plethora of journal pages preserved in Te Papa’s archives. Among the dark black cursive script, there are detailed and beautiful sketches of specimens, newspaper clippings, the Collingwood’s menu, and even a handful of grass!

So far the journals have not told us what the numbers mean. However, there is information detailing some fossil sites.

For example, between 1881 and 1883, Hamilton searched for moa bones near Maraekakaho – a rural settlement west of Hastings, and on 14 February 1891, he wrote, ‘116 bird bones found at Warrington’, near Dunedin.

Underground wonderland

At our Tory Street building, spiral stairs lead to a natural history wonderland. Amongst many treasures, towering compactor shelves safely house an abundance of bird bones, including others collected by Hamilton. From observing these bones, further clues may be found.

A number of bones from Castle Rock, Southland, have the number ‘29’ written on them. Several bones from Te Aute, Hawke’s Bay are labelled ‘17’. Plus, in a bag of four weka bones, three are labelled ‘71’, and one says ‘Macraes’, Otago. You can read more about previous research at these sites in the links below.

New Zealand Dotterel, Charadrius obscurus, collected 23 October 1877, Okarito, New Zealand. CC BY 4.0. Te Papa (OR.015131)

Potential missing link

A portable X-ray fluorescence analyser looks like a fancy hair dryer, except, it’s not hot air that is emitted but high energy X-rays. Without being destructive, this astounding machine scans materials and measures their chemical elemental composition. A single scan takes only 90 seconds.

Bones from the same location should have a similar elemental composition. This is because it reflects the bird’s food and water intake.

So far, some bones from known locations have been scanned. We hope that once Hamilton’s bones are also scanned, there will be a correlation between the known and unknown locations. We also hope that we will be able to determine where most of the bones came from.

For now, the case continues…

Further reading


  1. Thanks for an excellent article. We must do our best to protect our current bird life.

  2. Thanks very much for another really interesting Te Papa blog. Good luck with Hamilton’s collection.

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