There is never enough time to catalogue! I’m sure this is a phrase that has passed the lips of many a museum professional, I certainly know it has mine. Oh to have a 100% complete collections database containing photographs, measurements and information on all of the objects we look after. Museums are in a constant state of flux; exhibitions come and go, displays develop, stores are moved and staff change. Sometimes, an item’s story can be forgotten, waiting on a shelf waiting to be rediscovered.
For the last three years we have worked with the University of Edinburgh, taking on students for twenty day placements. Whilst working in the Quincentenary Hall store with a group of these students last year, we came across a small cardboard box with what looked like a red wax seal inside. Referencing the accession number, it was simply described as: “Impressions from a Roman Oculist Medicine Stamp.” The seals were mounted on a piece a card upon which was written the above words, and that it had come from the Antiquarian Society Museum. The writing looked familiar, but there was no further information on the record. Some hours of research later, James Young Simpson came up as a possible match and comparing letter from him reinforced this theory. Suddenly, the seal took on a new weight and significance!
While he has come to be known for the discovery of chloroform as an anaesthetic and his work in obstetrics, James Young Simpson (1811-1870) was not just a medical man. Throughout his life, he maintained a passion for archaeology and antiquarianism and in his latter years became the Honorary Professor of Antiquities to the Royal Scottish Academy. Despite a frenetic schedule at his practice (and home), 52 Queens Street, he continued to pursue this interest and published a number of key papers and articles, including a number on Roman medical stamps.
James Young Simpson wrote about this particular stamp in The Monthly Journal of Medical Science, Volume 12, 1851. The stamp was found in the early nineteenth century at Tranent, East Lothian, [i] not far from the Roman settlement of Municipium at Inveresk. It is possible that this impression was made by Simpson himself as part of his archeological research, having been to see it in person at the Scottish Antiquities Society Museum.
Oculists were specialised eye doctors who treated eye diseases, and the original stamp would have been used to mark either semi-solid blocks of eye-ointment before they became hard or the seals on jars. They usually contained information on the maker, what the medicine was for and what it was made of. This stamp would have been used for a ‘pleasant smelling’ mixture designed for cicatrices and granulations (scar tissue) of the eye, made by Lucius Vallatinus[ii], an oculist living and working in the Lothians. It was found amongst broken tiles and brick debris, possibly the remains of Vallatinus’ house and laboratory.[iii]
Without the work of these students, this unassuming box might have lain undisturbed for years, almost an extension of the way the original was buried in the ground (though, I would hope, for not as long). We have another two students at Surgeons’ Hall this year, and once again they are doing sterling work that simply would not have been done without them. I am sure they will uncover more items of significance. In the meantime, the stamp will take pride of place in our redisplay when we reopen after the Heritage Lottery funded Lister Project is completed– come and see it from this September!