Curious Objects

A cabinet of curiosities and other oddities ...

Lewis Cabinet Lewis CabinetCambridge University Library

A cabinet of curiosities

In 1727 George Lewis gave a cabinet of ‘Oriental’ manuscripts and assorted curiosities to Cambridge University Library. Educated at Queens’ College, Lewis was Chaplain to the East India Company in Madras from 1692 to 1714. A gifted linguist, proficient in Persian, he put his skills to use as a translator and travelled with diplomatic missions. This provided him with the opportunities he needed for collecting and it is important to acknowledge how the manuscripts and other objects in Lewis’s cabinet, as well as the later history of the cabinet in the Library, are part of the imperial project. Lewis was commissioned to collect artefacts and specimens from the natural world—including shells, nuts and butterflies for Sir Hans Sloane—as well as manuscripts. Initially the manuscripts he gave to the Library excited little notice, and interest was focused on the curiosities, which were displayed to visitors. Lewis lived his later life in Ireland, and was archdeacon of Meath from 1723 to 1729.

The virtues of Alamgir (MS Add.215, fo. 1v) (1670) by Awṣāfʻnāmah-i ʻĀlamgīrī (1618–1707)Cambridge University Library

The virtues of Alamgir

A panegyric, or formal eulogy, written in prose and verse, delivered in praise of the sixth Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb ‘Alamgir, who, during his 49 year reign, ruled over most of the Indian subcontinent. Aurangzeb was himself a patron of the arts of the book, including calligraphy. The text, written on pink paper, is typical of a fashion for using coloured papers which reached its zenith in the fifteenth century. The manuscript also contains the Emperor’s own book-plate glued onto the final leaf, suggesting that it might have originally belonged to his personal library. The seal in dark ink at the top of the page is that of George Lewis, who presented the manuscript to the Library in 1727 as part of his cabinet of ‘Oriental’ manuscripts and curiosities.

Khusraw va Shīrīn (MS Add.207, fo. 55v) (16th or 17th century) by Niẓāmī Ganjavī (1140 or 41–1202 or 3)Cambridge University Library

Khusraw va Shīrīn

A copy of Niẓāmī’s famous romantic poem written in Persian tal’iq script. The narrative follows the story of the love of the Sasanian King Khusraw for the Armenian princess Shīrīn, already well-known to contemporary audiences from the Shāhnāmah and other Persian popular tales. It contains eleven full-page paintings illustrating episodes from various parts of the story which display many characteristics of the style of the Safavid era. The manuscript was presented to the Library in 1727 by George Lewis as part of his cabinet of ‘Oriental’ manuscripts and curiosities. The Lewis collection was the first of the Library’s Islamic acquisitions to contain literary texts in significant numbers and includes examples from most of the best-known Persian poets.

Gulistān (MS Add. 211) (17th century) by Saʻdī (1210–1292)Cambridge University Library

Gulistān

From the cabinet of ‘Oriental’ manuscripts and curiosities presented to the Library by George Lewis in 1727. When the manuscripts came to the Library, they were shelved neatly in their specially constructed compartments in the upper section of the cabinet. Many were also wrapped in specially made covers of coarse brown leather, probably intended to protect the manuscripts on their long journey from India. In recent years these covers started to degrade and posed a risk of transferring dirt and leather dust onto the manuscript pages. These covers also conceal the original Islamic bindings. The decision was recently taken, with expert advice from the Library’s Conservation Department, to remove them and reveal the original bindings hidden beneath.

Lewis ‘scrapbook’ (MS Add.254, fo. 49) (18th century) by George Lewis (d. 1729)Cambridge University Library

Lewis ‘scrapbook’

A collection of letters and manuscript fragments collected by George Lewis and displaying specimens of different languages, scripts and calligraphy pasted into the pages of a single volume. Many are examples of letters to Lewis himself; others show examples of different Islamic script styles a few of which are signed and dated. Some are by celebrated calligraphers. In addition to Persian and Arabic, the range of languages includes examples of Armenian, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Siamese, Chinese and Tamil. These pages show examples in Persian; on the left are three specimens of nastal’liq script, one of which is dated 1698, on the right is a specimen of naskh script dated to 1680.

Lewis had presented a cabinet of ‘Oriental' manuscripts and curiosities to the Library in 1727. The scrapbook was donated a little later, but it has its own designated compartment in the upper part of the cabinet.

Burhān-i qāṭiʻ (MS Add.188 f.1v) (1699) by Burhān (Muḥammad Ḥusayn ibn Ḵhalaf Tabrīzī, fl. seventeenth century)Cambridge University Library

Burhān-i qāṭiʻ

Presented by George Lewis in 1727 as part of a cabinet of ‘Oriental’ manuscripts and curiosities. Lewis had a special interest in dictionaries, owning ten in all.

This Persian dictionary, dated 1699, was compiled in India by Muḥammad Ḥusayn ibn Ḵhalaf Tabrīzī, who used the pen-name Burhān. He completed the work in 1651 and dedicated it to Abdullah Qutb Shah, the seventh sultan of the Shiʿite dynasty of Golconda in the Deccan, who ruled from 1626 to1672. Burhān’s fame, however, is due to the great popularity which his dictionary acquired. This can be attributed to its disciplined arrangement of word order and the fact that Burhān combines meanings derived from other dictionaries into one volume. Frequently reproduced in manuscript from, it became a basis for subsequent Persian dictionaries.

The spread of printing further increased its popularity, and numerous later editions were produced in India and Iran. The Burhān-i qāṭiʻ was more widely used by writers and linguists than any other Persian dictionary. Lewis was Chaplain to the East India Company in Madras from 1692 to 1714, and the dictionary would have been a relatively new at this time.

Metal script exemplar Metal script exemplar (Obverse) (1709)Cambridge University Library

Metal script exemplar (1)

A rectangular plate of metal displaying the letters of the Persian alphabet in thuluth script, presented by George Lewis in 1727 as a part of a cabinet of ‘Oriental’ manuscripts and curiosities. Lewis’s own name appears in the two top corners of the upper section and the date 1709 appears in the lower section at the left side. The ornamental nature of the script reflects his interest in calligraphy which is also displayed in his scrapbook.

Metal script exemplar Metal script exemplar (Reverse) (1709)Cambridge University Library

Metal script exemplar (2)

The reverse side of the exemplar has the text of a Persian poem incised into the surface. The precise function of the plate is unknown; perhaps a commemorative plaque for Lewis to celebrate some ceremony or achievement.

Ganjifa Ganjifa (Early 18th century)Cambridge University Library

Ganjifa

Playing cards and card games from India, Iran some Arab countries are known as ganjifa. Introduced into India by the Mughals, a full set of such cards consists of eight or twelve suits. Each suit, which has its own characteristic design, has ten number cards and two court cards, the shah (king) and the wazir (minister). Many suits appear to have a symbolism relating to tarot cards. The game is a trick-taking game played with no trumps. It was popular with all social classes in India from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. This set of ganjifa is one of two, each in their original boxes, found in the cabinet of ‘Oriental’ manuscripts and curiosities presented to the Library by George Lewis in 1727; neither of them survive complete. They are not listed in Lewis’s catalogue of the cabinet, so they may be later additions. This set, made of tortoiseshell and finely decorated, must have belonged to a wealthy patron.

Ganjifa Ganjifa (Early 18th century)Cambridge University Library

This set, made of tortoiseshell and finely decorated, must have belonged to a wealthy patron.

Ganjifa Ganjifa (Early 18th century)Cambridge University Library

This set, made of tortoiseshell and finely decorated, must have belonged to a wealthy patron.

Decorated slippers Decorated slippers (early 18th century)Cambridge University Library

Decorated slippers Decorated slippers (early 18th century)Cambridge University Library

Decorated slippers

This type of slipper, or jutti, is common in India and worn by members of all classes. The design, with the sharp extended tip, or nokh, curving upwards, derives from the Mughal era. This finely decorated pair has leather soles with a very slight heel and leather uppers with a felt lining. The uppers also have decorative detail made of felt and a braided edge. Sewn onto the front is a design made up of sequins derived from the wings of beetles (Stenocera aequisignata) which have been used in India for this purpose for centuries. They were perhaps a gift to George Lewis, who presented his cabinet of ‘Oriental’ manuscripts and curiosities to the Library in 1727, although they are not listed in his own catalogue of its contents printed the same year.

Petrified wood Petrified woodCambridge University Library

Petrified wood

Presented in 1727 by George Lewis as part of his cabinet of ‘Oriental’ manuscripts and curiosities. Petrified wood describes a special type of fossilized remains and is the result of a tree having been completely transformed into stone by a mineralization process. All the organic material is gradually replaced, while retaining the original structure of the wooden tissues. The petrifaction process occurs when wood becomes buried under sediment or volcanic ash and is initially preserved due to a lack of oxygen which inhibits its decomposition. In India, a geological site known for deposits of petrified wood exists close to the city of Madras (modern Chennai) where Lewis was based, and this specimen may have come from this source.

Set of metal weights Set of metal weights (18th century)Cambridge University Library

Set of metal weights

A collection of nine graded pieces of metal adjusted with accuracy to a fixed weight and to a uniform purity. The original idea of the use of precise weights of metal for commercial purposes was closely related to the secondary function of fixed units of value developing into money. Ancient Sanskrit texts noted that weights of metal were in use ‘for the purposes of worldly business’ in early India at the time of the Vedas. By the reign of the Emperor Akbar (1542–1605), the rupee had become accepted as the legal currency in India. The weights were presented by George Lewis in 1727 as part of his cabinet of ‘Oriental’ manuscripts and curiosities.

Paper scrolls Paper scrolls (18th century)Cambridge University Library

Paper scrolls

A set of four paper scrolls probably written by George Lewis, who presented a cabinet of ‘Oriental manuscripts and curiosities to the Library in 1727. The scrolls list the titles of the manuscripts according to a planned arrangement in a number of chests or storage boxes. These lists could be his own personal instructions for the packing of the manuscripts prior to their voyage from India to England. The lists have the headings ‘E’, ‘G’ and ‘H’ which could refer to the packing chests he selected for their transport. They might also have formed the basis for his later arrangement of the manuscripts in the compartments of the upper section of the cabinet, also denoted by letters of the alphabet, which eventually became their permanent home.

The Lewis catalogue (MS Add.2587.1,2) The Lewis catalogue (MS Add.2587.1,2) (1727) by George Lewis (d. 1729)Cambridge University Library

The Lewis catalogue

Two copies of a catalogue written by George Lewis listing his own collection of ‘Oriental’ manuscripts and curiosities, and printed in 1727, the year in which the collection was donated to the Library. Each manuscript is numbered, the titles are rendered into an early form of English transliteration and each has a brief description in Latin. This is followed by two lists of other items which include Arabic, Persian and Turkish coins made of gold or silver, and Indian coins from the reigns of the Mughal Emperors, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. Also listed are Indian walnuts, Japanese ink, weights, snake-stones and a fragment of ambergris. All the manuscripts can still be identified but there is written evidence that some items were transferred to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in 1887; other items have been lost without trace. Acquired from Henry Bradshaw in 1886.

Found with the Amphora near Barton’Cambridge University Library

More Curious Objects

Other oddities and curious objects that were added to the Lewis Cabinet after its arrival atin the collections of Cambridge University Library.

ʻAjāʼib al-makhlūqāt (MS Nn.3.74) (1566) by Zakarīyā ibn Muḥammad al-Qazwīnī (ca 1203–1283)Cambridge University Library

Marvels of creation

In 1770 George Lewis’s son presented this magnificent illuminated manuscript of the Persian version of al-Qazwīnī’s Marvels of creation (also known as The wonders of creation). This magnificent illuminated manuscript of the Persian version of al-Qazwīnī’s Marvels of creation (also known as The wonders of creation) was presented in 1770 by the son of George Lewis. Lewis had given a cabinet of ‘Oriental’ manuscripts and curiosities to the Library in 1727 and this later gift was placed in the cabinet. Some Chinese manuscripts presented by the Sussex antiquary William Burrell were also added in 1772. An 1812 guidebook describes how ‘The leaves of this elegant manuscript are of cotton paper, embellished with drawings of beasts, birds, reptiles, &c. many of which are finely executed, and the colouring is uncommonly brilliant; the paintings are ornamented with gold intermixed with the most beautiful colours, and the volume is enveloped in a remarkably superb binding.—This book cost in Persia £100.’

Needle? Needle?Cambridge University Library

Needle?

This small ivory or bone object has a hole near the top, suggesting it may be a needle. However, the three scales around it perhaps indicate a different or dual use. It was found in a cabinet of ‘Oriental’ manuscripts and curiosities presented to the Library by George Lewis in 1727, but is a later addition to the cabinet. The needle is contained inside a wooden case inside a wooden case, but the case is too small for it and so is presumably a later home.

Metal stylus (19th century?)Cambridge University Library

Metal Stylus

Stylus for writing on palm-leaf manuscripts, a later addition to the cabinet of ‘Oriental’ manuscripts and curiosities presented to the Library by George Lewis in 1727.

Found with the Amphora near Barton’Cambridge University Library

‘Found with the Amphora near Barton’

During the summer of 1817 Edward Daniel Clarke, Professor of Mineralogy at Cambridge and University Librarian, decided to excavate the Hay Hill burial mound near Barton on the western outskirts of Cambridge. An iron fire dog and an iron chain with six collars, possibly for transporting slaves, had been found nearby and Clarke wanted to look for further evidence. The grave revealed a single human skeleton—the skull was removed and taken to the University Library (its fate is unknown). The following year, some labourers employed to dig gravel near the mound discovered an amphora, inside which was found a black terracotta vase containing human bones, and two other smaller red terracotta vessels with handles. These were also taken to the University Library. The fire dog and chain are now in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, but the current location of the amphora and its contents is unknown. The fragments shown here—found with the amphora in 1818—were discovered in the cabinet of ‘Oriental’ manuscripts and curiosities presented to the Library by George Lewis in 1727 and include what appears to be a piece of a bronze bracelet.

Shakespeare tobacco stopper Shakespeare tobacco stopperCambridge University Library

Shakespeare tobacco stopper

This tiny tobacco stopper, used for pressing down tobacco in a pipe, is possibly made from wood from the mulberry tree supposedly planted by Shakespeare at New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon. The tree was cut down in the 1750s by the Rev. Francis Gastrell, who had grown tired of tourists asking to see it. A brisk trade in genuine and fake mulberry wood souvenirs followed and tobacco stoppers such as this were common.

Pompeii fragments (ca 20 BCE–79 CE)Cambridge University Library

Pompeii fragments

These fragments in the ‘Third’ or ‘Fourth Style’ of Pompeiian wall painting depict a shaggy-fleeced goat, a deer and Pegasus. They are among several later additions to the cabinet of ‘Oriental’ manuscripts and curiosities presented to the Library by George Lewis in 1727. On the back of the frame is an inscription in a nineteenth-century hand reading ‘Containing Three Original Antique Paintings from the Walls of Pompeii, near Naples. Near 2000 years old’. A small paper label on the Pegasus records their sale as Lot 61 on the second day of an unidentified auction.

Nothing further is yet known about their provenance. Visible-light Induced Luminescence photography has revealed very small specks of the ancient pigment Egyptian blue on all three fragments, either as surface contamination from another object or as transfer from brushes or tools that had also been used for Egyptian blue.

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