Includes interesting stories from the world of leather and updates on the Museum. Issued periodically.
I have always hated the thought of cruising. I get seasick very easily and I don’t like the idea of the fabricated unreal environment that I imagined you got travelling around on a big cruise ship. But we were persuaded by some very longstanding friends to try a Baltic cruise two weeks ago and I loaded up with cinnarizine. (C26H28N2) which is said to be the most used drug in the Royal Navy for seasickness and off we went.
The highlight of the tour was a visit to St. Petersburg and there was no doubt many passengers had signed up after being excited by all the recent TV costume dramas. For me though a greater interest was that all the other destinations were important Hanseatic trading towns where buildings and artefacts of that important period remained. The Hanseatic League was very much about north German towns controlling trade in the Baltic for the best part of 400 years.
During that time the Hansa built up trade with Russia to gain access to leather, fur, timber and wax.
St. Petersburg did not exist until 1703 so a deal was done with Novgorod, where they invested heavily, but resisted giving Russia any direct access to the Baltic. In Novgorod Russians exchanged furs and leather for iron and other products such as alcohol, tobacco, beads, knives, and later, traps and rifles. Fur gets most mentions but in fact the leather was hugely significant. Although vegetable tanned like most other comparable leather throughout the world it was found to be extra durable, more water resistant and somewhat insect repellent. It had a distinct cross hatch pattern and an even more outstanding odour. That smell, and some of the other properties came from the birch oil that was used for currying the leather, but some of the other properties came from aspects of the tannage which have never been fully uncovered. Most of the knowledge ended up being lost in the chaos and war of the early twentieth century.
After the collapse of the Hanseatic League Russia continued its exports and St Petersburg became the key port involved. For me, our visit to St Petersburg was the least interesting of our trip, livened up by us hitting a sand bank (“unidentified submerged object”) and nearly keeling over in the narrow, silted, exit channel.
In 1786 the two masted brig never hit a sandbank as its crew of seven took it from St. Petersburg to Genoa that Autumn. But when they got into the English Channel they had to seek shelter in Plymouth Sound and anchored just below Mount Edgcumbe House. Unlucky for them the wind change and it dragged its anchor and sank. Newspaper reports of the time said everyone got off safely so we are all a bit confused about the single skeleton found when the wreck was discovered and examined in the late 20th century.
More significantly roll upon roll of Russian leather was found with all the inner pieces in really good condition. Some of it was sold to fund further work on the wreck and the recovery of more artefacts. In our Waterer-Spiers collection we have a modern bowl (illustrated) made by Neil MacGregor from this 1786 reindeer leather.
And just this weekend we have been in Mount Edgcumbe House (a beautiful place well worth a visit) with the Archaeological Leather Group looking at more leather from the wreck and all the other artefacts, as well as hearing the story of one of the most complex exercises to uncover this fabulous leather “time capsule”.
So I have moved from St Petersburg to Portsmouth in less than two weeks. It is a small world. By the way the cinnarizine worked perfectly and I didn’t need it for the little ferry that passes near the spot where Metta Catharina sank.