Yucky goings-on at museum

They are not the kind of exhibits you might normally expect among the glass encased dusty ancient artefacts and priceless pieces of pottery.But brazen samples of bodily functions drew scores of visitors to Norfolk's premier museum over the weekend - and all in the name of education.

They are not the kind of exhibits you might normally expect among the glass encased dusty ancient artefacts and priceless pieces of pottery.

But samples of bodily functions drew scores of visitors to Norfolk's premier museum over the weekend - and all in the name of education.

Poo, Puke and Pee was the self-explanatory title of the latest offering at Norwich Castle Museum which teamed up with the UEA School of Biological Sciences and the RSPB to create a range of activities explaining the more base workings of the body.

The event aimed to reveal how what we might regard as waste products are invaluable to scientists, archaeologists and historians and make certain aspects of biology accessible by exploiting our fascination with everything revolting.

Over the two days experts were on hand to explain how things that make us go “yuck” actually can teach us a lot more than we realise.

Sick games such as Guess Whose Vomit and Whose Wee is it Anyway? might have appeared crass but even samples of dog, bird and cow sick helped teach children and grown-ups how different animals' digestive systems worked.

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And fossilised ichthyosaur vomit acted as a window into its life and diet 160 million years ago.

One of the biggest attractions for kids and adults was the coprolite case where they could hold fossilised dinosaur poo from millions of years ago and examine faeces from their Viking ancestors.

Nigel Larkin, palaeontologist and curator of geology at the museum, revealed how the coprolites hold clues to how pre-historic, and more recent, creatures lived and what they ate.

He said: “Kids and adults too have a quite scatological sense of humour and you can really tap into that and make the whole learning experience more accessible.

“Looking at these coprolites shows us how they lived and how they interacted with other animals, it brings that whole world to life a bit more for people.”

Young visitors 11-year-old Edward and eight-year-old William Showler both said how they couldn't wait to tell friends at school how they had held dinosaur poo from 120m years ago.

Hands-on activities included making a food chain mobile, modelling poo with plasticine and dissecting owl pellets to find out exactly what the bird has been eating. Tiny rodent bones in the pellets could be taken away as unusual mementoes of the day.

In the Norman keep, visitors could take a tour of the medieval communal toilets, or garderobes, and compare them to the beautifully tiled Victorian ladies' lavatories hidden away near the art galleries.

But it was not just a history lesson, visitors discovered how urine once used in cloth dyeing is now used to test for diabetes and pregnancy in humans, and how forensic scientists examine the stomach contents of murder victims to help solve crime.

They even got the chance to look through a microscope at the tiny marine life that inhabits dead bodies and can act as detective in pinpointing the time and place of drowning.

Rachel Jarrold, a biological science student at the UEA who, along with Dr Kay Yeoman of the university, helped set up the event, said: “People are repulsed yet fascinated at the same time with the more revolting aspects of life and this is a chance to really use that.”

The castle's project support officer Jenny Caynes, who came up with the catchy three Ps title, said: “Norwich hosted the BA Festival of Science last year and we found out kids were interested in poo and the gruesome bits of archaeology and so it's come out of that.”

Coprolite is derived from the Greek words meaning dung and stone and may range from the size of a ball-bearing to a football and bigger.

By examining coprolite, palaeontologists are able to determine what animal the dung came from, whether or not it was a herbivore, and what species they fed on.

In one example these fossils can be analyzed for certain minerals that are known to exist in trace amounts in certain species of plant that can still be detected millions of years later. In another example, the existence of human proteins can be used to pinpoint the existence of cannibalistic behaviour in an ancient culture.

The recognition of coprolites is aided by their structural patterns, such as spiral or annular markings, by their content, such as undigested food fragments and by associated fossil remains.

Some people even make jewellery out of them.