Hidden Gems: The Mystery of the Missing Bunga Mas

by Jean-Marie Metzger

This may sound more like a ‘Conan Doyle’ story than an article by a Museum Volunteer; so, let’s find out what’s behind this ‘Mystery of the Bunga Mas’.

Everybody will probably be familiar with the Bunga Mas, a reproduction of which is on display in Gallery C of the National Museum.  The correct name of this artefact is actually Bunga Mas dan Perak, which, rather than ‘Golden Flower’ means ‘Gold and Silver Flower’. Indeed, it is very likely that such an imposing artefact, weighing several pounds, with a height of about 1.5 m1, would be very fragile had it been made of solid gold. But as the actual name seems to indicate, it was probably made of gold-plated silver.

The gifts of the Bunga Mas were sent to the King of Siam every three years, by the Sultans of the Northern Malay States (Kedah, Terengganu, Kelantan, Patani,…) accompanied with other gifts, such as shields and spears.

Bunga Mas at Gallery C Muzium Negara. From http://www.muziumnegara.gov.my/gallery/items/Bunga_Mas_61

These gifts from the Sultans to the King, were probably laden with deep political misunderstanding: while the King of Siam would consider them as a recognition of suzerainty over the Malay Sultanates, the Sultans would simply regard them as a token of friendship. The relationship between the northern Sultanates and the Kingdom of Siam had never been an easy one, as can be seen by the various appeals for ‘protection’ to the different occupying powers, be it the Dutch or later the British. There could occasionally even be exchanges of concealed insults. According to a note found in the Cambridge University Library2 (Archives of the British Association of Malaysia and Singapore), the author mentions that he had seen a letter which was sent to the Sultan of Terengganu by the King of Siam in which the latter reversed the traditional courteous formula: ‘sending a gift from the Head of the Sultan to the feet of the King’, into the insulting reply: ‘from beneath the King’s feet to the crown of the Sultan’s head’.

The last Bunga Mas from Kedah to the King of Siam was sent in 1906. Three years later, another Bunga Mas was ready to be sent. In March 1909, however, before it could be send to Siam, Britain and Siam signed a treaty in which the sovereignty over the northern sultanates of Malaya (with the exception of Patani and Setul) was to be transferred to Britain.

According to the above-mentioned note, the Sultan of Kedah sent this Bunga Mas to King Edward VII instead. In the first report of the British advisor to Kedah, Mr. Maxwell, he noted that during the meeting of the State Council on August 23rd 1909, the question arose whether sending the Bunga Mas to Edward VII was to be regarded as ‘the last of a series relating to a remote past’. The offer was indeed accepted, and Tunku Muhammad Jiwa, who had conveyed the previous Bunga Mas to Bangkok, set off to Singapore. Two Bunga Mas, together with forty-two spears and twenty-four shields, as well as a Bunga Mas from Perlis, and ‘other offerings from Terengganu’, were sent to the Colonial Office, and were personally presented to the King by the Secretary of States to the Colonies.

This is where the mystery begins. Although the Archives of Windsor Castle mention that the gift had been received by King Edward, all of the artefacts have subsequently disappeared. There is no mention of them whatsoever in the Royal Collections. A few months ago, the curator for the Royal Gifts, when questioned by me about these artefacts, told me that they had never been heard of. They are certainly not registered in the current inventory.

Furthermore, it seems that another final gift of Bunga Mas was sent in 1911 to King George V by the Sultan of Kedah on the occasion of the King’s coronation. This too seems to have disappeared!

Now there is food for further research: Kedah Archives, Malaysian National Archives, British Colonial Office Archives…MVs! Get ready!

Notes:

1  https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2010/12/07/museum-dept-to-have-a-closer-look-at-bunga-emas-in-bangkok/

2 University of Cambridge Library – RCS/RCMS 103/2/12 ; the author is identified as Hugh Patterson Bryson, and is referenced as having written the note in 1965 see : https://janus.lib.cam.ac.uk/db/node.xsp?id=EAD%2FGBR%2F0115%2FRCMS%20103%2F2%2F12

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Hidden Gems: The Magic Square Bowl

by Marianne Khor

Amidst a number of examples of the Islamic influence on metal and ceramic wares in a showcase in Gallery B, a small bowl can be found with the intriguing description ‘Magic Square Bowl’. It looks like a small Chinese rice bowl but is decorated with Islamic script. On the inside of the bowl is a square consisting of sixteen smaller squares, also containing Islamic writing. Was it used to perform magic, or was it magical in itself?

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) Chinese ceramics with Islamic script were already produced in China and transported along the maritime trade routes by Arab and Persian traders. After the Tang Dynasty, ceramics with Islamic inscriptions were no longer produced. Only in the early 16th Century did they appear again. The Magic Square Bowl in Gallery B is from the 18th Century Qing Dynasty.

The Magic Square, or Buduh tradition, predates Islam. The early Magic Square is thought to be of Chinese origin and consisted of a 3×3 square with 9 smaller squares. The numbers 1-9, with the number 5 in the centre, add up to 15 in each row, column and the two diagonals. An early version of Sudoku? A Magic Square was used to find love, prevent fears, attacks and poisoning. It helped during childbirth and also in finding lost objects. In short, it could be quite helpful for many occasions. Later, there were Magic Squares of 4×4, 6×6, 7×7, and 10×10, and even 100×100 squares with an arrangement of letters and numerals.

Islamic mathematicians in the Arab world already knew about the Magic Square as early as the 7th Century. This knowledge may have come from India through the study of Indian astronomy and mathematics, or from China. The earliest Magic Squares were written in ‘abjad’ letter-numerals. The four corners of the square were marked with the letters ba’, dal, waw (or u) and ha. Therefore, this particular square was known as the ‘Buduh’ square.

The name ‘Buduh’ itself was so powerful that it was regarded as a most effective talisman, and so was the letter B with its numerical equivalents 2,4,6,8. This arrangement of letters and its corresponding numbers is believed to protect travellers, babies, postal letters and packages. Even today in some Islamic countries, one can find packages marked with the numbers 2,4,6 or 8 in the corners, or just the letter B added under the address to ensure that the items arrive safely. This might be something worth trying out!

Magic Squares were used by Muslims as religious mandalas, meditation devices, talisman, and amulets. They were drawn on a variety of objects, even on skin.

The Arabic letters and numerals in the Magic Square can also be read as one of the ninety-nine names or attributes of God. The numerical value with a certain specific meaning can be obtained by adding the corresponding letters of any of the columns of the Magic Square in a horizontal, vertical or diagonal way.

One wonders what the inscriptions in the Magic Square Bowl in Gallery B represent…

Do they have a religious meaning?

Or are they just meant to bring good luck in any situation?

Bibliography:

Invulnerability, Federation Museum Journal, Volume XVI new series 1971

Arts and Crafts Company, Global Arts and Crafts, Antiques, Design and Art, Kho- antiques ( Singapore)

Islamic Medical Manuscripts at the US National Library of Medicine, Catalogue: Astrology/Divination/Magic, Author: Emilie Savage-Smith PH.D. Senior Associate, The Oriental Institute University of Oxford

Hypernumber Buduh: hypernumber.blogspot.my

Hidden Gems: The Bellarmine Jar in Gallery C

by Rose Gan

Amongst the detritus of the great explosion that destroyed the Dutch ship ‘Nassau’ at the battle of Tanjong Tuan in 1606, is one small curious flagon, usually referred to as a Bellarmine Jar, that survived the disaster almost unscathed.  These jugs are made of brown earthenware with a bulbous body tapering to a long, narrow neck decorated with the face of a rather fierce bearded man. They often also bear a coat-of-arms, as the one featured in the museum, or a floral decoration. Bellarmine Jars were traditionally produced in Germany, particularly in Frechen outside Cologne. This jar is said to date to the early years of the 17th century, although their production in Germany goes back at least to the 14th century, possibly earlier.

In Germany, these jars were first called ‘Bartmann Krug’ (Bearded Man Jugs). The face is reminiscent of the Wild Man of the Woods spirit common across Europe that originated in ancient times and was still worshipped in rural areas even in the staunchly Christian Middle Ages. In Britain, this image was known as ‘The Green Man’, still a popular name for inns and pubs. Similar faces were often carved or etched onto trees, stone structures or wooden panels as a protection against evil spirits. They can even be found adorning the borders of Christian manuscripts and tapestries.

Bellarmine Jar

But in 1606, the nickname Bellarmine was newly coined and, in fact, may not have been in general use until later in the century. St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), an influential Roman Catholic theologian and Counter-Reformation cardinal, was very unpopular in the Protestant countries, particularly Germany and Holland. It was Robert Bellarmine who was behind the original accusations against Galileo and who led the Papal attempt to declare Copernicus’s theories heretical. As you can imagine, this rigid and reactionary cardinal also held many other strict views – particularly against the consumption of alcohol. These jars seem to have been named for him in an attempt to humiliate the Cardinal by portraying him as a grotesque bearded old man who frowned on fun and enjoyment. There was also the extra insult that these small flagons would often be used to carry alcohol, something Bellarmine was particularly against. Imagine drinkers wishing each other ‘Cheers’, whilst raising the Cardinal’s face in mock tribute!

Carrying gin and brandy was not their only function. Research from the Nassau and various other shipwrecks of Dutch vessels shows that the jars were often used on long voyages to transport mercury, an important component of various medical treatments. Another more sinister use of Bellarmine jars, which must have further insulted the famous cardinal, was as Witches’ Jars used to store hair clippings, nails -or even human urine -for use in spells and charms. The jars were then buried in secret places to work their magic.

Our little jar spans a thousand years of history and tells of pagan rites, Christian conflicts, magic spells, pharmacological remedies – and an irreverent bottle of gin!

Gyeongju National Museum, Korea

by Karen Loh

During a trip to South Korea recently, I visited the historic city of Gyeongju. About 2 hours by train from Seoul, this ancient city was once the capital of the Silla Kingdom (57 BCE – 935 CE). Legend has it that a man by the name of Park Hyeokgeo-se came down from the heavens in 57 BCE and founded the kingdom of Silla. The city was officially named Gyeongju by the founder of the Goryeo Dynasty, King Taejo, in 940 CE. The Goryeo Dynasty ruled Korea from the 10th-14th  century. Listed as a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO in November 2000, the historic area in Gyeongju is divided into five sections. The five areas are Namsan, Wolseong, Gobungun, Hwangnyongsa, and Sanseong.

My first stop in Gyeongju was naturally at their National Museum. Located in the city close to Korea’s major historical attractions, this museum is dedicated to the preservation of Silla’s historical artefacts. According to the guidebook, the museum has 2,500 artefacts on display and houses around 80,000 relics. Opened in 1975, the museum has three permanent exhibition galleries, namely the Silla History Gallery, Silla Art Gallery, and the Wolji Gallery. There is also an interesting outdoor exhibition area. Amongst the displays outdoors are a Head of Buddha carved out of stone, a very large Divine Bell of King Seongdeok that is 3.77 meters tall, and a Three-Story Stone Stupa from the Goseonsa Temple; the latter two are listed as national treasures.

A copy of a rock carving depicting whales from Ulsan Daegok-ri Bangudae in Room 1 of the Silla History Gallery.

The Silla History Gallery has four rooms with artefacts displayed from the pre-historic era to the forming of the kingdom in the middle of the 4th century, the conquering of nearby lands around the 6th century, and unification of the three kingdoms (Silla, Baekje, and Goguryeo) to form the Unified Silla Dynasty.

The highlights of the museum for me personally are the exhibits of the rich relics excavated from the Silla mound tombs. Recovered from the Geumgwanchong (nicknamed Gold Crown Tomb), Cheonmachong (nicknamed Heavenly Horse Tomb), and Seobongchong (nicknamed Felicitous Phoenix Tomb) mound tombs, there is a vast collection of personal ornaments made of pure gold such as crowns, decorated waistbands with hanging tail ornaments, belts, bracelets, earrings, and rings.

Silla Gold crown, jewellery and belts with belt hangings made of gold and some with jade excavated from The Silla mound tombs.
An assortment of gold earrings.
Burial ware excavated from The Silla mound tombs.
Ornamental golden sheath from tomb No. 14 in Gyerim-ro, Gyeongju.

The Silla Art Gallery is divided into three rooms. The first room is dedicated to Buddhist Arts – stupas, Buddha statues, and relics. The second room houses the Kukeun Collection, which is from the private collection of Dr Lee Yang-sun. The highlights in this collection include a cup in the shape of ‘Warrior on Horseback’ and lacquered-bronze stirrups. The Hwangnyongsa Room is dedicated to the display of roof tiles from the prestigious Hwangnyongsa Temple and a sarira (Buddhist relics) reliquary.

Last but not least, the Wolji Gallery displays artefacts from Wolji, a site where a pond was built in the palace grounds during the reign of King Munmu (661 – 681 CE) of the Unified Silla Dynasty.

Statue of Avalokitesvara in the Buddhist Arts Gallery.
Roof tiles from the Hwangnyongsa Temple.

Ancient Treasures from Myanmar

by Maganjeet Kaur

The on-going (well, it ends on 5th Mar) exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) in Singapore titled ‘Cities & Kings: Ancient Treasures from Myanmar’ brings together 60 artefacts from 4 museums: National Museum Nay Pyi Taw, National Museum Yangon, Bagan Archaeological Museum, and ACM.

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The ACM building has a long history. The oldest part of the building was constructed between 1864-67 using convict labour from India. A flagstaff at the top of the building was the Origin of Coordinates for Singapore. The building originally housed a number of government departments. In March 1964, the Singapore Branch of Bank Negara, Malaysia was officially opened in the building. This was the bank’s second branch outside Kuala Lumpur, the first was in Penang which opened in March 1961. ACM has occupied the building since 2003.

The exhibition showcases the culture and history of the country from the early Pyu and Mon civilisations up to the Mandalay Kingdom.

The Pyu civilisation developed in upper and central Myanmar in the early centuries of the first millennium and remained a force for close to a thousand years. It had among the earliest, if not the earliest, urban centres in Southeast Asia and saw the emergence of large walled cities such as Halin, Beikthano, and Sri Ksetra. These cities, located on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River amidst fertile agricultural plains, had sophisticated irrigation systems and participated in long distance trade. The culture adopted Buddhism and, to a lesser extent, Hinduism. It is thought that Buddhism flowed into Central Myanmar through present day northeast India and Bangladesh which were part of the Pala Kingdom. Here was also located the Nalanda University which expounded Mahayana and Tantric schools of Buddhist thought and these strands of Buddhism flowed into the Pyu culture.

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This bowl with a peacock motif in the centre surrounded by foliate (dated to the 9th century) was found at Sri Ksetra, a Pyu city. The lobbed design of the bowl indicates Chinese influence as it parallels a four-lobbed bowl with mandarin duck design found at Famen Temple near Xian. However, the bowl is believed to have been made in Myanmar with inspiration taken from China signifying a trade relationship between the two cultures.

Contemporaneous with Pyu was the Mon civilisation in Lower Myanmar. Large urban centres with specialisations in trade developed at Thaton, Kyaikkatha, and Winka-Ayetthema. These were coastal cities connected by trade routes to India, Sri Lanka, Dvaravati (a Mon Kingdom in today’s Thailand), and the Hindu-Buddhist polity at Bujang Valley (Kedah). Theravada Buddhism prevailed in Lower Myanmar showing a close link with Sri Lanka.

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This terracotta plaque, dated to the 5th or 6th century, was found at Kyontu, an early Mon city. Two musicians flank a central figure (face damaged) which is either riding or fighting a bull. Three more figures fill the space above. These three-dimensional figures are surrounded by a circular frame set within a larger frame with floral motifs on each corner.

Bagan (previously Pagan), founded by the Bamars (Burmans), rose to prominence during the 11th to 13th centuries. It was an inland polity situated on the left bank of the Ayeyarwady River between Kyaukse and Minbu, two rice producing regions. Rice surplus from these two regions was centralised at Bagan and this allowed Bagan to exercise control throughout the Ayeyarwady basin, including the Mon controlled coastal areas. Bagan became the first royal capital of Myanmar. Its first king, Anawrahta (reign: 1044-77), introduced Theravada Buddhism to Bagan after sacking the Mon city of Thaton in 1057 to obtain a copy of Tipitaka, a text on Theravada Buddhism. The population of Myanmar today remain Theravada Buddhist.

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left: a sandstone from  Bagan (11th century) showing Prince Siddharta cutting his hair, symbolising his break from royal life and starting his path towards Buddhahood. right: a miniature stupa, made of bronze with gold-leaf lacquer, from Bagan dated to the 19th century. Miniature stupas were used to house relics, an enduring tradition that has lasted till today. This stupa has five sides with five lion-like mythical figures projecting from the base. The five niches would have each contained a miniature Buddha and each niche has a makara-like figure above it.
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Lacquered betel boxes from Bagan known as kun-yit-gyi. The cylindrical boxes contain two inner trays in which the ingredients necessary for betel chewing are stored. The designs on the boxes are incised with red, green, yellow, and black lacquer. The box on the right tells the story of Prince Wee-Ta-Na-Pa and his astrologer, Ah-Nu-Ya.

Power shifted to Inwa (previously Ava) in the mid 14th century. As Bagan disintegrated, a new Mon kingdom was established at Bago (previously Pegu) in 1281 and a king appeared at Rakhine (previously Arakan). The Shans, who had dominated the northern highlands, started moving to the lowlands. King Mindon (reign: 1853-78) moved his royal capital from Amarapura to Mandalay in 1857. This was the last royal capital as the British captured Mandalay in 1885 and King Thibaw was exiled to Ratnagiri, India. The British moved the capital to Yangon (previously Rangoon) which they had captured in 1852. Nay Pyi Taw, 300 km to the north of Yangon, became the capital of Myanmar in 2005.

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Indigenous animistic spirits, known as nats, continue to be worshipped although the population is predominantly Buddhist. Nats can take human and animal forms as illustrated in this display. From left to right: Lat Lay Pat Nat, four armed nat; Paunte Maung Tint Tal Nat, Handsome Blacksmith, a household guardian; Koe Myoe Shin Nat, Lord of the nine towns; Pale Yin Nat, sister of Koe Myoe Shin.

 * photos taken at ACM

Istana Satu

The beautiful, traditional Malay house adorning the grounds of Muzium Negara is Istana Satu, a palace belonging to the Terengganu royalty, which was acquired in 1972 by the Federation of Museums. Its reconstruction on the grounds of Muzium Negara was completed in April 1974.

Built high on pillars, it conforms to the long roofed, 12-pillared architectural style of Terengganu. Traditional houses in Terengganu are generally 6-pillared or 12-pillared, a reference to the number of pillars holding the roof structure. These tall pillars, which can raise the floor of the house as high as eight feet, not only protected the house from wild animals and floods but also warded off ground dampness prevalent in our humid climate.

Seven steps lead to the verandah of the palace. This number is intentionally odd as, according to Malay superstitious practice, a person should leave the house with his/her right foot first. With an odd number of steps, the journey away from the house will again start with the right foot.

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Malay craftsmanship is evident through the beautiful wood-carvings, both inside and outside the palace. The tiered roof is unique to the northeast states of Terengganu and Kelantan.

A traditional 12-pillared Terengganu house has three sections – the serambi (verandah where guests are also received and entertained), Rumah Ibu (Mother’s house, comprising the living and sleeping areas), and Dapor (kitchen, which also includes the dining area). Rumah Ibu, the main section of the house, is named as such as the mother occupies an important position in Malay culture.

Istana Satu originally comprised two units: the Federation of Museums only acquired one unit while the other unit was purchased by a private individual. In the original palace, the Rumah Ibu would have been a  structure separate from the Dapor but linked with it.

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The royal bedroom. Tekat needlework can be seen on the pillows. This technique uses gold or silver thread to create embroidery on satin silk and velvet. Tekat became part of the royal Malay tradition.

The Sultan’s palace in Kuala Terengganu has traditionally been located at the foot of Bukit Puteri. Sultan Baginda Omar (r. 1831, 1839-1876), wresting control of Terengganu in 1839, initially stayed in a fort on Bukit Puteri but later moved down the hill to this traditional site. He built a timber palace, Istana Hijau, on this site but it was gutted in 1882 by a fire that also destroyed 1600 other houses. This incident occurred during the reign of Sultan Zainal Abidin III (r. 1881-1918) who then built Istana Satu (First Palace) enclosed in a large compound known as Kota (fort). Other buildings were added within Kota and in 1895, the imposing Istana Maziah became the official residence of the Sultan.

Do saunter into Istana Satu the next time you visit the museum, leaving your shoes at the base of the steps.

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Kota, circa 1895. Taken from the Federation Museums Journal, Vol VII, 1962, pg 93. Istana Satu was connected via a bridge to Rumah Tele making it convenient for the Sultan to visit the occupants. Rumah Tele was built in 1888, in time for the King of Thailand to occupy it during his visit to Terengganu in February 1889. This building has been reconstructed on the grounds of the Terengganu State Museum.

Natural History Museum

by Maganjeet Kaur (with a special thank-you to Lim Tze Tshen for a tour of the museum)

The distance may seem daunting but, housing a collection that dates to the early 1900s and showcasing Malaysia’s rich biodiversity, the Natural History Museum is well worth the drive to Putrajaya.

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Dinosaur eggs from China on display at the gallery. These eggs may not be from here but the discovery of a dinosaur tooth in Pahang suggests that dinosaurs roamed this land 140 million years ago.

Malaysia is listed as one of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world, i.e countries that have a high percentage of the Earth’s plant and animal species as well as a high percentage of species endemic to the country. Although only a fraction of this diversity is captured in the museum, the museum does provide some interesting representations in the various animal categories.

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The entomological collection was started over a century ago by amateur naturalists fascinated by the country’s rich flora and fauna.

The seas are no less vibrant and 77 molluscs are displayed providing an easy reference guide for cataloging.

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Some common shells picked from the beaches of Malaysia.
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Skeleton of an eagle

The on-going exhibition on skeletons is especially interesting as it provides an insight into how skeletons of different groups of animals evolved and adapted to their different functions. Flight requires a strong but light-weight structure. To achieve this, the skeleton in birds was adapted with a strong chest bone to hold the flight muscles. In addition, some bones were eliminated and the remaining ones hollowed out. The front limbs saw a reduction in digits and development of feathers. However, it is believed that the development of feathers was an exaptation; their original purpose could have been to regulate heat and it was only later that they were adapted for flight.

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Skull of a langur (Presbytis sp.). We shared a common ancestor with the langur around 25 million years ago

To live in trees, arboreal creatures (e.g. primates and koalas) developed strong chest and hip bones while a prehensile tail provided stability to navigate the canopy. The opposable thumb evolved allowing primates to grasp tree branches; this same opposable thumb would later give flexibility to hominids to fashion tools and weapons from stone and other materials. Did Darwin get it right when he said it was the need to free the hands to handle tools and weapons that gave rise to bipedalism? The earliest known stone tools date to 2.6 million years ago while hominids started walking upright 6 million years ago making it unlikely it was the need to handle tools that caused bipedalism. Many other theories abound; one that is gaining popularity specifies that wading in shallow water to forage for edibles necessitated walking on two legs. In addition, water cushioned the joints from pressure in an upright position allowing hominids to walk on two legs for longer periods.

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Skeleton of a chimpanzee. In humans, the spine and leg bones are in a straight line while these are at an angle in the chimpanzee allowing it to walk in a semi-upright position. In other four-legged animals, the spine and leg bones are at right-angles making an upright position difficult to achieve.

It is said that it was the use of technology that shaped us into who we are, that pushed us onto a very different evolutionary track from the other primates. Performing complex tasks increased our brain capacity to the 1,300 ml average of today. Compare this to the 400 ml of the extant Australopithecus and the same amount of the chimpanzee today. This  increased brain capacity has enabled our march to the stars.

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Pieces of rock from the moon and a flag of Malaysia that was carried by the Apollo 11 mission. The plaque reads: “This flag of your people was carried to the moon and back by Apollo 11, and this fragment of the moon’s surface was brought to Earth by the crew of that first manned lunar landing”.