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How shells from Captain Cook's final voyage were saved from the garbage

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

In the late 1700s, a woman named Bridget Atkinson collected over a thousand seashells from all over the world without ever leaving her village in the rural English county of Cumberland.

FRANCES MCINTOSH: So most of them are beautiful. There's a real range. There's some very tiny ones, there's some that have got kind of a mother of pearl interior. There's lots of cowrie shells, which are often the kind of standard shell you might think of if you think about kind of tropical shells.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

That is Frances McIntosh, a curator at English Heritage, the nonprofit that manages the collection. It includes shells gathered on Captain James Cook's final voyage, now on display at a museum in Northumberland.

SCHMITZ: The shells were previously believed to be lost until the 1980s, when John Buchanan from Newcastle University saved them from the garbage.

RICHARD ATKINSON: This young lecturer, Dr. Buchanan, saw what was happening and managed to rescue them.

SCHMITZ: That's Richard Atkinson.

ATKINSON: I am Bridget Atkinson's great-great-great-great-grandson and the author of a book about the Atkinson family.

KELLY: Buchanan recognized these shells were from a wider global collection, so he took them home, where they sat in storage for another 40 years until his children found the shells in the attic and donated them to English Heritage.

SCHMITZ: Richard Atkinson says their history is complicated because Bridget Atkinson relied on a network of friends and family collecting shells across the British Empire.

ATKINSON: Four of her sons were in Jamaica running the family plantations, which I should obviously add were run by enslaved people. And she also had a neighbor who was on Captain Cook's third voyage.

KELLY: After Bridget Atkinson died in 1814, her shell collection was passed down to her kids and her grandkids.

ATKINSON: Until about 1930 when the living descendant of the time managed to gamble away his inheritance.

SCHMITZ: Richard Atkinson says most of the shells are still missing, but around 200 were found by Buchanan. To Atkinson, the collection illustrates how the smallest objects tell the story of the British Empire.

ATKINSON: It provides a kind of bottom-up portal through which to see the great events of history, and shows how even a farmer and widow, who was living a very ordinary life in a very remote part of England, was part of that much, much, much bigger story.

KELLY: And now those pieces of history are on display for the first time in nearly a century.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kai McNamee
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.