All I want for Xmas

December 24, 1999

Killer whale skulls, Bronze-Age axe heads, rings based on New Zealand flowers and, of course, the very best wineI Julia Hinde explores how academics are exploiting the Christmas market with a novel range of gift ideas.

If the prospect of a new millennium sends shivers down your spine, then a Christmas present that takes you back to the prehistoric age may well be in order.

Whether it is a replica Jurassic period dragonfly (Stenophlebia, Pounds 3.53) or a lifelike skull of a Deinonychus (Pounds 211.50), one of the pack-hunting dinosaurs made famous by the film Jurassic Park, GEOU - a geological supply company housed in the Open University's earth sciences department - has a huge range of replica fossils and rocks to fill this year's Christmas stockings.

The university - which can ask for certain fossils to be created to accompany OU courses - has owned the fossil fabricating company since 1995.Before then it was owned and run by an OU student.

Since taking over the business, which previously supplied fossil kits to students, the OU has continued to expand the range of fossils on offer.

This year's additions, according to GEOU's Adam Maciejewski, include replica Bronze-Age axe heads (from around Pounds 30-Pounds 55), a replica meteorite (Pounds 45), a new Archaeoptyeryx fossil (one of the earliest birds, Pounds 76), and a range of replica modern marine skulls, including killer whales, dwarf crocodiles, even turtles and penguins. They even have for sale a metre-long footprint from the Tyrannosaurus rex (Pounds 76.38).

With 50,000 fossils hand cast and painted each year, there are no shortage of buyers. "We have dads buying Velociraptor claws (Pounds 4.40) for their sons, friends buying fossilised crocodile poo (Pounds 7.05) for their mates, people buying dragonflies for their walls," explains Dr Maciejewski, who adds that the company makes five different types of replica faeces.

The fossils are cast in the university's earth sciences department by the fossil fabricator, who borrows fossils from museums or collections to create the copies. "Because we use original high-quality museum pieces to cast from," explains Maciejewski, "our replicas are as true to life, or death, as possible."

* A replica of a life-sized skull of the predatory dinosaur Allosaurus will set you back Pounds 1,233, while a box set of 12 small fossils costs Pounds 16.45. Details can be found at http:///geou.open.ac.uk . To order, email "mailto:geou@open.ac.uk" TARGET = "_blank" > geou@open.ac.uk , or phone or fax +44 1908 654871.

"They have to be botanically accurate, but also comfy to wear, and visually flowing so they work around the finger," explains Wallace Sutherland, of the rings he casts in silver and gold.

A science graduate who first worked as a geologist hunting for gold in Australia's north, Sutherland - now a lecturer in art and design at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand - soon found his real interest lay in sketching the stones and flora he found, rather than in discovering new wealth for his employers.

"When I was working as a geologist looking for gold for big companies, I became more and more interested in using metal myself. I ended up taking a silver-smithing course, which led to a new career," he explains.

Sutherland now specialises in designing and making rings based on New Zealand's native flowers such as mountain daisies and bush orchids. "The rings are very carefully researched and designed. I do a lot of drawing in the Bush."

As well as teaching at the university and designing rings, Sutherland produces medallions, helping to revive a 2,000-year-old European technique.

"Medallions are a huge art form in Europe," he says. "I make fairly intense statements about the human condition using the two sides of the medallion. I may put a mask on one side, and show human vulnerability on the other.

"Some have New Zealand themes. I called one 'Classic Kiwi'. On one side it shows a Kiwi wandering around Greek ruins and on the other side it shows the bird growling. It contradicts the idea of the passive New Zealander."

He uses single cuttlefish bones as moulds for some of his metal casting. "This is a 2,000-year-old art technique from the Mediterranean, which we are reviving. It's becoming quite popular in New Zealand."

* Rings cost from NZ$180 (Pounds 57)in silver and from NZ$375 (Pounds 118) in gold. Medallions cost from NZ$200-NZ$500 (Pounds 63-Pounds 158).

For details fax Wallace Sutherlandon +64 9378 48, or email "mailto:wallace.sutherland@ait.ac.nz%20" > wallace.sutherland@ait.ac.nz

After partying into 2000, what better way to unwind than with a foot massage?

Firewalker moisturising foot cream, using the ti plant from Polynesia and the babasu palm from the Amazon rainforest, is among a handful of natural skin and haircare products brought to western markets by American ethnobotanist Paul Alan Cox.

Cox - the King Carl Gustaf professor of environmental science at Uppsala University in Sweden and the director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii - took his young family to live in Samoa in the South Pacific in the 1980s, following the death of his mother from breast cancer.

His quest to find a natural cure for breast cancer failed but, as well as finding a potential drug to treat HIV, he noticed how local people used indigenous plants for combating skin diseases. "It takes forever to get a return from pharmaceutical drugs," he explains, of his commercial interest in skincare products. "But these people had beautiful hair and exquisite skin. I wrote a paper on this, mentioning how we could get personal care products from the Samoans. I was then approached by a number of cosmetics firms."

Cox was keen for some of the returns of the products to go to the community. A deal with Nu Skin International means a percentage of each sale is returned to the Samoans.

As well as Firewalker foot cream ($12 for 3.4 fl oz), Cox is the creator of a post-shave lotion for women ($14.20 for 3.4 floz) and a deodorant that uses a plant from Haiti ($9.95 for 1.7oz).

* Products sell under the Epoch brand at Nu Skin International (http://www. nuskin.com).

For those cracking open the bubbly this New Year's Eve, Greg Gallagher, wine maker at Australia's largest university-owned commercial winery, is happy to recommend the Charles Sturt sparkling wine.

He is equally quick to praise the university's Cabernet Sauvignon, which he says is excellent this year, with its rich berry flavours. Then there are the dry reds, the port and the sherries.

Charles Sturt University at Wagga Wagga in New South Wales bottles and sells 20,000 cases of wine annually from its own vineyard. While other universities have experimental vineyards, Charles Sturt wine making is a commercial enterprise with profits fed from the company back into the university.

At the Geisenheim Research Institute near Wiesbaden in Germany, a bumper crop means up to 200,000 litres of wine could be hitting the shops this Christmas.

"It's entirely experimental," explains Hans Schultz, professor of viticulture at Geisenheim. "Whereas at Charles Sturt the winery is run by a company, here the research institute runs its own winery. We have 340 people all working on some aspects of wine from biochemistry to marketing.

"We have 24 hectares of experimental fields producing grapes for both the experimental cellar and large-scale wine-making. We try to implement the latest research in terms of growing grapes and making wine."

On a more low-key note, wine enthusiasts could always open a Mount Charlie, the viticulture creation of Melbourne University physiology professor Trefor Morgan; or wonder at the origin of the sultanas and raisins in this year's Christmas pudding. Perhaps they are the produce of Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) scientist Peter Clingeleffer, who produces dried fruit from his vineyard near Mildura, northern Victoria, which he sells to a large dried fruit company.

"I dry the fruit on racks," he explains, "it's how the industry used to do it."

* Charles Sturt University wine sells for between Aus$8(Pounds 3.20) and Aus$22 (Pounds 8.80) a bottle. For details contact the cellar door on +61 2 6933 2435.

For wines and spirits from Geisenheim, which sell from between DM5.9 (Pounds 2) and DM150 (Pounds 48), phone +49 6722 502 173 or fax +49 6722 502 180.

For Mount Charlie wine, fax +61 3 9344 0189.

For child comedians everywhere, an Australian academic may have the ideal Christmas gift.

June Factor's Juicy Joke Book is the latest addition to a long list of children's titles by the Melbourne University senior research fellow. Titles include Far Out Brussel Sprout, All Right Vegemite and Real Keen Baked Bean.

And if tales from the Australian playground, of "dobbers" and "dunnies" and "chooks" do not get the children laughing, then their parents might manage a smile at some of the playground rhymes, such as that of Captain Cook who:

"chased a chook (chicken) all around Australia; Lost his pants in the middle of France, and found them in Tasmania".

Factor has been collecting Australian playground jokes, tales and games since the 1970s. "I was teaching students about writing for children," she explains. "But many of my students found the books about childhood, such as Lord of the Flies, rather too fierce.

"Young adults often have amnesia about the gritty reality of childhood. They see it as very romantic. This was an attempt to remind my students, many of whom were going on to be teachers, what it was like to be a child, and to help them appreciate the literature rather than reject it because it is harsh."

She asked her students to collect games, rhymes and tales they heard while on teaching practice in schools. What resulted grew into an archive, a complete documentation of playground games and oral literature.

"I wanted to return to children something of their tradition in a status product such as a book," she says. "The first, Far Out Brussel Sprout, was a collection of children's playground talk, jokes, games and rhymes."

Seven books later, Factor is still collecting. "Children often recognise a game or rhyme, and they write to me and send me more.

"I point out in a letter in each book that this book belongs to them in a special way, because this is what they have created. I tell them: 'You are the real authors of the book.'"

* June Factor's Juicy Joke Book and her Jumping Joke Book, are both published by Allen and Unwin in Australia. Copies can be obtained by emailing "mailto:frontdesk@allen-unwin.com.au" > frontdesk@allen-unwin.com.au . Price is Aus$8.95 (Pounds 3.50) plus postage. Far Out Brussel Sprout and similar titles, including Unreal Banana Peel and Roll Over Pavlova can be ordered through local bookshops in the UK and are published by Hodder Headline Australia at Aus$12.95 (Pounds 5).

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