Small mysteries

The Colby Room

In one of those odd twists of history that are not uncommon in museums, the Museum of Science, Boston displays a period room.  The former game room of Colonel Francis Thompson Colby boasts an impressive collection of trophies from four decades of big game hunting, and souvenirs of his travels on at least four continents.  We are in the process of installing a new vestibule, so visitors can actually enter the room, and in the process have uncovered a little surprise.

The room is fronted by a pair of “elephant doors”, a not-uncommon sight in East African buildings. These doors are said to have come from the palace of the Sultan of Witu.   The 12-foot high, four-inch thick doors are studded with brass bosses which are supposed to deter elephants from butting the doors in with their heads. When the doors were taken down to be rehung, we noticed a small inscription carved at the top of the central pillar, which had been in the shadows for decades.  Here is the inscription:

And here are the transcriptions:

Any Arabic scholars out there?

For the curious, Witu is a village in eastern Kenya, north of Mombasa, not far from the port of Lamu. It was formerly an independent sultanate in the late 19th century, and was a British protectorate from 1893 to 1923.  Judging from the Lion and Unicorn above the door, I’d say the doors also date to somewhere between 1893-1923.


Lori Phillips (follow her: @HstryQT) kindly spread the word amongst the Wikipedians, and got one response already:!/righteous_a/status/131122144213090305!/righteous_a/status/131122448946049025


Anyone else?


  1. So that’s the room, eh? It’s beautiful! Looks like a real cabinet of curiosities. Treasure hunt opportunities. I spy… lots of things to notice. Did anything ever come of our conversation from last summer? Sorry to have missed your M&MConference panel.


    1. It’s pretty amazing, and since came straight out of his house to the Museum, it’s all chock a block with his stuff; drawers full of papers, cupboards full of things. It’s pretty magical. The photo album browser got bumped into a later phase so we could concentrate on getting the room redone and open. I’m still hoping it’ll come to fruition.


      1. That’s from the thread I started after my visit to the museum last weekend. I’ve also put feelers out on /r/translator, /r/arabic, and /r/linguistics. The consensus so far is an origin of either Kenya, where the Sultan of Witu’s palace was originally, or perhaps Somalia or Harari.

        Here are the rest of the threads.


  2. I think we finally have something conclusive. One of the threads I started on Reddit seems to have borne fruit. Apparently it’s Osamaniya, the earliest Somali written language. This info is unconfirmed however.

    Does it make sense considering your own research?


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