Whitby’s Fossil History and Museum

By the early nineteenth century, geology in England had started to appeal to the public at large. For instance, in 1824 the Reverend William Buckland of Oxford University named the first dinosaur (Megalosaurus bucklandii) and, after this, it seems that this awe inspiring group of prehistoric animals had taken hold of the public’s imagination in ways that continue today. At the same time, several organisations had sprung up to cater for this increased interest in geology, many of which would go on to form the geological societies and museums that still exist today.

Figure 5 alternate.
1) Steneosaurus bollensis (Teleosaurus chapmani) specimen: WM857S. (© Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society.)

The small coastal town of Whitby in North Yorkshire has been associated with fossils for hundreds of years. The geology of the area consists of highly fossiliferous, Lower Jurassic rocks from the Pliensbachian to Bajocian, with three main fossil bearing layers – the Whitby Mudstone, Saltwick and Dogger formations. (Rocks from the Pleistocene and Holocene can also often be found on the beaches washed in from the North Sea.) It was the highly fossiliferous nature these local rocks and, in particular, the discovery of prehistoric animals around Whitby (especially, marine reptiles), together with the increasing scientific interest in them, that prompted the formation of the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society. It was this society that later founded Whitby Museum in 1824.

Steneosaurus_
2) Life reconstruction of Steneosaurus bollensis. (© Nobumichi Tamura (www.palaeocritti.com).)

Whitby Museum, often ignored or unheard of by visitors to the town, is a truly great museum having several collections, not only of geology and fossils, but also of (among other things) ethnography, archaeology weapons and militaria. The geology and palaeontology collection consists of around 6,000 specimens, including an estimated 200 ‘type’ fossils of international importance. The fossil skeletons of many locally found marine reptiles are also on display, including a seven-metre-long ichthyosaur and a plesiosaur, perhaps a juvenile Rhomaleosaurus. In addition, there are countless numbers of local specimens of ammonites, belemnites and so on, collected from along the Yorkshire coastline. Other rare fossils on display include fish, nautiloids and plants.

Figure 7
3) Plesiosaur, ichthyosaur and other fossils at Whitby Museum. (© Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society.)

However, perhaps the museum’s most famous exhibit is the most complete skeleton of the marine crocodile, Steneosaurus bollensis, discovered in England, which was found near Saltwick, in 1824. This is fully articulated with only sections of both the right and left forelimbs and the majority of the rostrum missing.

Many specimens within the collection were acquired in the nineteenth century at a time when alum mining was a large, local industry. It is possible to see giant ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs from the local area actually built into to museum’s walls and these were, for the most part, found by men quarrying for alum or jet. (However, there were also professional fossils hunters making a good living at the time.)

The museum has had several curators, including Martin Simpson, who was a pioneer in scientific work during the nineteenth century and whose published work formed the basis of our understanding of the Lower Jurassic. Today, he is recognised as a scientist of international importance. He was also a prolific collector for, and curator of, the museum’s geological collections. Simpson’s publications put Whitby on the geological map and he became a leading authority on ammonites and on the several type specimens in the museum’s collections (some of which are on display in the museum).

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4) John Robinson holding prized find (belemnite block with crocodilian tooth) taken 2009 copyright Dean Lomax.

The museum’s location has changed several times since it was originally opened, but it has occupied its current position at Pannet Park since 1931, when it moved from the quayside. Today, the museum has a ‘higgledy-piggledy’, almost Victorian feel to it. There are none of the usual electronic displays and garish posters. Rather, it is full of ‘dusty’ trays and cabinets of specimens, the contents of which remain hidden until you peer inside. In fact, it has been deliberately left this way, to reflect how it looked in the 1930s, when it first moved to the site. Notwithstanding this, it is still a great hit with modern kids and it is generally acknowledged that the museum’s geology collection is of worldwide importance. (Note that only a small fraction of the collection is actually on display.)

Figure 2
5) Dinosaur footprints at Saltwick Bay taken in 2006, this appeared in Deposits magazine, issue 16, 2008. Copyright Dean Lomax.

The nature of the museum and the way its collection has been set out means that it will take numerous visits to see all of the special fossils (and other exhibits) the museum has on display. But that is the beauty of a museum like this – there is always reason to come back – and the staff always seem friendly and happy to help.

Figure 3
6) Saltwick Bay copyright Dean Lomax.

More information on the museum and on the society can be found at http://www.whitbymuseum.org.uk/.


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