‘Finders, keepers’: the lost world of some Isle of Wight geological heroes

There is a growing misconception that most of the earliest important fossil discoveries were made by a select few famous geologists – established names, who were supposed to have ‘found’ everything in their collections. In reality, however, the true ‘discoverers’ of the original specimens were an often unknown or forgotten assortment of amateurs, labourers, beach-combers, longshoremen or quarrymen: opportunists, who were finding ‘new’ material with surprising regularity. These people not only had local knowledge, but also had the distinct advantage of being in the right place at the right time, thanks to the hours they devoted to searching. On the other hand, the early geological pioneers were fervently adding to their private museum cabinets by whatever means possible. As news of major finds of unusual fossils came to their attention, perhaps by way of the reports in some of the provincial broadsheets mentioned later, the more diligent and successful collectors (the acquirers) put their money where their mouths were and purchased directly from the sources (the finders). Eventually some of this material found its way to the academics and their institutional museums (the keepers).

In the case of the Isle of Wight – that classic locality for Cretaceous and Palaeogene fossils – the earliest and most important historical discoveries have been attributed to a small group of generalised geologists. These include William Buckland, Adam Sedgwick, William Fitton, Edward Forbes and the surgeon, Gideon Mantell between the 1820s and the 1850s; and later to a whole host of individual local collectors, including William Fox, Mark Norman (Fig. 5), Ernest Wilkins, Stephen Saxby and Reginald Hooley. However, other collectors have, in my opinion, been unfairly neglected or completely forgotten, and their contributions have not received the credit they deserve.

Saxby, Lt Stephen Martin
Fig 1. Stephen M Saxby: a well-connected fossil collector.

The process of finding and naming fossils has always relied on a positive interaction between amateurs and professionals, be they collectors, dealers, auctioneers, academics, taxonomists or curators. Unfortunately, fossil collecting (like other human scientific activities) is inherently terrestrial and territorial, so it is not surprising that many individuals have been written out of history or have been poorly acknowledged in the pursuit of fame or fortune by others. Nor is this activity exempt from periodic episodes of petty politics or personal rivalries, especially in the case of vertebrate fossils, where large sums of money may sometimes be involved.

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