Geology museums of Britain: The Museum of Somerset, Taunton

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Jon Trevelyan (UK)

I’ve been meaning to go to the Museum of Somerset for a long time, not just because it is situated in a castle, but also because of its lovely collection of fossil. Taunton castle (Fig. 1) was created from twelfth century by powerful bishops and welcomed distinguished (if not always particularly pleasant) guests, including King John and Henry III. It was also here that Judge Jefferys presided over the Bloody Assizes from 1685 to try prisoners from the failed Monmouth Rebellion. Since 1958, the museum has been run and funded by Somerset County Council, and now showcases exhibits going back 400 million years and it is about these that I am writing.

Fig. 1. The dramatic entrance to the museum: over the bridge, through the fortified gatehouse and into the castle.

The exhibits are displayed in magnificent glass cabinets in the ‘Foundation Stones’ gallery and are a feast for the eyes (Fig. 2). This is largely because Somerset has some magnificent geology, giving rise to some splendid examples of palaeontology.

Fig. 2. Visitors to the museum are greeted by a stunning display of three large ammonites: (top) Titanites giganteus; (middle) Asteroceras; and (bottom) Phylloceras.

The geology of Somerset explored by the museum started (at least for our purposes) some 400 million years ago, when Somerset was on the southern edge of a large, mountainous continent, with active volcanoes. Later, during the Upper Carboniferous (Pennsylvanian), it was a tropical rainforest, where generations of plants lived and died, decomposing to form layers of peat. Once buried, this peat was compacted and converted into a sequence of coal seams found in the Somerset coalfield (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Plants from the Upper Carboniferous rainforest: the seed fern, Alethopteris (right); and a couple of stems/roots of the huge clubmoss (lycopod) trees.

During the Triassic, some 300 million years ago, Somerset was a desert with flash floods, salt lakes and the earliest dinosaurs. One hundred million years later, much of the area was submerged beneath warm, open, tropical sea, where ammonites and marine reptiles (Figs. 4 to 6) swam.

Fig. 4. Somerset is famous for its ichthyosaurs.
Fig. 5. Another ichthyosaur. This time, a skull and a jaw bone.
Fig. 6. The partial skeleton of an ichthyosaur. However, contributor to Deposits and palaeontologist, Mike Howgate has pointed out to me (personal communication) that this does not seem to be a partial skeleton of an ichthyosaur, but rather a partial skeleton of a much scarcer Plesiosaurus, possibly Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus.

With the arrival of the ammonites (Figs. 7 to 9), the Jurassic Period started, along with the appearance of that tropical sea (Figs. 10 and 11).

Fig. 7. Lovely Jurassic ammonites.
Fig. 8. More ammonites (a close of of those in Fig. 9).
Fig. 9. And more still.
Fig. 10. A collection of fossils from the Jurassic tropical sea.
Fig. 11. A beautiful crinoid and a star fish from the same warm seas.

And a mere 15,000 years ago, Somerset was covered by ice and snow. Then the climate warmed, the ice disappeared and the first of our human ancestors arrived. In fact, for much of the last 500,000 years, Somerset was covered by snow and ice. There were also much warmer (interglacial) periods, including times when hippos lived along riverbanks and wallowed in lakes. In fact, many ice age animal remains have been found in the Mendip bone caves. Carcasses were washed into the caves by storm water and the bones that survived built up over a period ot 250,000 years. Banwell Bone Cave provides Britain’s best evidence of late Ice Age animals. The bears, bison, spotted hyena, wolves and reindeer that roamed the frozen Mendip landscape 80,000 years ago are all represented (Figs. 12 to 14).

Fig. 12. Interglacial animals from the bone caves of Somerset.
Fig. 13. More interglacial/Ice Age animals, with a spotted hyena skull to the left.
Fig. 14. A skull of a demonic-looking auroch (Bos primigenius), a species of large, wild cow and relative of our modern cows. Aurochs were alive when our human ancestors were roaming Somerset, but the species is now extinct.

Early humans made flint tools (Fig. 15), and lived by hunting animals and gathering wild plants. Handaxes were probably used to dig roots and dismember animals, as well as for no doubt other purposes. At times, the environment was one where humans thrived. More often, the climate was harsh and caves were used for shelter. In the coldest conditions, humans seem to have deserted Britain altogether. The last Ice Age ended about 11,000 years ago.

Fig. 15. Stone axes made by some of the earliest human inhabitants of Somerset.

Entry to the museum is free, but a voluntary gift is recommended. Its address is Taunton Castle, Castle Green, Taunton. Somerset, TA1 4AA. The museum is definitely well worth a visit.

OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES:
Geology museums of Britain: Whitby Museum, Yorkshire
Geology museums of Britain: The Booth Museum of Natural History, Brighton
Geology museums of Britain: The Museum of London
Geology museums of Britain: The National Stone Centre, Derbyshire
Geology museums of Britain: Staffin (Dinosaur) Museum, Isle of Skye
Geology museums of Britain: Watchet Market House Museum, Somerset
Geology museums of Britain: The Museum of Somerset, Taunton
Geology Museums of Britain: Portland Museum, Dorset
Geology museums of Britain: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow (coming soon)
Geology museums of Britain: The Hunterian, Glasgow (coming soon)
Geology museums of Britain: Fossil Grove, Glasgow (coming soon)

One thought on “Geology museums of Britain: The Museum of Somerset, Taunton

  1. Hi Jon,

    I really like this series on museum geological collections. It has inspired me to visit some museums with small collections in my own area.
    I have one comment to make on the article on the Museum of Somerset. It is that Fig.6 is not a partial skeleton of an Ichthyosaurus, but is a partial skeleton of a much scarcer Plesiosaurus, possibly Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus. The long tail and neck are distinctive, but the real give-away is the elongated nature of the spool-shaped paddle bones which can be seen in the centre of the image. I do not know how the curator of the museum managed to miss-label the specimen, as it must have been accessioned and described as a plesiosaur.

    Always treat museum labels with caution,

    Happy New Year,

    Mike.

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