The palaeontological collection at the Teyler’s Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands

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Mike Howgate FLS (UK)

Haarlem is about a half hour train journey from the hustle and bustle of the tourist mayhem that is Amsterdam, and a world away in ambiance. The Teyler’s museum is beautifully situated on the bank of the Spaarne River and just a ten-minute walk from Haarlem’s railway station. The ‘Teyler’s Stiching’ was founded by Pieter Teyler van der Hulst, a successful cloth merchant and banker of Scottish extraction, who was very influenced by the ideas of the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’. In his will, he left his library and collections plus adequate funds to set up a ‘Stiching’ or Foundation to encourage the enlightenment idea of ‘learning through discovery’.

Fig. 1. The Teyler’s Museum, Haarlem.

The Foundation is based at a museum built specifically to house Teyler’s library and collections and, after it was opened in 1784, it became a meeting place for scholars. The central feature of the museum is the ‘Oval Room’, which housed the library and which still contains the original mineral collection and various scientific instruments dating from the eighteenth century. Other rooms house specific scientific displays and collections, and two art galleries were added in 1838 and in 1892.

Next to the ‘Oval Room’ is the ‘Instrument Room’, which was built to house a huge ‘Electrostatic Machine’.The ‘Machine’ was custom built by John Cuthbertson in 1784 for the first curator and was used to perform experiments on static electricity and also to give public displays. It is still the largest such generator in the world and can generate 330,000 volts. It is, unfortunately, no longer in use.

Fig. 2. The Electrostatic Machine, with an array of Leiden jars.

Each Room or Department has its own ‘Curator’ and one of the aims of the Foundation was to enable the curators to follow their research interests free from the routine academic obligations and duties associated with university appointments. The most famous ‘Curator of the Physics Cabinet’ at the Teyler’s Stichting was Hendrik Lorentz, who held the post from 1910 to 1928. He had already won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1902 and was renowned for discovering the eponymous ‘Lorentz transformation’ (an important development in connection with Special Relativity).

Next to the ‘Instrument Room’ is the first of two ‘Fossil Cabinets’. These house a stunning collection of fossils acquired by various curators over two and a half centuries. Several cases contain selections of large ‘display’ ammonites and examples of the fossil fish Dapidium. Other cases contain multiple specimens from the Upper Jurassic Solenhofen limestone lagerstätten (an environment of exceptional preservation) from Bavaria in Germany.

Fig. 3. A display case full of large ammonites.

There are fossil shrimps, mostly Aegerspinipes (spined feet), fossil rock lobsters Cycleryon, free-swimming (unstalked) crinoids, a dragonfly in perfect condition and a superb fossil coelacanth, not unsurprisingly called Libyssuperbus. The coelacanth was regarded as an extinct fossil fish until one was fished up from the Comoros Trench in 1938 and named Latimeria chaulumnae, after which it became the classic living fossil.

Fig. 4. The case of fossil rock lobsters, Cycleryon sp.
Fig. 5. The coelacanth, Libyssuperbus.

The star of the Solenhofen display for me though is an unprepossessing part and counterpart of a partial skeleton. Only the feet, arms and a few ribs are present, but it is the first Archaeopteryx fossil ever discovered. To be precise it is the first Archaeopteryx fossil to be found, but the fourth to be identified and described. It was discovered in 1855 and described as a pterodactyl, ‘Pterodactylus crassipes’, in 1857 by Hermann von Meyer. It was only identified as a specimen of Archaeopteryx in 1970, when Professor John Ostrom, who was on a year’s sabbatical looking at pterodactyl fossils in European museums, noticed that what had been thought to be the impression of the crumpled wing membrane of a pterodactyl was in fact a group of feather impressions. Thus, the whole Dino-Bird craze was born.

Fig. 6. The Teyler’s Museum example of Archaeopteryx lithographica.

Other specimens from Germany adorn the walls. There is the complete skeleton of a marine crocodile, a Teleosaurus, with the body covered in bony scutes and with a garial-like snout, indicating its fish-eating habit. Nearby is a complete Ichthyosaurus skeleton, with skin impression around the tail and the dorsal fin. These specimens come from the Lower Jurassic (Lias) and were probably purchased from the Hauff Quarry, Holzmaden, near Tubingen, in the state of Baden-Wutenberg. Note how the vertebrae are deflected down into the lower lobe of the ichthyosaur’s tail. Prior to these specimens being discovered, the tail was often straightened out and reconstructions also lacked the dorsal fin, as can be seen in the Crystal Palace restorations.

Fig. 7. Ichthyosaurus with skin impression preserved, from Holdzmaden.

A much later marine reptile is the Mosasaurus. The huge jaw on display was found in an underground Chalk quarry in Maastricht, Belgium in 1766. It was acquired by the museum in 1784, when the first director of the museum, Martinus van Marum, purchased the whole palaeontological collection of Jean-Baptist Drouin, a Lieutenant Colonel in the French army.

The museum also houses specimens, relatively unimportant in themselves, but of great interest to members of HOGG like me.(HOGG is the ‘History of Geology Group’ of the Geological Society of London.) The original ‘Homo diluvia testis’ (‘Man a witness of the Flood’) is here. First described by Johann Jacob Scheuchzer in 1726 as a sinner, who was drowned in the Noachian Deluge, it was purchased by the museum in 1802. It was here that the specimen was re-examined by Baron George Cuvier in 1811. He uncovered the forelimbs and recognised small teeth along the crown of the skull. He described it – correctly – as a giant salamander. It is now known as Andrias scheuchzeri, a fossil salamander from the Miocene of Switzerland.

Fig. 8. ‘Homo diluvia testis ’(‘Man a witness of the Flood’), in reality a fossilised giant salamander.

Another case contains several original ‘Lugenstein’. These were fake ‘fossils’ carved to fool Professor Johannes Beringer in 1725 (see Fake fossils by the hundred: Johann Beringer’s ‘lying-stones’). The professor thought that fossils were developed from ‘seeds’ trapped in the rock, which produced often incomplete ‘mimics’ of nature, under the influence of the stars or the ‘Divine Being’. He published his findings in a sumptuously illustrated volume entitled ‘Lithographia Wirceburgensis’ in 1726. A slug, a worm, shells and a caricature lizard adorn these examples.

The hoax was exposed the same year that the book was published, and the two perpetrators of the hoax were dismissed from the university. Beringer tried to buy up all of the volumes, but unsuccessfully. After his death, the volumes he had acquired were reissued with an additional frontispiece by a cunning bookseller.

Finally, just before you leave, check out the series of hominid skull casts. These were part of the collection made by Eugene Dubois, curator of fossils at the Teyler’s Museum, and the discoverer of Java Man, aka Pithecanthropus (Homo) erectus. There, hiding among the scientific crania, is yet another fake. Dubois had been given a cast of the ‘Piltdown Man’ skull by the British Museum (Natural History), and it may still be there on display. See if you can spot it on your visit to this stunning museum.

Fig. 9. The collection of hominid skull casts.

The Teyler’s Museum is open Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 5pm and Sunday 12noon to 5pm. The Frans Hals museum is only 100 yards away.

A version of this article first appeared in the Newsletter of the Amateur Geological for March – April 2021.

All photographs are copyright of Mike Howgate.

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