Geology museums of Britain: The Hunterian, Glasgow

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Jon Trevelyan (UK)

This is the second of my articles on the geology museums of Glasgow (see also Geology museums of Britain: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow). The Hunterian contains for some Scotland’s finest collections, covering subjects such as Roman artefacts from the Antonine Wall (fascinating, given that its big, southern, brother – Hadrian’s Wall – gets all the attention), and scientific instruments used by eminent Scottish scientists, James Watt, Joseph Lister and Lord Kelvin. In fact, the Hunterian’s whole collection is ‘Recognised’ as nationally significant in Scotland.

It is also home to one of the most distinguished public art collections in Scotland. However, as always, it was the geology and palaeontology that I went to visit (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. The hall of the museum, with the geology and palaeontology exhibits set out below.

The Hunterian’s founding collection came through the bequest of the eponymous Dr William Hunter (1718-1783). The museum itself opened in 1807, and a catalogue was published in 1813 (Fig. 2) by Captain John Laskey, who took visitors through the museum room by room and case by case, describing the items on display.

Fig. 2. The catalogue of the original museum contents, by Captain John Laskey, with a lovely shark’s tooth from the original collection.

And, apparently, the fossil collections are among the largest in the UK and were built up over the last 200 years from departmental research and teaching collections.

Fig. 3. Ripple marks covered in trace fossils.
Fig. 4. Copious fossils on the wall of the museum!

In addition, a significant number of specimens have been added by donation from collectors around the world. As the website says:

“The palaeontological collections at the Hunterian Museum include over 10,000 fossil plants, 10,000 vertebrates, 50,000 corals, 5,000 graptolites, 10,000 trilobites, 6,000 other arthropods, 40,000 molluscs, 10,000 microfossils, 5,000 brachiopods, 9,000 echinoderms, and several thousand type and figured fossils.”

Fig. 5. A cast of the skull of Diplocaulus magnicornis. A metre-long early amphibian from the Permian of Texas.

One of the most celebrated fossils is the ‘Bearsden Shark’ (Fig. 6), discovered by renown Scottish fossil collector, Stan Wood, in 1982.

Fig. 6. The Carboniferous ‘Bearsden Shark’.

As the website Scotland – the home of geology says of the area where it was found and of the specimen itself:

The conditions in the shallow tropical seas of the Carboniferous period left Scotland with a wealth of rare, beautifully preserved shark fossils. The best shark fossils, alongside a number of other bony fishes, were discovered by Stan Wood in the shale beds of Bearsden’s Manse Burn, Glasgow, in 1981. Thanks to the particular conditions present in the lagoons in this area at that time – and the thick mud into which the sharks settled when they died – the cartilage skeletons of the sharks were not damaged by predators or other environmental factors. Previously, only the teeth and spines of fish of this age had been found across the globe.

“The complete skeleton of a 330-million-year-old shark, the best preserved in the world from that time, was among Wood’s first discoveries in Bearsden. The detail of the fossil is such that even the remains of the shark’s last meal can still be seen inside its stomach. Blood vessels and remnants of the shark’s muscles also remain. Affectionately known as the ‘Bearsden Shark’, the fossil has been described and named Akmonistion zan, a species previously unknown to science. It is on display at Glasgow University’s Hunterian museum.”

Given the quality of Bearsden for collecting (Fig. 7), there are many other fine fossils from there on display at the museum (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8. More interesting fossils from the Carboniferous of Bearsden.
Fig. 8. A fossil fish (Chirodus) from Bearsden. The fossils from here are the most complete and best preserved of their type in the world, with an unusual preservation due to high phosphate concentrations from bacterial decay. The phosphates have replaced the soft tissues of the animals.

There are also a few dinosaurs in the museum’s collection, which are important specimens. In fact, Kelvingrove is actively involved in researching Scottish dinosaurs and has several key specimens in its collections, including Scotland’s first dinosaur footprint found in 1982, the first dinosaur trackway and several dinosaur bones and eggs, which can all be seen in the collection (see also Figs. 9 and 10).

Fig. 9. The ‘Time Capsule’ dinosaur eggs.
Fig. 10. Theropod dinosaur footprints.

In particular, the collection includes specimens collected by dinosaur pioneer, Gideon Mantel, including Iguanodon and Megalosaurus teeth.

There are also fascinating exhibits covering the animals that were instrumental to the invasion of land. These include Acanthostega gunnari (Fig. 11) and Pederpes finneyae (Fig. 12).

Fig. 11. Acanthostega gunnari – an extremely important fossil representing a species midway between having fins and terrestrial limbs.
Fig. 12. Pederpes finneyae, found in Dunbartonshire in 1973. It is the first known animal with a backbone for walking on land.

A key collection that excited me perhaps the most is that of Alfred Leeds, whose collection of Jurassic marine vertebrates came to the Hunterian Museum in 1919 (Fig. 13). This includes plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs, marine crocodiles and a large specimen of Leedsichthys – the world’s largest fish. It is this last species, named after its collector, that has fascinated me since I was young – the idea of this filter-feeding behemoth still fills me with awe.

Fig. 13. A collection of fossils found by the esteemed palaeontologist and fossil collector, Alfred Nicholson Leeds (1847-1917), whose collection of over 600 specimens (including a large collection of Jurassic marine reptiles) is now housed at the museum.

There is also an excellent example of a Jurassic marine reptiles hanging from the ceiling, namely Cryptoclidus eurymerus – a large plesiosaur from the Middle Jurassic (Fig. 14) – and some fine fossil fish (Figs. 15, 16 and 17) of varying ages.

Fig. 14. Cryptoclidus eurymerus– a large plesiosaur from the Middle Jurassic.
Fig. 15. Fossil fishes of the highest quality.
Fig. 16. A death assemblage of fossil fish, no doubt stranded when their pool dried out.
Fig. 17. The fish, Dapedium, from the Lower Jurassic.

The Hunterian trilobite collection is particularly strong (Figs. 18 and 19) and has recently been added to by the bequest of the collector, and University of Glasgow research assistant, George Rae.

Fig. 18. Scotland’s largest trilobite, Hadromeras keisleyensis, from the Silurian of Ayrshire, Scotland
Fig. 19. The Hunterian trilobite collection is particularly strong.

Some of the fossils in his collection of over 6,000 are exquisitely prepared and of immense research value (Fig. 20).

Fig. 20. Some superb fossils from the collection of George Rae, including ammonites and trilobites.

In addition, the Hunterian has over 120,000 rock and mineral specimens, as well as about 1,500 cut gemstones and 70 meteorites. And the rock collections include material resulting from the research activities of University of Glasgow geologists over the last 200 years (Figs. 21 and 22).

Fig. 21. One of the cases of mineral specimens at the museum.
Fig. 22. Another of the cases of minerals.

Like Kelvingrove, this museum is well worth a visit, and both can be done in a single day, being only a short walk from each other.

The Hunterian Museum is located in the historic Gilbert Scott building (Fig. 23) at the University of Glasgow.

Fig. 23. The vaults of The Cloisters (also known as the Undercroft), which connect the East and West Quadrangles. The museum is accessed from here.
The Hunterian
University of Glasgow
Glasgow G12 8QQ  
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Geology museums of Britain: TheHunterian, Glasgow
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