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Geology Museums of Britain: Portland Museum, Dorset

Jon Trevelyan(UK) Fig. 1. A huge Titanites giganteus adorns the doorway. I visited this little museum a while ago while on a Geologists’ Association field trip. I have passed it several time and always loved the large Titanites giganteus above the door (Fig. 1) of this picturesque cottage (Fig. 2). As a result, I had always wanted to visit, but more particularly I want to see the famous fossil turtle (Fig. 3) that is exhibited there. Fig. 2. One of the two seventeenth century cottages making up the museum. Fig. 3. The lovely fossil turtle at the museum. In fact, Portland Museum is a lovely example of a local museum containing (among other things, geology (Fig. 4), in this case, tucked away in a beautiful part of the ‘island’ in two seventeenth century cottages, near Rufus Castle and the popular Church Ope Cove. Fig. 4. Some of the geological exhibits at the museum. The Isle of Portland in Dorset represents the most southerly point of the Jurassic, which is a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site and famous for its geology, fossils and geomorphology. It is joined to the mainland by the equally famous Chesil Beach but has always been regarded (not least by its inhabitants)as separate from the mainland, and this is reflected in the museum’s collection. That is, Portland Museum does not just contain geology and palaeontology; its exhibits also reflect the Isle’s history and people. Portland Museum was founded in 1930 by Dr Marie Stopes, renowned for her … Read More

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Earthquake in Lincolnshire: 27 February 2008

RMW Musson (BGS Scotland) I was woken abruptly at 1:30am by the ringing of my phone, which was sitting on the shelf above the bedroom radiator. The phone ringing in the middle of the night usually means only one thing: bad news. I took the phone into the hall so as not to disturb my wife more than need be. A colleague of mine was on the line: There’s been a large earthquake in Lincolnshire. It’s about 5.” Visions of damage raced through my mind. Magnitude 5 is not big in world terms, but is about the upper end of what is experienced in Britain. And size is not everything: location is critical. We have been fortunate in the UK in recent years, as the largest British earthquakes have mostly occurred well away from large cities. The two previous 5s (in 1984 and 1990) were in the extreme north-west of Wales and the Shropshire countryside respectively. However, an earthquake in Lincolnshire in 1185, probably about 5 in magnitude, brought down a large part of Lincoln cathedral and, if folklore is to be believed, so destroyed some nearby villages that they were never rebuilt. Was this a repeat of the 1185 earthquake? OK, I’m on my way.” The streets of Edinburgh were completely deserted as I drove up to the BGS office on the southern edge of the city. Three of my colleagues were already there, bringing up data from the seismic monitoring network remotely over radio and computer links. By … Read More

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German Miners in Cumbria

By Jean Tyler One fine Summer’s day in 1564, a group of men on horseback made their way westward from Carlisle along the rough road to Keswick. One of their number rode with the covered wagon that contained clothing, personal chattels and the tools of their trade – mining. These men came from Germany and were the finest miners and smelters in the world. They were here in England at the request of the English Crown and their job was to extract the rich, glowing copper from the mineral veins of Lakeland. So begins the story of mining in this country. The first group of ten men arrived in Keswick in 1564 and were easily accommodated in local lodgings. What a flurry of excitement this must have caused in this little town that consisted of no more than one muddy street with a few squalid yards running off it. At that time, the housing was of timber and wattle daub construction with bracken-thatched roofing. Behind the houses ran strips of land with middens, pigsties and more very basic housing – buildings that were little more than hovels. The arrival of the Germans created a flutter amongst the local girls who were soon vying with each other for the attention of these small, tough men from overseas. Unhappily, some of the inhabitants were suspicious of the foreign strangers who were set to earn good money doing a proper job and violent confrontation eventually resulted in one of the incomers, Leonard Stoulz, … Read More

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Building stones of the Ancient World

By Ken Brooks (UK) Local stone was an essential element in the development of early civilisations, as its availability and quality determined the building styles that they created. The effective working and use of stone as a building material was a skill acquired by man at an early stage of history in many different regions of the world. Today, we can identify their methods of working stone by studying the buildings, quarries and the tools that have survived them. Egypt For thousands of years, the River Nile has carved its way through areas of sandstone, granite and limestone on its 750-mile journey through Egypt to the Mediterranean. From very early times, and even to the present day, the Egyptians have built their homes with bricks made from mud – an abundant raw material along the banks of the River Nile. It was around 5,000 years ago, as organised religion became established, that they began to use locally available stone to construct temples and pyramids. Between 2590BC and 2500BC, the ancient Egyptians built three huge pyramids on the Giza plateau (near present-day Cairo). Fig. 1. The pyramids at Giza. The bedrock in this area is a nummulitic limestone dating from the Eocene period, 34 to 55mya. It is an interesting thought that some of the largest man-made structures on earth were constructed from the fossil remains of tiny organisms (foraminifera). Work on a pyramid began with the extraction of limestone blocks at a nearby quarry. The only tools the Egyptians had … Read More

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Book review: The Smugglers Trail – Geology of the Thanet Coastline from Broadstairs to Cliftonville, by Richard Hubbard and Geoff Downer

I like local geological guides, which aim to get you out and about, visiting areas you might not have known are worth a daytrip. And this is a good example. I sat down and read it cover to cover, as it is only 90 pages long. And I now really want to visit this bit of Kent coastline. Largely concentrating on the Upper Cretaceous Chalk, this guidebook explains and illustrates what seems to be some marvellous geology that can also be explored during what could be a lovely day out on the beach.

Book review: Rebels, Scholars, Explorers – Women in Vertebrate Paleontology, by Annalisa Berta and Susan Turner

This is certainly a somewhat different sort of book from those I usually review. As it makes clear, women have always played key roles in the field of vertebrate palaeontology, going back centuries. However, other than perhaps the most best known historical female vertebrate palaeontologists comparatively little is known about these women scientists and their true contributions have probably been obscured. In this context, the book aims to reveal this hidden history, thereby celebrating the diversity and importance of women VPs.

Book review: Inscriptions of Nature: Geology and the Naturalization of Antiquity, by Pratik Chakrabarti

Maybe it’s a result of my social anthropology and geological background, but I found this difficult but fascinating book a great read. It’s about nineteenth century India. It is not about the modern geological science or social anthropology of the subcontinent, but rather, the geological imagination of India, as well as its landscapes and people, and its history.

Book review: Measures for Measure: Geology and the Industrial Revolution, by Mike Leeder

I sat down to read this over Christmas and what a good read it turned out to be. The appropriate word is ‘eclectic’ – because Measures for Measure is written for all us with an interest in the industrial history of Great Britain, and its impact on the landscape, economy, social history and culture. It’s a great read as it dots about linking places and ideas together, with the link always being the geology.

Book review: Strata: William Smith’s Geological Maps, with contributions by Oxford University Museum of Natural History, with a foreword by Robert Macfarlane

This book is truly sumptuous, and yet is also a comprehensive discussion of William Smith’s maps (including the revolutionary ‘A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales, with part of Scotland’) and career. It is beautifully produced, printed on quality paper and the full colour illustrations are outstanding.

On the origins of buffalo wings and chicken fingers by means of unnatural connexion, or the preservation of flavoured races in the struggle for clarity

Carl Mehling (USA) Things aren’t always what they seem. The fluidity of information and the frailties of human memory allow for a lot of corruption. Innocent assumptions are made. Sloppy mistakes take place. Unforeseeable accidents occur. And deliberate subterfuge is always there as an option when these others fail. Throw … Read More

Book review: Dinosaurs, Evolution and the Woman whose discoveries changed the World: the Fossil Hunter, by Shelley Emling

Mary Anning was clearly one of the most significant characters of eighteenth century science and possibly of all time, particularly in the realm of palaeontology. I am not sure that she is quite as unknown (certainly in the UK) as the American author this excellent little biography claims, but she certainly should be better known.

Cameos from Ancient Greece and Rome: Small but precious treasures

Dr Robert Sturm (Austria) When talking about precious or semi-precious gemstones, most people think of the diamonds they cannot afford or rubies, agates and similar well-known minerals. But, only a few people know that gemstones have been subjected to various carving techniques since ancient times, making from them small but … Read More

Pathway to the past: A miner’s photograph

Steven Wade Veatch (USA) This photograph, taken around 1899, shows my ancestors posing at their modest frame home, where they lived one step away from Cripple Creek’s gold rush world of cardplayers, whisky drinkers, and midnight carousers. The scene depicts my great-grandfather (Robert Pickering Plews), my great-grandmother (Janet Plews), and … Read More