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Jade: Imperial green gem of the East (Part 2) – decorative and ornamental jade

Sonja McLachlan (UK) In the second part of this five-part series of articles, I will be exploring the beautiful examples of ornamental and decorative jade carvings that can be found in many places around the world. Ancient peoples collected and sculpted jade into unique symbolic items representing their own cultures and beliefs. Today, modern jade sculpting honours this ancient symbolism whilst introducing contemporary themes, thereby widening the appeal of this ancient art form. Maori Jade Carving The Maoris valued jade for its toughness and it was often made into weapons and tools such as adzes and chisels used for working with wood. Modern jade carving reflects the Maori traditions with new interpretations on fishhooks, circular koru pendants and beautiful double and triple jade twists that represent bonding and friendship. Models of Kiwis, Turtles and Dolphins can also be found carved in jade. Fig. 1. Maori-style Pendant, carved out of solid Jade. Inspired by Maori designs. Spiral – Koru – The fern fronds represent life, new beginnings, life unfolding, growth & harmony. The stylisation of Koru represents the spirit of rejuvenation. Fig. 2. Another Maori-style pendant, fish hooks – Hei Matau. Represents strength & determination. Brings peace, prosperity, abundance and good luck. It also provides safe transport over water. Chinese Jade Carving The highest quality Burmese Jade is sent to China where it is used for the finest objects and religious figures. It is often found in the grave furnishings of high-ranking members of the imperial family. The raw stone is … Read More

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Prominent figures of the 1800s who gave rise to vertebrate palaeontology

Megan Jacobs (UK) For centuries, the creatures of the past, from the terrifying theropod dinosaurs to the tiny early mammals, have captured the imaginations of millions. However, the people who put those beasts into the limelight are rarely acknowledged for their work and, in many cases, remain unknown. So here is a short account of some of the first prominent names in the world of vertebrate palaeontology, their contributions to the field, and an insight into the often eccentric behaviour that came with it. Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) Fig. 1. Georges Cuvier.Georges Cuvier was a French naturalist and zoologist, and is regarded as the ‘’father of palaeontology’’. He was one of the finest minds in history, founding vertebrate palaeontology as a scientific discipline. For example, in 1800, he identified Pterodactylus as the first known pterosaur from a print published by Alessandro Collini. Shortly after, he described the first mosasaur, a giant marine reptile that was brought to France by Napoleon after he conquered the Netherlands. Going against his old Christian (Catholic) upbringing, Cuvier believed the Earth was immensely old and, during its history, underwent abrupt changes that Cuvier called ‘revolutions’, in which large numbers of species were wiped out. This was the first recognition that extinctions were facts. Cuvier also rightly speculated that there had been a time where reptiles had been the dominant animals on the planet. Indeed, the decades after his death yielded spectacular finds that confirmed his theory. After a study comparing modern elephant species, he worked on … Read More

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Mysteries of time: A quest for the age of the Earth

David Alexander Gardiner (UK) The question of the age of the Earth and its former inhabitants is one of great interest to us all. Most are aware that the Earth is understood today to be approximately 4.6 billion years in age, but what is the story of the momentous quest – to unravel the mystery of time? Many early speculations as to the age of the universe abounded in ancient and medieval times. We are all familiar with the literalist understanding of the Old Testament, from which Archbishop Ussher famously calculated a 4004 BC date for the beginnings of the Earth. Yet, this was one of the shortest chronologies in existence: the Babylonians spoke of many hundreds of thousands; the Egyptians of many tens of thousands; and the Hindus many billions of years in their cosmological speculations of the past. However, all these early traditions were not scientific in basis. Rather, they were religious or philosophical and not based upon experimentation and observation. It would not be until after the Renaissance that people started employing scientific methodologies to unravel the mystery. Various early scholars speculated upon the Earth’s geological history, including Leonardo da Vinci, the universal genius. Leonardo noted that fossils had once been actual living creatures and that the ocean must have once covered the land. As regards the age of the world, however, few people dared to challenge the conventional wisdom based upon the Genesis narrative – one wonders what da Vinci’s own view might have been. However, … Read More

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Volcanism in the ancient world

Dr Robert Sturm (Austria) In the ancient Greek and Roman world, volcanism was recognised as a divine phenomenon standing in close connection with the fire god, Hephaestus or Vulcan. Although there did not exist any term corresponding to the modern word “volcano”, people were aware of the destructive power arising from volcanic eruptions. Some early natural philosophers were already able to identify individual volcanic processes, such as lava flow and the generation of huge and extremely hot dust clouds. In the ancient Greek language, lava masses streaming downhill were simply named “rhea” (ῥύαξ or flow), whereas the Latin words “Vulcanius amnis” (Vulcanic stream), “saxa liquefacta” (liquefied rocks) and “massa ardens” (blazing mass) were used for the same phenomenon. Volcanoes were of enormous importance for the ancient Mediterranean world, because their eruptions caused the destruction of adjacent settlements and even the annihilation of entire civilizations. According to our present historical and archaeological knowledge, three volcanoes had an immense influence on the development of Mediterranean cultures: (1) the volcano of Thira-Santorini, which left behind the huge caldera visible today; (2) Vesuvius near the city of Naples; and (3) Etna on the island of Sicily (Fig. 1). Fig. 1. A satellite map of the Mediterranean region, including the position of the three volcanoes covered in this article. Despite the Thira-Santorini volcano being situated in the Aegean Sea, Vesuvius near Naples and Etna on Sicily, they are all considered to be part of the western Mediterranean Sea. (Photo: ©NASA.) In this article, I intend … Read More

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Colorado mountain memories

Steven Wade Veatch (USA) While headed for the California Gold Rush of 1849, George Giggey (who was my great-great-grandfather) first made his way through the mountainous and untamed wilderness of what would later become Colorado. He was among a group of young men, who were determined to make a new life, fortune and future in the American West. After working in the Californian goldfields, he turned his attention to Colorado, where he prospected for gold for a while and then returned to the East. In 1865, George Giggey returned to Colorado with his family of ten children and built a homestead in the wilderness near what would become, in just a few years, the town of Caribou. The town developed around the Caribou silver mine that was discovered by Sam Conger in 1868. George Lytle, one of Conger’s partners, was from British Columbia and named the mine after his caribou hunting trips in Canada. By 1870, the Caribou Mine was in full production and was shipping ore down Coon Trail, to the nearby settlement of Nederland for processing. By 1872, the frontier town of Caribou built a much needed schoolhouse. Three of George Giggey’s boys attended Caribou’s first school session. They were: George Leon (my great-grandfather), who was 14 years old; Adelbert, age 7; and Charley, who was only 6 years old. I can feel the boy’s excitement when they took their seats in the one-room schoolhouse, with new furniture, blackboards, maps, globes and a new teacher – Miss Hannah … Read More

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Finders, keepers: The lost world of some Isle of Wight geological heroes

Martin Simpson (UK) 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 … Read More

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Fossil folklore: Molluscs

Paul D Taylor (UK) The final article of this series on fossil folklore focuses on molluscs, excluding the ammonites, which were covered earlier (see Fossil folklore: ammonites in Deposits, Issue 46, pp. 20–23). Molluscs are second only to arthropods in the number of species living today and the resistant calcareous skeletons possessed by the majority of species accounts for their extremely rich fossil record. Most fossil molluscs belong to one of three major groups – bivalves (oysters, clams and so on), gastropods (snails and slugs) and cephalopods (ammonites, belemnites and so on). Added to these are a few minor groups, such as the monoplacophorans and scaphopods (tusk shells). Fossil molluscs are usually recognisable instantly as belonging to this phylum because of their close similarities with the shells of familiar species of modern molluscs. Some, however, are not quite so straightforward. These are more likely to have been the sources of fanciful stories about their origins and significance. Among the more obscure ancient molluscs are those dubbed ‘difficult fossils’ by Martin Rudwick in the context of the early history of palaeontology and doubts over the origin of fossils. They include the solid internal casts (steinkerns) formed by lithification of sediment enclosed by the shell and subsequent loss of the defining shell itself. In addition, there are some mollusc fossils – notably belemnite guards – that bear little resemblance to any living species, adding to their enigmatic nature. Belemnites: thunderbolts and Devil’s Fingers The first fossils I ever came across were belemnites … Read More

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Carrara marble from the Apian Alps: Another famous ancient workable stone

Dr Robert Sturm (Austria) This is the last in a series of four articles I have written on the quarries and marble of the ancient world and the works of art made from it. The others are Mining in Ancient Greece and Rome, Marble from the Isle of Paros in Ancient Greece – a tour of the ancient quarries and Roman quarries in Austria and Germany – a short sight-seeing tour. Therefore, after our tours to the famous quarries of the Isle of Paros and the Roman stone quarries in Central Europe, we come to another location, which is well-known for its workable stone. I am talking about the city of Carrara, with its marble of the same name. Carrara is located in the province of Massa and Carrara, in the so-called Lunigiana, which represents the northernmost tip of Tuscany in Italy. Carrara marble is a white to blue-grey rock of high quality that has become popular for its use in sculpture and building decor. The extraordinary characteristics of this rock were already recognised by the Romans, who started their mining activities in the second century BC. In ancient times, the marble was commonly referred to as “Luni” and used for the production of houses, figures and monuments. Due to the high demand for the workable stone, more and more quarry sites were exploited, which finally resulted in a total number of 650 mines. Today, about half of them are either abandoned or worked out. Historical studies provide evidence that … Read More

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Roman quarries in Austria and Germany: A short sight-seeing tour

Dr Robert Sturm (Austria) This is the third of four articles on the quarries of the ancient world and later, and, in particular, the marble that was quarried there and the works of art made from it. The first is Mining in Ancient Greece and Rome and the second is Marble from the Isle of Paros – a tour of the ancient quarries. The ancient methods used An antique quarry is interesting because it is a place where raw material for buildings and sculptural works was extracted to specific sizes and shapes with the technical methods of that time. The mining techniques did not change very much from the earliest phases of human civilization until the end of antiquity, even though the methods used continuously improved over time. In ancient Greece, single blocks of the stone were separated by smashing several key holes into the rock wall, into which wooden wedges were driven. After that, the wedges were moistened, causing their expansion and the cracking of the block along the line of holes. For a better control of the rock fracture, long groves were carved into the blocks with iron tools, into which key holes were subsequently inserted. Alternatively, the blocks were completely split off from the rock walls by deep cuts in the rock and then separated from the ground using crowbars (Fig. 1). Fig. 1. Separation of single blocks of rock using a crowbar and leverage. Since archaic times, rock saws have also been used. In the Roman … Read More

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Marble from the Isle of Paros in Ancient Greece: A tour of the ancient quarries

Dr Robert Sturm (Austria) This is the second of four articles on the quarries of the ancient world and later, and, in particular, the marble that was quarried there and the artwork that was made from it. The first was Mining in Ancient Greece and Rome. Some introductory words In general, marble represents a coarse-grained metamorphic rock primarily consisting of the minerals calcite (CaCO3) and dolomite ((Ca,Mg) (CO3)2). The word ‘marble’ may be derived from the Greek term ‘marmaros’ (μάρμαρος), which means ‘shiny stone’. The earliest use of the rock dates back to the fourth millenium BC, when it was considered, for the first time, as appropriate material for the construction of buildings and the production of rather primitive sculptures. In the Classical era starting at the beginning of the fifth century BC, its use was subject to a remarkable increase, which, among other things, entailed the prevailance of this shiny material in ancient Greek architecture and sculptural art. At that time, marble was simply termed ‘white stone’ or ‘Pentelic, Hymettus or Parian stone’, thereby indicating its preferential origin from the quarries of Naxos, Paros and Mount Pentelicus. Although these mines attained extraordinary eminence in antiquity, marble was also exploited from the quarries of Eleusis, Tripoli, Argos, Selinus, Syracuse, Skyros and other places. Marble from Paros – a very particular stone Each marble originating from a local quarry is characterised by very specific features. Stone material from Mount Pentelicus is distinguished by its white colour and fine-grained texture, rather high … Read More

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Wieliczka Salt Mine of Poland (Part 2)

Khursheed Dinshaw (India) This the second of two articles on the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland. The first (Wieliczka Salt Mine of Poland (Part 1)) covered some of the highlights that can be seen there. This one covers some more of these features, but also deals with the geology of the site. The journey began in the Miocene period, which was about 13.5Ma, when the crystallisation of salt dissolved in sea water occurred. These salt deposits combined with rocks that normally accompany salt that occupied what was known as the Pre-Carpathian Sink. Subjected intensively to the tectonic process, these salt deposits shifted and folded. About 6,000 years ago, the local people of Wieliczka in Poland started to produce salt by evaporating salty water. In the thirteenth century, when the sources of the salty water were almost exhausted, they began to sink wells hoping to find salty water under the ground. In 1289, at the bottom of one of the wells, the first lump of the grey rock salt was found and that was the beginning of the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Today, the mine is divided into two portions. While its upper stratum is the block type, its lower stratum is of the stratified type; and visitors learn about salt, its excavation and types as they walk with their designated guides across chambers, pathways, tunnels, chapels and lakes. In the olden days, the equipment to transport salt from one level to another included wooden carts and trolleys. At Wieliczka, these are … Read More

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Wieliczka Salt Mine of Poland (Part 1)

Khursheed Dinshaw (India) The Wieliczka Salt Mine of Poland was included in the first UNESCO World Heritage list in 1978. It is also on the Polish List of Historic Heritage and, when visiting, provides an interesting way to get to know how salt has been mined underground for almost nine centuries. In the summer, almost 8,000 tourists a day visit Wieliczka, which has 500 tour guides and 400 miners maintaining the mine. After buying your ticket, you are allotted a guide who will take you around the mine. Patrycya, our guide, has been on the job for 20 years and we enthusiastically followed her to explore the beauty, material culture and historic heritage of the mine and its excavated complex. Fig. 1. Kinga – the patroness of the miners, along with other salt sculptures. We opted for the tourist route, which lets you explore chambers, galleries, chapels and lakes. The mine has been opened to the public with this route since the end of the eighteenth century and has more than 300km of galleries and almost 3,000 chambers. It is divided into nine floors at depths varying from 64m to 327m. We went down to the third floor, which is at a depth of 135m. To get to the first level, one has to walk down 380 wooden steps, but the walk is comparatively easy. There are a total of 800 steps that tourists walk in the mine and, after the tour ends, a lift takes you to the exit … Read More

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Fake fossils by the hundred: Johann Beringer’s ‘lying-stones’

Paul D Taylor (UK) The sorry tale of Johann Beringer has been part of the folklore of palaeontology for almost 200 years. In 1726, Beringer published a book illustrating some extraordinary ‘fossils’ reputedly found in the rocks close to Würzburg in southern Germany. However, very soon after its publication, Beringer realised that he had been tricked and that the specimens were fakes. The truth about the deception – and its perpetrators – is still shrouded in mystery, and the story of Beringer’s Lügensteine (’lying-stones’) ranks with Piltdown Man as the greatest of all fossil frauds. Who was Beringer? No portrait exists of Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer (1667–1740) despite the fact that he was an important figure in Würzburg during the early eighteenth century. The son of an academic, Beringer became Chief Physician to the Prince Bishop of Würzburg and Duke of Franconia (Christoph Franz von Hutten) and to the Julian Hospital, and was also the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Würzburg University. Like other learned men of the time, Beringer kept a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ said to contain ammonites, belemnites and sharks’ teeth. He seems to have led a conventional life for someone of his high standing until May 1725, when an unfortunate train of events was set in motion. Three young men employed by Beringer to supply him with fossils delivered the first of a truly remarkable series of specimens purported to have been found at Mount Eibelstadt, a few kilometres south of Würzburg. These are the … Read More

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Seeing into the ‘Stone Age’: The stone tools of early man

Bob Markham (UK) In the early part of his evolution, man made great use of rock and stone to assist him in his activities. The term ‘Stone Age’ has been given to the period of time during which stone was the main material used for the manufacture of functional tools for daily life. It is generally thought to have commenced about 3.3Ma and was the time when man firmly established his position on earth as a ‘tool-using’ mammal. However, it should be remembered that stone was not the only material used for this purpose. More perishable materials, such as wood, reeds, bone and antler, were also used, but very few of these materials have survived to be found today (but see the box: Non-stone tools). Non-stone toolsA notable exception to the general rule that non-stone tools have not been preserved is the Palaeolithic wooden spear shaft that was recovered in 1911 from a site in Clacton in Essex. At 400,000 years old, the yew-wood spear is the oldest, wooden artefact that is known to have been found in the UK (see http://piclib.nhm.ac.uk/results.asp?image=001066).A number of wooden spears dating from 380,000 to 400,000 years ago were also recovered between 1994 and 1998 from an open-cast coal mine in Germany (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schoningen_Spears). Other items are found from time to time from peat-bog conditions, which offer the most favourable medium for the preservation of such material.The stones used to make tools Being a non-perishable material, stone has survived the ravages of time and is … Read More

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Fossil folklore: Fish

Paul D Taylor and Mike Smith (UK) Fish are the most diverse animals with backbones – that is, vertebrates – living today. Bone and teeth of fishes abound in the fossil record, from the armour-plated, primitive fishes of the Devonian, through the cartilaginous sharks with their shiny dagger-like teeth, to the bones of advanced ray-finned teleosts related to modern carp and cod. Along with other marine fossils, fossil fishes were once used as ‘proof’ of the biblical deluge, for example, the fabulous Cretaceous fossil fish deposits of Lebanon. Gayet et al. (2012) recorded that, in the third century, the Bishop of Palestine wrote: “That Noah’s Flood covered the highest mountains is for me the truth, and I say that the witness of my eyes confirms it: for I have seen certain fishes, which were found in my lifetime on the highest peaks in Lebanon. They took stones from there for construction, and discovered many kinds of sea fishes which were held together in the quarry with mud, and as if pickled in brine were preserved until our times, so that the mere sight of them should testify to the truth of Noah’s Flood”. Petrified nails Hugh Miller, in his book Foot-prints of the Creator (Miller, 1849), mentioned that amateur geologists of Caithness and Orkney would refer to one particular fossil in the Old Red Sandstone, presumably relatively common, as ‘petrified nails’ (Fig. 1). Fig. 1. A so-called ‘petrified nail’, about 150mm long, as depicted by Hugh Miller. These fossils represent … Read More

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Hans Sloane’s fossil collection at the Natural History Museum, London

Dr Consuelo Sendino (UK) Sir Hans Sloane, the Founder of the British Museum, accumulated a large number of fossilised remains of animals and plants throughout his life. His collection, including curiosities from all around the known world, was acquired by the British Government in 1753 as part of Sloane’s bequest to the nation. It formed the core of the fossil collection of the Department of Natural History in the British Museum, and is now conserved in the Department of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum in London. Fig. 1. The statue of Sir Hans Sloane at Chelsea Physic Garden, London. This was unveiled on 30 April 2014 by a descendant of Sloane, Earl Cadogan. Hans Sloane (16 April 1660 – 11 January 1753) Hans Sloane was born on 16 April 1660 at 49 Frederick Street in Killyleagh, County Down in Ireland, although he was of Scottish ancestry. From a young age, Sloane showed an inclination for the study of natural history and medicine, collecting specimens from nearby Strangford Lough and as far afield as the Copeland Islands. He began studying medicine in 1679 in London, and finished his training in Paris and Montpellier in France, receiving his doctor of medicine degree at the University of Orange in France, on 28 July 1683. During this time, he was a frequent visitor to the Chelsea Physic Garden, established in 1673 by the Company of Apothecaries, as botany was considered to be fundamental to the medical curriculum. On his return to London, … Read More

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Erzberg Mine in Austria: An iron ore reserve with a long tradition

Dr Robert Sturm (Austria) The Erzberg Mine is situated in the Austrian county of Styria. From a geological point of view, it belongs to the so-called greywacke zone, which represents a band of Palaeozoic metamorphosed sedimentary rocks intercalated between the Northern Limestone Alps and the Central Alps. The Erzberg Mine is the world’s largest deposit of the iron mineral siderite (FeCO3), which is mixed with ankerite (CaFe[CO3]2) and dolomite (CaMg[CO3]2). Due to this mixture of different mineral phases, the concentration of iron ranges from 22% to 40% and adopts an average value of 33%. The annual output amounts to about two million tons of iron ore, which is transported to blast furnaces in Linz and Leoben-Donawitz. According to current estimations, the ore reserves will allow mining activity for another 30 to 40 years. History of the Erzberg Mine There are lots of myths regarding the founding date of the iron mine on the Erzberg. According to the opinion of several scholars and a few written documents of dubious veracity, the mine was already established in the year 712, which would imply a use of the deposit by Slavic peoples. However, there exists better evidence that foundation of the mine took place in 1512, which was also the inauguration year of the Oswald church in the village Eisenerz. Fig. 1. The Erzberg Mine with its characteristic appearance, photographed from the north (Pfaffenstein). First documentary mention of the Erzberg Mine is from 1171. In the fourteenth century, the Reigning Prince of Styria … Read More

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Hutton’s unconformity and the birth of ‘Deep Time’

Dr Mark Wilkinson (UK) I sometimes ask a question to students in an introductory class about geology: “What is the most famous geological site in the world?” For students from the western hemisphere, the Grand Canyon in the USA is a popular choice. However, if you were to ask the same question to a group of geologists, you might get a different answer, and one option is Siccar Point on the coast some 65km southeast of Edinburgh in Scotland. Although the site itself is relatively modest, a gently sloping platform of rock partly washed by the sea at high tide, and it lacks the spectacular grandeur of the Grand Canyon, the historical significance easily outweighs the lack of scenic drama. I’ve taken several groups of visiting geologists to the site, and so far only one of them has knelt and kissed the ground, but the site could be considered to be one of the ‘holy’ sites of our science. It is difficult for most modern geologists to imagine the world when any interpretation of the geological record had to be constrained by the literal interpretation of the Bible. A particular problem is the short timescale of the account of the creation of the Earth in Genesis, and the age of the Earth as calculated by Bishop Ussher, who allowed only some 6,000 years for the whole of geological time. The person who is frequently credited with expanding geological time to the ‘deep time’ we know of today is James Hutton. … Read More

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Fossil folklore: Some myths, monsters, swallows and butterflies

Paul D Taylor (UK) Myths are traditional stories embodying ancient yet false ideas. At the root of many myths lie unusual events, for example, extreme floods, or mysterious objects such as fossils. Numerous myths about different kinds of fossils can be found in the folklore of many countries around the world. Indeed, some ‘monsters’ or mythical creatures of legend – such as the Cyclops, griffins and dragons – may have their roots in findings of fossil bones. Angels’ Money and Slaves’ Lentils The Greek traveller and writer known as Strabo the Geographer (c. 63BC–21AD) visited the pyramids of Gizeh in Egypt, which were then some 2,500 years old (Fig. 1). Fig. 1. The pyramids of Gizeh, constructed of Eocene nummulitic limestone. The pyramids are constructed of Middle Eocene nummulitic limestone. Nummulites are a type of foraminifera. These single-celled protists lived on the seabed and secreted disc-like chambered shells up to 4cm in diameter (Fig. 2), the large size for animals having only one cell reflecting the presence of symbiotic algae in their tissues. Fig. 2. Eocene nummulites from Gizeh, Egypt. The block on the left contains both large and small specimens, ‘Angels’ Money’ and ‘Slaves’ Lentils, respectively. On the right are three specimens of ‘Angels’ Money’, weathered out of the limestone matrix. Fossil nummulites drop out of the limestone at Gizeh after weathering. Picking up examples of these fossils, Strabo was informed that they were the petrified remains of the food belonging to the workers who built the pyramids. Strabo … Read More

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First description of dinosaur fossils by Al-Andalusī in the twelfth century

Dr Ahmed K Al-Rawi (The Netherlands) Western sources refer to a few scholars who were the pioneers in describing huge fossilised animals that are now known to be the remains of the long extinct dinosaurs. Around 1677, the British scholar, Robert Plot, was widely believed to have written the first description of a dinosaur fossil, after finding a fossilised object, which looked like the bones of a giant creature (Haven, 2007, p. 67; Parsons, 2004, p.15; Fastovsky & Weishampel, 2009, p. 309; Martin, 2009, p. 57). However, Plot was not able to identify the fossil, assuming first that it belonged to an elephant; and he later suggested that it belonged to giant human beings: “There happily came to Oxford while I was writing of this, a living Elephant to be shown publickly at the ACT, An. 1676, with whose Bones … I compared ours; and found those of the Elephant not only of a different Shape, but also incomparably different to ours, though the Beast were very young and not half grown. If then they are neither the Bones of Horses, Oxen, nor Elephants, as I am strongly persuaded they are not… It remains, that (notwithstanding their extravagant Magnitude) they must have been the bones of Men or Women: Nor doth any thing hinder but they may have been so, provided it be clearly made out, that there have been Men and Women of proportionable Stature in all Ages of the World, down even to our own Days” (Plot, 1677, … Read More

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Encountering desert deposits in Oman

Clarissa Wright (UK) Oman is a geologically fascinating country, where the bedrock beautifully exposes a one-billion-year history. I had the opportunity to explore this country in a group expedition, during which we pursued our own scientific studies from January to March 2014. My geological observations during the expedition were opportunistic and involved a variety of sights, having traversed from east to west from Muscat, across the dusty plains of the Empty Quarter (Rub’ Al Khali) desert to the Dhofar Mountains of Qamar. Rub’ Al Khali: The Empty Quarter desert The Empty Quarter desert is the largest sand desert expanse in the world (Peter Vincent, 2008) and is considered to have great oil prosperity under the dunes. The desert may lack bedrock exposure, but it is home to some unexpected sedimentary deposits. We found the light golden sand to be littered with brown bubbly balls – geodes (Fig. 1). When broken open, the insides are glazed with white calcite crystals sparkling in the desert sun. These had formed when rock cavities filled with crystallised calcite. In time, these balls of calcite weathered out from the host rock, before being transported by water and deposited here on the desert plains. Fig. 1. Geode in the Empty Quarter desert. These were not the only interesting deposits found. Strangely shaped pebbles of flint and dark metallic-like forms also lay here (in an area previously documented to have archaeological interest). One can see how these appear to have been hand carved by humans thousands of … Read More

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Warming medieval climate supports a revolution in agriculture

Steven Wade Veatch and Cheryl Bibeau (USA) In the light of our current worries about climate change and global warming, this is the first a series of articles for Deposits that covers significant climate changes that have occurred in the geological past and times when the earth’s climate was hugely different from what we know today. However, this first one covers a slightly more recent event – the Medieval Warm period. The twenty-first century has had some of the hottest temperatures on record, but there was another period that was just as warm or warmer. The Medieval Warm Period (approximately 900–1300 AD), refers to the time when temperatures in Europe and nearby regions of the North Atlantic are thought to have been similar to, or in some places exceeded, temperatures of the late twentieth century. Researchers believe changes in the circulation of the Atlantic Ocean brought warmer waters to the North Atlantic and neighbouring regions, causing warming temperatures. The Medieval Warm Period was followed by the Little Ice Age (approximately 1300-1850 AD), a period of cooling that brought colder winters and advancing glaciers to parts of Europe and North America that lasted well into the nineteenth century. Scientists have evidence of this unusual warming period through indirect estimates of temperatures based on climate indicators that include tree rings, Greenland ice cores, ocean sediments and, in certain regions, written evidence of crop yields. There are even recorded dates when leaves come out and when flowers bloom in the spring. Records show … Read More

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Emeralds from the Hohe Tauern (Austria): A precious stone with a long history

Dr Robert Sturm (Australia) The mineral, emerald, represents the green variety of the hexagonal silicate mineral beryl, which has the chemical formula Be3Al2Si6O18. Its colour may be interpreted as the result of the addition of vanadium and chromium ions into the crystal lattice. In fact, the etymology of the word “emerald” is derived from Vulgar Latin, where esmeralda (f.) or esmeraldus (m.) represented a commonly spoken variant of Latin smaragdus, which itself originates from the Greek smaragdos for “green gem”. From a historical point of view, the beginnings of emerald mining are in Ancient Egypt, where gem stones were already being unearthed in the fifthteenth century BC. The famous emerald mines located in Sikait and Sabara supplied Europe with precious minerals for more than thousand years. The gemstone was also highly sought after by the monarchs of India, Persia and the Ottoman Empire, such that it became an important merchandise. When South America fell under the domination of the Spanish crown, the European conquerors were confronted with a vivid emerald trade that ranged from Columbia to Chile and Mexico. In 1573, the Columbian Muzo mine was captured by the Spanish army and thereafter represented the most important production site in the world for emerald of gem quality. Nowadays, emerald is a highly esteemed gemstone achieving similar prices as equally sized diamonds. Due to the high demand, it is also produced synthetically. The process was developed by IG Farben in 1935, but satisfactory results were only achieved by Johann Lechleitner in … Read More

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Khajuraho stone temples of India

Khursheed Dinshaw (India) Khajuraho, in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India, was the cultural capital of the Chandela rulers of the tenth century and, even today, is a place that pays homage to artistic talent. There was no mechanisation involved in the labour intensive process, where artists hand sculpted slabs of stone into medieval sculptures depicting gods, demigods, nymphs, other celestial beings, humans and animals. Several thousand statues and iconographic carvings can be seen in the temples of Khajuraho. The stone temples are known for their mature temple architecture steeped in eroticism. Of the 85 richly carved temples built more than a thousand years ago, 22 have survived the test of time. Dr Devangana Desai, a well known art historian, has commented: “The Khajuraho temples represent a creative moment in Indian art when artistic talent combined with religious aspirations to produce a meaningful form. Aesthetically they express a superb harmony of architecture and sculpture.” The name ‘Khajuraho’ is derived from the Sanskrit word Kharjuravahaka, where Kharjura refers to the date palm and Vahaka means the carrier. It is believed that two imposing date palm trees formed the gate to the temple complex. Kharjur also refers to scorpion in the local language of Bundelkhandi. Another derivation comes from the scorpions in the garland of Lord Shiva, while yet another philosophy states that it represented women who bore the scorpion shape on their thigh. However, there is no debate on the aesthetics, beauty and finesse of the sculptures of Khajuraho. The … Read More

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Ute arrow straightener made of Jurassic dinosaur bone

Gavin Noller (USA) I am currently studying an arrow straightening tool left behind by the Ute Indians of the Northern Colorado Plateau long ago. The artefact is made of an unusual material – a Jurassic dinosaur bone. As I work with this object (which is more than 13 decades old), I imagine a scene when it was used: A group of Ute braves are sitting on a forested mountain slope that overlooks the plains where the braves and their families have camped. They are manufacturing arrowheads and straightening the shafts of their arrows for hunting. The day is quite peaceful. The sun is shining – showering the landscape with its blissful, gratifying warmth and light. In the distance, the dark silhouette of a herd of grazing bison is visible. One brave – Leaf Who Rides on the Wind – has a tool for straightening the shafts of arrows. It is made of a peculiar material that is like bone, but is as hard as rock, and all the other braves believe it contains great medicine. The arrow straightener that Leaf Who Rides on the Wind uses is part of a large dinosaur bone. The bone was smoothed, so it could fit into his hand. A single long groove was put in to the bone to straighten the shafts of arrows, so they would hit their intended target, straight and true. Fig. 1. View of arrow shaft straightener made of dinosaur bone from a Jurassic bone bed. (From the G Noller … Read More

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Mary Anning: Jurassic dragons from Whitby

Oscar Roch (Age 10, USA) This amazing article about the life of Mary Anning, was written by Oscar Roch who is just TEN years old, for a school project. It is his own work, with just books and guides to help obtain facts. After receiving the handwritten project in the post, we have been so impressed, we promised to feature it. Introduction I have chosen to do my project on an amazingly, intelligent palaeontologist whose very existence was a miracle to everyone.  Who (Legend has it) was an ordinary child, but when lightning struck and nearly killer her, she transformed into a child of extraordinary knowledge and energy.  She grew up in poverty, therefore to help the family; she had to search for fossils, to then sell.  Unfortunately, her father died in debt.  But, after all these hardships in her early years, she pulled through and changed the knowledge of palaeontology.  This wonderful woman was named Mary Anning, the Princess of Palaeontology. Model of Charmouth beach, part of Oscars Mary Anning project. He made this (with help from grandad) using ground up material from the beach. This was presented by him to the whole school assembly. Birth On 21st May, 1799 a child was born that would ‘Change the world for the better’.  Mary Anning was born in Cockmoil Square, in the small resort town of Lyme Regis in Dorset, England. She was the daughter of Richard Anning and Mary Moore.  Mary Anning had nine other siblings, but sadly only her … Read More

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Fossil folklore: Echinoderms

Dr Paul D Taylor (UK) The distinct five-fold – or pentameral – symmetry of echinoderms makes them particularly striking fossils. Some even have a vaguely mystical appearance. Modern echinoderms – starfish (asteroids), sea urchins (echinoids), feather stars and sea lilies (crinoids), sea cucumbers (holothurians) and brittle stars (ophiuroids) – are all animals of the oceans. As no echinoderms inhabit freshwater environments, it is difficult to envisage what ancient people living far distant from the coast and who had never visited the sea might have thought when finding a fossil echinoderm with peculiar star-like marks on its surface. How could such a stone have been formed? What was its significance? Did the star markings point to a heavenly origin? Could the stone possess magical or mystical properties? Even today, many folklore beliefs about echinoderms persist. For example, the echinoid, Eurhodia matleyi, is found in west-central Jamaica around Stettin, where it can be abundant on bedding planes of the Eocene Yellow Limestone Group. These fossils are locally referred to as ‘lucky stones’, because of the distinctive star-shaped pattern of the ambulacra (SK Donovan, pers. comm, July 2003). Fossil echinoderms must have seemed worthy of collecting and treasuring regardless of how they were viewed. Indeed, some were even worn as amulets to protect against evil. Not surprisingly, echinoderms have a folklore that is matched only by that of ammonites (see Fossil folklore: Ammonites). Pre- and unscientific beliefs about various kinds of fossil echinoderms abound and a plethora of folklore names have been given … Read More

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Mull’s famous fossil tree (Part 1): Chrissie and the tree

Rosalind Jones (UK) There’s a saying on the Isle of Mull – “If you come to Mull the once you return again for sure” – and it’s not an idle boast, as those who have visited and subsequently revisited this ‘geological Mecca’ will agree. Second largest of the Inner Hebrides, Mull is famous for its Tertiary igneous geology – 6,000 feet of basalt lavas intruded by a complex of concentric bodies, ringed about three igneous centres. With its unique ring dyke of mixed acid and basic magma, Tertiary granites yielding Lewisian dates, and magnetic reversals in the lavas that make compass bearings untrustworthy, Mull is an enigmatic venue for geologists. The island’s best-known fossils are plant remains, including Ginkgo, Platinus, Corylites and Quercus, all preserved in Tertiary lake sediments deposited between lava flows. Once over collected, fossils from the famous Leaf Beds at Ardtun are now protected, as the site is an SSSI. But the biggest and most noteworthy fossil is ‘Macculloch’s Tree’. Remotely situated opposite Ardtun, on the tip of the Ardmeanach peninsula, it is a phenomenon that, if you visit Mull, you really should see. Fig. 1. Burg House. © Pete McHugh.I first came across Mull’s fossil tree as a geology student in 1966. Its location was pointed out while I was in the Ardtun Leaf Beds gully, so I scrambled over slippery rocks, past hexagonal columns of basalt and down to the shore to see. The panorama I beheld took my breath away. Fig. 2. Goat track … Read More

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Secret life of starfish

Dr Liam Herringshaw (Canada) In every sea, in every ocean,Beasts of freakish locomotionProwl the substrate, seeking preyTo feast on in a monstrous way. Dinner is served. On a plate before you, there is a delicious roast chicken. However, the bird is larger than your head and you have no hands or teeth you can break it up with, let alone a knife and fork to use. How are you going to eat it? Are you going to push one half of your stomach out through your mouth, smothering the chicken in digestive juices to dissolve it, then haul your stomach back into place, slurping up the nutritious broth as you go? No? Well you are obviously not a starfish! Members of the class Asteroidea, to give them their proper name, are among the most familiar of all sea creatures, the five-fingered favourites of many a seaside publicity brochure. Yet, even a cursory investigation of their biology, ecology and evolutionary history reveals the familiarity to be a deception. These icons of the intertidal are about as strange as life on Earth gets. If their feeding habits weren’t weird enough, asteroids have a skeleton made of crystals, possess extraordinary powers of regeneration and move around on a system of tiny hydraulic tentacles. And they don’t even have a brain. What they do have is membership of an exclusive club: the Echinodermata or ‘hedgehog-skins’. If you have ever seen footage of crown-of-thorns sea stars chomping their way across the Great Barrier Reef, you … Read More

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