Peter Robinson (UK) For one of the oldest forms of human expression, there is still much uncertainty regarding rock art. What is it? Where is it? How old is it? And what purpose did it serve? The last question is phrased in the past tense, because, with a very few exceptions, as a form of human expression, rock art is no longer practised. This means it is irreplaceable. The Bradshaw Foundation is dedicated to discovering, documenting, deciphering and preserving ancient rock art around the world. This brief article will raise more questions than it answers and, as such, will represent only an introduction to our common artistic legacy. Let us begin by defining rock art. The British archaeologist, Christopher Chippindale (best known for his work on Stonehenge), correctly addresses this in his publication, Stonehenge Complete (Thames and Hudson, London, 3rd edition, 2004), by analysing the two words. ‘Rock’ is straightforward enough – the geological surfaces of the exposed earth, generally hard but also including soft surfaces like sand, clay and the distinctive muds of some deep-cave walls. Mechanical hardness, chemical durability and protection from weathering are most important when it comes to survival of the art; distribution reflects survival as well as the creating. Fig. 1. The journey of mankind. Copyright Stephen Oppenheimer and the Bradshaw Foundation, 2003. ‘Art’ is a harder concept, since art has a special and misleading place in our western culture. In the twentieth century, it has strengthened its romantic definition, so that ‘art’ is not … Read More
William Boyd Dawkins is an immensely fascinating character, who dominated British geology during his time, and yet is mostly forgotten today. He received a professorship and a knighthood, along with many top awards, and yet Mark Wright, in this excellent biography, describes him as “a liar and probably a cheat”.
Steven Wade Veatch (USA) Glittering jewels, precious metals and religious relics – ranging from a spine from the Crown of Thorns to a twig from the Burning Bush, and sundry relics of saints – were important to all medieval monarchs as physical symbols of power, pomp and religious expression. King Henry VIII (1491-1547) of England was no different and had one of these venerable objects – a ruby. Fig. 1. Henry VIII, The king can be seen sporting several jewels in this 1531 painting. Henry prized the French Regale, a ruby fashioned into a cabochon. It remained in Henry’s private collection until he died at the age of 55 in 1547. Image public domain. A ruby (Al2O3) is a gemstone and a variety of the mineral corundum (aluminium oxide). It is one of the hardest minerals on Earth (9.0 on the Mohs mineral hardness scale of 10) and ranges in colour from pink to blood-red. Traces of the element chromium cause the red colour to bloom in rubies. The Latin word for red, ruber, is the basis for its name. The other variety of gem-quality corundum is sapphire. The ruby is extremely rare and considered the king of the gemstones, with its magnificent colour and exceptional brilliance. Louis VII (1120-1180) became the first King of France to visit England when he made a pilgrimage in 1179 to St Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. He spent the night there, and made several offerings, including the ‘Regale’, considered the finest gem in … Read More
James Smith (USA) Author of the Declaration of Independence, creator of the University of Virginia, a Founding Father and third president of the USA, Thomas Jefferson was a pioneer. Of this, you are undoubtedly aware. And, like most pioneers, Jefferson fostered an interest in virtually every aspect of science. This appetite for knowledge propelled him to organise the Lewis and Clark Expedition into the then-uncharted western area of the continent, brought under American governance by the Louisiana Purchase, which took place during his presidency. Considered an expert in civil engineering, anatomy, architecture, anthropology, physics, mechanics, meteorology, navigation, ethnology, botany and geography, it is not surprising that Jefferson was also a pioneer in our own field – palaeontology. “Science is my passion,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “politics is my duty”. It could almost be said that he was as much of a pioneer in science as in law and politics – indeed, although we may remember his political pursuits as his most historically-resonant, his scientific achievements were pretty admirable. “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science,” he wrote, “rendering them my supreme delight.” Christopher Hitchens thought that, were Jefferson born a decade later, he would have been one of the finest palaeontologists in history. However, as it was, Jefferson was still looking at mountains and asking how shells got so high up on the mountaintop. The side project of many an eighteenth century American scientist was the study of mysterious teeth, bones and seven-foot tusks yielded by swamps and riverbeds. … Read More
Rob Hope and Dr Davide Olivero (France) “ … And yet we cannot hope to describe all of the natural happenings of our world; and thus impossible it seems to be to explain all of these unexplainable things …” JL Alléon-Dulac, 1765, French naturalist (Opening Image). An ‘ammon horn’ sketch by Alleon-Dulac from 1765. Most probably an ammonite, Lytoceras sp, deriving from the Lyonnais quarries of France. Fig. 1. An ‘ammon horn’ sketch by Alleon-Dulac, from 1765. Most probably the ammonite, Lytoceras sp, derving from the Lyonnais quarries of France. Our understanding of the Natural World will never be truly complete, yet seemingly, each day, we add another tiny fragment of knowledge, as some fresh academic paper adds to the long list of scientific bibliography. With just a few tiny pages, our understanding of the complexities of nature is focused ever clearer – Project Emerging is today’s paradigm, but by tomorrow, will be a fraction outdated. Yet, hard facts never alter; it is simply our conception of them which does. If nature’s ‘big picture’ is observed through the prism of the great age of life on Earth, major patterns come to the fore. Simply speed up the sequences to see those differing, lively shapes adapt toward survival. Evolution, by whatever means, is the star factor, as remarkably, a harmony is found between both inert geologies and thriving ecosystems. Together, they all share ‘biosphere’. Fig. 2. Zoophycos from Bathonian limestones, Chasteuil, southern France. At first, human intelligence desired to see a Creator. … Read More
William Bagshaw (UK) White Scar Cave takes its name from the limestone outcrops or “scars” that overlook the entrance. This part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park is dominated by the ‘Three Peaks’ – Ingleborough, Pen-y-ghent and Whernside. Their distinctive shapes are due to their geological structure, which consists of nearly horizontal layers of grit and shale that rest on the Great Scar Limestone. White Scar Cave was formed under Ingleborough between 400,000 and 100,000 year ago, in warmer periods that occurred between the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene. In August 1923, Christopher Francis Drake Long, a student on vacation from Cambridge University, discovered a slight fissure on the slopes of Ingleborough. He decided to investigate. Wearing only his summer walking clothes of shirt and shorts, and lighting his way with candles stuck in the brim of his hat, he crawled into the low passage. Spurred on by the distant roar of water, he struggled over jagged stones and across rock pools until, eventually, he found himself at the foot of a waterfall. He continued along a stream passage to a cascade and then returned to the surface to announce his find. On a subsequent expedition, Long discovered a subterranean lake. Undeterred by the cold water, he swam across it. A massive boulder, later nicknamed ‘Big Bertha’, lay wedged in the passage beyond. He squeezed past, only to find his path blocked by a boulder choke (a jumbled mass of rocks). Long intended to open the cave to visitors. However, … Read More
Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands), David AT Harper (UK) and Roger W Portell (USA) In his latest book, Ted Nield (2014) reflects on building stones and what they tell the geologist about where they are. Once upon a time, building stones in Britain were derived locally and told the informed observer something of the local geology (apart from, of course, the exotic stones imported for banks and office blocks). That is, they were built of local stone from the local quarry. Today, stone is imported from as far afield as China, where once they would have been derived locally by horse and cart or canal boat. One place where local stone is still used is Antigua in the Lesser Antilles. For example, Jackson and Donovan (2013) described an attractive, green chloritized tuff, which is used throughout the island as a bright and distinctive building stone. Many old structures in rural areas are still constructed of stone, such as walls, buildings (including ruins) and, the subject of this article, disused windmills. For a general introduction to the geology of Antigua, see Weiss (1994) or Donovan et al (2014). All major stratigraphic units are Upper Oligocene; the regional dip is to the northeast. Betty’s Hope The Betty’s Hope site, in the parish of Saint Peter in eastern Antigua (Fig. 1), is an open air monument administered by the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda. Fig. 1. Outline map of Antigua (redrawn and modified after Weiss, 1994, fig. 3), showing the principal geological subdivisions … Read More
Luke Sattler (USA) This paper is about an unusual artefact from Wyoming that may have been used by prehistoric people. It has now been studied and the preliminary research results are complete. This ancient scraper is a bifacial, thinned, cortical flaked tool, which means that its flakes were struck from the exterior of a chert nodule (hence the remaining cortex, or rough surface, visible on one face, Fig. 1). To make it bifacial, the edges were then flaked on both sides to form a cutting or scraping edge used for working with things like meat and hide, among others possibilities (Walker, Danny, Personal communication 2012). Fig. 1. Front and back view of bifacial scraper, showing flaking by ancient people in Wyoming. Rough surface of a chert nodule is revealed on the surface. (Photo by S Veatch.) The scraper is made out of chert, which is a sedimentary microcrystalline variety of quartz that forms when microcrystals of silicon dioxide grow within sediments. The microcrystals grow into irregularly shaped nodules or concretions, as dissolved silica is transported to the formation site by the movement of ground water or the sea. When there is more than one nodule or concretion forming at the same time and near to each other, they can join together and form large masses or layers of bedded chert. Some of the silicon dioxide in chert is thought to have a biological origin. In some oceans and shallow seas, large numbers of organisms have a silica-rich skeleton (for example, … Read More
Blake Reher (USA) Throughout Roman times, amber was considered the ‘Gold of the North’. It was believed to have medicinal properties that cured arthritis, protected people from suffering mental illness, and healed sore throats. People also thought it had magical properties that gave the wearer bravery. Amber was also a symbol of God’s presence. Workers harvested amber from the Baltic regions in Russia. Merchants transported large quantities of it along roads and rivers to the Mediterranean area in Italy, the centre of the Roman Empire. The Romans used it in making jewellery and it was a luxury product that helped develop a trade network in Europe. Without this valuable product and the trading routes it used, Europe may not have developed as quickly. Amber is fossilised tree sap. The colour of this sap is yellowish brown, but can also be other colours. The sap sometimes entombs living things such as bugs and leaves, and occasionally larger objects, which can create spectacularly well-preserved fossils. Fig 1. An ant inside Baltic amber. Image used with permission. © Anders L. Damgaard, http://www.amber-inclusions.dk. About the author Blake Reher is a member of the Pikes Peak Pebble Pups and the Colorado Springs Mineralogical Society. He is also a volunteer ranger at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. He is 16 and attends Cheyenne Mountain High School.
Paul D Taylor (UK) People have collected fossils since prehistoric times. In pre-scientific times, a remarkable folklore developed about how fossils originated and their usefulness. Folklore refers to the beliefs – usually non-scientific – and customs of ordinary people. Before the true origin of fossils as the remains of once living organisms was firmly established and became universally known, fossils must have been extremely bewildering objects to anyone who found them. Although some fossils resembled living creatures, others looked quite different. For example, the internal moulds – ‘steinkerns’ – of molluscs were unlike anything from the living world. Even for fossils that did match known types of animals and plants, the fact that they came out of the ground was puzzling, as was the finding of fossil shells of sea-creatures far away from the sea and on mountain tops. Therefore, it is not surprising that fossils spawned a myriad of myths. From ancient tales about their alleged magical or medicinal powers, to the uses of fossils for religious and decorative purposes, the folklore of fossils is rich and varied (for example, Bassett, 1982; Gregorová, 2006; Mayor, 2000, 2005; McNamara, 2011; Thenius and Vávra, 1996). This article is the first of a series about fossil folklore, exploring fossil myths from around the world. Ammonites in folklore Ammonites are the most iconic of all fossils. Their strikingly beautiful spiral shells make them greatly valued among fossil collectors and, of course, they play a key role in stratigraphy. They have long attracted the … Read More
Ruel A Macaraeg (USA) In recent years, a number of ammonite pendants, similar to the one in Fig. 1, have been offered by tribal art dealers. As scientific objects, they offer the interest all fossils – a chance to study the tangible remains of ancient life. Being among the more abundant of fossil types, ammonites normally wouldn’t excite major paleontological interest. However, the relatively unexplored locality from which these ammonites come, and the unfamiliar use to which they are put, call for a closer look. Fig. 1. Ammonite pendant. They are reportedly from the Dani – a people from the central highlands of Irian Jaya (the western, Indonesian half of New Guinea) – and the methods and materials used in their construction support this attribution. Surrounded by steep mountains on all sides, these highlands were largely isolated from the outside world until the 1930s, when passing airmen spotted densely clustered villages and cultivated fields in the river valleys. Anthropologists were quick to realise the importance of this enduring Neolithic culture, and among the works published on the Dani were the book Gardens of War and its accompanying film Dead Birds (Gardner & Heider 1968), which remain classic studies of social violence. These investigations emphasised the ritualised nature of Dani warfare, during which the normally unadorned men would dress in elaborate costumes decorated with cassowary feathers, boar tusks and bailer shells. Scholarly interest soon translated into artistic interest and tribal collectors began turning their attention to Dani ornaments, which now appear … Read More
Dr Robert Sturm (Austria) Ancient civilizations had a high demand for raw materials, like clay, diverse rocks and, most of all, metals. These were required for buildings, crafts, agriculture, their armed forces, financial concerns, art and culture. Clays and rocks produced by opencast mining primarily served for the production of bricks and building blocks, which were used for civil and hydraulic engineering. They were additionally extracted for the manufacture of durable goods and art objects, such as dishes and statues. Metals – like gold, silver, copper, tin, iron and lead – being essential raw materials in antique civilisations, were commonly produced by underground mining. Gold and silver were mostly used as raw material for ancient coins. The use of noble metals in monetary economy has been going on since the seventh century BC, when barter trade was successively replaced by a monetary economy. Copper, tin and iron was mostly produced for the manufacture of arms, whereas lead was, among other things, used for the production of water conduits and as a stain for ornamental painting. Fig. 1. Some examples for the use of metals: lead was, among other things, used as stain for ornamental painting (left), whereas silver was used for coins (right). Ancient techniques used for the mining of raw materials Sufficient supplies of metallic and mineral raw materials required systematic mining, since only gold was found in large enough amounts in washes of brooks and rivers to make panning worthwhile. Other metals usually occurred as chemical components of … Read More
The Geologists’ Association have extended their excellent series of geological guides by producing what some people (including me) would think at first was a slightly self-indulgent couple of volumes on ‘Devonshire Marbles’.
Rosalind Jones (France) “Time and tide wait for no man” and “truth is often stranger than fiction.” Both these sayings apply to Scotland, especially Argyll with its islands at ‘the edge of the world’. Here, historic stones – some truly associated with destiny, others more dubiously linked by legend – fascinate and abound. Fig. 1. Perched erratic, Ben Hogh, CollColl and Tiree, to the northwest of Mull and Iona, are non-identical ‘twins’. Coll is rugged and rocky; Tiree is low, fertile and flat. However, in common with islands of the Outer Hebrides, both have pure white strands of calcareous sand made chiefly from maerl, backed by sand dunes of flower strewn machair (a low-lying grassy plain found on some of the northwest coastlines of Ireland and Scotland, in particular, the Outer Hebrides). Individually, they have their own strange, legendary stones – glacial erratics that have drawn myth to themselves and one which ‘rings’ its own warning today. Fig. 2. Sand dunes and white maerl sandy beach, Isle of Coll.Maerl is formed when Atlantic Ocean currents force upwards dissolved mineral that nourishes the marine organisms of the Hebridean fringe. From this rich cold water, calcium carbonate is extracted, not only by invertebrates to make their shells, but also by the calcareous red algae, Phymatolithon and Lithothamnion coralloides, collectively known as ‘maerl’. Found at depths of between 10m and 18m, living maerl beds produce small granules between 2mm and 10mm in size that accumulate in beds and which grow at 1mm a year. Sorted by currents and eventually washed landwards … Read More
Dr Neale Monks (UK) While they can be found in many other parts of the British Isles, Scotland is uniquely associated with Palaeozoic fossil fishes. That Scotland’s fossil fishes are so well known is largely thanks to a remarkable man from Caithness, called Hugh Miller. Where scholars had dismissed the Old Red Sandstone as lacking in fossils, Miller found many finely preserved fossil fishes. He published several books on field geology including, in 1841, his most famous work, The Old Red Sandstone. This eminently readable book described the formation in great detail and included dozens of beautiful engravings that illustrated the fossil fishes he had discovered. Fig. 1. Dipterus – Achanarras Quarry (© Dr Jens Rydell). What is the Old Red Sandstone? The Old Red Sandstone is a distinctive set of sandstone rocks dominated by sediments laid down under non-marine, relatively dry climate conditions. It is predominantly Devonian in age, though, in Scotland at least, certain parts may be as old as Middle Silurian. This makes it much older than the formation known as the New Red Sandstone, which was laid down during the Permian. Fig. 2. Milleosteus remains from Thurso. (© Dr Jens Rydell.) Geologists can find Old Red Sandstone sediments across much of the British Isles, from Cornwall in the southwest of England to the Orkney Islands off the northeast tip of Scotland. For the most part, the Old Red Sandstone is indeed red thanks to the large quantities of iron oxide it contains, but, at some localities, … Read More
Trevor Devon (UK) Eleven members of the Hastings and District Geological Society (HDGS) assembled in front of the Canterbury Law Courts on a fine Sunday morning in June 2010 to meet up with our guide for the day, Geoff Downer. Geoff had previously given a talk to HDGS in the spring on the building stones of St Augustine’s Abbey and clearly had a great passion for this subject (he calls it a “hobby”). The day was spent on a gentle walk around the eastern part of Canterbury, largely taking in St Martin’s Church, St Augustine’s Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral. Geoff provided a fascinating commentary on the geology, history, archaeology and architecture of the area, and stopped at appropriate sites to explore and identify the building stones more fully. Given that Canterbury had been an important major Roman town, and given its subsequent ecclesiastical history from Saxon to Norman and medieval times, there was no shortage of material to see. After a brief introduction to the geology of the Ouse Valley, we took a short walk to look at the thirteenth century Conduit House (Fig. 1), a well-preserved example of medieval water technology that was used to collect groundwater from the natural springs of the surrounding hills and gravity feed it down to St Augustine’s Abbey using lead pipes. The reservoir and tunnels are constructed of all sorts of stone, using some reclaimed material from the nearby city and the structure would originally have borne a circular roof. From this fascinating … Read More
Stephen K Donovan and Cor F Winkler Prins (The Netherlands) “Darwin … devoted 1383 pages of notes to geological topics, compared with only 368 pages to biological topics.” – (Rhodes 1991, pp. 194-195) Like the writer, Johann Goethe, who inscribed himself in the guest book of Karlsbad – present day Karlovy Vary, in the Czech Republic – as “J.W. Goethe, Geognost”, Charles Darwin considered himself a geologist (“I, a geologist” citation from his notebooks in Herbert 2005, p. 2), and rightfully so. He was a true savant and an amateur in the positive sense of the word, as commonly used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (see Rudwick 2004, p. 23), This is despite the fact that he belonged, for some time after his return with HMS Beagle, to the geological elite (Rudwick 1982). This may be deduced, for example, from the fact that he was asked to write the part on geology of a naval manual (Darwin 1849). Early geological influences: Edinburgh, Cambridge and Lyell’s Principles “Henslow then persuaded me to begin the study of geology [in 1831] … [T]he sagacious Henslow ¼ advised me to get and study the first volume of the Principles, which had just then been published, but on no account to accept the views therein advocated.” (Darwin 1983, pp. 39, 59) Darwin’s geological education took a new direction as he read volume one of Lyell’s Principles of Geology (Fig. 1) on-board HMS Beagle. However, his instruction in the new science actually began when he attended formal … Read More
Joan Corbacho and Consuelo Sendino (Spain) Ever since fossils first attracted the attention of mankind, they have been traded and, with the emergence of this commerce, so fossil fakes have appeared. The number of such fakes and their geographical origin has increased with time. On the one hand, this parallels the large demand for fossils; on the other, it reflects the outlawing of fossil sales in some countries, combined with the economic needs of many families, who use fossils as their main source of income. This trend will continue, as the supply of genuine fossils diminishes due to trading restrictions. In particular, it will continue as borders, which were once freely open to nomadic movements become heavily policed, along with a decrease in open collecting sites. History of fossil fakes Fossils have been used for more than 400,000 years, some as tools and others as fertility symbols. For example, fossil echinoids were found in the early Neolithic site of Ain Ghazal in Jordan and at a Neolithic site in County Kerry in SW Ireland, where they were used as funeral adornments for ceremonial purposes. In addition, bracelets made of fossil shells were excavated at a Neolithic site in Vinca-Belo Brdo in Serbia. It is apparent from these examples that fossils were used by early Europeans to produce items of social value that could be traded. Therefore, it is not surprising that fossils have been faked for a long period of time. One of the most striking fossil frauds, rivalling in … Read More
Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) The two most significant geologists to visit Jamaica and study its geology between the two World Wars were both British: Charles Alfred Matley (1866-1947) and Charles Taylor Trechmann (1885-1964). Both had active research programmes in Jamaica and the Antilles in the 1920s and 1930s, mainly on subjects that did not overlap, but the one geological concept on which they strongly disagreed was the one that underpinned all of their work – the geological evolution of the Caribbean basin. C A Matley Charles Matley (Fig. 1A) was a career civil servant and distinguished amateur geologist. He studied at the Birmingham and Midland Institute and the Mason Science College. The latter was incorporated into the new University of Birmingham in 1900. At Mason College, he was taught by Charles Lapworth, the father of the Ordovician System and one of the principal debunkers of Murchison’s assignment of the Scottish Highlands to the Silurian (Oldroyd, 1990). Matley’s principal field research while at Birmingham was on the Precambrian and Lower Palaeozoic of North Wales (for example, Matley, 1899, 1900, 1928), particularly Anglesey, work for which he was awarded a DSc by the University of London in 1902. Of particular relevance to his Jamaican research was his understanding of the geology of the Llyn Peninsula and Anglesey (McIlroy and Horák, 2006). Fig. 1. (A) Charles Alfred Matley (1866-1947), probably in about 1935 at the earliest (after Donovan, 2008, fig. 2). (B) Charles Taylor Trechmann (1884-1964), date of image unknown (after Donovan, … Read More
Back here in the United States, the blockbuster movie Jurassic World still plays in theatres, while presidential candidates hit the campaign trail. This confluence of events reminds me of a crazy idea I had back in 1992, a couple years after Michael Crichton published his novel. This tongue-in-cheek essay explores the idea to its full absurdity.
Martin I Simpson (UK) The details of how the nineteenth century Sussex surgeon and palaeontologist Gideon Mantell came to acquire, describe and announce to the world a new fossil herbivorous reptile, later to be christened Iguanodon and to be included in Owen’s Dinosauria, have been merged together to form one of the most often quoted and legendary stories in the history of vertebrate palaeontology. However, the accuracy of some elements of the story has been questioned by recent scholars, for example, the role played by Gideon’s wife, Mary Ann. She has long been thought to have discovered the first teeth in a pile of road metal by the roadside, while her husband was attending one of his patients in Cuckfield. This is an event which is supposed to have occurred before 1822. In his book, The Fossils of the South Downs, published in that year, Gideon clearly states that Mary had found teeth, although the exact circumstances are not discussed. Some of the teeth acquired by the Mantells were examined by Baron Cuvier. In June 1824, this famous French anatomist ultimately decided that they all belonged to a new and unknown herbivorous reptile. Inspired by this conclusion, Gideon visited the Huntarian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in the autumn of 1824 to hunt down a modern reptilian equivalent. However, it was Samuel Stutchbury, not Gideon Mantell, who provided the next ‘light bulb’ moment by noticing a similarity between the teeth of the enigmatic fossil animal and those of … Read More
It appears that I was naive to assume the Tunguska explosion of 1908 had been adequately explained. It was a meteorite or, more probably, a comet that exploded above a remote area of Siberia. Wrong! This fascinating book shows that we still await an adequate scientific explanation and the jury is still out on what precisely the object was.
I like the GA guides. They are excellent resources for amateurs and professional geologists alike and I frequently browse mine, planning geological trips I will probably never take, because I live in geological unexciting London.
John L Morton certainly came to popular geological publishing by an interesting and circuitous route. Trained as a pilot, he flew Herons, Viscounts, Comets, Boeing 707s and Lockheed TriStars for British European Airways and subsequently published a book on aspects of flying for an airline.
Roderick Impey Murchison must have been a remarkable man. He was one of the first people to rigorously use the principles of stratigraphy discovered by William Smith, which allowed him to erect the Silurian system and to name about 123myrs of geological time.