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Geology Museums of Britain: Wells & Mendip Museum, Somerset

Jon Trevelyan (UK) One rainy afternoon in March, rather than getting wet collecting fossils near Radstock, I abandoned my plans and paid a brief visit to the Wells & Mendip Museum in Somerset. It is not a geology museum, but it does have some great geological exhibitions. The museum (Fig. 1) was founded in 1893 by Herbert E Balch, who was a well-known amateur archaeologist, naturalist and caver; and the museum was intended to showcase his extensive collections of historical artefacts and natural specimens. Fig.1. The entrance to the museum, in the beautiful square in front of the cathedral. When you arrive in the lobby, you can’t help but notice a magnificent two-metre-long skeleton of an ichthyosaur (Fig. 2). This was found in the Lower Jurassic Blue Lias quarries at Keinton Mandeville (which is 200 to 150 million years old), during which time, a warm sea covered Somerset. In fact, the area around the town of Street, not far from Wells, has been an important source of ichthyosaur skeletons. Fig. 2. The ichthyosaur (Ichthyosaurus tenuistris), which was discovered by Thomas Hawkins, a nineteenth century collector of marine reptiles. A fossilised example of an eye socket is also on display next to the main specimen. We know that this ichthyosaur preyed on an extinct form of squid or cuttlefish (Phragmoteuthis), because the small hooks from the squids’ arms are clearly visible in its stomach. In the museum, there is also an exhibition on the ‘Netherworld of Mendip’, which explores the subterranean … Read More

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Geology Museums of Britain: Radstock Museum, Somerset

Jon Trevelyan(UK) Contained in what was once the Radstock Market Hall (Fig. 1), this is perhaps one of my favourite local museums. Maybe it is because the museum is close to wonderful relics of the Somerset coal industry and to the Upper Carboniferous plant fossils that were a waste product. (My maternal grandfather was a miner in one of the two collieries in Aberdare in South Wales, and my mother took me collecting on the tips when I was young.) Fig. 1. The museum is located in the old Radstock Market Hall. In fact, in the Radstock district, there are still some tips where you can find plant fossils. Nearby is also the impressive ‘volcano’ at Midsomer Norton, which will always be a monument to coal miners who laboured in the coalmines of this part of the world (Fig. 2). (It is a tip containing waste from the Old Mills and Springfield collieries.) However, this museum is not really a geology museum. It has a lot of geological exhibits, but rather it is a museum of Somerset coalfield life, but no less fascinating for that. There are permanent displays covering two floors within the listed building. On the ground floor, there is the history of the 75 or so coalmines that once existed, and the mining communities of Radstock and the local trades and industries which supported the miners and the industry. This includes, on entry, a gorgeous horse-drawn carriage from the Co-op (Fig. 3). All this, along with some … Read More

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Book review: Geopedia: A Brief Compendium of Geologic curiosities, by Marcia Bjornerud (with illustrations by Haley Hagerman)

This is a charming little book, which describes itself as an “admittedly idiosyncratic compendium of [geological] words and phrases chosen because they are portals into larger stories”. It succeeds brilliantly at its professed goal, combining a great deal of information, education, and a gentle sense of fun, brought out very nicely by some attractive and humorous illustrations.

Sharks of the Moroccan phosphates

Dr Charlie Underwood (UK) Shark teeth are amongst the most iconic and sought after of fossils. However, for most of us, collecting them can be a difficult or even unpleasant task. I am sure that most collectors in northern Europe are familiar with picking their way over slipped cliffs of clay, in the teeth of a freezing winter gale, to collect the few treasures that erosion leaves on the beach. Alternatively, the more dedicated are used to carrying hundreds of kilos of clay home and painstakingly passing it through a sieve before even knowing if there are any fossils there. But it is not all like this. There are a number of places in the world where the vagaries of sedimentology have allowed bone-beds (or phosphorites) to develop, within which vertebrate fossils, and shark teeth in particular, are hundreds of times more abundant than in a normal marine sediment. By far the most extensive of these deposits are in Morocco. Below the dusty scrub and parched farmland of northern Morocco lie the largest reserves of mineral phosphate known. Vast complexes of open-cast mines, one stretching for nearly 30km, have been cut into these deposits, with a network of conveyor belts transporting the phosphate sand and rock to the processing factories turning the rock into fertilizer. These great phosphate deposits were laid down in a sea saturated with nutrients and teeming with life. As a result, the phosphates are crammed with the fossilised phosphatic bones and teeth of fish, sharks and … Read More

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The mud volcanoes of Azerbaijan

Khursheed Dinshaw (India) The first time I saw a mud volcano at close range was in Rotorua in New Zealand. I was fascinated – the raw energy of the erupting mud massively appealed to me. Once back home, I read up on mud volcanoes and learnt that, out of the almost 700 present in the world, about 300 of which are located in Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea. No wonder scientists call Azerbaijan ‘the region of mud volcanoes (Fig. 1). These mud volcanoes reach heights of 200 to 500m and temperatures of 1,000 to 1,2000C. They include active and extinct underwater, island-type and oil producing volcanoes. In Azerbaijan, one can find these natural wonders on the Absheron Peninsula, at Gobustan and the Shirvan plain. Fig. 1. A map of the mud volcanoes of Azerbaijan (© Mark Tingay and Google Earth). Recently, I was fortunate enough to visit the country and booked a tour to Gobustan to experience the famed mud volcanoes, which are locally known as ‘Pilpila’ (Fig. 2). One can drive up to the designated spot in any vehicle, but the last few kilometres necessary to reach the volcanoes is only possible by authorised cars driven by locals who know the landscape like the back of their hand. This is important, because the terrain is barren and there are no marked roads, routes or signposts to get to the mud volcanoes. Fig. 2. Mud volcanoes are called Pilpila in Ajerbaijan. My driver was born and brought up in a … 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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Book review: Lake District: Landscape and Geology, by Ian Francis, Stuart Holmes and Bruce Yardley

I recently reviewed another of the guides in Crowood Press’s excellent “Landscape and Geology” guides, which was undoubtedly a great read. And this one is equally good, with great, full colour pictures, maps and diagrams, and easy to read text, with descriptions of interesting walks and what can be seen on them.That is, there are easy-to-understand explanations of how the rocks formed and how the geology affects the landscape, and there is also an n exploration of the long human story of the landscapes.

Book review: Minerals of the English Midlands, by Roy E Starkey

Goodness me! This is a massive work (432 pages) – but written with enthusiasm from the heart, with authoritative text, lovely photos throughout, fascinating anecdotes and history, with detailed geological descriptions of all the relevant counties. Now, I’m no expert on minerals, which fall well outside the scope of my interests. However, I cannot praise this book too much.

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.

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