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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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Urban micrometeorites: A myth?

Jon Larsen (Norway) Is it possible to find micrometeorites in populated areas? The question has been raised for nearly a century and, despite numerous attempts to find them, the answer up to this day has been a very short “no”. Meanwhile, our knowledge about these amazing stones has gradually increased. There is a continuous evolutionary line in the research on micrometeorites, from the early pioneers, John Murray and Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld in the nineteenth century, to Lucien Rudaux and Harvey H Nininger. With Donald E Brownlee and Michel Maurette in the 1960s, micrometeoritics became real science. During the past two decades, this research has accelerated thanks to, among others, Susan Taylor, who extracted micrometeorites from the water well at the South Pole, Matthew Genge, who figured out the classification, and other splendid researchers, in addition to the space probes that have returned to Earth with dust samples from comets and asteroids. Today, there is a growing literature about micrometeorites, but still the answer to the initial question is “no” and urban micrometeorites have been considered an urban myth. Micrometeorites have been found in the Antarctic, but also, to some extent, in prehistoric sediments, remote deserts and in glaciers – places that are clear of the confusing anthropogenic influence. The wall of contamination has been considered insurmountable. It is therefore with pride and joy that I can report here about a project involving the systematic examination of all sorts of anthropogenic and naturally occurring spherules in an empirical search for micrometeorites … Read More

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Urban geology: The Worsley Park wall game, Manchester

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) Wall games are a very geological form of light entertainment and education. I certainly have amused myself by identifying rocks and their features in walls since my days as an undergraduate and before. I was introduced to the name for the wall game (obvious, I know) by Eric Robinson (1996, 1997). Eric’s examples inspired me to devise my own version of a wall game in far-flung Jamaica. At the time, I was a member of the teaching staff in geology at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Kingston. Each semester, we took the first year classes for three one-day field excursions. As cash was getting ever tighter. I hit upon the money-saving idea of running one of the first trips on campus where there were various ‘urban geological’ features worthy of note. One of these was the stone base of a ruined building that had survived from Mona’s days as a sugar plantation. The rocks in the base were a marvellous mixture of blocks and rounded boulders, presumably collected from the bed of the nearby Hope River, which drains the mountainous country to the east of the university. This trip worked well and, after a few years, the late Trevor Jackson and I published a field guide based on my excursion (Donovan and Jackson, 2000). The primary criterion for a geologically interesting and educational wall game is a good variety of rocks. The Mona wall game was most satisfactory in this respect, with … 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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Anthropocene: Should we designate a new epoch? A geologist’s perspective

David Wharton-Street (UK) Whatever your views, this is a subject that will not go away, and the concept of the Anthropocene is gaining more impetus and consideration as time goes by. In a nutshell, the Anthropocene has been proposed as a new third epoch of the Quaternary Period that directly relates to anthropogenic environmental impact on the Earth’s climate, land, oceans and biosphere, on a globally-recognisable scale. The Anthropocene would begin directly after the termination of the Holocene Epoch, but much debate and controversy currently relates to when exactly that date should be – should it begin thousands of years ago, perhaps relating to when our ancestors began widespread agricultural clearances? Should it begin with the Industrial Revolution or during the Second World War? In fact, some scientists even consider that it should begin as recently as the 1960s. Interestingly, the term ‘Anthropocene’ only came into being very recently, in 2000, when a Dutch Nobel Prize-winning chemist named Paul Crutzen made an off-the cuff comment at a press conference and, just a few years later, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) Working Group on the Anthropocene was formed. Paul Crutzen rightly drew attention to mankind’s influence on the planet and the need to guide society through man’s impact (mostly deleterious). The designation of ‘Anthropocene’ as the epoch of ‘mankind’s influence’ is used to enhance the gravity of the way that man is destabilising earth’s natural systems. However academically satisfying it is to promote a concept, it is quite a different … 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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Urban geology: A rostroconch in Hoofddorp

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) Part of my job is to provide service teaching for the University of Leiden. The university lacks a geology department, but my colleagues and I provide tuition in stratigraphy and palaeontology for life science students at the undergraduate and masters degree level. One of my favourite practical classes is a building stones tour of a part of Leiden that is rich in Mississippian (Lower Carboniferous) limestones, which are packed with fossils. These have been used for facing stones, external stairs and paving slabs. Many have been in place for some hundreds of years and many have been etched by slow solution by rainwater as a result. Common fossils include crinoid columnals, tabulate and rugose corals, brachiopods, and molluscs (Donovan, 2016; van Ruiten and Donovan, in review). These are most commonly seen in two dimensions and random sections, a different view of life to what the life scientists are usually accustomed. One group of fossils in these rocks were a mystery until recently, but we now know they are sections through rostroconchs (Donovan and Madern, 2016, p. 349), an extinct group of Palaeozoic molluscs. Rostroconchs were formerly considered to be an ancient group of bivalves and they are certainly bivalve-like in appearance, but lack an articulation of interlocking teeth and a ligament. That is, the shell is a univalve, a one-piece structure. I had only seen the sections of rostroconchs in building stones in Leiden. It was therefore gratifying, shortly after publication of these fossils, to … Read More

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Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS): Using geology to fight climate change

Mark Wilkinson (UK) Practically everyone has an opinion on climate change by now, although for the vast majority of scientists, the weight of evidence is overwhelming – emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are causing climate change, sometimes referred to as global warming. One possible technology for fighting climate change is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in which geology plays an important role. In fact, future generations of geologists may be employed searching for CO2 storage sites in the subsurface, rather than for the more traditional search for oil and gas. The aim of CCS is simple – to allow the continuing use of fossil fuels while reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In the long term, the burning of fossil fuels will probably cease, but until we can rely on renewable sources of energy, we are stuck with these fuels as a cheap and reliable energy source. CO2 is emitted during many activities, including driving cars and heating homes, but the largest single sources are fossil fuel power plants, which generate electricity, followed by industries, such as steel works and cement plants. It is these that most research has been focussed on. And, in principle, the technology is simple – capture the CO2 from a source (such as a power plant; Fig. 1) before it gets into the atmosphere, then transport it to a suitable storage site and inject it into the ground where it will remain for tens of thousands of years. Fig. … 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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New look for Utahraptor

Kenneth Carpenter (USA) One hundred and twenty eight million years ago, a killer stalked eastern Utah. Known as Utahraptor, this distant relative of Velociraptor of Jurassic Park fame was also equipped with a sickle-claw on its hind feet. The name means “Utah’s raptor” with “raptor” being the informal name commonly (but incorrectly) used for the sickle-clawed dromaeosaurid theropods. Utahraptor was named in 1993 by Dr James Kirkland for bones from the Gaston Quarry (also known as Yellow Cat Quarry), north of Arches National Park. The Gaston Quarry occurs in the lower part of the Yellow Cat Member of the Cedar Mountain Formation. The presence of an ankylosaur related to Polacanthus at the Gaston Quarry suggests that the Yellow Cat Member is the same age as the Wealden Formation on the Isle of Wight, in other words, it lived 125 to 130mya. A radiometric date of 126 +2.5mya was obtained from the Yellow Cat Member which supports the dinosaur evidence for the age. Utahraptor has been found at several other sites in the Yellow Cat Member, so must have been relatively widespread in the region. Nevertheless, most of this material remains undescribed. Fig. 1. Some of the bones used in the original description of Utahraptor (scale is 10cm). Casts of these and other bones were used to make a new reconstruction. Until recently, what Utahraptor looked like relied a great deal on imagination. Several recent scientific studies have shown that Utahraptor is related to Achillobator, a dromaeosaurid from the middle of … 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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Nebraska, USA: Wonderful fossils, natural history museums and public art depicting fossils

Robert F Diffendal, Jr (USA) Nebraska is known by vertebrate palaeontologists as the place in North America where there is a very complete Cenozoic geologic record of mammalian evolution over the last thirty-five million years or so. All you have to do is visit any of the many major natural history museums in the USA and in many countries around the world, including the UK, to see fossil skulls, articulated skeletons and large slabs of rock containing bones of fossil mammals from Nebraska to verify this assertion. Nebraska is also the site of Cretaceous rocks containing the oldest known Cretaceous fossil flower and many other parts from fossil plants. It also contains dinosaur footprints and trackways, and skeletons of marine plesiosaurs, mosasaurs and large marine fish, as well as terrestrial and marine invertebrate fossils and marine microfossils. Upper Carboniferous rocks exposed at the surface in parts of south-eastern Nebraska have yielded fossil terrestrial plant fossils, marine stromatolites and other marine plant fossils, marine invertebrates, fish and even some fossil bones of amphibians and early reptiles. All in all, Nebraska is a vast storehouse of wonderful fossils that continues today to yield them up to collectors, both professional and amateur. These fossils can be found on both private and public lands, and in state and federal parks and museums. To match this geological heritage, Nebraska (a large state in area with a small population) has a wonderful natural history museum – the University of Nebraska State Museum (UNSM) – on the … 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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The Nautilus and the Ammonite

Ken Brooks (UK) This article was inspired by a poem in which an ammonite and a nautilus travel the world’s oceans for millions of years, until they are finally separated by extinction, and is based on a talk I gave on HDGS Members Day, on 18 July 2010. The nautilus and the ammonite The Nautilus and the Ammonite were launch’d in storm and strife; Each sent to float, in its tiny boat on the wide, wide sea of life. They roam’d all day, through creek and bay, and travers’d the ocean deep; And at night they sank on a coral bank, in its fairy bowers to sleep. And the monsters vast, of ages past, they beheld in their ocean caves; And saw them ride, in their power and pride, and sink in their deep sea graves. Thus hand in hand, from strand to strand, they sail’d in mirth and glee; Those fairy shells, with their crystal cells, twin creatures of the sea. But they came at last, to a sea long past, and as they reach’d its shore, The Almighty’s breath spake out in death – and the Ammonite liv’d no more. And the Nautilus now, in its shelly prow, as over the deep it strays, Still seems to seek, in bay and creek, its companion of other days. And thus do we, in life’s stormy sea, as we roam from shore to shore; While tempest-tost, we seek the lost – but find them on earth no more! GF Richardson … 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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Carboniferous fossils protecting the coastline at Barton on Sea

David N Lewis (UK) and Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) Many people regard fossils, quite rightly, as rare and exotic objects. Yet how often do people come into contact with palaeontological remains without appreciating it? Probably the easiest example to cite is that of quarried stone, either appearing as facing stones or, in a less aesthetically pleasing setting, when ground down or crushed for concrete or road ballast. Often, quarried stone is utilised a large distance from its source. For example there are no exposures of Carboniferous Limestone in the Netherlands, yet this rock is common in Dutch towns and cities where it is found as facing and decorative stones, far from its origins in Belgium and elsewhere. Obviously such uses of rock are to be admired visually but not hammered; yet this is not necessarily always the case. In this article we introduce you to exotic blocks of Carboniferous Limestone which are so situated that they are actively worn down by the elements, exposing the treasures contained within. Fig. 1. Maps of southern Britain and Christchurch Bay (after Lewis et al. 2003). The cliffs of the famous fossil collecting area of Barton on Sea are part of the (often slumped) sea cliffs of Christchurch Bay in Hampshire and Dorset, extending, in the west, from Friars Cliff, near Christchurch, to Milford-on-Sea, near Lymington in the east (Fig.1). These are composed of Eocene clays and sandstones, overlain by Pleistocene plateau gravels (Fig. 2) and have been systematically eroded over long periods … Read More

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Rock art: The Bradshaw Foundation

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

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Book reviews: Fossils on the floor in the Nebraska State Capitol

Nebraska has an excellent geology record, which is celebrated by some fine mosaics at the Nebraska State Capitol. When the building was being constructed, and at the request of Prof Hartley Burr Alexander of the University of Nebraska Philosophy Department and from drawings by his colleague Dr Erwin H Barbour (former director of the University of Nebraska State Museum), the artist, Hildreth Meière, was asked to create a series of mosaics.

Urban geology: New Red Sandstone at Amsterdam Airport

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) In a country with a limited resource of pre-Quaternary geology in outcrop, the Netherlands nevertheless has a wealth of rock types in building stones (Donovan, 2015a; Donovan and Madern, in press), street furniture (Donovan, 2015b) and artificial ‘outcrops’ (Donovan, 2014). Perhaps the commonest rock type seen in Dutch cities is limestone, particularly imported Mississippian (Lower Carboniferous) limestones (van Roekel, 2007; Donovan and Madern, in press), but also Upper Cretaceous limestones from the province of Limburg in the south of the country (van Staalduinen et al., 1979, p. 47). Less common are massive sandstones, both used as building stones and occurring as boulders (Donovan, 2015b) – most of these that I have seen are, presumably, Pennsylvanian (Upper Carboniferous). The area of outcrop of Carboniferous rocks in the Netherlands, again in the province of Limburg, is limited. Carboniferous rocks used for buildings or street furniture are assumed to come largely, probably entirely, from the more extensive outcrops that are quarried elsewhere. One rock type that is not commonly encountered is red siliciclastic rocks such as siltstones, sandstones and conglomerates. This is despite the broad distribution of the Permo-Triassic New Red Sandstone (NRS) in northern Europe (Hounslow and Ruffell, 2006, fig. 13.2). In my pursuit of river-rounded boulders in the human environment of the Netherlands, I have only seen one NRS specimen of note – a coarse-grained sandstone with abundant gravel-sized fragments truncated by a scoured, erosive contact with an overlying conglomerate (Fig. 1). This is at the … Read More

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Henry VIII’s lost ruby: The ‘Regale’ of France

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

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Flexomornis howei: A tale of amateur and professional cooperation

Kris Howe (USA) When you think of Texas, what comes to mind? It may be wide open spaces, longhorn cattle, cowboys and ten gallon hats. Now, there’s something else to add to the list – the oldest, definitive bird fossil in North America. That bird is Flexomornis howei, from the Woodbine Formation (lower Middle Cenomanian) near Grapevine, Texas. I first encountered the bones while prospecting potential fossil sites around Grapevine Lake. This is located just north of Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport, in north-eastern Tarrant County. One exposure near the lake soon produced a large number of fossils eroding out on the surface. They included petrified and carbonised wood, amber, at least two types of turtle, two types of crocodile, numerous remains of bony fish, shark teeth and vertebrae, parts of an ornithopod, a nodosaur, ostedeoderms, and a few scraps of small theropods. Fig. 1. Howe, Florillo and Tykoski presenting the Flexomornis howei remains at a press conference. In addition, there was also a cluster of delicate and unusual bones that looked like nothing I had ever seen before. I contacted Dr Ron Tykoski, at the Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, for help with the identification. Dr Tykoski had been very helpful in the past with tough identifications, so I knew he could help. He inspected the bones and said that they looked like they were from a bird, but he was hesitant to get too excited – there were no known birds from the Woodbine Formation. Dr Tykoski … Read More

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Fossil sword pommel from Malaya

Ruel A Macaraeg (USA) Fossil hunters have a well-deserved reputation for finding rare things in difficult places. However, there are times when fossils are ‘hidden’ in plain sight as material for the decorative arts. While not as informative as specimens found in situ and undisturbed, nevertheless, they still have palaeontological interest and may yet be of genuine scientific value. The pommel is a carved Stegodon molar, as a stylised cockatoo head.The fossil material on my kris is attached as a pommel to a wooden grip, bound with metal wire.Malay kris sword (keris sundang), Peninsular Malay,s 19th century.This short discussion will take that optimistic approach with a fossil Stegodon molar attached to a Malay sword in my collection. The Stegodon genus, widely acknowledged as closely ancestral to modern elephants, lived in habitats across southern Asia into the Pleistocene, so humans may have developed an awareness and liking for Stegodon remains during their co-existence (Rich, Rich, Fenton & Fenton 1989). Anyway, by early modern times, Stegodon molars (‘garham gaja’ in Malay) were a recognised luxury commodity, whose biological origins were understood and to which totemic significance was attached. Form and context My sword belongs to a class of bladed weapons falling under the general rubric of ‘kris’. Krisses are documented from southern India through mainland Southeast Asia and eastward to the Philippines, but are concentrated in Malaysia and Indonesia (especially the Malaya peninsular, Sumatra, Java and Bali). While there is an unmistakable relationship in these weapons’ blade shapes (particularly the asymmetrical shoulders … Read More

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Fleshing-out a dinosaur-eating snake

Tyler Keillor (USA) In the March 2010 issue of the open-access journal, PLoS Biology, palaeontologist Jeff Wilson and colleagues give an account of a truly unique and amazing fossil discovery. In their article entitled Predation upon Hatchling Dinosaurs by a New Snake from the Late Cretaceous of India, the snake Sanajeh indicus is described, based upon multiple specimens. In particular, one snake fossil was found in a nest of sauropod eggs, looped around a crushed egg, with hatchling sauropod bones next to the broken egg. The very moment of predation seems to have been preserved in rock, as a sudden plug of sand from a flash flood smothered the animals, preserving them for millions of years. Fig. 1. Small-scale maquette to help visualise and plan reconstructing the scene at full scale. The sediment analysis hadn’t been completed at this stage, so vegetation tentatively filled the nest in early mock-ups. Jeff contacted me about creating a reconstruction of this fossilised scene ‘in the flesh’ as a display. I had previously collaborated with him while he and Paul Sereno were studying the bizarre African sauropod, Nigersaurus taqueti, at the University of Chicago’s Fossil Laboratory. For that project, I created a restored skull model of the dinosaur for its unveiling, as well as a life-sized flesh model of the head and neck. These models are an extremely effective, visual means of conveying new discoveries to the public. The value of a model is underscored when a fossil isn’t very photogenic or might otherwise … Read More

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Windmills and building stones: Antigua, West Indies

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands), David AT Harper (UK) and Roger W Portell (USA) In his 2014, 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 and … Read More

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Preliminary study on a large scraper from Central Wyoming

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

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Historical note on amber

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.

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