My last post was somewhat negative, as indeed was the one before; but this time it’s all flowers and sunshine… well, mostly.
The first thing to say is that I’m going to be a student again… and no, I don’t mean the loaf around a campus being either very lazy or over-distracted by clubs and societies type of student. I’ve done that (well the latter at least) and now I’ve landed a place on the Leicester University Museum Studies Masters by distance learning!
That means I’m going to be spending the next two years working on essays about plastazote, the ethics of taxidermy collections and the various merits of museum accreditation, funding applications and humidity guidelines. Among a million other things. It’ll also allow me to apply for all the (5 or so) geological curator’s posts that come up every year without feeling like I’m wasting my time because the person specification says “Museum Studies Qualification” in the essential column!
In other museum-based news, I and Phil Davidson – the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre’s palaeontologist – recently did some work for Lyme Regis Museum assessing the state of one of the museum’s more spectacular specimens. The saddest thing about the specimen is that the museum cannot display it for a lack of space, and the cast they do have on their wall doesn’t show any of the more exciting bits (like a fragmentary fish preserved in the body cavity for example). If you’re interested in seeing the various parts of that beautiful creature, you can find it all here – I wouldn’t have called this a research paper, more like a detailed inventory, but that’s the way they roll.
I’ve something else to tell you all about, one of my year’s side projects that I muted in my last post. If you’re in to table-top role playing (if you’re not, think dungeons and dragons and you’ll get the picture) then hopefully you’ll love it. It’s called The PodQuest and it’s going to be a podcasted role-playing campaign set in a world of my own creation – Vilyalad – and with a suite of characters who will cause all sorts of merry hell around this once peaceful world. One of the players, my good friend Thomas is doing the majority of the podcasts’ artwork, so if you want to see what he’s up to I’ll give you a link to his art portfolio here.
Of course, if you’re into gaming then you’ll know I’m making a rod for my own back by being the games master of a world of my own creation… it means everything… background scenery, town plans, cults, religions, histories, NPC’s, creatures… EVERYTHING has to come out of my own head, often on the spot.
I reckon it’ll be a laugh none-the-less. The game system we will be using is RuneQuest Six (published in 2012), which is a re-write of one of the original big three role-playing systems. We’ve played the Avalon Hill version (RuneQuest III) with our usual games master so the system isn’t wholly new.
Anyway, enough of me blabbering about it, the website is here, though there’s not a great deal online yet, but with a launch date of 30th March (brought forward thanks to the fabulous enactment of Geek and Sundry‘s International Table Top Day) we’re pushing ahead with it as fast as can be! We hope you’ll join us for the ride; or at least the first podcast. 🙂
Anyway, as per usual I’ve rambled on about a very small amount of stuff, so I’ll leave it there for now and come back another day to talk about some other things, but I hope I’ve not bored anyone!
Missed the previous Dispatches from Montana? see them here and here.
Well I’m back in jolly ol’ England and as promised here’s the photographic edition of the Dispatches from Montana. I’ll try to explain all the photographs as and where they need it.
First off here’s the field crew as a group, Liz was the crew chief (the dig boss if you will) with Cary as second in command, Denver was the only other member of MOR staff with us. Danny, Will, Nick, Tom, Dana and Bobby were all undergraduates of various universities and Cracker is the Redding family’s dog.
On my first night in Montana we had a fabulous thunderstorm which provided ample opportunities to get frustrated by human/camera reaction times, the above and below pictures being the best results I could get that night!
Before the storm hit however I was just able to snap this shot of the Redding Field Station’s camp, you can just make out the storm-clouds to the left (south-west) and our flimsy patch of tents to the left of the quansit hut (the grey WWII hangar style building). The practically-bomb-proof ranch house is out of shot on the right.
The next photograph was taken from behind the afore-mentioned quansit hut, and shows a small section of Kennedy Coulee, the river valley to the north of the Redding Field Station, where all the dinosaurs can be found…
Here’s another panorama showing a small finger of Kennedy Coulee, including the “Rocky” dig site in which I was to spend the last three weeks digging. To give some idea of the scale of the operation, this site has been excavated for only the last 3 years, and at the start of that time, the left of this photograph would have looked pretty much just like the right hand side…
And here’s a view from inside the quarry itself, to give some more perspective on it and also to show you how much of the overburden mentioned in “The Adventure Begins” we had to remove… at the start of the field season, ground level was at the level of the white-grey sandstone layer!
This photograph zooms in on the area that I and two of my compatriots were working (on the right of the previous picture). I myself was working the middle section with the chisel, brush and oyster-knife. It is a surprisingly slow process because you never know when you will hit another fragment of bone (as Nick, working to my left, was finding out. every piece of tin-foil represents another bone uncovered).
Another panoramic photograph for you now, this one again showing Kennedy Coulee, but also some lovely Virga – that is to say rain that evaporates before it touches the ground – to the north of the site.
Here’s another photo of Cracker – affectionately known as the Cracker-the-quarry-dog, enjoying the sun and generally getting in the way!
So moving on to more palaeontological topics, here’s a field jacket… It’s what you do to the finds before they get transported to a museum or prep-lab. The first step is to cover all the bones in a consolidant (Vinac in this case) then a layer of wet tissue (to act as a buffer and a barrier to the next layer. Finally a mixture of plaster of paris is concocted and infused into burlap (hessian for us UK people) sacking. This was the first field jacket of this year’s season to be excavated.
A couple of days after the jacket was made it was dry and ready to flip (in order to remove excess rock and jacket the bottom). Here’s a photo of Dana with the flipped jacket. You can also see where it stood before it was flipped!
The strata in which the bone-bed is found is a mudstone approximately a metre thick, capped by a shelly sandstone layer containing bivalves up to 20cm across and many varieties of gastropod. This cap-rock can be seen below:
Here’s another panoramic shot, this one taken at lunch time (hence all the sleeping dino-nerds) from above the working face of the quarry on the penultimate day of my short stay at the Redding Field Station.
And finally… The night before I was due to fly out of Great Falls we had a rather close call with a thunderstorm that passed within a couple of miles of camp – all we had was a slight drizzle – but I had the chance to take this gorgeous photograph at about midnight…
Dinosaurs are awesome, the very nature of the name Dinosauria is pretty badass, even for the realms of Linnaean classification, after all the name means “terrible lizards”. Though now we have finds of such unnerving cuteness as Microraptor gui (right), the name may be a little silly. That however is another blog-post altogether, so I’ll leave it for another day.
My love of ancient life and palaeonotology was sparked off by dinosaurs, and like a true geek I still have all the old VHS tapes (yes… I remember VHS) that set me off on my way to where I am today, including one entitled “Dinosaurs: Fun Fact and Fantasy” which I was amazed to find the whole programme floating about on YouTube, so here you go… a little dinosaur quiz for you with the show’s puppet-crocodilian host; Dill…
Anywho, childhood memories aside, I now live in Lyme Regis. This small Dorset town is famous for many things, John Fowles’ ‘French Lieutenant’s Woman’, and thanks to the film adaptation also the town’s iconic Cobb Harbour being just two of them.
The town is far more famous however for its fossil material, indeed I’ve mentioned it before on this blog. Mary Anning and her contemporaries supplied many of the first scientifically recorded and described examples of marine reptiles like Ichthyosaurs and Plesiosaurs. The town even boasts a Dinosaur, Scelidosaurus harrisonii, which was first discovered by a local quarryman – James Harrison of Charmouth – in the cliffs of Black Ven in 1858 and was named and described by Professor Richard Owen of the British Museum (Natural History Dept.) in 1863.
What’s really interesting about the animal is that since that time only nine specimens had ever been discovered eroding out of the cliffs near Lyme Regis, and they tell us an awful lot about the area.
These nine fossil animals are all found within one particular horizon within the Black Ven marls, this being a layer of “topstones” or hard limestone blocks within the marl sequence, though as they’re found already eroded from the cliff (usually on the beach in their own blocks) no one’s particularly sure which of the two topstone bands the dinosaurs come from. Equally the Scelidosaurs are all found within a very short stretch of the beach, always at Black Ven, never anywhere else, even though the same rocks crop out in Yorkshire, some 280 miles away in Northern England.
This does tell us some interesting things though, firstly it tells us exactly when these dinosaurs lived (something I’ll come back to later), but secondly it tells us that land was very close by at this time in the distant past. Why does it tell us this? Well these dinosaurs are land animals, they did not venture into the sea, and certainly would not have done so as a group, so they had to have died before they came to be out at sea. The suggestion being that a herd of S. Harrisonii were crossing a river on land and were swept away. Possibly by a flash flood, or possibly in the same manner as many wildebeest die when their huge herds cross African rivers, by being crushed, jostled under the waterline, and drowning.
OK, so we know that the dinosaurs came from a nearby land-mass, and we know (from the fact that they are all from the same horizon, and closely spaced) that they were probably from the same herd, but how close is that land-mass? Well again we can assume it was very close, maybe as little as a couple of miles. Why? If we assume the postulated herd-drowning hypothesis is correct, then the unfortunate creatures are swept out to sea. If they had “bloated and floated” as the local fossil collectors call it, then the tides and currents would have swept them far and wide. Instead these animals sank to the sea floor rapidly and were not scattered so we know that the land-mass from which they came is very close to the spot where they are found today.
What other evidence is there to support this? Well for a start in the rocks of black ven and in the ‘stonebarrow topstones’ we also find a lot of fossil insects, by no means as many as we do ammonites, but enough to demonstrate the proximity of land. Insects aren’t something you find in the middle of the ocean, even today, even blown out to sea by storms they don’t get far from land, so finding dead and fossilised beetles and dragonflies in the stonebarrow topstones helps add weight to our land proximity hypothesis.
Supporting the herd hypothesis is not so hard either, of the nine specimens found, many of them are near complete specimens, and of the nine, one has small horns above the eyes, while the other eight do not. There are two possible explanations for this. Firstly the one with the horns could be better preserved than the eight without, but a second possibility is that the one with the horns is exhibiting sexual dimorphism, and that the horns are some form of display or ‘rutting’ characteristic, suggesting this individual is a male of the species. Perhaps even an alpha male leading his herd to an unfortunate doom? What a nice image, if slightly sad and morbid…
Now I’ve got to admit to something here… I’ve not been wholly truthful with you. There are actually 10 specimens of Scelidosaurus harrisonii from the area around Lyme Regis… Why didn’t I mention the tenth specimen? Well basically because this individual isn’t found with the other nine. In fact this individual may be far more important that just finding another member of the herd; the reason being that this one isn’t found in either of the topstone bands, oh no. This one is found in the Stellare Bed (bed number 88f according to Lang), about one metre above the topstone beds, and therefore many many years after our unfortunate herd found its way into the ocean.
This is important because up until this tenth specimen started eroding out last year, S. harrisonii was known only from the first nine specimens at an age of 195 million years, so this one disarticulated, poorly preserved and pretty beat up dinosaur extends the range of the scelidosaur lineage.
Why do I mention it here… because while I only found this out a few days ago, I also found out that my first dinosaur bone (a partial scelidosaur vertebra I found last year) came from this animal… which considering I was pretty psyched to have found a dinosaur bone in the first place, then even more psyched to know it was from a S. Harrisonii… you can probably guess as to how freakin’ amazing I found this new information!
Sadly (from a personal perspective) I donated the bone to Lyme Regis Musuem’s geologist Paddy Howe because it was “scientifically important”… now I understand why!
Addendum: There are rumours that one of the original nine scelidosaurs may also have come from a layer other than the Stonebarrow Topstones… this I shall investigate…
There are also rumours that scelidosaurus scutes have been found in Arizona (hardened plates that lie beneath the skin)… though this is still disputed.
Bed numbers originally found in: Lang, W.D. and Spath, L.F. 1926. The Black Marl of Black Ven and Stonebarrow, in the Lias of the Dorset Coast. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, London, 82, 144-187, pls. 8-11
Thanks to Mssrs. Paddy Howe and Chris Andrew for some facts and photographs respectively
Secondly, I bear no ill will toward, nor wish to make any assumptions about the people of the institutions mentioned or museums in general, and do not wish to disparage their reputations or intentions, but I am going to be frank and honest about my opinions and so hope they will not be overly offended by them.
Thirdly if you feel I have been unfair or am wrong, tell me so and let’s discuss it – that’s why blogs have comment sections, as I am no expert and have the utmost respect for your opinion, especially if more informed than mine.
So then, allow me to begin… are you sitting comfortably?
“Imagine you walk into an old victorian building with high rafters, many columns and arches, and masonry which wouldn’t look too out of place in a medieval cathedral. Everywhere you look you can see mounted skeletons, banks of glass & wood cases filled with stuffed animals, archaeological artifacts & rocks, with pictures and murals adorning the few walls without architectural gems.”
This is the image in my minds eye whenever I hear the words “Museum” it’s a very specific image, relating to a natural history setting almost exclusively one that I’m sure many of you will have your own variants on; but is this what a museum is? From my experiences both front-of-house (galleries & expeditions) and back-of-house (curation/research) this can be safely said to be a very bad, out-moded image which factually belongs to the history books… in almost every respect.
This image is the “old-world” view of the museum, and it’s very idealistic. This old world way of doing things had many problems, and still does where it is the norm. “new world” museums on the other hand have problems, and I will argue that they have many more than the old… but then I’m a traditionalist so maybe it’s just me?
Older museums were run completely by academics and this could often be seen in the content, The curators were academics and decided what people wanted to see and how much information they got; often very little. I remember going to see museums when I was younger where you might be told the chemical formula for a mineral, it’s name and where it was found, but little or nothing besides. This isn’t the way to engage people in the collections you have in your museum, it is nothing less than boring unless you are a scientist and know a lot about the subject, so maybe don’t need the extra information.
New museums are at the extreme other end of the scale when it comes to information, they contain galleries often with many fewer objects from the collections, but these objects come with expansive paragraphs of writing. The amount of information given is a definite and drastic improvement over a chemical formula and a name. In terms of content however I have found many museums in recent years are disappointing, because it is clear that the information has not come from an expert, but someone who knows how to teach and entertain, but doesn’t have the detailed knowledge to carry it off.
This is a real shame as at the end of the day museums hire curators (or at least they used to) to know about their subject in detail and also to know the collections back-to-front and inside-out. Curators are now in the absurd position where they are by-passed when it comes to writing the information that goes with an exhibit and it’s left to the outreach staff. These outreach staff are often fantastically good at their jobs because they are hired specifically for the role and trained as teachers or educators in the first instance, but they seem to be afraid to ask the experts for input to their work… I don’t know why and have no theories, but its result is information in exhibits that often leaves out vital and fascinating scientific facts in favour of idealistic, unprovable or plain wrong interpretations.
Curators are now in the firing line at some institutions because of this lack of input through no fault of their own. Museums have cottoned on to the fact that while they pay a certain amount of money for a curator who is both good at collections management and an expert in their subject, or pay less for someone who is only good at the former and whose time will not be split with research and academia, and in this time of austerity who can blame them?
…Well me actually, whilst trying to save money is almost always admirable, in this case it is severely short sighted; and here’s why. Anyone who wants to access the collections will have to work doubly hard because the collections manager will be little able to help them beyond telling them exactly where specimen X is. The Museum’s collection may be categorised fully (in some cases for the first time ever) but it just becomes a storehouse, and museums cease to be the places of cutting edge research, learning and fascination that they once were… in effect they lose their soul.
Speaking of collections, let’s briefly cover something else. Has anyone else noticed how few actual specimens are on display in many big museums, there’s loads of “interactives”, videos and interpretative text, but there seems to have been a severe decline in the number of objects on display.
To use but one example; When I visited the Natural History Museum in London as a child, I have fond and awe inspiring memories of the Mammalian Megafauna gallery (to the right of the doors as you walk in) at some point between then and the next visit (2008) this was removed wholesale and replaced. Not with an updated exhibit, not with more objects of a different type, but with a very “@Bristol” type exhibit about ecology without a single specimen and with a massive expansion of the museum shop (it now takes up half the ex-gallery). These massive, awesome fossil remains & casts have been put into storage and are now unavailable for public viewing. When the Palaeontology department alone has over 9 million objects, most of which are not on display, to say this is lamentable has to my mind a good change of being understatement of the year.
All this alongside the BBC/British Museum extravaganza “A History of the World in 100 objects”, which has already showcased many more than 100, and is all about getting the experts in to talk about them, and let the public SEE them. At least someone’s got the right idea! If you asked me, or I suspect most people, we go to museums to see objects of fascination; not to stare at well meaning computer screens and animations.
I could go on as there are other problems such as over rationalisation, the (muted) abolition of free entry at national museums, the mothballing of historically/scientifically important collections etc. but I think I would be labouring my point.
Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’m too old-fashioned and traditionalist but I think we need to put educators back in touch with curators, bring back the objects (but not lose the information), ease up on the unnecessary overuse of interactives and above all give our many, beautiful museums back their souls.
Over the last week I have been (and next week I will be) working as a curatorial volunteer in the palaeontology department at the Natural History Museum, London.
I’ll be perfectly honest and say that that’s one of my life goals semi-accomplished, in so much as I have always loved the museum – a spiritual home if you will – and ever since I decided that I wanted to get into palaeontology in a big way I resolved to work there in a scientific capacity. Now thanks in no small part to serendipity and having the friends that I do, I have had the chance to do just that.
I’ve spent the last week helping the curator of Echinoderms to maintain the Echinoidea collection. In short my job has involved adding notes to the specimen labels indicating that they have been cited or figured (photographed/drawn) in recent scientific literature, adding these notes to the registers of collections, then re-labelling and re-boxing the specimens as necessary. This may sound like dull work, and it is certainly repetitive, but it can actually be very interesting, I’ve seen specimens of irregular echinoids from all over the country, including Lyme Regis, my local beach at Charlton Bay and as far north as Yorkshire and Northumberland.
Side-Note: Irregular Echinoids are those that show a more prominent 2-fold symmetry imprinted on top of the archaic, simple 5-fold symmetry of their forebears. This is due to a change in their lifestyle over geologic time, moving from epifaunal (on sea bed) to infaunal (burrowing) forms.
On top of the disparate locations of the collections, is the “social and scientific history” that goes with them, who collected them, when and why – I even saw one echinoid which had been donated to the museum with a note next to the “donated by” column which read:
Collected by his father whilst on police duty.
This level of “intimacy” and attention to detail really does give a fascinating insight into not only the people who worked at the museum in the past, but also the emotional and sentimental value that the collectors and others placed on both the objects that they had collected and the institution to which they were donating them. This to my mind is wonderful however it also depresses when you look at the way the museum is going, but that’s the subject of another post.
The collections themselves are huge, if you imagine whole floors of the palaeontology building filled wall to wall with floor to ceiling climate controlled cabinets, each one containing 40 draws, and with up to 100+ specimens in each draw, with outsize (big) objects lying on tables all around. This sheerly immense collection (over 9 million specimens in palaeontology alone) is all hidden away from the public’s view, and as such I am honoured to have seen even just a small part of it in the course of the last week.
To say that I have enjoyed the last week would be a gross understatement, and I am thoroughly looking forward to my second week of volunteering and will be very sad to leave on Friday afternoon.