For the Love of Fossils

Charles Lyell’s amazing collection of fossils in the OUMNH got me thinking about why he (and others) collected these fossils. Was it for a purely academic purpose or was there something else? In fact, why does anyone collect fossils? Why do you?  There are countless reasons that people collect fossils: for research, for fun, because they’re there, for art and crafts (to name a few), but I think the reason at the heart of any collection is for the love of fossils.

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Former Project Officer Sarah Joomun’s favourite drawer. Her reason: “When I first started this is what it looked like and it was the first drawer in the collection. It seems to contain the odds and ends of the Lyell Collection, things that didn’t seem to fit anywhere else. When I used the drawer in a tour for a group of alumni from the Earth Science Department, the enormous broken Pecten shell inspired one of the alumni, a man who was long past his student days, to re-enact his impression of a Pecten swimming from his student days, complete with whooshing backwards and flapping hands. It was very intentionally hilarious

The Charles Lyell Collection is made up of mainly molluscs (bivalves, gastropods, scaphopods). However it does contain some vertebrate material such as sharks teeth and a partial rhinoceros jaw, as well as giant foraminifera (single-celled planktonic animals with a chalky shell). The collection is from a variety of different localities in Europe and North America. The majority of specimens come from North America, with France a close second.

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One of my favourite gastropods. I found this by accident when looking for interesting specimens, I fell in love with it as it is so pretty and spiky.

The molluscs in the collection are often systematically presented on wooden tablets indicating that he collected the fossils for research. However it does raise more questions. Why? What did he use the tablets for? Was it for ease of research or were they being displayed somehow? Why are they in different orientations? Was it to see all the parts or was it how they attached best? What features were highlighted? Were any ignored?

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One of the interesting tablets from the collection, also one of Sarah Joomun’s favourites

I think that Charles Lyell was using them as a way to categorise the specimens he had either found in the field or that were given to him by other collectors. I also think the different orientations were to show the features of the specimens he collected, but some are in fairly random orientations. Pencil markings on the tablet reverse give information about where the specimen was collected and, on some, who actually collected it. They also give an identification. Sometimes there are multiple identifications with some given by other people (see Sowerby), and it also can say when Charles and friends think it’s a new species.

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One of Earth Collection Manager Eliza Howlett’s favourite specimens because “xenophorids are really cool and I like the fact it has been ambitious enough to cement a whole bivalve to its shell

This still leaves many questions unanswered, and I am afraid without talking to the man himself we may never find our answers.

I just hope whatever the reason you have for collecting, displaying and researching at first the underlying reason is simply for the love of fossils. I mean Charles Lyell himself even left his law career to pursue his childhood passion of geology.

I am really interested to know what you think: email me at lily.wilks@oum.ox.ac.uk

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