We’ve previously blogged about preparations to uncover our fossil collection in a new display, but selecting the specimens that will go on show has only been made possible by the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Steve Smith has been volunteering at our Study Collections Centre for over three years, working on over a hundred thousand fossils in an extraordinary hidden collection.
In 2011, I attended a visit to the Horniman Museum and Gardens organised by the Open University to see the fossil collection on display in the balcony and the mineral and rock collection in a side room. We were met by Deputy Keeper of Natural History Paolo Viscardi, who introduced us to the Geology collection. I had recently retired from lecturing in Electronics and had only a scant memory of the geology degree I did many years ago, but the visit re-vamped my earlier interest, so I asked Paolo, quite innocently, whether there might be a need for a volunteer to document any of the fossil specimens not on display. He told me that the museum catalogue was incomplete for a separate fossil collection held in store. Maybe there was a chance for me.
The museum initiation process was extensive. Before starting, there were many training programmes to be done including an introduction to the main collections and displays, health & safety, and correct specimen handling. I was particularly interested in the introduction to the musical instrument display, having been a professional drummer years before. But my work was not to be at the museum; I would be situated at the offsite Study Collections Centre (SCC) instead.
Paolo showed me the fossil collection I would be working on, which houses a jaw-dropping 175,000 specimens in over 600 drawers, trays and boxes. All of this in two tiny dehumidified basement rooms. This was to be my work area, once a week, for quite some time.
This massive collection of fossils was acquired by the museum on 1 February 1989 from the Croydon Natural History & Scientific Society. The original collector, Walter H. Bennett was a mining geologist who collected fossils from world-wide locations, but mostly from the UK. Many fossils are in an excellent condition showing much fascinating detail and may be comparable to some in the national collections.
The notes given in the existing database for this collection were inadequate; often naming just the group of animals the specimen came from, together with some place names and the geological age. In some cases there was no information at all.
We made a working copy of the database in a spreadsheet so that I could easily add to or correct any wrong entries. Working through the collection, I found many items with only a collection location and so had to assess the animal group (phylum) and, if possible, order or family so we knew which species were represented.
At first, the task was daunting, but each new drawer opened up a new set of ancient life-forms with their own characteristics. Some drawers have over 50 items in tiny snap bags to be prised open so the label can be read. This tested my patience.
There are pieces of black shale with stringy marks on them resembling razor-edged wire called graptolites.
As well as trilobites, both whole and in fragments.
There were also ammonites and shell fish of every description.
One drawer is full of samples from the Jurassic Solnhofen Limestone with insects, fish and ancient lobster impressions.
Another drawer has fossils from the Cambrian Age Burgess Shale, giving an insight into the very beginnings of more complex animal life-forms on Earth.
The aim of this work is to complete the documentation as far as possible, so this large fossil collection appears correctly on the museum database and is available, with photographs, for anyone doing research or merely having an interest in fossils and their evolution.
Collections such as this have been important in helping us understand the evolution of animals on Earth and the changing environmental conditions in which they died out or survived. They enable us to link rocks from various world-wide outcrops to their former locations before ancient continents broke up and drifted apart, and provide evidence for past mass extinctions. For example, we know know one such event, the Permo-Trias, left only 4% remaining from the previous animal populations: all current life has descended from that 4%!
New discoveries each year further extend our knowledge of earth’s remarkable history. And who knows, while pushing the frontiers of knowledge ever forward, I may even get to blast away on some drums in the collection. Maybe form a new band – playing rock, of course!