Mark Wilson June 22nd, 2014
LONDON, ENGLAND — I arrived late last night in London after a series of delays in my departure from Poland, so I was pleased that today was a Sunday so I could chill a bit before work with Paul Taylor tomorrow. If I can visit one place in London (other than the Natural History Museum, of course) it is always the British Museum (above). As you can see, the weather was spectacular — and the crowds took advantage of it. I thought I’d just highlight a set of exhibits that is very cool, despite the fact that few visitors seem to spend much time with it.
It is the “Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century” gallery. I think it is well done and highly evocative, at least for scientists. My favorite part is there on the right end: “The Natural World”.
The cases are deliberately old-timey to evoke the “cabinets of curiosity” 18th Century polymaths had for their collected treasures. In fact, some of these cabinets themselves date back to that period. Here we see rocks, fossils, plants and animals collected by Enlightenment explorers, philosophers, historians, and just plain rich guys. These were the very specimens that thrilled and puzzled some very great minds — not that we don’t have plenty of mysteries remaining about them.
This is a mastodon jaw (Mammuthus americanum) collected “near the Ohio River” and given to the museum in 1768. It was called “The Unknown American” and thought to be from some extinct carnivorous elephant-like beast.
My favorite set of fossils here was collected and used by the famous William “Strata” Smith (1769-1839) in his pioneering work on geological correlation and mapping. Fossils like these were crucial to working out the relationships of rock layers (“strata”) and early concepts of Earth history. There is something inexplicably enchanting about seeing objects handled by past luminaries.
On an unrelated but geological note, I have a complaint about a small number of the displays. This ancient Egyptian sarcophagus is an example. What is the rock type here? I’d say a basalt or maybe a fine-grained granodiorite (like the Rosetta Stone).
Here’s a closer view of the sarcophagus. The sharpness of the carving shows how fine-grained and massive this rock seems to be. (I know the rules — no scratching the artifacts to test their properties.) But what does the sign say?
Black schist? No way. Schist is foliated and flakey and most decidedly not massive and so superbly suited to carving. Maybe someone will correct my notion of “schist”, but right now I’m certain this part of the label is wrong. I’ve seen this fairly often in museum displays: the rock types given don’t always match what appears to be the actual lithologies. Not enough geoarchaeologists to go around, I suppose.
Here’s a cool Romano-British sculpture that did have a proper identification as “limestone”. (And to be fair, most are correctly labeled.) I liked this artifact in particular because you could look closely at the broken bits –
The rock is made primarily of these little calcitic spheres called ooids. I would not be at all surprised to learn that this is a Portlandian (Upper Jurassic) limestone from southern England.
It was a fun day at one of the world’s finest museums. Tomorrow I begin work at another.