Wooster Geologists visit Saint-Émilion in southwestern France

June 8th, 2017

La Barde, France — On our last full day in southwestern France, Independent Study student Macy Conrad (’18) and I had a cultural visit with our host Paul and Patricia Taylor to the ancient town of Saint-Émilion. This town, set in a place that has been inhabited for millenia, is a World Heritage site amidst extensive vineyards and wineries. It has many architectural and historical treasures, which we could only touch upon during our short visit.

This wall is all that remains of a 13th-Century monastery demolished in 1337. It is referred to as the “Great Wall”. The building stones in this wall and most of the town itself are Oligocene limestones, some rich with fossil fragments.

The interior of the Collegiate Church, a mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.

12th-Century frescoes still survive in the Collegiate Church of Saint-Émilion. This set shows the grisly story of Saint Catherine.

The cloisters of the Collegiate Church. Imagine the characters who walked through these passages, from Crusaders of the 12th Century to occupying German soldiers of the 20th.

More 13th century frescoes in the cloisters.

The building stones show magnificent weathering over the last 700 years or so.

The most elaborate weathering accentuates burrow systems in the Oligocene limestones. Later building stones in other regions were actually carved to show apparent weathering patterns like these.

Our lunch view. The bell tower is for a church carved into the limestone below. This is another underground church like the one we visited in Aubeterre.

Our lunch in Saint-Émiliion. Yes, fieldwork is tough in southwestern France. Macy Conrad (’18) is on the left, with Patricia and Paul Taylor and then me.

I want to add an image of the war memorial in Saint-Émilion. Every French village, town and city has at least one. They were erected after World War I and usually inscribed with hundreds of names. The World War II local dead are often inscribed later on the bases.

Finally, a few images from our delightful lodgings in the Taylor home at Bard’s End, La Barde. This is the lounge, which held livestock when this was a farmhouse in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The lounge from the other side, with Paul Taylor entering from outside.

The multi-talented Macy was a great help to the Taylors as they assembled a set of furniture from Ikea.

All our dinners were outside on the patio facing the River Dronne. Delightful!

Thank you again to Paul and Patricia Taylor for making this research expedition such a success and pleasure. We will report our results in later posts!

Macy and I leave tomorrow morning on a long train trip to Paris. I then fly home and Macy continues her European adventure with a visit to friends in Norway. Team France is done with fieldwork. The extensive labwork begins this summer with our specimens.

 

 

Revisiting the Gironde Estuary for our last day of fieldwork in southwestern France

June 7th, 2017

La Barde, France — Today Paul Taylor, Macy Conrad (’18) and I had our last fieldwork in France for this expedition. We returned to sites along the eastern shore of the Gironde Estuary to study the Biron Formation (Campanian, Upper Cretaceous), thus completing our three-part stratigraphic survey along with the Barbezieux and Aubeterre Formations. Macy is seen above crouching at the Caillaud South locality.

This is a view of the Caillaud South cliff from the south. The camera can’t convey how very white the rocks are and still keep the rest of the image in a correct exposure. A salt marsh is in the foreground.

The Pycnodonte vesicularis oysters are common at the Caillaud south locality, but they are well cemented into the limestone matrix. We’re looking here at an articulated shell with the right valve on top. This would have been the oyster’s living position.

There is a normal fault exposed in the Caillaud. It is still Biron Formation in either block, but the facies are slightly different on one side from the other.

This part of the estuary was the site of a significant Gallo-Roman settlement.

We also revisited the north side of Caillaud, where again it is Biron Formation with about a meter of Barbezieux on top of the cliff. The structures to the left are fishing towers.

Bryozoans are abundant in this exposure. Here is a nice bryozoan colony, probably the cyclostome Meliceritites, according to Paul.

Talmont-sur-Gironde from the south. This tiny place receives half a million visitors a year. Note the tidal mudflat in the foreground. We were near low tide.

This is an aerial view of the village, courtesy of Wikipedia. It is nearly surrounded by the sea at high tide. The village was founded in 1284 by Edward I of England. In 1652 it was destroyed by the Spanish. I’m surprised it survived World War II.

I’ll end this post with a French wildflower of some type we saw today. It symbolizes the beautiful countryside we had the privilege to explore. Thank you again to Paul and Patricia Taylor for hosting us so elegantly. Paul was also a spectacular field driver on the small country roads, and his knowledge of the fossils and stratigraphy is astonishing.

We have one more day in southwestern France, and then Macy and I head back to Paris.

 

 

A day of rocks and churches in southwestern France

June 6th, 2017

La Barde, France — This is our second-to-last day in southwestern France on this research expedition. Macy Conrad (’18), Paul Taylor (Natural History Museum, London) and I are continuing our study of sclerobionts on Upper Cretaceous (Campanian) oysters. I know the images of us facing into yet another set of white rocks are getting dull, so we’ll get the field shots out of the way first! Above, Macy is looking at the Barbezieux Formation just outside the village of Bonnes, a locality new to us on this trip.

Our second stop was one we visited last week: the Barbezieux Formation exposed in a narrow lane (“Chemin”) in Aubeterre. Another successful day with the Cretaceous oysters and their associates.

We visited two notable churches during our journey today. This one in St. Aulaye is notable for its very old tower and preserved Romanesque facade.

The Medieval carvings around the entrance are delightful. This is a man and what is apparently his donkey.

The second church we visited as in Bourg-du-Bost. This is a Thirteenth-Century building mostly intact.

The interior is richly decorated, and had automated organ music playing as we entered. The lights also switched on and off in a pattern I didn’t catch.

This church is known for its 13th century frescoes still mostly in place with their original colors.

The ceiling of the sanctuary is magnificent. Much attention was given over the centuries to detailed ornamentation and preservation in this relatively small country church. It survived countless wars in this region, including the most devastating ones of the 20th century.

Location GPS Unit Position
Bonnes 171 Barbezieux N45° 14.735′ E0° 08.935′

A day of collecting Cretaceous fossils on the southwestern coast of France

June 5th, 2017

La Barde, France — Today Team France returned to the Gironde Estuary on the southwest coast of France to study the Upper Cretaceous (Campanian) fossiliferous limestones and marls. We visited new sites and some we scouted out last week. Above is Pointe de Suzac, just south of Royan, where the Aubeterre Formation is well exposed. It was another beautiful day. Rather cool, in fact, during the morning.

The oyster beds we’re interested in are very well exposed here. The shells appear to be in random orientations, likely the result of storm waves stacking them up in piles.

In fact, at the outcrop is the modern equivalent: recent oyster valves piled together.

The southern side of Pointe de Suzac shows at least six of these oyster beds in the Aubeterre Formation, each separated by a thin marl rich in erect bryozoan fragments. The bedding planes are also exposed here, giving us a three-dimensional view of the deposits.

The sediments below the oyster beds are rich in other fossils. Macy found regular echinoids, rudists, pectenids, unknown flat bivalves, and isolated large oysters. The unit is thoroughly riddled with Thalassinoides shrimp burrows.

The branching fossils here are bryozoans. The small disks are large foraminiferans.

The headlands of Pointe de Suzac are dominated by thick concrete bunkers and gun emplacements that were part of the “Atlantic Wall” built by the Germans in World War II. Note the battle damage on this one.

This area held the last pockets of German resistance to the Allies in Europe. It was heavily bombed and shelled in 1945 during the liberation of Royan, which was a horrible event for the local French citizenry.

Later in the day we returned to the roadcut above Plage des Nonnes to see the oyster beds in the Aubeterre Formation. Macy and Paul are examining the shells in, again, six beds, separated by the same fossiliferous marls.

Not all localities are beautiful in France! Our last stop of the day was in a parking lot in Mirambeau. Here we looked at a very bryozoan-rich part of the Barbezieux Formation.

Another successful day. Thank you again to Paul for the expert guidance and driving!

Location GPS Unit Position
Pointe de Suzac 168 Aubeterre N45° 34.933′ W0° 59.352′
Pointe de Suzac south 169 Aubeterre N45° 34.599′ W0° 59.382′
Mirambeau 170 Barbezieux N45° 22.211′ W0° 34.252′

Wooster Geologists get to work in southwestern France

June 4th, 2017

La Barde, France — After a day of almost solid rain, we woke up the next morning to brilliant weather in southwestern France. Macy, Paul and I drove to the small town of Archiac, where we collected a bag full of gorgeous specimens of the oyster Pycnodonte vesicularis from the Aubeterre Formation.

The oysters could be easily pulled from the marly matrix. Our goal was to collect as many specimens with fossil sclerobionts on them as we could. Sclerobionts are organisms that live in or on hard substrates, in this case it means borings and encrusters.

Thanks to Paul Taylor for this modification of the stratigraphic column from Platel (1999). The three formations we are collecting from are the Biron, Barbezieux, and Aubeterre, all in the Upper Campanian.

We also visited an outcrop of the Segonzac Formation near Segonzac itself so Paul could collect bryozoans. We were at the edge of a vineyard.

The view from our last outcrop was wonderful. Peaceful countryside. That’s our field car parked on the roadside.

Location GPS Unit Position
Archiac 166 Aubeterre N45° 31.413′ W0° 17.909′
Chez Allard 167 Segonzac N45° 37.040′ W0° 11.546′

A day of geology on the coast of southwestern France

June 2nd, 2017

La Barde, France — Today we traveled west to the Gironde Estuary on the southwest coast to continue our survey of Campanian fossils. It looks like we will be working on the sclerobionts found with the extensive Pycnodonte oyster beds. Macy is above examining one of the best exposures of these fossils at a roadcut above Plage des Nonnes.

Our first stop was a roadcut in Mortagne of the Segonzac Formation, the oldest of the Campanian units we’ve seen so far.

The next outcrop was of the Biron Formation at the southern side of Caillaud. It is flanked by a salt marsh, with more open ocean conditions farther along.

Macy stands here on the fossiliferous Biron Formation at Caillaud south.

Another place where the ocean would love to kill me.

The Caillaud north locality was very fossiliferous, including excellent cheilostome bryozoans like Onychocella above. Despite the diversity of fossils here, there aren’t enough encrusted and bored oysters for us.

The cliffs just south of Plage des Nonnes. Definitely a location to visit at low tide.

These are some of the abundant Pycnodonte oysters we saw in the roadcut above Plage des Nonnes. We will certainly return to this outcrop later.

Besides the research, there were of course many other sites of interest. I took several images of this salt marsh at Caillaud south, for example, to use in my Sedimentology & Stratigraphy course.

We found this large jellyfish at Plage des Nonnes. The thickness and rigidity of the “jelly” is amazing.

This is the Talmont church perched on an outcrop above the sea.

The Romanesque, intricately carved entrance to the Talmont church.

It was an excellent day of culture and geology in France!

Location GPS Unit Position
Mortagne 160 Segonzac – lower N45° 28.763′ W0° 47.496′
Cliff north of Mortagne 161 Segonzac – upper N45° 28.963′ W0° 47.943′
Caillaud south 162 Biron N45° 31.805′ W0° 53.629′
Caillaud north 163 Biron N45° 31.916′ W0° 54.206′
Plage des Nonnes 164 Aubeterre N45° 33.534′ W0° 57.895′
Roadcut above Plage des Nonnes 165 Aubeterre N45° 33.627′ W0° 57.894′

 

Wooster Geologists begin fieldwork in southwestern France

June 1st, 2017

LA BARDE, FRANCE–Macy Conrad and I began our paleontological fieldwork in what may be the most beautiful part of Europe: southwestern France. Our superb guide and colleague is Natural History Museum scientist Dr. Paul Taylor, a long-time friend who has a home in this region with his wife Patricia. Above is a view of our first location: Aubeterre-sur-Drone. Extraordinary. And note the weather!

French food is indeed all it is said to be. This was my lunch: Gallette au Thon. Simple, I know, but very good.

This is our first outcrop. Macy is standing at an exposure of the Biron Formation, a Cretaceous (Campanian) limestone full of fossils, especially Pycnodonte oysters. Many of these oysters are encrusted by bryozoans. This is the “Garage Esso” location, also known as Route D17, in Aubeterre. We are in the exploratory phase of the project — essentially sorting out projects.

The overlying Barbezieux Formation (also Campanian — all the units are Campanian today) has well-exposed Pycnodonte oyster banks. These are of particular interest to us, especially if they are bored or encrusted. This is the “Chemin” section in Aubeterre.

More Barbezieux Formation further up the lane.

Our third unit is the Aubeterre Formation, which dominates the top of the city. This is the “car park outcrop”. All of these rocks are cliff-forming white limestones with abundant fossils.

Paul knew a field near Le Maine Roy where fossils from the Maurens Formation are exposed. This did not sound like a productive site, but it was the best of the day. Above you see a pile of rocks marked by a stake. These are larger stones removed from the fields by farmers. (I was reminded of what many French farmers in the north continually extract from their soil: World War I artillery shells!)

The many fossils include numerous large rudistid clams. It is  hard to imagine these large cones as bivalves, but they are. Rudists go extinct at the end of the Cretaceous.

This is a view of the top of a rudist with its right (capping) valve intact. It has a beautiful mesh structure.

Our last stop of the day was a roadcut near Chalais exposing the Biron Formation. It had a great diversity of fossils, including echinoids, sponges, oysters, and ammonites. It did not have an abundance of sclerobionts, so it probably won’t be a site for us in the future.

In Aubeterre we visited two fantastic churches. The first was St. Jacques. Most of it had been destroyed in the 17th century religious wars, but the Romanesque facade remains. This is the main entrance.

The primary attraction of the remnants of St. Jacques is a set of Medieval carvings. They are extraordinarily detailed, depicted all sorts of mysterious fantastical animals and people.

The second church in Aubeterre is very geological. St. Johns is underground, being carved as a cavern from the Barbezieux Formation. Here is a view of the entrance to what remains.

Inside is a huge space in which the sanctuary is carved. This is one of the largest such underground structures known.

The centerpiece is this reliquary, designed to look like the structure over the tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Again, all this is carved out of the limestone.

We are staying in the gorgeous French home of Paul and Patricia Taylor in La Barde. It is an 1820 converted farmhouse, both beautiful and comfortable. The River Dronne is just a few steps away. We’ll have more photos of this wonderful and peaceful place in later posts.

I’ll end this day’s post with a view of some peaceful French woods near a field site.

Location GPS Unit Position
Garage Esso, Route D17, Aubeterre 153 Biron N45° 16.212′ E0° 10.274′
Route D17, Aubeterre 154 Barbezieux N45° 16.127′ E0° 10.268′
Chemin, Aubeterre 155 Barbezieux N45° 16.088′ E0° 10.257′
50 m up lane, Aubeterre 156 Barbezieux N45° 16.115′ E0° 10.229′
Back Chateau entrance, Aubeterre 157 Aubeterre N45° 16.362′ E0° 10.262′
Car Park, Aubeterre 158 Aubeterre N45° 16.344′ E0° 10.176′
Le Maine Roy 159 Maurens N45° 19.383′ E0° 07.885′
Chalais roadcut 160 Biron N45° 16.642′ E0° 02.395′

 

A Wooster Geologist on the Somme Battlefield

May 30th, 2017

Amiens, France — I had two days between the bryozoan meeting in Vienna and the fieldwork in southwestern France, so I decided to visit the World War I battlefields in the Somme Valley of northern France. It was a somber experience of natural beauty, stark and effective memorial architecture, and one of the deepest historical tragedies. I had a similar journey in 2010 to my Grandfather Snuffer’s World War I battlefield in the Meuse-Argonne. Above is a view of the cemetery at the Australian National Memorial near Villers-Bretonneux.

There were two major battles between the Allies and the Germans in the Somme Valley. The first, between July 1 and November 18, 1916, was the largest in terms of soldiers involved and lost. There were more than a million casualties, about even on each side, during those four and a half months of battle. A large proportion of those losses occurred on the first day; indeed, the first few minutes. The results were a draw. The second Battle of the Somme took place August 21 through September 2, 1918, and was an overwhelming Allied victory. This brief blog post is about my impressions of the battlefields a century later, so please follow the links for the historical background.

Gravestones at the Australian National Memorial. These are primarily for Australian soldiers, but there were also stones for New Zealanders, South Africans, Britons, and Canadians.

Flanders poppies grow naturally in this region, and they are also used decoratively in cemeteries. See the famous poem by John McCrae: In Flanders Fields.

An emblem of the soldier’s unit is engraved at the top of each stone.

The memorial building has walls of Portland Limestone (Jurassic of southern England) listing the thousands of missing Australian soldiers in the first battle.

In a compounding irony, the Australian National Memorial buildings and gravestones were shot up in turn during a skirmish here between Allied soldiers and invading Germans in 1940.

This is the small Proyart German Cemetery from the 1918 battle. There are over 450 cemeteries from all the involved nationalities throughout the valley. This one is seldom visited but immaculately maintained. The town of Proyart saw much fighting from the beginning of the war to its end.

An unknown German soldier. There are tens of thousands of unknown graves on the battlefields, matched by long, long lists of the missing.

Lochnagar Crater is a massive hole produced by the explosion of a British mine under the German lines on July 1, 1916 — the first day of the first battle. The bedrock is Cretaceous chalk, which was easy to tunnel with simple tools except that it had to be done in silence. No pickaxes were allowed. The last part of the explosives tunnel was dug under the German trenches with bayonettes alone. It is said that one soldier would pry a flint from the wall as another caught it before it struck the floor. The mine explosion was at that time the largest man-made sound in history.

You’ve heard that French farmers still find live artillery shells in their fields? Here’s one of them. About 60 tons a year of WWI explosives are removed from the Somme battlefields. The one above was marked for disposal with a red plastic cup. Demolition teams drive through the countryside in armored ammunition disposal vehicles removing munitions.

The local farmers repurpose many WWI items. Here a modern barbed wire fence is constructed with German barbed wire stakes from the war.

The Battle of Thiepval Ridge was a complicated and bloody operation in September, 1916. The ridge which cost so many Allied lives was selected as the site of the Anglo-French Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. Over 72,000 names are engraved on the limestone panels. The architectural design itself is moving. Its high arches reflect the missing space in lives after so many personal tragedies without even grave for compensation.

A departure from the grim narrative with a brief paleontological note: The Jurassic crinoid Apiocrinites can be identified in the steps of the memorial. I know it well from other contexts.

There is a very well maintained part of the 1916 battlefield at Beaumont-Hamel. Here the Newfoundland Regiment attacked the German lines on the first day of the first Battle of the Somme. The regiment was destroyed in less than twenty minutes after they emerged from their trenches. Six-hundred and seventy men were casualties.

These are remnants of the first line of British trenches.

The killing field of the Newfoundlanders. It is estimated 300-400 of their bodies still remain in the churned soil.

There was an original blasted trunk here called the Danger Tree. It is midway between the British and German lines, about as far as the Newfoundlanders got on July 1, 1916.

A caribou memorial faces the old German positions from the trenches of the Newfoundlanders. All the stones below it are from Newfoundland. The site is maintained by the government of Canada.

The end of my journey was to Hawthorn Ridge, site of a German position blown up by another British mine on the first day of the 1916 battle. The explosion was filmed.

This is the same perspective as the famous photographs and films of the 1916 Hawthorn Ridge explosion. The trees are growing on the crater rim.

This is a famous photo of British soldiers awaiting the Hawthorn mine explosion on July 1, 1916. They had tunneled out of a trench into a sunken lane in no-man’s-land to get as close to the German lines as possible for their attack.

That sunken lane is still present 101 years later.

I wanted to add more about the geology of the battlefield, but the human tragedy is so overwhelming I decided to leave it for later. For now, see the geological cross-section below. Also consider the remarkable observation that the intensity of the artillery bombardments actually changed the geology of the region. “Bombturbation” is a term that has been proposed in our clinical scientific way.

Wooster Geologist in Vienna

May 28th, 2017

VIENNA, AUSTRIA — As is the tradition of Larwood meetings of the International Bryozoology Association, time is set aside for a guided tour of the most interesting parts of the host city. Given the incredible diversity of Vienna, we had just a taste today of its attractions and monuments in the city center. Above is the elaborate city hall (Wiener Rathaus).

Vienna’s Imperial Palace, the Hofburg, was for centuries the home of the Habsburgs, rulers of Austria and its empire until their epic collapse at the end of World War I. Apparently almost every emperor since 1275 added or otherwise changed the place, making it an astonishing mix of architectural styles (Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Classicism to start). Much of it is unfinished since the ambitions of the last emperor were dashed with the fall of the monarchy in 1918.

Elaborate Roman ruins about 2000 years old were recently found near the palace. The local rumor is that these are the remains of a brothel!

This is the Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum), Vienna, where we had a limited guided tour.

We had an extended tour of the myriapod collections (essentially millipedes and centipedes), concentrating on various aspects of curation and preservation.

As with most European museums, there is a significant human skull collection. This is a small part of Vienna’s. I never did hear exactly how these skulls were acquired.

During my afternoon tea with friends, this was our view to the left towards the center of the museum.

This was our view through the window to the right. In the square is the elaborate Maria Theresa monument (the empress surrounded by her generals and statesmen). The building on the other side is the Kunsthistorisches Museum, an art and history museum. It was the last place I visited this day.

This was the most impressive art object I saw in the Kunsthistorisches Museum: the first-century Gemma Augustea. It was cut from a double-layered Arabian onyx stone, making an elaborate cameo. The link tells the long story of this figured stone, along with an interpretation of the grim scene.

Earlier in my Vienna visit I toured the Heeresgeschichtliche Museum (Museum of Military History). I practically had the place to myself on this weekday.

The most evocative object in this museum is the car that carried Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife Sophie to their assassinations by the anarchist Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914. This was one of the triggering events of World War I.

The assassination scene in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

Wooster Geologist in Austria

May 27th, 2017

VIENNA, AUSTRIA–I had the privilege this week to attend the 14th Larwood Symposium of the International Bryozoology Association (IBA) in this beautiful city. It was my first visit, and I was of course very impressed. Above is a view of the Austrian Parliament building (Parlamentsgebäude), and the beautiful blue sky we had for most of our meeting.

About 50 bryozoan experts from 15 countries attended the conference. I love these meetings because of their small size, diversity of disciplines (paleontologists and biologists freely mingle, being nearly indistinguishable until they give their presentations), and friendly fellowship. English was the common language, for which I am grateful to my international colleagues. Above Lee Hsiang Liow of the University of Oslo is giving her talk.

We had an afternoon excursion starting with the small but treasure-filled Krahuletz Museum in Eggenburg, Austria. This is one of those local museums with a national reputation for particular collections. In this case it is fossils, minerals and rocks from the very complex region.

Outside the museum is an excellent rock garden with local varieties well labeled. The above, of course, is a conglomerate with mostly carbonate clasts.

This gneiss shows the useful form of the rock pillars. Four sides are polished and the top is left rough, just the way a geologist likes it.

Patrick Wyse Jackson, President of the IBA, professor at Trinity College Dublin, and a recent visitor in Wooster, manages here to find bryozoans in the museum’s building stone.

After the museum we visited a quarry of fossiliferous Miocene limestone. A nice place, but protected from collecting.

At the end of the day we visited “Fossilienwelt Weinviertel” outside Vienna. It is home to the world’s largest fossil pearl (which somehow I missed seeing) and an excavated Miocene oyster reef. The reef has at least 20,000 large oysters, which are the subject of this “geotainment park”. More than 200 volunteers excavated this reef for public display under a permanent canopy. The oysters seem to have been tossed together by a flood, so they are pushing the definition of “reef”. The lighting of the oysters was so dim that my photographs of them were worthless.

The Fossil World tower is shaped like a Turritella shell.

Here is one of the oysters and some Turritella shells on display at Fossil World. There are many more fossils here than snails and oysters. It is a fun exhibit, but the science has been so diluted for the public that some of the offered explanations are nonsense. (“Stromatolites are made of the poop of algae”.) I recommend a visit, but with a paleontologist as a guide!

Thank you to Thomas Schwaha for organizing this fun trip!

Our IBA group photo, courtesy of Thomas Schwaha.

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