Last day at the Tartu Natural History Museum, and a visit to a grim museum

August 7th, 2018

Tartu, Estonia — Bill Ausich and I started our last full day in this city at the University of Tartu Natural History Museum, finishing our work with the marvelous Mare Isakar, pictured above. Mare quickly found the specimens we needed, and many others she knew we would find interesting. She did nearly instant registration of specimens, greatly speeding up our taxonomic progress.

We finished photographing museum specimens for our future reference and possible publications. Bill concentrated on Silurian crinoids and I worked on the Ordovician rhombiferan Echinosphaerites.

This is one of Öpik’s Echinosphaerites aurantium specimens. Two roundish encrusting brachiopods are visible, along with sheet-like bryozoans. Shockingly, there are gouges in the bryozoans as if someone tried to scrape them off!

Most of the rhombiferans are filled with sediment and/or calcite crystals, but Bill found this hollow one in the collections. Note that it was still able to resist sedimentary compaction. Also note the bryozoans on the broken edge.

This broken specimen shows sediment in the bottom of the skeleton and crystals in the top half. This is known as a geopetal structure where the sediment shows what was the lower part of the skeleton when it was filled. Here’s another example.

Mare found even more specimens of Echinosphaerites today, so there is much to do on a later trip! Thank you again to Mare Isakar and our other friends in Tartu. Tomorrow we travel to Tallinn for a bit more work before heading home on Friday.

And now for something darker — the KGB Cells Museum in Tartu. It is a horrifying place of pain, anguish and hopelessness, yet today is surrounded by a vibrant, free city and country. This museum, in an actual KGB prison, is both disturbing and ultimately inspiring. It is a history we avoid at our peril.

A cell door near the entrance to this basement complex of “the grey house”. These dungeons were used by the Soviet secret police for detention, torture and executions in the 1940s and 1950s. For a brief interval (1941-1944) the Nazis took over and did the same beastly activities. The victims were almost entirely Estonians.

A hallway of cells. The exhibits inside the rooms include many Soviet artifacts, along with stories of Estonian resistance.

A KGB mannikin at the end of a hallway. A sound track of a harsh Russian voice plays in a loop here, along with inevitable screams and moans. The brutality of the place is quite evident enough, thank you.

Finally, before you leave, why not dress up as a Soviet KGB officer and pose with Stalin? I don’t understand why anyone would do such a thing, especially in such a tragic space.

Tomorrow it is back to science as Bill and I take the bus to Tallinn. The countryside of free Estonia is beautiful.

Saturday at the Estonian National Museum (plus a street festival)

August 4th, 2018

Tartu, Estonia — This morning Bill Ausich and I walked to the new Estonian National Museum, shown above. It has a most unusual elongated building constructed on an abandoned secret Soviet airbase for bombers (Raadi Airfield). It follows an old runway with the revetments still in place. It is striking.

Parts of the Soviet base are still preserved, including these concrete fence posts.

This is an old Soviet air force garage on the way to the museum. This base was so secret that the entire city of Tartu was closed to foreigners. Now Bill and I stroll the grounds. We did the same in a once-secret Soviet missile base on Saaremaa.

The front entrance of the Estonian National Museum.

I don’t have a lot to show you in the museum itself, since it is mostly about fold and cultural history (which was fascinating). Bill and I appreciated the digital signs. They appear first in Estonian, like this one. We were issued special language cards, though.

When we pass the “English” card across the sensor, the text is instantly translated! Very clever.

Across the road from the museum is an upside-down house. It is apparently quite the tourist attraction, but we passed.

Back in the city center, in fact in front of our hotel, was a street festival. It had live music, fantastic food, and large, happy crowds.

There were lots of fried fish stands, with fish from the local lakes and the Baltic.

Here is Bill waiting for a meal. Impressively, by 10 pm the festival was over, and the streets completely clear the next morning. This is a very efficient, sensible country!

Starting work in the University of Tartu Natural History Museum

August 2nd, 2018

Tartu, Estonia — Today Bill Ausich and I began our work in the University of Tartu Natural History Museum. Our most knowledgeable and helpful host is chief geology curator Mare Isakar. This museum is just a short walk from our hotel.

This is one of the collections rooms in the paleontological research part of the museum. Here is where I examined Ordovician bivalves and gastropods for bryoimmurations.

One of our goals is to study encrusters on specimens of the nearly spherical Late Ordovician rhombiferan echinoderm Echinosphaerites aurantium. Mare Isakar kindly set out dozens of specimens for us to study, a small subset of which is shown above.

Here is Bill at work scanning through a drawer of Echinosphaerites.

One of the encrusted Echinosphaerites skeletons. The black, branching, carbonaceous encruster is the graptolite Thallograptus sphaericola (“sphere-dweller”).

Posted in the museum is this figure by Öpik (1925) showing his idea of an Echinosphaerites community with encrusting graptolites. We want to test his hypothesis that the graptolites encrusted living rhombiferans as shown. My hypothesis is that the graptolites lived instead on dead, cemented skeletons. Armin Aleksander Öpik (1898-1983) was a prominent and productive Estonian paleontologist. Like many Estonian scientists of his generation, his career was bifurcated by World War II.

Several characters from Estonia’s scientific past watched us work. This is Constantin Grewingk (1819-1887). Ohio paleontologists will recognize him as the namesake of the rugose coral Grewingkia.

Here is Friedrich Schmidt (132-1908), considered the founder of Estonian geology. Both Grewingk and Schmidt were Baltic Germans.

The public part of the museum includes this exhibit on “Secrets of Ancient Sea”. You may recognize some familiar Ordovician characters in this scene. Bill and I intend to visit the public exhibits here on Sunday.

Thank you again to Mare Isakar for setting us up so efficiently for our research!

Fieldwork in Estonia, with a bonus visit to Narva

July 31st, 2018

Tartu, Estonia — Today Bill and I had a spectacular geology and culture field trip in northeastern Estonia. As you can see in the images, the weather was excellent, if a little warm. Our Estonian hosts took us from Tartu to several places north and east to the border with Russia. Our fieldwork in an oil shale quarry is shown above, but first our journey there —

Lake Peipsi (or Lake Peipus) is near Tartu. It is one of the largest freshwater lakes in Europe, with the Russian border running down its center. We stopped briefly for this view. It looks like one of North America’s Great Lakes from here. There is much history along these shores.

This is the Kiviõli Concentration Camp Holocaust Memorial near our collecting site today. The 20th century history of this region, especially during World War II, is notably grim and brutal. Relatively little has been published on the German concentration camps in Estonia.

This is the oil shale mine we visited near Põhja-Kiviõli in northern Estonia. The oil shales, in the form of kukersite, are the brown units in the top half of the outcrop. The shales are dug from these pits and then separated from the limestones, which appear light gray. The pits fill quickly with water, so there are massive pumps continually working nearby.

A closer view of an oil shale outcrop. These units are Late Ordovician in age (Sandbian) and nearly unique to Estonia. They are very rich in organic material — up to 55% of the rock. The oil shales are used in a variety of ways for energy and petroleum products.

Finding specimens of the spherical rhombiferan echinoderm Echinosphaerites was one of our goals for this trip. Here is one in limestone. The best are those that are in the oil shale because they pop free of the matrix. We didn’t find very many, though.

Giant bryozoans were surprisingly common in the oil shales. This is the base of a large trepostome. We found many of these bryozoans with beautiful borings. It was a good collecting site.

Here are our delightful Estonian hosts at lunch following fieldwork. From left to right: Olev Vinn (a colleague since 2006), Ingrid Vinn, and Mare Isakar.

Much to our surprise we were able to go to the storied easternmost Estonian city of Narva. This was very much a treat. Narva sits along the Narva River, which is the border with Russia. The city has a high concentration of Russian-speakers and a distinct Estonian-Russian culture. Its history has been, needless to say, complex even to present times.

This is Hermann Castle, also called Narva Castle, the focus of our visit. Hermann Castle is the blocky, high structure. To the right is visible another castle on the other side of the Narva River (see below).

This is that Russian castle opposite the Hermann Castle on the castle on the other bank of the Narva River. It is the Ivangorod Fortress. It makes for quite a striking boundary at the western edge of Russia.

The Narva River between the two castles, looking upstream. The Ivangorod Fortress is on the left. This is effectively the boundary between East and West in Europe.

The Narva border crossing bridge between Estonia on the left and Russia on the right. This is the view from the top of the Hermann Castle. At this point my phone gave me a message: “Welcome to the Russian Federation”.

The interior of the Hermann Castle is a museum. I thought these stone cannon balls were geologically interesting, considering that earlier this summer I saw their equivalents in Wales. Note my foot for scale.

On the way back to Tartu, we visited the town of Sillamäe on the Baltic coast. During Soviet times factories in Sillamäe extracted uranium oxides from local oil shales and then from other ores mined throughout the Soviet Empire. Because of the high concentration of scientists and engineers, this town was built with, shall we say, higher architectural and aesthetic standards than the usual Soviet constructions. It was a “closed town” forbidden to foreigners or even most Estonians.

This is a 1987 statue in Sillimäe celebrating its atomic achievements. By then this town produced almost 100,000 tons of uranium oxides for Soviet nuclear weapons and energy plants. It all stopped in 1989, and when Estonia reclaimed the area two years later there were serious contamination problems to solve. [Update: Cheryl Rofer, Los Alamos National Laboratory (retired), added a comment and a link to her story about the clean-up: Averting a Baltic Sea Disaster. It is an excellent read!)

What a rich trip this was. Thank you again to Olev, Ingrid and Mare.

First full day in Estonia for the intrepid paleontologists

July 29th, 2018

Tartu, Estonia– Bill Ausich and I arrived exhausted but safely in this old university city last evening. Fortunately we had this gorgeous Sunday to recover and adjust to the seven-hour time difference. We explored the neighborhood around our hotel (“V-Spa Hotell”). This is the city hall building. We had dinner under the umbrellas. It is hot here, with “extreme high temperature” warnings and forest fires to the north.

This statue memorializes the Estonian War of Independence from the Russian Empire (and soon to be Soviet Union) in 1918-1920. If you follow the link you’ll see how complicated these events were. This year Estonia is celebrating a century since it declared independence. Tragically, it has had less than fifty years of actual independence because of Soviet, then German, then Soviet successive occupations.

Wooster Geologist in Wales and England (June 2018)

June 20th, 2018

I spent two weeks in wonderful places making presentations, doing research, scouting for student Independent Study projects, and seeing friends and colleagues. Here is a guide to the blog posts by date —

June 6: Bryozoologists gather in Wales
June 7: Bryozoologists on the rocks in South Wales
June 8: Last day of the Larwood meeting: Museum collections and a coal mine tour
June 9: A Smith Map in Wales
June 10: A Wooster Geologist in Wales (continued)
June 11: A narrow-gauge train trip in Mid Wales
June 12: Bored marbles, slate mines, and a castle in North Wales
June 13: Last day for this Wooster Geologist in Wales … for now
June 14: Stone cannon balls from Aberystwyth Castle
June 15: Wooster Paleontologist in London (again)

Thank you to Caroline Buttler, Tim and Caroline Palmer, and Paul Taylor for being such excellent, generous and creative hosts!

Stone cannon balls from Aberystwyth Castle

June 14th, 2018

Today I made the long train journey from Aberystwyth to London, so I have just a brief post about the spherical stone objects above. They are stone cannon balls recovered in an archaeological investigation of Aberystwyth Castle. Tim Palmer is examining them to determine from what geological units they derive. They were hand-carved to fit into the Medieval cannons used during a siege of the castle.

Caroline Palmer wrote an excellent description and interpretation of these cannon balls in her great blog Letter from Aberystwyth. She wrote of two of them: “One is of limestone from Dundry near Bristol, and the other of a dense greeny-grey sandstone which could be from Somerset or South Wales. The surface is crudely tooled and pitted and to the casual glance they look strangely like a pair of seriously decayed Galia melons. They are heavy, 5½lb and 6½lb respectively, and just under 6 inches diameter. One has scarring on its side which could have been a result of its violent impact on the castle.” Check out her post for images of Medieval cannons and accounts of how they worked.

This is the cannon ball likely made of Dundry Stone. I suspect Dundry Stone, a Middle Jurassic Limestone, is Tim’s favorite building stone. Now we need a study to see how it can withstand whacking against a castle wall!

 

Last day for this Wooster Geologist in Wales … for now

June 13th, 2018

Aberystwyth, Wales — My last full day in Wales with my hosts Tim and Caroline Palmer was again different from every other day in this country. I have had a stimulating diversity of experiences on this short trip. For example, today we visited the Iron Age village reconstruction of Castell Henllys in Pembrokeshire (above), which was very new to me. The roundhouses are constructed on the actual archaeological site, with even the posts placed in the ancient postholes.

Some roundhouses are left unfinished to show the post and wattle construction, the walls of which would be later daubed with mud and the characteristic round thatched roof attached.

This is one of the reconstructed rooms, complete with Celtic gear circa 2300 years ago. The village is maintained as a living museum, so fires are kept smoldering for an appropriately smoky interior.

We also spent time in St. David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire. Tim gave me a stone-and-history tour inside. A fee was required to take photographs, so I abstain. You’ll just have to imagine Medieval stone effigies, towering pillars, and centuries of stone memorials.

Our last stop was the small and unique St. Lawrence’s Church in Gumfreston. This church was built in the 12th century, likely on a site that had an earlier structure.

Tim, of course, set to work identifying the building stones, using a torch and handlens. He is here examining some sort of stone basin fixed between the porch and church wall. It may have held holy water.

Very near the church is a set of three springs, conveniently labelled “holy wells”. The sacred attribution to these springs goes back much earlier than the church, probably to Celtic times. The church, in fact, holds periodic Celtic Christian “services of light”, and an oak tree overhanging the springs is decorated with ribbons.

A geological question is why the water in these springs has bubbles of gas emanating from below? Is this methane from vegetation? Carbon dioxide? Is it related to a local fault system? There is actually a webpage for the Gumfreston holy wells. It says the waters are rich in carbonic acid, so carbon dioxide the bubbles may be. The site also says, “According to tradition, the uppermost spring is pure water, middle one chalybeate and lower one sulphur although all appear to be chalybeate.” Chalybeate is a new word for me. It means the water contains “salts of iron”. The website also has this classic bit of sympathetic magic: “Traditionally cures such as leg problems were associated with the upper spring due to its shape like a leg, the middle for hands and arms, and the lower for eyes.”

Otto is the Palmer’s delightful Lhasa Apso and our companion on most of our Welsh adventures. This picture was taken just before he jumped into the lower well. We can assume, then, that his eyes are now blessed.

Thank you again to Tim and Caroline Palmer, and Caroline Buttler, for making my time in Wales so enriching, educational, and fun. Just let me know when you want to see the magical sites in Ohio!

Bored marbles, slate mines, and a castle in North Wales

June 12th, 2018

Aberystwyth, Wales — Let’s start with the castle as my tour of Wales with Tim and Caroline Palmer continues. Above is the storied Harlech Castle in North Wales. It was built of sandstone blocks by Edward I in the 13th century, passing through four major conflicts: The Revolt of Madog ap Llywelyn (1294–95), the Revolt of Owain Glyndŵr (1400–09), the Wars of the Roses (1460–68), and the English Civil War (1642–47). The siege in 1468 apparently inspired the stirring song “Men of Harlech“. (Hear it and read the lyrics on this YouTube page. The song is unforgettable in the 1964 film Zulu.)

When built, Edward I made very sure Harlech Castle could be supplied by sea, so there was a water-gate on the shore. This is now the view of the ocean from the castle — it is far away, with a significant dune field along the shore. I could not find out why the shoreline retreated from the castle; it may have been a combination of sedimentation and isostatic rebound of the land in slow response to the end of glaciation.

In 1709 a ship sank off the coast of Barmouth, Wales, submerging an expensive load of 43 blocks of Carrara Marble from Italy. One two-ton block was recovered after centuries on the seafloor and sculpted by an artist (Frank Cocksey) to celebrate the millennium. It is called The Last Haul, representing three generations of fishermen pulling in a net.

It is beautiful carving … but you know I’m not showing it for the art. Check out the holes throughout!

This marble block is heavily bioeroded by marine organisms, producing the clavate borings Gastrochaenolites (by bivalves), a network of connected small chambers (Entobia, made by sponges), and long narrow cylindrical borings known as Trypanites (by worms). There is a cool story to sort out here about the pattern and rate of bioerosion in these cold seas. [UPDATE: The Curious Scribbler has a new post on these marbles with lots of information and ideas. You may even recognize some people in the images.]

Our last site of the day was the Welsh town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. Slate mining made this place, starting in the middle of the 18th century. The surrounding mountains have a rich grade of Welsh slate useful for many industrial and structural applications. The town square (above) has a monument to its slate heritage.

This mountain above Blaenau Ffestiniog has been heavily carved for its slate.

One quarry remains operational. The Welsh slate industry declined significantly during World War I and never fully recovered. Note the massive mounds of slate debris.

Slate mining produces large amounts of waste rock. Up to 90% of the slate removed from a quarry is unusable and piled up. Blaenau Ffestiniog is surrounded by man-made mountains of loose slate debris.

Thus ended another diverse day of Welsh experiences with Tim and Caroline Palmer.

A narrow-gauge train trip in Mid Wales

June 11th, 2018

Aberystwyth, Wales — Caroline Palmer provided Tim and me a wonderful experience in a scenic Welsh valley on a perfect Welsh day. She is Trustee of the nearby Hafod Estate ( … one of the finest examples in Europe of a Picturesque landscape.”) This estate is one of the places where pine martens have been re-introduced to Wales from Scotland. In that office she received three tickets (and lunches) for us to take a ride on one of the “Great Little Trains of Wales” to a celebration of a new train carriage and a Pine Marten center. It was delightful for both the natural views and the people involved.

We took the Vale of Rheidol Railway with this coal-fired steam engine pulling our narrow-gauge carriages. We sat in the open car directly behind the engine, so I could watch the crew in action and feel the occasional cool droplets condensed from the steam (and a whiff or two of coal smoke).

This was our route from Aberystwyth to Devil’s Bridge. (Map from Wikipedia.)

A view from the train traveling up the Vale of Rheidol. Very green and steep.

This valley has numerous silver and lead mines from the early 20th century and before, leaving scattered tailings piles like this one, along with significant heavy-metals pollution in some places.

We were greeted in Devil’s Bridge by the Mynach Community School Choir singing Welsh songs. They were fun. I felt the red-headed boy’s discomfort, though!

We ended the delightful day with a quick visit to the 13th century Aberystwyth Castle, a remnant of which was brilliantly lit by the setting sun.

Next »