Museum work and a castle visit in Scarborough

June 11th, 2015

1 Scarborough museum workSCARBOROUGH, ENGLAND (June 11, 2015) — It is always useful when doing paleontological fieldwork to visit the local museum to see what specimens they’ve curated over the years. Today Team Yorkshire explored the collections at the Scarborough Museums Trust Woodend storage facility, courtesy of Jennifer Dunne, Collections Manager. Above are Mae Kemsley (’16) and Meredith Mann (’16) examining boxes of specimens from the Speeton Clay and Coralline Oolite, the two units they’re working with.

2 Peltoceras williamsoniThis specimen of the ammonite Peltoceras williamsoni is an example of the kind of material we find in museum collections. It comes from the Passage Beds of the Coralline Oolite — Meredith’s unit. We are not likely to come across such a well-preserved fossil in our short interval of fieldwork. This is not the first Peltoceras in this blog.

3 Peltoceras noteThis note that accompanied the above specimen is from J.K. Wright, an expert with these fossils.

4 Scarborough castle keepAfter our museum work, we took an opportunity to visit Scarborough Castle. (We couldn’t do more fieldwork this afternoon because of the high tides.) This is a spectacular place with over 3000 years of history. It was the site of settlements in about 800 BCE and 500 BCE, and then a Roman signalling station around 370 CE. The castle itself dates back to the 12th Century. In 1645 it was the subject of a long Civil War siege, with Parliamentarians on the outside shelling Royalists on the inside. (The cannonades broke the above castle keep in half.) In December 1914, German battleships fired over 500 shells into it.

5 Team Yorkshire castle 061115Mae and Meredith with the castle keep in the background. Note the fantastic weather!

6 St Marys chapel castleThe remains of St. Mary’s Chapel within the castle walls were built on the site of the Roman signals station. Resident of the castle took shelter here during the 1914 German bombardment.

7 Scarborough from castleA view of Scarborough from the castle walls. We could see all of our field areas along the coast from this vantage point.

A coincidence?

June 9th, 2015

a Shoe Zone SmithSCARBOROUGH, ENGLAND (June 9, 2015) — Why do these geologists look so pleased to be standing in front of a nondescript shoe store? The answer is on the blue plaque above their heads.

b Smith plaque 060915Turns out we’ve been eating breakfast every morning next to the Scarborough home of the heroic geologist William Smith. Auspicious!

Shore defenses

June 8th, 2015

a Beached pillbox closerSCARBOROUGH, ENGLAND (June 8, 2015) — We see many of these World War II concrete defenses along the Yorkshire coastline. This is a pillbox that was likely constructed in 1940 to defend the realm from the Germans. Of course, it was not placed on the sandy beach but up on the steep slopes overlooking the shore. Erosion of that headland since 1940 was complete, leaving this structure on the open beach.

b Slumped pillbox 060815It is a dilemma, building on these sea cliffs of the northern Yorkshire coast. The substrate here is a “boulder clay”, a Pleistocene glacial deposit known as a diamictite. It is easy to excavate, but flows readily under weight and when wet. The sea hammers away at the foot of these soft cliffs as their tops slump downwards. The heavy concrete gun emplacements and observation posts serve their purpose for a few years, and then eventually fall into the sea as the coast retreats. Seventy-five years of coastal erosion has removed a great deal of the cliffs.

c Destroyed pilbox 060815

Beached pillbox 061015

Dismantled pillbox Filey Beach

House with erosion problemGiven what you’ve seen above, would you buy this seaside house?


Team Yorkshire explores Scarborough

June 5th, 2015

1 Scarborough060515SCARBOROUGH, ENGLAND (June 5) — It was a spectacular day on the coast of northeastern England. When Paul Taylor arrived by train at 10:30 this morning, the clouds broke and the sunlight streamed through. Mae and Meredith explored Scarborough in the morning, plotting out where the stores and other useful places are, and Paul and I began to sort through geological action plans.

2 Peter Rawson Paul TaylorPeter Rawson, on the left with Paul Taylor, joined us for lunch to give us local field advice. He is the senior author of the Geologists’ Association’s Guide to the Yorkshire Coast, so there was no one better to have as an advisor. We had lunch in one of the classic spa buildings and made our field plans for the next few days.

Rotunda Museum frontAfter lunch we visited the Rotunda Museum (above), which is devoted to the geology of the area. It was built in 1829 out of the Jurassic Hackness stone. William “Strata” Smith suggested the unusual design, and much of the museum is devoted to his accomplishments and legacy.

4 Rotunda Interior 060515Paul, Mae and Meredith are examining the upper levels inside the circular Rotunda Museum.

5 Smith stratigraphy RotundaThe motif around the rim of the main room in the Rotunda is the 19th Century version of the local stratigraphy, including some places we will be visiting tomorrow.

6 Smith fossils RotundaMany of William Smith’s original fossils (loaned by the Natural History Museum) are on display.

7 Smith figureWe could in several cases match the specimens with Smith’s illustrations of them.

8 Trap inspectionAfterwards we went down to the marina and inspected the crab and fish traps sitting on the wharves. What were we looking for?

9 Electra pilosa PDTBryozoans, of course! Here is an Electra pilosa, the most common species. (Photo by Paul Taylor.) We also saw many serpulids, barnacles, oysters and other sclerobionts. A good view of the present to inform our coming interpretations of past hard substrate communities.

10 Anne Bronte gravestoneFor a cultural interlude we visited the grave of Anne Brontë in the castle church cemetery. The sandstone markers are exfoliating, with most now unreadable. (Choose granite!)

11 Scarborough Castle 060515We walked up to Scarborough Castle and will explore it later when we have the chance. There are 3000 years of human history here. In 1914 it was heavily shelled by — you guessed it — the German Navy.

12 Scarborough downtown 060515In the evening it was back to the busy downtown for a seafood dinner. Our plans are in place, the context is set. Tomorrow we start our fieldwork.


Team Yorkshire arrives for fieldwork

June 4th, 2015

Scarborough060415SCARBOROUGH, ENGLAND (June 4) — Wooster Geology’s Team Yorkshire has now arrived for ten days of fieldwork in the Jurassic of the Cleveland Basin exposed in and around this delightful English seaside town. It was a tedious journey for Geology Senior Independent Study students Meredith Mann (’16), Mae Kemsley (’16), as well as their aged advisor (that would be me), but we arrived on the right day in the right place. We had many plane and train problems in transit, and we had to stand during the last leg to Scarborough. Still, happy to be here and get to some excellent geology.

We’re staying in a hotel atop a cliff very near the well-known Rotunda Museum and the Grand Hotel (which was notoriously shelled by the German Navy in 1914). Spectacular views of the bay, town and castle are nearby. Tomorrow our friend Paul Taylor of the Natural History Museum in London and Peter Rawson, retired from the University College London, meet us. We will then begin exploring localities.

The geological setting of Fort Necessity, Pennsylvania

October 11th, 2014

Great Meadows 101114On July 3, 1754, colonial lieutenant Colonel George Washington fought and lost a small battle on this site in southwestern Pennsylvania. He and his 400 men had built this makeshift fort about a month before in anticipation of an attack by several hundred French soldiers and their Indian allies. The French were incensed at Washington and his troops after they killed or captured most of a French party at the Battle of Jumonville Glen two months before. (Accounts vary as to who was at fault for that deadly encounter as France and Britain were not at war.) The Battle of Fort Necessity was just one day long, and the British under Washington had the worst of it. Washington accepted French surrender terms and he and his men were allowed to march home. This pair of skirmishes between the French and British started the French and Indian War,  known outside of the USA as the Seven Years’ War. It quickly became a global fight between empires; in many ways it was the first modern world war. And it all started in this lonely part of the Pennsylvania country.

Washington chose to place his ill-fated fort, a reconstruction of which is shown above, in a high grassy spot known as the Great Meadows. It is situated near two passes in the Allegheny Mountains, and thus sits strategically beside major trails. Washington liked the area because there was plenty of feed for his pack animals and horses, lots of available water (too much, it turned out), and it was not in the midst of the endless woods of the region.
Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 5.19.55 PMThis geological map of the area (from the National Park Service) shows that the fort was situated on the Upper Carboniferous Glenshaw Formation. This unit has much clay, trapping water in the thin soil above (“Philo Loam“). Further, the area is a floodplain, thus making the area a kind of wetland with grasses and sedges. Great for horse grazing, not so good for walls, buildings or trenches.
Entrenchments 101114Here we see the shallow entrenchments made by Washington and his men as they awaited attack. The clayey soil and pouring rain made a mess of these boggy trenches.

Fort inside 101114Inside the fort was a simple square building used mainly to keep supplies and wounded men dry, During the battle it was partially flooded with rainwater.

British view 101114This is the British view from the fort of the surrounding woods. Washington miscalculated his placing of the fort because the French and Indians could easily hit it with musket shots while hiding among the trees.

French Indian view 101114The French and Indian view of the hapless fort. It was easy to rain bullets on the British from the woods with little fear of the return fire.

Braddock road trace 101114Nearby is a trace of the military road Washington’s unit had blazed through the Pennsylvania woods on their way to the French Fort Duquesne in what is now Pittsburgh. The British General Edward Braddock enlarged this road the next year in his famous march to a spectacular defeat nearby (the “Battle of Monongahela“).

We can’t fault Washington too much for his choice of a fort location. He did not have the resources to clear a large patch of forest, so the meadow would have to do. He expected to be reinforced soon, so he saw the fort as a temporary measure of protection. The rain was beyond his control that July day, and the clay-rich meadow floor ensured wet misery and ruined supplies. The French surprisingly gave good terms for surrender because they were wet, too, in those woods, and they also expected more British and colonial troops would arrive soon. They feared being surrounded, and so thought their message to Washington and his countrymen had been sufficiently made. How different our world would be if the French were not so generous here in southwestern Pennsylvania!

Additional Reference:

Thornberry-Ehrlich, T. 2009. Fort Necessity National Battlefield Geologic Resources Inventory Report. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/GRD/NRR—2009/082. National Park Service, Denver, Colorado.

Shenyang, China

July 3rd, 2014

Shenyang Palace 070314SHENYANG, CHINA — My first post from astonishing China. I’ve been here about a day and a half now and am simply floored by all I’ve seen and experienced. I’ve seen a fair bit of the world, but no place like China. I’m providing here just a few images of Shenyang as just a taste of the adventure. We are twelve time zones away from Wooster, so I’m still feeling too ragged to write much prose. The image above is of Shenyang Imperial Palace, sometimes called by its old name Mukden Palace. It was built in the 17th Century by the first emperors of the Qing Dynasty, the last dynasty in China. This is the iconic Dazheng Hall, where the emperors held court surrounded by their Manchu cohorts. It is all stone and heavily laquered wood. The red color signifies happiness, the yellow royalty, and the green (not unexpectedly) the glories of nature.

Yongli 070314This is Zhang Yongli, my Chinese host and now good friend. He took me to the Palace this morning as both an introduction to China and a chance to walk around a bit to dispell the fog of travel. (It was 27 hours from Cleveland to my hotel in Shenyang. I will feel it for awhile!)

Shenyang Palace map 070314This is a map of the palace. It is the only Imperial Palace outside of the Forbidden City in Beijing. It was, in fact, modeled on its Beijing equivalent, but it has a distinctly northern flavor of Manchu culture.

karstic stones 1 070314The geological notes here include most notably these naturally-eroded limestones from southern China used as statuary in one part of the palace. All the hollows and holes in these smooth limestones were produced by karstic weathering in a very humid climate. The Chinese call them “lake stones” and very much appreciate their elegance.

Shenyang busy street 070314Outside the quiet palace is the very busy business district of Shenyang. Traveling by taxi through this city of over six million people is extraordinary. Somehow it all works, though, and people get to where they’re going by foot, bicycle, bicycle-cabs, carts, trucks and cars.

Shenyang morning 070314And this, finally, is the view from my hotel window. I’m staying in a hotel owned by my hosts at Northeastern University very close to campus. Tomorrow we leave for Guizhou Province in the south (a five-hour set of flights) and begin our fieldwork in Carboniferous reefs.

More later!


Wooster Geologist in London at the British Museum

June 22nd, 2014

Front BM 062214LONDON, 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.

Enlightenment textIt 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”.

Enlightenment cabinetThe 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.

Mastodon BM 062214This 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.

Smith fossils BM 062214My 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.

Schist sarcophygusOn 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).

Schist closer BM 062214Here’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?

Schist signBlack 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.

Romano British hed 062214Here’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 —

Ooids 062214The 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.

A Nazi hiding hole in Middle Triassic rocks (Będzin, Poland)

June 20th, 2014

Tunnel bunker 062014SOSNOWIEC, POLAND — On my last full day in Poland, Michał Zatoń and his family took me on a tour of the city they live in and where my hotel is located: Będzin. The history of this place is very long, stretching back to the Neolithic, and for us it is dominated by World War II and the horrifying events that took place here from the earliest days of the war in 1939 until its liberation from the Germans in 1945. I thought I’d highlight one part of that history recently excavated and with a geological context.

The above view is looking down a tunnel in a complex bunker constructed by the Germans in 1944. Its purpose was to serve as a refuge from Allied bombing and reconnaissance flights near the end of the war. It had been sealed off and all but forgotten after the Germans retreated in 1945. The city of Będzin is now excavating it to be an underground museum. We were fortunate to have a private tour this morning.

Entrance bunker 062014These are the street level entrances into the bunker complex. You can see the solid rock outcrop behind the doorways.

Unfinished bunker 062014Much of the bunker is unfinished, like this portion. The steel arches are the modern effort to stabilize the roof and walls to make it safe for the public.

Fossilized cement 062014The Germans left in a hurry. This is a pile of unused bags of cement mix. In the decades since they were placed they have essentially fossilized into solid masses of concrete.

Muschelkalk bunker wall 062014This is the leading edge of construction where the concrete was laid against the rock wall. The reddish-yellow limestone is the Muschelkalk (Middle Triassic) unit we visited earlier this week. This is a strong rock suitable for tunneling because it can be easily carved out. This interval is probably equivalent to the crinoid-rich top of the Muschelkalk.

Nazis 062014This is one of the few photos made at the time in 1944 when the bunkers (although unfinished) were opened for use. It is taken from this website (in Polish). The man on the left (Hans Kowohl) was the mayor of the city, and the one in the middle was reportedly hanged as a war criminal in 1946, although I can find no mention of his identity.

Thus ends my Polish experience this summer with great colleagues, wonderful rocks and fossils, and a deep, often disturbing, history. I was challenged on many different levels.

Castles in Poland I expect, but a desert?

June 19th, 2014

Zamek Mirow 061914SOSNOWIEC, POLAND — Today my colleague Michał Zatoń took me and his family (wife Aneta and son Tomasz) on a tour of the Polish Jura, an upland with spectacular exposures of Jurassic rocks and the castles who love them. Above is the castle I consider most dramatic: Zamek Mirów from the 14th Century. Note the large mass of white bedrock at its base. This is a natural outcrop on which the castle was built. This will be a theme.

Mirow Oxfordian bioherms 061914Here we see a series of these white rocks jutting dramatically across the landscape. They are Upper Jurassic (Oxfordian) sponge-rich silicified limestones that grew as bioherms (organic mounds) on portions of seafloor elevated because of igneous intrusions below. The sponges loved being raised off the deep seabed and continued to grow upwards. Since many of them were siliceous sponges, after death their silica was mobilized into the surrounding sediment as a cement. This process produced these outcrops of very hard silicified limestones just waiting to host a castle or two.

Oxfordian limestone 061914Conveniently, the rocks can be quarried to produce the stones used in castle construction. Fossils are quite common in the building stones, like this ammonite external mold.

Zamek Bobolice 061914This is a reconstructed castle built on the outcrops.  (Zamek Bobolice; also 14th Century in origin.)

Zamek Smoleniu 061914Zamek Smoleniu was the smallest castle we visited, but somehow the scariest to climb. Getting to the top of that tower was a challenge.

Zamek Ogrodzieniec view 061914Zamek Ogrodzieniec was the largest and best known castle we visited today. It is haunted, but I ain’t scared.

Zamek Ogrodzieniec 061914The outer fortifications of Zamek Ogrodzieniec have very impressive outcrops of the Oxfordian silicified limestones.

Pustynia Bledowska 061914Now what about that mysterious Polish desert? Well, turns out it isn’t a desert in the official sense (it receives a lot of rain), but it sure looks like a desert. Pustynia Błędowska is its name in Polish. It is definitely an odd patch: 32 square kilometers in the midst of rich Polish pine forests. This place is so deserty that the German Afrika Korps trained here before going to northern Africa, and the Polish military uses it as a proxy for Middle Eastern situations. There is a lesson for humanity here as well: In the 13th and 14th Centuries the forest in this area was completely logged to provide charcoal for smelters producing silver and lead ingots. The removal of the trees exposed highly mobile glacial sands, which blew around enough to create dunes and soil too unstable for the trees to recolonize. This is a medieval ecological catastrophe. The Błędów Desert is now protected from human traffic so it has a chance to be absorbed back into the surrounding forests.

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