Monday, 16 May 2016

Ice Age Ilford

Ice Age Ilford is a temporary exhibition currently running at Redbridge Museum in east London, featuring loans from the British Geological Survey (BGS). Redbridge Museum Manager, Gerard Greene, talks about the partnership between the Museum and the BGS:
Over 200,000 years ago, Ilford was home to mammoths, elephants, rhinoceros, giant deer, wild cattle and even lions. Hundreds of their fossilised bones were unearthed in Ilford 150 years ago, making it one of the most important Pleistocene sites in the UK. Many of the fossils are now in the collections of the BGS and in this special exhibition, the BGS worked with Redbridge Museum to enable some of these fossils to return home for a brief visit.
I found the staff at the BGS were incredibly helpful. We visited the stores and were overwhelmed at the richness of the collections but also at how much the BGS were enthused by our project. They understood immediately what we wanted to do and made the loans process very simple for us, particularly as we are a small museum. After discussions, the BGS team made a selection of loans and then visited the Museum. They had taken life-sized images of the bones which made the display preparation so much easier for us and was great to have. Even more amazing was a 3D scan of a mammoth tooth which they printed out for us – this was quite unexpected and very high-tech!
The fossils formed the centrepiece of the exhibition which was designed by Redbridge Museum. The displays explain what the Ice Age was, what creatures lived in Ilford during that time, why the area has preserved so many fossils and showed how workmen digging in brickfields during the mid-nineteenth century started to uncover them. In this way, the displays not only show life 200,000 years ago but what Ilford was like before being swallowed up as a suburb of London.
We also worked with a local community group, the East Ilford Betterment Partnership, and the Natural History Museum, London, to display a cast of the skull of the ‘Ilford mammoth’, one of the most complete examples ever found in the UK.
The response to the exhibition has been really positive. Visitors are delighted and surprised to find out how important Ilford is in the scientific world and I think this helps to boost civic pride, one of the key local political agendas. So far, the exhibition has had over 3000 visits with February half-term’s family mammoth trail resulting in the most visitors the Museum has ever had for that time of the year. It has also been a hit with local schools and the Museum has taught the topic to over 1000 pupils so far in newly designed education sessions which will become a core part of our programme after the exhibition finishes. Over the next few years we hope to comprehensively redevelop the main Museum and the topic of ‘Ice Age Ilford’ will be a key part of this and we look forward to continuing our partnership with the BGS.
Ice Age Ilford runs until 4 June 2016
Redbridge Museum, Central Library, Clements Road, Ilford, Essex IG1 1EA



Wednesday, 30 March 2016

ETHELDRED BENETT, the first female geologist

ETHELDRED BENETT, the first female geologist

To mark International Women’s Day, 8 March 2016, the Geological Society of London is holding a special exhibition showcasing a few of the pioneering activities of Etheldred Benett (1775-1845), who is recognised as the first female geologist. 

Figure 1 Silhouette of Etheldred Benett, [c.1837].
The exhibition, running until 31 May 2016, displays a selection of material sent to the Society by Benett between 1813-1842, including a number of her fossils which have been kindly curated and lent by the National Geological Repository, BGS.

Etheldred Benett was born on 22 July 1775 at Pyt House, Tisbury, Wiltshire, the eldest daughter of the local squire Thomas Benett.  Benett and her sister Anna Maria were encouraged to pursue the study of natural history by their brother-in-law, the botanist Aylmer Bourke Lambert (1761–1842).

Whilst her sister concentrated on botany, Benett took up the newly fashionable study of fossils.  Unlike her near contemporary, the working class Mary Anning (1799-1847), Benett was a woman of independent wealth (she never married) who pursued the acquisition and study of fossils for her own interest. 

Collecting locations
Most of her collection comprised Jurassic and Cretaceous specimens from her home county of Wiltshire but she also collected fossils from farther afield, notably during her holidays to the Dorset Coast.  From at least 1809, people were recorded as visiting ‘Miss Benett’s collection’, and by 1810 she was engaging in correspondence with and sending material to other geologists and museums, including the Geological Society.  The first recorded donation from her was in February 1813 when we received some ‘Siliceous petrifactions from Tisbury, Wiltshire’.

Figure 2 Fossils from Wiltshire.
Figure 3 Fossils from Chicksgrove Quarry, Tisbury, Wiltshire.
Figure 4 Fossils from Weymouth, Dorset.
Benett’s particular interest was the collection and study of fossil “Alcyonia” (sponges) which, according to her only publication ‘A Catalogue of Organic Remains of the County of Wiltshire’ (1831), Warminster apparently had in abundance, particularly to the west of the town.

Benett had hopes that she could encourage the male geological community to take an interest in her fossil sponges.  However after patiently waiting a number of years and at least one of the three individuals she had in mind inconveniently dying, she took on the task herself.  The genus Polypothecia had been used in a publication by J S Miller in 1822, but Benett was the first to use the name in a binomial combination . 

Benett’s lost collection
Benett’s scientific endeavours may pre-date the more famous Mary Anning by at least a decade, but she is lesser known due to the nature and fate of her famous collection.

Figure 5 Fossil sponges Polypothecia quadriloba, from Warminster, Wiltshire.
Anning’s large and spectacular Jurassic reptiles can still be seen in the public museums around the country, but on Benett’s death on 11 January 1845, her collection was put up for auction and the majority of it was purchased by

Thomas Bellerby Wilson (1807-1865).  Wilson, an English expatriate living in Newark, Delaware, USA, spirited Benett’s collection away to America where he donated it to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1848.  By the end of the 19th Century, her collection of modestly sized, handling specimens of English provincial strata was virtually forgotten.  It would not be until the late 1980s  that her collection began to be identified and Benett’s scientific reputation established once again.

Many thanks to Mike Howe & Louise Neep of the National Geological Repository (British Geological Survey), for arranging the loan of the specimens.

Guest blog by Caroline Lam, Archivist at the Geological Society, London

Figure 1 Silhouette of Etheldred Benett, [c.1837].  One of only three known likenesses of Benett, made during a trip to Bath.

Figure 2 Fossils from Wiltshire.  In the foreground are three echini from Calne [Cidaris crenularis].  The printed location labels are Benett’s.

Figure 3 Fossils from Chicksgrove Quarry, Tisbury, Wiltshire, which accompanied two measured sections of the quarry which Benett commissioned and sent to the Society in 1815 & 1816.

Figure 4 Fossils from Weymouth, Dorset.  Probably collected by Benett whilst holidaying in the area.  

Figure 5 Fossil sponges Polypothecia quadriloba, from Warminster, Wiltshire.  The genus labels are Benett’s, as is the handwriting indicating the species.  The small number 20812, is the Society’s original accession label, from which we can tell that the specimen was received in April 1824.  The tablet onto which the fossils were glued is from the Society’s old Museum.

The National Geological Repository; Meet the Team

The National Geological Repository: Meet the team

The National Geological Repository Team at Keyworth
The National Geological Repository (NGR), part of the British Geological Survey, holds geological information, data and samples on behalf of the UK. Its origins go back to the beginnings of the Geological Survey in 1835, and it also includes donated material from the 18th Century onwards. Although its roots go back a long way and it contains a great deal of material of historical importance, it is at the forefront of modern good practice, digitisation and web delivery. Systems such as SESAR (the International Sample Numbering System) are highlighting the requirement for robust item numbering systems; it is reassuring to know that the NGR registration system has functioned consistently since its introduction 167 years ago.

The National Geological Repository Team in Edinburgh

The NGR manages the records, geological samples and library held by the BGS. Data born digitally is managed by the National Geoscience Data Centre (NGDC), another BGS facility, but the NGR is responsible for the digital surrogates of analogue items. The NGR is run by staff based in the BGS office in Keyworth, Nottingham and the office in Edinburgh.

A type fossil in the BGS collections – also available as a 3d digital model

The geological samples range from type fossil specimens to panned stream sediment geochemistry samples, from petrological thin sections to building stone samples, from hydrocarbon well core samples to UKCS sediment vibrocores, and from asbestos minerals to microfossils. Most of the samples are indexed in one of several online databases, and shown in GeoIndex, our online GIS system.

GeoIndex – our online GIS (Geographical Information System)

Records include our geological maps, field slips and field notebooks, as well as detailed borehole logs, photographs and reports. The library contains a full set of published maps and reports, as well as a broad range of modern and historical books. Our book catalogue is online and our books are available for inspection in Keyworth and in Edinburgh.

Example of a current BGS 1:50k online geological map
The National Geological Repository is consulted online and at our offices by a large range of users, including commercial organisations such as oil companies, mining companies and geotechnical companies, and by academics ranging from  undergraduates to professors and from the UK and overseas. Any member of the public with a bona fide enquiry is most welcome too. Most non-commercial enquiries are free.

The commercial use of the NGR is particularly important to the UK economy. Hydrocarbon operators can assess borehole samples related to their areas of interest, thereby reducing their investment risks; mining companies can do likewise. Every year an estimated 2.5 million borehole logs are downloaded, mostly by geotechnical companies, enabling them plan their field work far more cost effectively. The resources of the NGR help to underpin much of the exploration for natural resources within the UK, as well as the geotechnical aspects of the construction industry. Its data and resources are also widely used in areas such as insurance, town planning and countryside conservation and tourism. In 2001, an independent study suggested that BGS contributed to sectors responsible for 5 – 8% of GVP (similar to GDP); much of this was reliant on the NGR.

Laser scanning of fossils to produce 3d digital models
In future blogs we intend to cover many of these areas in greater detail. We intend to show you how you can access the data and information simply and in a way that’s most helpful to you. We will flag up the importance of many of the datasets to science, industry and the UK, and document their impact. We are particularly interested to hear from users of NGR data, information and samples. Could you write a guest blog, illustrating how a particular dataset has been helpful to you? In these days of increasing competition for declining resources, we need to demonstrate the impact the NGR is having if it is to continue to receive the level of funding required to provide you with the information and samples you need. The ball is in your court.......National Geological Repository

Blog by Mike Howe