Image of the HMS Beagle

Darwin’s dockdown reading list

By Danielle Czerkaszyn, Senior Archives and Library Assistant 

Yes, lockdown 3 is long but imagine being stuck on a boat for years on end with no TV, no internet and definitely no Netflix. Luckily, when Charles Darwin set sail on the HMS Beagle in 1831 he had access to a library of over 400 books on the ship. For Darwin Day, 12th February, we explored some of what Darwin read to help him pass the time…

Image of Young Darwin
Young Darwin by George Richmond, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As Darwin was following in the footsteps of earlier voyage naturalists, the Beagle library was well stocked with an excellent collection of books chronicling classic expeditions, such as James Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific Ocean (although this book is a later account of Cook’s voyages). Not only did reading about these earlier voyages inspire Darwin to undertake his own, but these accounts gave him insight into life at sea as well as fascinating details of some of the faraway places he was expecting to visit.

James Cook’s voyages

Many of the Beagle library books were beautifully illustrated with woodcuts or engravings of animals. Georges Cuvier’s, The animal kingdom arranged in conformity with its organization… (1827-35) had several volumes full of spectacular images covering mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, fossils, molluscs, crustaceans, arachnids and insects. While Darwin may not have had all 16 volumes with him on the Beagle, as some were published while his voyage was in progress, the numerous volumes Darwin did have access to would have provided a wealth of information and detailed illustrations to aid in species identification.

Using the vivid descriptions and chart in Patrick Syme’s Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (1814) Darwin was able to identify the colours of the natural world and accurately record the colours of the plants and animals he encountered on his voyage. This beautiful pocket-sized taxonomic guide provided a uniform standard for colours that other naturalists would have understood and was an indispensable tool for Darwin in his scientific observations.

The most important book for Darwin was Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33). Darwin was gifted the first volume of the first edition by the Captain of the Beagle, Robert Fitzroy, as a welcoming present for joining the voyage. Darwin received the second and third volumes while in South America. In Principles, Lyell argued the earth is extremely old and the processes that changed the earth in the past are still at work today. Inspired by Lyell’s ‘uniformitarian’ proposal, this theory allowed for the longer time span Darwin believed necessary for evolution to occur.

Reading other books of exploration encouraged Darwin to chronicle his own voyage. His bestseller was published in 1839 as Darwin’s Journal of Researches. A revised 2nd edition was published in 1845 with a dedication to Charles Lyell and his “admirable Principles of Geology.”

To learn more about what Charles Darwin read on board the Beagle:

I’m Off

So, this is it, my last blog (I know I am going to cry too!). It has been a wild ride and I have enjoyed every minute of it. So like the last episode of many sitcoms here is my flashback blog looking at all this project has achieved.

I first encountered this project as part of my work placement. Sarah Joomun, Project Officer at the time, welcomed me, explained about the project and told me what I was going to do. After two months of identifying specimens, writing narratives, locating missing specimens, and attempting to read illegible writing my time here was done. I then returned as Sarah moved jobs. This was it, my first ever proper museum job and boy was I going to rock it. What have I done in this time? Short answer: lots.

I am most proud of my blogs, and many things have inspired them. The first thing that intrigued me was finding “Sow.” written on the backs of tablets. Researching this led me to finding all about the Sowerby family as well as some of Lyell’s other friends and family. I have always loved how some of Lyell’s fossils show predator/prey relationships and so “Exploring Borings” was born. These blogs are a product of my inspiration and I hope they have inspired you.

One of my favourite bored specimens


You may remember from last month I was playing with structured light scanning and that was definitely one of my highlights from this project. It created some really amazing 3D images of the fossils. In total I created 3D images of 30 fossils which were chosen because they were pretty. I mean, why else would you pick specimens to digitise?

Pretty specimen chosen to scan


I had a lot of fun discovering quirks from people who have worked on the collection previously. Whether it was Lyell writing as yet uncrackable codes on the back of his tablets, curators not trusting information or ignoring original writing, it has led to a lot of bemused head scratching. I am sure one day all will become clear but I am sad to say that it won’t be because of me.

I may be gone but I am not forgotten, at least for the next 2 months. Presenting… Charles Lyell is currently on display in the museum. If you want to know what it’s about, come and have a look!

So that’s it, I’m done. Peace out.

Mysteries of the Past

Over the last two weeks in the Lyell collection I have been sorting out the “Notes” field for the USA specimens. This has involved transcribing labels, tablets and markings on specimens and it has led to finding some rather odd practices. These have left me scratching my head and asking why or how, sometimes both.

The first mystery we have is probably my favourite and probably the most annoying. If you follow my twitter you will know I have had some problems working out what some original text actually says. Well this tablet in the grand scheme of things is pretty easy to read. LOOK AT WHAT SOMEONE HAS DONE! They have attached a label over the original writing. The worst part is there is space on the tablet that has no writing. What were they thinking?


Attaching a label over legible text… disaster!

Another fun thing I have come across in the database is the previous volunteer curator didn’t finish transcribing tablets, instead he just wrote “[etc.]” if the information repeated what was on the front. I guess I can forgive him as he was writing them out by hand before entering them into a database but it is still amusing to come across them.

There are some mysteries that come from Lyell himself. Symbols and codes written on the back of tablets the meaning of which still eludes us. I feel like I am working on a jigsaw that doesn’t have all the pieces. They aren’t gone forever but instead they’re just waiting to be found.

Theta symbol on tablet reverse linking this specimen to another

Another quirk from the previous volunteer curator is that he didn’t trust loose labels or the backs of tablets. This slowly became evident when removing unnecessary comments from the “Localities” field. Anything written on the front of the tablet was taken to be the truth but you were strongly warned about anything from the reverse or a loose label by comments such as “per tablet reverse” and “per loose label”. We think that actually the back of the tablets were what was being worked on by Lyell and friends and his scribe wrote the information onto the front of the tablet.

It is important to remember all the changes that have happened with technology and the views towards best practice, so these people will have been doing the best with what they had. I am in no doubt that 50 years down the line people will look at what we were doing and think “WHY?”

For the Love of Fossils

Charles Lyell’s amazing collection of fossils in the OUMNH got me thinking about why he (and others) collected these fossils. Was it for a purely academic purpose or was there something else? In fact, why does anyone collect fossils? Why do you?  There are countless reasons that people collect fossils: for research, for fun, because they’re there, for art and crafts (to name a few), but I think the reason at the heart of any collection is for the love of fossils.

Former Project Officer Sarah Joomun’s favourite drawer. Her reason: “When I first started this is what it looked like and it was the first drawer in the collection. It seems to contain the odds and ends of the Lyell Collection, things that didn’t seem to fit anywhere else. When I used the drawer in a tour for a group of alumni from the Earth Science Department, the enormous broken Pecten shell inspired one of the alumni, a man who was long past his student days, to re-enact his impression of a Pecten swimming from his student days, complete with whooshing backwards and flapping hands. It was very intentionally hilarious

The Charles Lyell Collection is made up of mainly molluscs (bivalves, gastropods, scaphopods). However it does contain some vertebrate material such as sharks teeth and a partial rhinoceros jaw, as well as giant foraminifera (single-celled planktonic animals with a chalky shell). The collection is from a variety of different localities in Europe and North America. The majority of specimens come from North America, with France a close second.

One of my favourite gastropods. I found this by accident when looking for interesting specimens, I fell in love with it as it is so pretty and spiky.

The molluscs in the collection are often systematically presented on wooden tablets indicating that he collected the fossils for research. However it does raise more questions. Why? What did he use the tablets for? Was it for ease of research or were they being displayed somehow? Why are they in different orientations? Was it to see all the parts or was it how they attached best? What features were highlighted? Were any ignored?

One of the interesting tablets from the collection, also one of Sarah Joomun’s favourites

I think that Charles Lyell was using them as a way to categorise the specimens he had either found in the field or that were given to him by other collectors. I also think the different orientations were to show the features of the specimens he collected, but some are in fairly random orientations. Pencil markings on the tablet reverse give information about where the specimen was collected and, on some, who actually collected it. They also give an identification. Sometimes there are multiple identifications with some given by other people (see Sowerby), and it also can say when Charles and friends think it’s a new species.

One of Earth Collection Manager Eliza Howlett’s favourite specimens because “xenophorids are really cool and I like the fact it has been ambitious enough to cement a whole bivalve to its shell

This still leaves many questions unanswered, and I am afraid without talking to the man himself we may never find our answers.

I just hope whatever the reason you have for collecting, displaying and researching at first the underlying reason is simply for the love of fossils. I mean Charles Lyell himself even left his law career to pursue his childhood passion of geology.

I am really interested to know what you think: email me at

Exploring Borings

Trace fossils are a record of life; examples are footprints, bite marks, and burrows. The earliest trace fossils are thought to have been produced by an amoeba and are about 2,000 to 1,800 million years old. A special form of taxonomy (classification) has been created for trace fossils based on behaviour as it’s rare to find a body fossil preserved at the end of its trace and different organisms may produce identical tracks. Originally five behaviours were recognised but this number has now been expanded. (To find out more a good starting point is here).

A burrow preserved as a trace fossil, Thalassinoides

In this blog we are looking at boring trace fossils. No, not yawn boring! I mean the types of holes made by different animals in shells for predation, shelter and attachment. These will definitely not make you yawn. We are going to explore the three types of trace fossil that can be found in Charles Lyell’s collection. These represent two different types of behaviour and therefore taxonomy: Praedichnia, defined as “trace fossils that show evidence of predatory behaviour, such as borings and bite marks” and Domichnia defined as “dwelling structures reflecting the life position of the organism that created it”.


Gastropod Borings

Gastropods have been boring into shells in the same way for the past 100,000 years. There are two main families of predatory snails, the Naticidae and the Muricidae. They can be identified to family level by the shape of the hole they create. The predation attempts are deemed successful when the hole has fully penetrated the shell.

Pleurotoma shell that has been bored into 5 times (the fifth is on the reverse). Image taken by Sarah Joomun

The Naticidae create holes with slanted walls by secreting acid and scraping with their radula (rasp-like structure of tiny teeth used by molluscs for feeding). They feed on bivalves, scaphopods (tusk shells), and gastropods (including other naticids). The size of the holes they create varies depending on the species. This family evolved in the Late Triassic/ Early Jurassic and occur worldwide.

Diagram of the boring that is created by the family Naticidae

The Muricidae create holes with straight walls by using a softening secretion and scraping with their radula. They feed on bivalves, barnacles, and gastropods. This family evolved in the Early Cretaceous.

Diagram of the boring that is created by the family Muricidae


Sponge Borings

Unlike the gastropod borings, sponges do not create their borings to feed. Instead they use the shells they have bored into for shelter. Cliona celata is a boring sponge which creates holes up to 5 mm in diameter in mollusc shells and limestone. They use acid to bore into their chosen home. If they bore into a shell the animal usually dies because it has lost its protection as it is structurally weakened.

Gastropod with Cliona borings. Image taken by Sarah Joomun

In The Boring-Sponge, Cliona written by Joseph Leidy in 1889 he describes the way “in which [the sponge] occupies the shells of oysters and clams with its sensitive papillae [small fleshy bumps] … protruding from the perforations of the surface of the shell”. Sometimes the sponge can outgrow the shell its living in, using other material from around it. This massive sponge was familiar to the fisherman of Beach Haven New Jersey, USA “under the name of Bay-Pumpkin ; often growing to the size of one’s head.”


Bryozoan Borings

Bryozoans are filter feeding aquatic invertebrates commonly known as moss animals. Some bryozoans encrust surfaces. This encrustation can cause a pattern of small pits to be etched into the substrate. To see the pits you need a microscope as they are approximately 0.1-0.9mm in diameter.

Bryozoan borings (the smaller holes) on the gastropod shell from the previous image. The larger holes are the Cliona borings

Originally this group of trace fossils were called Leptichnus, from the Greek leptos meaning “flimsy, delicate, subtle”, however this was found to be the name of a gastropod species. To keep the original meaning of the name, the name Finichnus was proposed, from the Greek finos meaning “fine, delicate”.

Charles Lyell’s Friends and Family

It’s that time of the year again, when we come together with friends and family to share in the festivities. So I thought it would be wonderful to find out about the family and friends of Charles Lyell.

Mary Horner was Charles Lyell’s wife. She, like him, was a conchologist and geologist, and she made major contributions to her husband’s work. They were partners in science, with Mary accompanying Charles on field trips. She assisted him by sketching geological drawings, and cataloguing their collections. In addition to her spoken languages of French and German she learnt Spanish and Swedish to assist with communications. They even spent their honeymoon in Switzerland and Italy on a geological tour of the area. Mary had a vast interest and a great understanding of geology, and was present in her husband’s conversations with Charles Darwin.

NPG x46569,Mary Elizabeth (nÈe Horner), Lady Lyell,by Horatio Nelson King
Mary Horner Lyell. Accessed from here on 20 December 2016

Charles Darwin, arguably one of the most well-known names in science, was a friend of Charles Lyell. Captain Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle gave Darwin the first volume of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, a work that heavily influenced him. Lyell and Darwin first met on 29th October 1836. In letters digitised by the University of Cambridge there are multiple correspondences between Darwin and Lyell. In a letter to J.D. Hooker about Lyell’s death, Darwin states they “have both lost as good & as true a friend as ever lived”. In the letters Darwin offers information about his life and what he is up to, makes suggestions of books that Mrs Lyell should read (some of which have nothing to do with geology), as well as discussing work on geology. Darwin requests that Lyell send him news about himself and his wife, as well as asking Lyell for his wife’s opinions to discover what she would find least troublesome. It is impossible to read their letters and not know they are friends.


Charles Darwin. From Wellcome Images. Accessed from here on 20 December 2016

Joseph Dalton Hooker, friend of both Lyell and Darwin, was one of the finest 19th century British botanists and explorers. He was Charles Darwin’s closest friend. He was a founder of geographical botany (phytogeography), which looks at the geographic distribution of plant species and their influence on the earth’s surface. After he died it was suggested that he be buried in Westminster Abbey near Darwin, however his widow declined and instead followed her husband’s wishes to be buried next to his father.


Joseph Dalton Hooker. Accessed from here on 20 December 2016

Charles Lyell’s father, also named Charles Lyell, gave up law as a profession after a considerable inheritance to concentrate on botany (the study of plants). His studies focussed on mosses with several species of these plants being named after him. Like his son he also corresponded with noted naturalists such as the botanist William Jackson Hooker (father of Joseph Dalton Hooker) and James Sowerby. He was said to have great taste in literature and even published a translation of The Canzoniere of Dante.

Gideon Mantell is renowned for his work on Iguanodon, reconstructing its structure and life habits. During his medical career he attended to more than 50 patients a day, and delivered over 200 babies a year. In the little free time he had he pursued geology, which was a childhood passion. He corresponded frequently with Lyell, discussing geology and fossil finds. After a horrible carriage accident left Mantell crippled he started taking opium as a painkiller. He died, possibly from an overdose, in November 1852.


Gideon Mantell. Accessed from here on 20 December 2016

This is a small selection of the fascinating people who filled Charles Lyell’s life. This is the time of year where you can appreciate all the amazing people in your life. Enjoy!