Buckland Papers Appeal

By Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist

The Museum is currently leading a major fundraising campaign to purchase, catalogue, conserve, and digitise an important collection of archive material related to the geologist William Buckland (1784-1856).

Buckland was an English theologian and one of the greatest geologists of his day, becoming Oxford University’s first Reader in Geology in 1818. When he died in 1856, papers related to his teaching and research, as well as around 4000 specimens, were given to the University. These were later transferred to the Museum when it opened in 1860, and the Buckland collection remains one of the greatest research resources in our collections.

Left: A bust of William Buckland in the Museum of Natural History. Right: A portrait of the young Buckland.

The Museum has recently been offered a unique opportunity to acquire another extremely important collection of archive material related to Buckland. Passed by descent to the current owners, this archive consists of just over 1000 items of correspondence, geological notes, works of art, and other family papers — including a substantial number of items relating to his wife Mary (née Morland) and their eldest son, the naturalist and author Francis (Frank) Buckland.

This ‘new’ material fits beautifully with the existing Buckland archive here, providing missing pieces of the jigsaw and helping to paint a more comprehensive picture of this extraordinary geological pioneer, and the work he did together with Mary. It also offers greater insight into the scientific thinking and institutions of early 19th-century England, and the scientific contributions made by other ‘invisible technicians’ such as quarrymen, collectors, preparators, and replicators, giving us a more accurate, balanced, and inclusive picture of natural history at the time.

The campaign is aiming to raise £557,000 to acquire, conserve, rehouse, and digitise the Buckland archive. We have been fortunate to secure funding from a range of funders towards our goal, and we are now within £75,000 of this target.

The Museum is the obvious home for the ‘new’ archive, given Buckland’s close connection to Oxford University, and our holdings of his specimens and archive. With your help, we will reunite these two archive collections in one place and ensure researchers and the public can utilise these scientifically, historically, and culturally important resources for years to come.

Learn more about the Buckland Papers Appeal

Donate to the Buckland Papers Appeal

Header image: Silhouette of William Buckland and Mary Buckland

Earworms and Hummingbirds

Music and film from the Museum Library

As a part of her Master’s in Wildlife Filmmaking, Alicia Hayden recently visited OUMNH to produce the short film “A Song for Maria”. Featuring the music of Will Pearce, “A Song for Maria” takes its inspiration from the eighteenth-century naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian.

In 1699, aged 52, Maria Sibylla Merian made a trip to Suriname with her daughter to document the metamorphosis of insects, where she spent 2 years illustrating unique species and behaviours. Many of these illustrations are featured in Merian’s incredible publication Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (1705), or Insects of Suriname.

Over three hundred years later, Will and Alicia visited the OUMNH library to view our copies of Insects of Suriname. Here, the pair discuss film-making, songwriting and the impact of Maria’s legacy.

Alicia: Hi Will! You’re a physics student and amateur entomologist at Oxford University. Why were you so keen to visit OUMNH’s copies of Insects of Suriname and what did you think of Maria’s gorgeous illustrations?

Will: I first found out about Maria from a postcard, which was part of a series on influential female scientists. When I got to see OUMNH’s copies of Maria’s work, they did not disappoint. Maria reared all of the insects that she illustrated, allowing her to observe their life cycles in incredible detail.

Alicia shooting for “A Song for Maria” in the Library at Oxford University Museum of Natural History

What about you, Alicia? Can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to make a film inspired by Insects of Suriname for your Master’s film project?

Alicia: In addition to studying film-making, I also do a lot of art and poetry, and I was really keen to try and incorporate my love for wildlife-art and creativity into my Master’s film project. After chatting with you about your music, I thought it would be so exciting to merge our mutual love for art and insects into the film!

Like you, I first found out about Maria through a set of women in science postcards, and since then she’s been a big inspiration in my own work, so it was also really special to see her art in person!

I know that you have recently been working on a series of songs about beetles, Will. Why do you choose to sing about nature, and how did Insects of Suriname influence your latest song, “Watercolour Caterpillar”?

Will: During lockdown, the things which kept me going were music and the pond that I built with my dad. For the first time, I started paying attention to nature, and it quickly became as big a part of my life as music. After that it just made sense to combine the two interests! I am constantly looking for inspiration, and almost always find it in either the natural world or others’ art. The life and work of Maria Sibylla Merian seemed like the perfect topic to make a song about.

What were your first impressions when you saw Maria’s books, Alicia? You work in watercolour yourself — did any piece in particular catch your eye?

Alicia: I already knew about Maria’s work, and the intricacies of her drawings, before we saw them. But her illustrations are just phenomenal! She was an exceptional scientific illustrator. The drawing which stays with me the most is of the tarantula eating the hummingbird. The detail of the hairs and feathers is just exquisite, and I’m really pleased you can see some of this in the film.

When we were filming “A Song for Maria” together at the Museum, you decided that you not only wanted to write about the invertebrates Maria drew but also her life. How did this impact the final song?

Will: Well, originally the song was going to be about beetles (I’m a bit obsessed with them), but Maria documented a range of incredible species during her time in Suriname. So it seemed only right to diversify. The wafer-thin Surinamese Toad and handsome Hawk-moths were hard to deny! Her life was a real mixed bag, but her determination and her love for the natural world shine through.

Alicia: I had so much fun filming with you in the Museum’s Library, and I could see how much you loved looking at Maria’s work! I was wondering if you had a favourite illustration?

Will: There was one page in particular which I kept flipping back to — in fact you’ve already mentioned it! It shows leaf-cutter ants bridging between twigs using their own bodies, as well as a tarantula tackling a hummingbird! Many of Maria’s illustrations were called into question when the book was published, as they described behaviours not seen before by Europeans and they seemed all too fantastical to be real!

Hopefully, we were able to capture some of the magic of the illustrations in our film. What do you want people who watch the film to take away about Maria?

Alicia: Like you, I really want more people to know about Maria Sibylla Merian and the fantastic contributions she made to entomology. I hope that by watching “A Song for Maria”, people will realise the importance of Maria and her work, and she starts getting as much recognition as her male counterparts of the same era.

A Song for Maria” is available to watch on Alicia’s YouTube channel. You can find out more via Alicia’s website, Alicia’s instagram, and Alicia’s facebook.

Will’s song about Maria “Watercolour Caterpillar” is available to listen to on YouTube. You can find out more via Will’s website and Will’s instagram.

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 lily.wilks@oum.ox.ac.uk

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”.