Happy 250th William Smith

Today is the 250th birthday of the remarkable English geologist William Smith, creator of the first geological map of England and Wales – ‘the map that changed the world’. Here Danielle Czerkaszyn, Senior Archives and Library Assistant, tells us more about Smith’s achievements and his relationship to the Museum.

William Smith (1769-1839)

William Smith (1769-1839) began his career as a land surveyor’s assistant in his home village of Churchill, Oxfordshire. He soon travelled the country working on mining, canal and irrigation projects. This gave him the opportunity to observe the patterns in layers of rock, known as strata, and to recognise that they could be identified by the fossils they contained. This would earn him the name ‘Strata Smith.’

Smith’s observations of strata over hundreds of miles led to the ground-breaking 1815 publication of his map A delineation of strata of England and Wales (pictured top) that ultimately bankrupted him.

Smith’s map set the style for modern geological maps and many of the names and colours he applied to the strata are still used today. While Smith’s accomplishment was undoubtedly remarkable, he was only officially recognised for his discoveries late in life. His lack of formal education and his family’s working class background made him an outcast to most of higher society at the time.

Geological Map of Bath, 1799. This map is considered to be one the earliest geological maps ever created. It demonstrates an early use of Smith’s ‘fading’ colouring technique which emphasised the outcrops of each stratum. The yellow tint represents the Bath Oolite, the blue marks the base of the Lias, and the red the base of the Trias.

It wasn’t until a few years before he passed away that Smith received any recognition for his contribution to the science of geology, receiving a number of awards, including the prestigious Wollaston Medal from the Geological Society of London in 1831, and an honorary degree from Trinity College Dublin in 1835.

A bust of William Smith is on display in the Museum’s court

His legacy lived on with his nephew John Phillips, one of our Museum’s founders and Professor of Geology at Oxford. Recognising its importance, Phillips left Smith’s archive to the Museum on his death in 1874. Thanks to generous funding from Arts Council England a few years ago, the Smith collection has been catalogued, digitised and is available online to the public.

Few men in the history of science contributed as much, but are as little known, as William Smith. He was a hardworking and determined man who dedicated his life to understanding the world beneath us. So here’s a big Happy 250th birthday to William Smith – the ‘Father of English Geology.’

A small display, Presenting… William Smith: ‘The Father of English Geology’ 250 years on, is running in the Museum until 2 May 2019.

Pieces of a plesiosaur

We’ve just opened a brand new, permanent display called Out of the Deep, featuring two beautifully preserved plesiosaur skeletons. Remarkably, both of these marine reptile fossils have skulls, which is more unusual than you might think. Dr Hilary Ketchum, collections manager in the Museum’s Earth Collections and curator of Out of the Deep, describes how the skull of the long-necked plesiosaur made it safely from a quarry to a museum display.

At the bottom of a clay pit in 2014, palaeontologists from the Oxford Clay Working Group discovered a 165-million-year-old fossil plesiosaur skeleton, and they knew they had found something special. Plesiosaur bones are fairly common in the quarry, but skeletons are rare. Skeletons with skulls are rarer still. Fantastically, at the end of their newly-found plesiosaur’s neck was a skull. Barely visible underneath the clay, only the tip of the snout and a few teeth were exposed.

Can you see the skull? Fossil hunting in the quarry takes time, patience and a good eye to distinguish between bones and clay. Image: Mark Wildman, Oxford Clay Working Group.

Plesiosaur skulls are usually made up of around 33 bones, not including the tiny bones from inside the eye sockets, called the sclerotic ring. The skull bones are among the smallest and most fragile in the entire skeleton. This means they are much less likely to be preserved, and less likely to be discovered, than the larger and more robust backbones and limb bones.

A plaster jacket was made around the skull while still in the quarry.
Image: Mark Wildman, Oxford Clay Working Group.

When the plesiosaur skeleton arrived in the Museum in 2015, the skull and some of the surrounding clay was encased in its protective plaster field jacket. As tempting as it was, instead of cracking open the jacket straight away, we decided on a more technological approach. Professor Roger Benson and Dr James Neenan took the specimen to the Royal Veterinary College to use their enormous CT scanner, normally used for scanning horses and other large animals, and took thousands of X-rays of the jacket. This allowed them to build up a 3D model of the fossil inside – our first tantalising glimpse of the whole skull!

The CT scan of the plaster jacket (left) revealed the location of the skull inside the jacket (middle). The jacket was then digitally removed (right) to reveal a 3D image of the skull.

Having the CT scan of the skull was like having a picture on a puzzle box
Juliet Hay, Earth Collections conservator and preparator

Although the CT scan was incredibly useful, we still had to proceed with the preparation with caution. It was possible that not all of the bones had not been detected by the scanner, especially the incredibly thin bones of the palate.

After opening the plaster jacket, Juliet began to carefully remove the clay from around the fossil bone.

Slowly and carefully, Juliet and I removed the soft clay from around the skull. The weight of clay pressing on top of the skull for millions of years had crushed it, breaking some of the bones into a lot of smaller pieces. In order to keep track of them we attached a number to each piece of bone and photographed it from several different angles before removing it from the jacket.

Each individual bone was mapped using a numbering system. The numbers were attached with the conservation adhesive Paraloid B72 in acetone, so that they could be easily removed later.
The plesiosaur’s pointed teeth being revealed.

When all the bones had finally been removed from the clay, we had over 250 pieces. Next came the challenge of the three-dimensional jigsaw!

With knowledge about plesiosaur skulls from my PhD, and some extra expert help from Roger Benson and Dr Mark Evans, Curator of Natural Science and Archaeology, New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, I was able to build up the skull, piece by piece, until it was nearly whole again.

After many months of painstaking work, the beautifully preserved skull of this long-necked plesiosaur can finally be seen in the Out of the Deep display.

Amazingly, the skull is even more complete and more beautifully preserved than we could tell from the CT scan. The sutures between the individual bones can be seen in exquisite detail, and even though I work with fossils every day, I still find it amazing that it is 165 million years old.


With special thanks to:

Oxford Clay Working Group: Mark Wildman, Carl Harrington, Shona Tranter, Cliff Nicklin, Heather Middleton, and Mark Graham, who uncovered and excavated the long-necked plesiosaur.

Forterra, for generously donating the plesiosaur skeleton to the Museum, after it was discovered in a Forterra quarry. 

Is it real? – Fossils

One of the most common questions asked about our specimens, from visitors of all ages, is ‘Is it real?’. This seemingly simple question is actually many questions in one and hides a complexity of answers. 

In this FAQ mini-series we’ll unpack the ‘Is it real?’ conundrum by looking at different types of natural history specimens in turn. We’ll ask ‘Is it a real animal?’, ‘Is it real biological remains?’, ‘Is it a model?’ and many more reality-check questions.

This time: Fossils, by Duncan Murdock

Whether it’s the toothy grin of a dinosaur towering over you, an oyster shell in the paving stone beneath you, or a trilobite in your hand, fossils put the prehistory into natural history collections. Anyone who has spent a day combing beaches for ammonites, or scrabbling over rocks in a quarry will attest that fossils are ‘real’. It is the thrill of being the only person to have ever set eyes on an ancient creature that drives us fossil hounds back to rainy outcrops and dusty scree slopes. But fossils, unlike taxidermy and recent skeletons, very rarely contain any original material from living animals, so are they really ‘real’?

The Museum’s famous Megalosaurus jaw

Fossils are remains or traces of life (animals, plants and even microbes) preserved in the rock record by ‘fossilisation’.

This chemical and physical alteration makes fossils stable over very long timescales, from the most ancient glimpses of the first microbes billions of years ago to sub-fossils of dodos, mammoths and even early humans just a few thousand years old. They can be so tiny they can only be seen with the most high-powered microscopes or so huge they can only be displayed in vast exhibition halls, like our own T. rex. Among this is a spectrum of how much of the ‘real’ animal is preserved, and how much preparation and reconstruction is required to be able to display them in museums.

Trace fossils include footprint trackways like these, made by extinct reptile Chirotherium.

Generally, the more there is of the original material and anatomy, the rarer the fossils are. Among the most common fossils found are ‘trace fossils’: burrows, footprints, traces, nests, stomach contents and even droppings (known as ‘coprolites’). Most ‘body’ fossils also contain nothing of the living creature, rather they are impressions of hard parts like teeth, bones and shells.

This ammonite fossil, Titanites titan, was formed when a mould was filled with a different sediment, which later turned to rock.

When an organism is buried the soft parts quickly decay away. The hard parts decay much more slowly, and can leave space behind, creating a fossil mould. If this later gets filled with different sediment, it forms a cast.

These sediments are buried further still and eventually turned into rocks. Alternatively, the hard parts can be replaced by different minerals that are much more stable over geological time. Essentially bone becomes rock one crystal at a time.

3D reconstruction of 430 million year old fossil, Aquilonifer spinosus. Found in Herefordshire Lagerstätte, which preserves ancient remains with superb detail.

Very rarely the soft parts of an organism get preserved, but in the most exceptional cases skin, muscles, guts, eyes and even brains can be preserved. If buried quickly enough an animal can be compressed completely flat to leave behind a thin film of organic material, or even soft parts themselves can be replaced by minerals, piece-by-piece. These mineralized fossils can be exquisitely preserved in three dimensions, even down to individual cells in some cases. This is about as ‘real’ as most fossils can be, except the few special cases where the remains of an organism are preserved virtually unaltered, entombed in amber, sunk into tar pits or bogs, or frozen in permafrost. The latter push the boundaries of what can really be called a fossil.

Bambiraptor feinbergi

The final step in the process, from the unfortunate demise of a critter to its eventual study or display, involves preparation. In most cases the fossil has to be removed from the surrounding rock with hammers, chisels, dental tools and sometimes acids. This preparation can be quite subjective, a highly skilled preparator has to make judgements about what is or isn’t part of the fossil. The specimen may also need to be glued together or cracks filled in, so not everything you see is always original.

As with modern skeletons, there are often missing parts, so a fully articulated dinosaur skeleton may be a composite of several individuals, or contain replica bones. This is, of course, not a problem as long as it is clear what has been done to the fossil. This is not always the case, and there are examples of deliberately forged fossils, carved into or glued onto real rocks, or forgeries composed of several different fossils to make something ‘new’, like a ‘cut n shut’ car.

So, if you see a fossil that looks too good to be true, then it just might be worth asking, “is it real”?

Next time… Models, casts and replicas
Last time… Skeletons and bones

Layer upon layer


Handwritten in Stone
9 October 2015 – 31 January 2016

Today sees the opening of our new special exhibition – Handwritten in Stone – celebrating the life and work of William Smith on the bicentenary of his publication of the first geological map of England and Wales.

Dubbed ‘The Map that Changed the World’ in Simon Winchester’s book of that title, the beautifully hand-coloured map revealed a three-dimensional arrangement of rock layers, or strata, along with a fourth dimension – time.

This work earned Smith the moniker ‘the father of geology’, an accomplishment all the more impressive given that Smith achieved it single-handedly and with very little formal education.

This 1799 map of Bath, on display in the exhibition, is the oldest geological map in the world
This 1799 map of Bath, on display in the exhibition, is the oldest geological map in the world

The Museum holds the largest archive of Smith material in the world. Alongside the famous 1815 map, shown at the top of the article, are personal papers, drawings, publications, maps and geological sections, most of which are being displayed for the first time. With these we have some fossil material from the collections: Smith realised that particular combinations of fossils were unique to different rock formations and could be used to date the strata.

Design work on the 'drawing board', created by Claire Venables at Giraffe Corner
Design work on the ‘drawing board’, created by Claire Venables at Giraffe Corner. Photo: Claire Venables

Handwritten in Stone, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, is the first show in our new special exhibition gallery on the upper east side of the building. Working out how to use the space was a learning process, and the final, elegant design is the work of local consultancy Giraffe Corner.

To bring the final exhibition together we collaborated with writer Rebecca Mileham, an installation team from the Ashmolean Museum, and more than 50 volunteers. Look out for more about the volunteers’ contributions on this blog soon.

Applying the graphics in the gallery
Applying the graphics in the gallery. Photo: Claire Venables

The 1815 map itself takes centre-stage in the exhibition, flanked on one side by the history of Smith’s work building up to its publication, and on the other by the legacy of his techniques, which are still used today.

To discover the full story of William ‘Strata’ Smith head over to the upper east side of the Museum before 31 January.

And don’t forget to look out for our What’s On programme which includes lots of William Smith and geology-focused events, including a public talk by author Simon Winchester on 13 October.

Scott Billings – Public engagement officer