Imagining lost worlds

Earlier this year University of Plymouth illustration student Rachel Simpson teamed up with our research fellow Jack Matthews to ‘bring the oldest multi-cellular organisms back to life’. Rachel tells us about the process of working with some of the most ancient fossil material and reveals the results of her illustrations and modelling.

Illustration by Rachel Simpson, created in collaboration with the Museum

In August 2018 I was lucky enough to travel to Newfoundland, Canada with Dr Jack Matthews to learn about and illustrate some of the extraordinary fossils found there. A highlight of the trip was going down onto the fossil surface – known as the MUN surface – to look at examples of organisms such as Beothukis, Charnia and Primocandelabrum, all of which date from the Ediacaran period, over 550 million years ago.

The MUN surface is the location of the fossils that I had worked on for my university project. I had spent the previous months sketching, drawing and bringing these organisms back to life from silicon casts, so it was amazing to be able to see the real specimens in situ and to sketch from the fossil surface.

Sketching directly from the fossils also provided a new challenge as I was unable to control factors such as the lighting, which is crucial to seeing the fossils clearly. Nonetheless, I learnt a lot about drawing on location.

Sketching at the fossil surface

While visiting Port Union I was able to use some of the old printing presses held by the Sir William F. Coaker Heritage Foundation to create work inspired by the fossils I had seen in the surrounding area. I love using printmaking in my own illustrative practice so it was a great experience to get to use these old presses (image at top of article).

We also had the chance to give a radio interview and talk to the Port Union community about the work that Jack and I had done, showing how science and art can work together.

On my last day in Port Union I was invited by a local potter to make some ceramic representations of the fossils I had been drawing there. I created models of Fractofusus and Aspidella, and discovered that re-imagining something in three dimensions is a very different process to recreating it as a drawing.

Rachel created ceramic representations of some of the Ediacaran organisms

For the final three days of the trip we relocated from Port Union to Trepassey to visit the Mistaken Point UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, I saw the highly preserved Fractofusus specimens and made some more sketches. Using a small hand lens I was able to draw all the details that are invisible to the naked eye.

Using a hand lens allowed Rachel to pick out details in the Fractofusus fossil

Drawing on location in Canada provided a better idea of the organisms in relation to other surrounding organisms, something that is more obscure when working from museum specimens. This definitely informed my practice and meant that artwork created after the trip was more representative of the science.

When I returned to England, I created some new prints inspired by my time in Newfoundland, the fossils that I saw, and the printing process I was able to use in Port Union.

A set of prints made by Rachel based on her work in Newfoundland


By Jack J Matthews, research fellow

On the southern shores of Newfoundland in Canada lie rocks containing the oldest known evidence of large, architecturally-complex life. Deposited within the Ediacaran Period, some 565 million years ago, these deep marine deposits have been the focus of palaeontological research since the first discovery of fossils there in 1967, and the locality – Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve – now sits in the UNESCO World Heritage list.

As part of my research on these rocks, alongside colleagues from Memorial University of Newfoundland, and the University of Cambridge, I created a new geological map of the area, covering 35 km of coastline in and around the Reserve. As well as providing new insights into the rocks themselves, and what environments they were deposited in, this mapping had an unexpected outcome – the discovery of some totally new fossil sites.

Overview of the Mistaken Point outcrop of the famous ‘E’ Surface

One site in particular, dubbed the ‘E’ surface, is the focus for Ediacaran fossils in Newfoundland. It is an area about the size of three Olympic boxing rings, containing more than 3,000 fossil organisms. Through the mapping we found a number of other outcrops of this same surface, but each shows slightly different types of fossils.

This is a mystery: if all the outcrops are from the same geological surface, why do they show different fossil assemblages?

The clue to the answer came while photographing the fossils and overlying volcanic ash at Mistaken Point, when I heard a loud, deep boom: a freak wave had struck the bottom of the cliff below the outcrop, sending a large splash of salty spray over much of the surface.

This got me thinking – how are processes such as weathering and erosion affecting the fossil surfaces now? Closer observation revealed those outcrops of ‘E’ with pristine beautiful fossils tended to be further from the sea, have a shallower dip, and the overlying ash tended to fall away in little flakes revealing beautiful, crisp, fossils. Other outcrops with scruffy fossils were usually close to the sea, battered by waves and rocks, steeply dipping, and the overlying ash, and often the fossils below it, would gradually abrade away as they are attacked by the sea.

Looking along the ‘E’ surface showing areas still covered in ash (black) and revealed fossil surface (red and grey)

Palaeontologists often discuss how changes during the fossil preservation of an organism can affect what we discover today, but they rarely discuss how processes occurring after preservation – metamorphism, exhumation, weathering, erosion, and even the time, manner, and conditions in which the fossil is recorded – might all affect how we analyse and interpret the original community of life which became fossilised.

Our new paper, published by the Geological Society of London, talks about these Post-Fossilization Processes, and recommends that when researchers are collecting fossil data they consider how their measurements might have been biased by such factors.

For 50 years now, the coastline of Newfoundland has yielded some of the most important finds in understanding the rise of the early life of the Ediacara, and through that the first evidence of animal life. Discoveries over the past few years show there is still much more to be found, and we’ll just have to hope that the post-fossilization processes fall in our favour to allow for many more significant discoveries.