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: http://darwin-online.org.uk/BeagleLibrary/Beagle_Library_Introduction.htm.

Excavating amber

First amber excavation in the El Soplao outcrop, Cantabria, N Spain in 2008. Credit IGME-UB.

By Dr Ricardo Perez-De-La Fuente, Research Fellow

Amber, or fossilised plant resin, is a unique material to learn about the history of life on Earth. Its incredible preservation and ability to capture life “in action” are well known thanks to the Jurassic Park saga, but fewer people know where amber is found, what it looks like in the field, and how it is gathered.

Cretaceous amber, about 130 to 70 million years old, is the oldest amber that provides abundant fossils, specifically insects and spiders. Ecosystems drastically changed during this period due to global greenhouse conditions and the diversification of flowering plants, among other factors. Amber from that time has been discovered in Lebanon, Spain, France, Myanmar, eastern United States, Canada, and northern Russia.

My research team and I carry out regular amber excavations in northern Spain, working in teams of six to ten people. The outcrops that we excavate are often located next to roads and highways because amber is typically uncovered during roadworks. Excavations take place during the summer or fall to try and minimise the risk of rain, and we usually embark on one field trip each year.

The goal is to recover as much amber as possible – usually a few kilograms – from the muddy and sandy sediments. These materials were transported downstream tens of million of years ago by heavy rain and river swellings from the forests where the resin was produced, before being finally deposited in near-shore areas.

Manual extraction of amber. Credit IGME-UB
Manual extraction of amber in the El Soplao outcrop, Cantabria, northern Spain in 2008. Credit: IGME/UB.

I find amber excavations quite romantic. In the field, amber has a dull appearance that makes it difficult to distinguish from rocks or woody remains. This is due to an opaque crust resulting from oxidation in the sediments and other processes.

This outer layer makes detecting potential fossils inside the amber highly unlikely while the excavation is ongoing. So, in the field we just gather as many amber pieces as possible, and hope for the best.

Only when amber is polished – or shows broken surfaces – does its distinct yellowish to reddish shine emerge, and any possible fossils within become evident. Some ambers are highly fossiliferous, while others are very poor in fossils.

Amber can be gathered by hand using regular tools such as hammers. However, the most efficient method to extract amber from soft sediments is with concrete mixers! This rather unsophisticated piece of equipment provides the best way to recover medium quantities of amber in the field.

We charge water and amber-bearing sediments into the mixer, and after stirring for a while amber floats to the top because it is less dense than muddy water. Then, the surface of the water containing the amber is poured into sieves, which separates even the tiniest pieces.

Amber pieces recovered in a sieve after washing
Amber pieces recovered in a sieve after having been “washed” from their sediment. First amber excavation in the La Manjoya outcrop, Asturias, northern Spain in 2017.

After fieldwork, many hours will be spent looking for fossils within the amber and preparing them. Gathering raw amber is just the first part of a process in unearthing the secrets held within – fragments of encapsulated time.

Top image: First amber excavation in the El Soplao outcrop, Cantabria, N Spain in 2008. Credit: IGME/UB.