Reading Archival Silences

MAUD HEALEY AND HER GEOLOGICAL LEGACY


By Chloe Williams, History Finalist at Oxford University and Museum Volunteer

Email: chloegrace1000@gmail.com


“The professor regrets to have to record the loss of the invaluable services of Miss Healey, who as a result of overwork has been recommended to rest for an indefinite period. This will prove a serious check to the rate of progress which has for some time been maintained in the work of rearrangement, and it is hoped that her retirement may be only temporary.” So ends the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s 1906 Annual Report, marking the near-complete departure of Maud Healey from the archival record.

Despite how little of her history has been preserved, it is clear that Maud Healey made significant contributions to the field of geology. After studying Natural Sciences at Lady Margaret Hall in 1900, Healey worked at the Museum as an assistant to Professor William Sollas from 1902–1906. Here, she catalogued thousands of specimens and produced three publications. These publications were at the centre of debates about standardising the geological nomenclature, and turning geology into a practical academic discipline that could sustain links across continents. However, Healey was continually marginalized on the basis of her gender. Closing the Geological Society of London’s discussion of one of her papers, “Prof. Sollas remarked that he had listened with great pleasure to the complimentary remarks on the work of the Authoress, and regretted that she was not present to defend before the Society her own position in the disputed matter of nomenclature.”[1] Predating the Society’s 1904 decision to admit women to meetings if introduced by fellows, Healey had been unable to attend the reading of her own paper.

Photo of the Geological Society of London centenary dinner in 1907, at which Maud Healey was present. Healey can be seen seated in the fourth row from the front, three chairs to the left. Of the 263 guests, 34 were women, 20 of whom were the wives or daughters of academics, and only 9, including Healey, were present ‘in their own right’. [2] Source: Burek, Cynthia V. “The first female Fellows and the status of women in the Geological Society of London.” Geological Society, London, Special Publications 317, no. 1 (2009): 373-407.

Healey later worked with specimens collected by Henry Digges La Touche in colonial Burma (now Myanmar). While Healey worked with the identification of species, acknowledged by La Touche himself as ‘a more difficult lot to work at’ than similar specimens assigned to her male contemporaries, the physical collection and therefore its name and record is attributed to a male geologist. [3] She continued her work identifying La Touche’s collection of Burmese fossils after retiring from the Museum in 1906 and published a report about them in 1908. What happened to her afterwards is unclear. Tantalizing snippets like a 1910 marriage record might suggest that she turned to a life of domesticity, but whether Healey continued to engage with geology as a hobby remains uncertain.

It is almost unbelievable that a professional of Healey’s calibre could abandon the work in which she excelled. However, Healey lacked any familial connections to geology, and apparently did not marry into money, which would have made it difficult for her to retain access to organizations like the Geological Society of London. The diagnosis of ‘overwork’ mentioned in the Annual Report makes it possible that a medical professional could have discouraged her from engaging further in academia. Unfortunately, any diaries or letters which might have provided us with further clues were not deemed worthy of preservation.

Maud Healey on a dig site (location unknown). Image from the Archives at Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Tracing Maud Healey’s history to 1910, it might seem as though we hit a depressing dead end. Healey is one of many nineteenth-century female geologists who participated in an international community in a range of roles including collecting, preserving samples, and actively producing knowledge. However, like many of her colleagues, her contributions are largely absent from the historical record. My research doesn’t aim to simply ‘rediscover’ these exemplary women after previously being ‘hidden’ from history, but instead considers how history itself is constructed from a material archive created along lines of gender and class. A subjectivity which surfaces only rarely in appended discussions to academic papers, and in spidery cursive on ancient fossils, Maud Healey ultimately suggests the need for women’s history to read archival silences as their own stories.


Works cited

[1] Healey, M. ‘Notes on Upper Jurassic Ammonites, with Special Reference to Specimens in the University Museum, Oxford: No. I’, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 60, (1904), p.1-4.

[2] Burek, Cynthia V. “The first female Fellows and the status of women in the Geological Society of London.” Geological Society, London, Special Publications 317, no. 1 (2009): 373-407.

[3] La Touche, H.D. Letter to Anna La Touche, 1 August 1907. La Touche Collection. MSS.Eur.C.258/77. Asian and African Studies Archive, The British Library, London, UK.


Read more

Snakeflies: Monsters in the Shadows of the Dinosaurs


Header Image: A reconstruction of a delta-estuarine environment in northern Spain during the Cretaceous, habitat of the studied amber snakeflies, by William Potter Herrera.


Post by William Potter Herrera, Undergraduate Student at Portsmouth University


About 105 million years ago, in what is now Cantabria, Spain, rich cycad and conifer forests flourished across a landscape of estuaries and weaving deltas, bordering the then subtropical North Atlantic. While marine crocodiles prowled the waterways and theropod dinosaurs stalked the fern clearings, another ferocious, albeit smaller, predator ruled. Snakeflies, or raphidiopterans, are still around today but their diversity and range is a fraction of what it was during the Mesozoic, the period when the dinosaurs reigned.

Left: Map of the world 105 million years ago, with ancient Cantabria highlighted. Author: William Potter Herrera, based on work from “The Planetary Habitability Laboratory” at UPR Arecibo. Right: An extant snakefly from OUMNH’s pinned collections.

Snakeflies get their name from their long ‘necks’ and ovipositors — the latter being a long, thin tube that females use to deposit eggs into the safety of crevices. Snakeflies are voracious predators, using their compact jaws to devour anything smaller than them. Their unusual necks allow them to pursue prey into tight spaces. No Cretaceous bug would have been safe from these monsters that existed in the shadows of the dinosaurs.

Working in the shadow of the Museum’s very own dinosaur during a bursary project last summer, I got a very real experience of paleontological research. Insects might not be the first thing you think of when considering fossils, but the sheer diversity and beauty of preservation these organisms exhibit in the fossil record made them a delight to work on. Nowhere is this more true than in the remarkable amber of northern Spain. Under the supervision of Dr Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, I examined, described and mapped out four specimens of amber which contained insects, our focus being on snakeflies. Through careful comparison with previous work, we discovered a new species of Necroraphidia, meaning “snakefly of the dead”. This genus was previously known from a specimen preserving no more than its characteristic wings, but the new specimen is nearly completely preserved, frozen in amber as if time itself stopped.

Left: William Potter Herrera examines a snakefly preserved in amber. Right: Necroraphidia arcuata, a snakefly species from El Soplao amber (Cantabria, Spain). The arrow points to a fragment of burnt plant matter (extracted from Pérez-de la Fuente et al., 2012. Zookeys 204).

The story of how the snakeflies ended up in the amber is as fascinating as the creatures themselves. Amber begins its life as tree resin — a highly sticky, viscous fluid extruded by conifers in response to trauma. Insects and other small arthropods are frequently trapped in it, either being caught by it as it flows downwards, or simply flying into it. Because larger insects are more likely to free themselves there is a bias in the fossil record towards smaller organisms. In northern Spain, however, the amber is remarkably rich in insects and also tiny fragments of burnt plant matter, indications that the insects might have become entombed during, or in the aftermath of, raging wildfires that drove them into a disoriented frenzy.

It was studying these charred fragments that inspired my dissertation on fossil charcoal — and that was one of just many benefits I gained from this bursary. It cannot be overstated how brilliant the opportunity to dedicate six weeks to study in a Museum was; exploring behind the scenes and talking to world experts in every field. The confidence gained from being entrusted to conduct this research so independently at such an early stage of my career will serve me going forward. The work was not easy but the support I received was brilliant. Even now, months later, as we work together to finalise our manuscript, I am inspired by the dedication and belief that Ricardo and the whole staff at the OUMNH have shown in me.


Reconstructing the Cretaceous with Bones and Amber

A double window into the past

Post by Dr Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, Deputy Head of Research

Nature is wonderfully imperfect, and the data that we can gather from it is even further from perfection. Fossil localities, even those providing exceptionally well-preserved fossils, are inaccurate records of the past. Fossils can form from a variety of matter including organisms, their remains, or even traces of their activity. Yet not all of the material that can get fossilised at a particular site actually will. Among other factors, biases in the fossil record result from the nature of the materials responsible for fossilisation – usually sediments which are in the process of turning into rocks. In most cases, fossil localities offer us only a single ‘window of preservation’ – a skewed geological record of the ancient ecosystem that once existed there.


In 2012, a rich vertebrate bone bed was documented at the Ariño site in Teruel, Spain. Since then, researchers have unearthed more than 10,000 individual fossil bones, from which they have discovered new species of dinosaurs, crocodiles, and turtles. Plant fossils were also found, including pollen grains and amber, which is fossilised resin. Although amber was known to occur in this locality, this sort of material had remained unstudied… until recently.

Over the summer of 2019, I joined my colleagues to carry out amber excavations in the Ariño site – an open-pit coal mine that has an almost lunar appearance due to the dark carbonate-rich mudstone rocks and the total lack of vegetation. The scorching heat during a very hot summer was a bit maddening, but I did try to enjoy my yearly dose of sun before returning to the UK!


Resin pieces can be transported significant distances by runoff water before depositing on their final burial location, where they slowly transform into amber. However, we found amber pieces that had not moved from their original place of production. These large, round-shaped pieces preserved delicate surface patterns that would have been polished away even by the slightest transport. The resin that produced these amber pieces was formed by the roots of the resin-producing trees, and resembles sub-fossil resin my colleagues found in modern forests from New Zealand.

Large amber piece produced by roots (left) and assemblage of smaller amber pieces (right) from Ariño (Teurel, Spain).
Large amber piece produced by roots (left) and assemblage of smaller amber pieces (right) from Ariño (Teurel, Spain).

The small amber pieces from Ariño contain an unusual abundance of fossils. These pieces come from resin produced by the branches and trunk of the resin-producing trees. From the almost one kilogram of amber we excavated, we identified a total of 166 fossils. These include diverse insects such as lacewings, beetles, or wasps, and arachnids such as spiders and mites. Even a mammal hair strand was found!1


We now know that the Ariño site provides two complementary windows of preservation — a bone bed preserving a rich variety of vertebrate animals, and amber with abundant inclusions. Aside from Ariño, only three localities that preserve both dinosaur bone beds and fossiliferous amber have been reported in Western France, Western Canada, and North Central United States. However, in these cases, either the bone bed or the amber have offered a much more modest abundance and diversity of fossils. Some of the fossils from these localities also show signs of significant transport, which means that the organisms could have inhabited different, distant areas even though they fossilised together. This makes Ariño unique because it offers two valuable ‘windows of preservation’ from the same ecosystem.

Thanks to all this evidence and other data, we have been able to reconstruct an ancient terrestrial ecosystem – a 110-million-year-old coastal swamp – with unprecedented detail and accuracy.2 The inherent incompleteness of the fossil record will always remain a headache for palaeontologists… but localities like Ariño make the data that we can recover from the past a bit more complete.

Reconstruction of the coastal swamp forest of Ariño, in the Iberian Peninsula, from 110 million years ago. Author: José Antonio Peñas. Source: Álvarez-Parra et al. 2021.
Reconstruction of the coastal swamp forest of Ariño, in the Iberian Peninsula, from 110 million years ago. Author: José Antonio Peñas. Source: Álvarez-Parra et al. 2021.

If you want to learn more about amber excavations, check out this post on Excavating Amber.


1Álvarez-Parra, Sergio, Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, Enrique Peñalver, Eduardo Barrón, Luis Alcalá, Jordi Pérez-Cano, Carles Martín-Closas et al. “Dinosaur bonebed amber from an original swamp forest soil.” Elife 10 (2021): e72477.

2Álvarez-Parra, Sergio, Xavier Delclòs, Mónica M. Solórzano-Kraemer, Luis Alcalá, and Enrique Peñalver. “Cretaceous amniote integuments recorded through a taphonomic process unique to resins.” Scientific reports 10, no. 1 (2020): 1-12.

Wax models of magnified mites mounted on a black board

Of parasites, dinosaurs, and other model animals

Elaine Charwat has been on a journey into the attic storerooms behind the scenes of the Museum to discover 19th-century wax models of parasites. A strange occupation you might think, but it’s all part of her doctoral research programme with the Arts and Humanities Research Council to learn about the use of models and replicas in science, past and present. In the podcast above Elaine meets Mark Carnall, Zoology Collections Manager at the OUMNH, who talks about the differences between models and the thousands of specimens he looks after, and Dr Péter Molnár, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Toronto, who offers important insights into current research using mathematical models.

Different types of models and replicas are everywhere in the Museum, and they tell us much about the organisms they represent or reconstruct, but even more about processes in research and science. Made to communicate and produce data, these larger-than-life objects are as fascinating as their subjects…

Top image: Wax models of Sarcoptes scabiei (itch mite) produced by Rudolf Weisker, Leipzig (Germany), probably late 1870s or early 1880s. These models are listed as having been on public display at the Museum in 1911, labelled: “Sarcoptes scabiei: enlarged wax models, male & female + mouth parts”.

On the trail of the evolution of mammals

Woman sitting on top of a large, layered rock formation

Elsa Panciroli recently joined the Museum research team as an Early Career Leverhulme Research Fellow. Elsa is a Scottish palaeontologist, whose studies focus on the early evolutionary origins of mammals, working extensively on fossils from the Isle of Skye. Here she tells us how her work will combine studies of mammal evolution with stunning new fossil finds from Scotland.

We are mammals. This means we share a common ancestor with creatures as different as hippos, opossums and platypuses. All of us are united in one taxonomic group by a suite of characteristics in our bodies, but principally, that we feed our young on milk. Every mammal from a baboon to a blue whale produces milk for their offspring, and this makes us unique among animals alive on Earth today.

Wareolestes rex is a Middle Jurassic mammal, illustrated here by Elsa Panciroli

But not all mammals bring their young up in the same way; raising a kitten is nothing like raising a kangaroo or a platypus. Kittens are born stumbling around with their eyes closed, while platypus babies are laid in eggs – yes eggs – and when they hatch they look like little scampi. Both are underdeveloped at birth or hatching, but that’s nothing compared to kangaroos. They leave the womb only millimetres in length, and wriggle their way like living jellybeans toward a teat in the marsupial pouch, where they latch on. Only after two months of milk-drinking are they able to hop for themselves and leave the pouch.

The different ways that mammals are born and grow is a huge area of scientific research. But there are still some major questions to answer about the evolution of these growth patterns. When did the ancestors of mammals stop laying eggs? Were they born defenceless, or able to fend for themselves? How quickly did they grow up and how long did they live?

The Rock Hyrax (Procavia capensis) is a terrestrial mammal native to Africa and the Middle East

Over the next three years at the Museum, I’ll be looking for evidence in the fossil record to help us try and answer some of these questions. I’ll study living mammals to understand how they are born and grow, combining this information with data from some of the amazing fossils being found on the Isle of Skye. With collaborators in South Africa I’ll try and work out how the ancestors of mammals developed, and what this means for the bigger picture of the origin of mammals as a group.

Alongside my main research I hope to share lots of stories about our fossil past through the museum’s fantastic public engagement programme. I’m also very active on social media, and I write about science for online and in print publications. So if you see me on your next visit to the building, or find me online, feel free to ask about my research! I look forward to seeing you, and sharing more about the elusive and exciting origins of mammals – and ourselves.

Follow Elsa on Twitter at twitter.com/gssciencelady.

Swifts flying around the Museum tower

Flight and fight

By Chris Jarvis, Education Officer

Last week’s observations of the swift nest boxes in the Museum tower highlighted the drama the colony faces in the struggle for survival. This week’s survey made that struggle even more explicit…

Clambering through the darkened spaces of the Museum tower, lit faintly by the red lights that the swifts cannot see but which help give surveyors a dim view of the ladder rungs and observation platforms, I peered briefly into each nest box to count the birds and eggs.

In one box I came across a dead bird, alone and lying on its back. Carefully bagging up the body for later investigation I continued my count while pondering the cause of its death, the sadness relieved slightly with the discovery of new eggs in other boxes and the promise of new life to come.

The body of a dead swift found during the weekly survey of the colony of birds in the Museum tower

Screams and banging from birds prospecting for nest sites are a regular backdrop to each survey. Birds call and swoop past the boxes only inches from my ears, separated by just a few roof slates. The birds within scream back in answer. But on this occasion, half way down the tower, I became aware of particularly loud and persistent screams and banging, coming from within a box.

A quick peek inside revealed a hectic struggle between at least three swifts, wings drawn back, wrestling and rolling around, pecking and slashing at each other with their sharp claws. It was actually impossible to see if the fight involved three or four birds as the struggle filled every inch of the small box with wings, beaks, claws and feathers.

David Lack first documented these fights in his excellent book Swifts in a Tower. He proposed that they were the result of birds entering an already occupied box in the struggle to find a suitable nest site.

Swifts flying around the Museum tower
Swifts circle the tower prospecting for potential nest sites, screaming and banging to check which are occupied and which are vacant. Image: Gordon Bowdery

Sitting and anxiously listening beside the box, I recorded the fight lasting 15 minutes from the time I became aware of it. Lack documented ‘gladiatorial shows’ that lasted five and three quarter hours; they were painful to watch, he admitted, as the swifts have a surprisingly strong grip and claws capable of drawing blood, but rarely resulted in death.

When the noise died down, I gently lifted the cloth blind to take another look. Only two birds remained, both looking exhausted and fiercely gripping each other’s feet, one lying under the other. A quick flurry and the upper bird disengaged and jumped from the nest box entrance.

Cover of 2018 edition of Swifts in a Tower by David Lack
Cover of the 2018 edition of Swifts in a Tower by David Lack

Lack also mentions in his book that it is usually the bird underneath in these struggles that is the winner and I was relieved when the remaining bird picked itself up and returned to the two eggs, which had somehow remained in the nest, settled on top of them and preened itself. This suggested that the nest’s original occupant had won, driving off an intruder.

The screaming and banging outside the boxes is a check for a screamed response from within. It reveals whether a box is already occupied or empty, before the bird risks entry. Presumably, the fight I witnessed was the result of a bird not hearing a response or perceiving it as coming from another box.

The drama of the fight illustrates the incredible importance of nest sites and the fidelity the swifts have to them after a year on the wing. Nest sites are at a premium and swifts are almost totally dependent on nesting in old buildings as there are so few forests with suitably old, cavity filled trees remaining.

Once a nest is occupied the owners will fight furiously to defend it and David Lack did record occasional incidents of birds fighting to the death. So perhaps this was the cause of the dead bird I had found lying on its back, but that will have to wait for a later examination.

Meanwhile keep an eye on our nest box; you never know what drama may play out next…

It is important to record nest sites and, if you can, put up nest boxes. RSPB’s Oxford Swift City project, which the Museum and Oxford City Council were involved in, annually surveys and records nesting sites so that development in these areas is restricted during the breeding season and developers must include plans to protect and provide new nest sites when repairs to property or new building takes place. If you would like to help with the work of conserving one of the most dramatic annual migrants to our shores visit the RSPB site.