An exclusive behind the scenes visit to Oxford University Museum of Natural History

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Oxford University Museum of Natural History

On Wednesday 12th April UKAFH members were welcomed to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History for an exclusive  behind-the-scenes tour organised by UKAFH leader Andrew Bayliss.

We met outside the museum at 10:30 and entered as a group to be signed in for our special tour.  We were welcomed by Eliza Howlett and Juliet Hay who introduced us to the museum, its aims and its collections.  OUMNH display as much as they are able to and include good quality labelling and information boards to provide an excellent learning and research facility for amateurs and professionals alike. Numerous specimens are “hand-on” so can be handled to aid familiarity.

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Iguanodon bernissartensis skeleton in the central hall

The collection is formed from specimens that have been recovered by museum personnel as well as many, many donations from collectors, including items collected and curated by some of the pioneers of palaeontology whose curiosity and enquiry gave rise to the science at a time when the notion of earth science and palaeontology were seen as a blasphemy. The collection includes specimens found, documented or curated by such important figures as Robert Plot, first curator of the Ashmolean museum and author in 1677 of Natural History of Oxfordshire; William Buckland, geologist and scientist who first described megalosaurus, the first ever named dinosaur; and fossils from Lyme Regis found by renowned women Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot.

Following our introduction we divided into two groups in preparation for our back-of-house tours.  My own group began in the research laboratories with Juliet, who led us though corridors lined with fossils and displays to the back buildings and the palaeontology conservation and preparation lab.  The room was lined with familiar equipment such as storage trays, microscopes, brushes and preparation tools, preparation stations and also specialist storage units.

Juliet explained some of the techniques used in scanning and preparing fossils, beginning by explaining how a pliosaur collected by museum staff  from an Oxfordshire quarry was safely and carefully extracted.  The marine reptile was discovered during a routine site visit and was found unexpectedly.  It was very close to being destroyed by the work machinery excavating the quarry so the discovery was very timely and decidedly pleasing.  Juliet commented that complete specimens are only very rarely recovered because of the highly mechanised and industrial nature of modern quarries where rock is quickly and expediently removed and many specimens that may be within the location are simply chewed up and destroyed by the plant.  We were told of how the very fragile specimen was carefully extracted by first cutting a trench around the fossil in-situ, covering it with a layer of wet tissue then plaster-impregnated bandages to form a secure and immovable jacket before lifting the entire specimen, piece by piece, and transporting it to the lab. Once offsite, the specimen was CT scanned, still within the matrix, to discover the lie of the bones.

Juliet was currently working on the preparation of the skull of “Eve”,  the plesiosaur famously found at Must Farm quarry near Peterborough last year, using the scan to assist her.  Whilst this method may seem non-traditional, it does permit Juliet to appreciate where the bones are whilst carefully removing the matrix to avoid as much damage and loss to the extremely fragile skull.  All of the preparation is done meticulously by hand with regular breaks because the focus and attention required is so exhausting.  Juliet was using manual tools due to the soft clay but has air pens and abrasives for use on tougher matrix.

Next, Juliet told us a little more about her work, which not only includes fossil preparation but also fossil replication, making casts and replicas of fossils for display, sharing with other institutions and research.  We were able to see the silicone mould Juliet uses to make identical reproductions of Buckland’s famous Megalosaurus jaw – a fossil of enormous importance as the fossil that gave birth to palaeontology and the naming of the Dinosauria.  The silicone mould preserves every detail of the fossil and is more practical and sensitive than the techniques first adopted using clay. Juliet also showed us some 3D printed ammonite specimens and asked us to handle both the original fossil and also the 3D models and tell us whether we thought there was a difference.  In fact, the 3D printed ammonite was rough whereas the ammonite was smooth; Juliet explained that this was an effect of the scanner reading incorrectly due to light refraction from the ammonite’s highly polished surface.  So, although 3D printing is inexpensive and permits scaling of the object, it is not yet a perfect technique for fossil reproduction. However, for an item such as the ammonite in question, a cast is also imperfect as the body chamber cannot be moulded in silicone due to it’s delicacy so must be modelled as if infilled. Finally, we were shown a reproduction of an important fossil jaw, the original of which was lost to bombing during the second world war.  Because casts were made the fossil can still be studied.

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Mould for the Buckland Megalosaurus jaw and 3D printed ammonite.

Before leaving the preparation lab, Juliet invited us to look under the microscope.  What appeared to be a few tiny hairs to the naked eye proved to be belemnite hooks discovered in the clay recovered with the plesiosaur skull!

Moving on, Juliet took us deeper into the warren of back rooms to a large space which needs to be booked due to high demand for resource.  Within was “Eve”, the incomplete fossil filling the entire room.  Some of the skeleton has not been removed from matrix, particularly around the stomach area and also towards the tail, due to the matrix being too solid to risk extracting the bone without damage. Juliet told us the matrix around the stomach was likely of a different nature to the surrounding matrix due to the large volume of organic matter – flesh and intestinal contents – affecting the preservation in that area and also the chemical makeup of the fossilization. Another clast of more solid matrix had formed further down the skeleton and would also not be removed.  However the University had been able to scan the entire skeleton and hoped to have both the original skeleton, as prepared as possible, and also a complete model skeleton on display by 2018.

After visiting Eve we returned to the main hall and handed ourselves into the care of Eliza Howlett who would show us the historical collections and explain their importance. We began in an Aladdin’s cave of fossils, the Jurassic room.  This space filled to brimming with tantalising cupboards and drawers houses all of the collections from Jurassic Britain.  Collections are carefully ordered and labelled and are visited around 100 times a year by visitors hoping to see and study the fossils.  Eliza explained that the popularity of Tracey Chevalier’s historical novel, “Remarkable Creatures” had brought an increase in visitors hoping to see Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot’s famous discoveries in Lyme Regis at a time when fossils were only just beginning to be understood and explained. Eliza opened the drawers to reveal Elizabeth Philpot’s extraordinary fossil finds including possibly the most exquisite Dapedium fish of any museum collection. Elizabeth Philpot was a friend and supporter of Mary Anning whose specialism became fossil fish.  She collected and prepared numerous exceedingly important and exceptionally preserved complete specimens from the Lyme Regis locality during her lifetime.

In the very same cabinet, and appropriately so for he was a contemporary and acquaintance of both women, were fossils which came to the museum from William Buckland’s personal collection.  We were shown Buckland’s coprolites, a fossil which amused and intrigued the scientist.  Buckland had a number of coprolite specimens cut, polished and set into a table in the manner of pietra dura  for his own amusement; as well as in fact looking rather beautiful and interesting it tickled him to know his guests were unwittingly dining upon a surface made of dung! The table can be seen at the Lyme Regis Museum. More seriously, Buckland conducted a number of experiments to study and understand the formation of coprolites which involved obtaining and filling the intestines of extant species of fish, ray and shark with his own patented plaster named Roman cement to deduce that the shapes of coprolites – smooth, spiral, globular… – are determined by the shape of the intestine.  His experimental pseudo-coprolites, still encased in their intestines, were also in the drawer.

While we all marvelled at the extraordinary fossils before us and their sheer quantity Eliza explained that the collections were amassed from some purchased items but in the main from many thousands of donated collections.  It is a constant struggle to catalogue all of the specimens held, particularly those donated without clear labelling, however the museum always accepts donations and does not cherry-pick which specimens to take or leave.  This is not only out of respect for the fossils and the collectors but also because our understanding of fossils and the fossil record is constantly changing and specimens that seem incomplete and unimportant now could prove to be otherwise one day. Eliza related to us a particular collection which has been donated which is, in the main, carefully and precisely labelled but has been donated because the donor can no longer manage his collection.  Although now in a nursing home, he is still able to relate the details of each fossil so little by little the collection is being catalogued.  Volunteers also assist with cataloguing.

We noticed some specimens were labelled to caution that pyrite oxidisation was present and Eliza told us about the museum’s preservation technique which involved providing as close as possible to an anaerobic environment for the specimens to avoid oxidization. Items are chamically treated and placed in a virtually airless bag along with silica gel to absorb any remaining moisture.  A second and third sealed bag are added, enabling the specimen to be observed through the clear outer without gaining access to air. Specimens are checked and silica gel replaced annually.

Tearing ourselves away from the Jurassic room and itching to peek into every drawer (nay, every room!) we proceeded to a room holding historically the most important fossils in the museum’s collection and perhaps even the world.  Before us were first editions of Plot’s and Buckland’s descriptive illustrated texts and – the actual megalosaurus jaw which Buckland described and which led to Owen naming the first ever of the Dinosauria. The specimen was as magnificent as it was awe-inspiring; beautifully preserved with its single erupted tooth and with further teeth evident and beginning to erupt.  We were able to inspect and enjoy this extraordinary specimen from just inches away and it was a joy.

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THE Megalosaurus jaw

We also saw Plot’s early fossil descriptions, which included Megalosaurus fossils (although at the time it was unknown what it actually was) published some 150 years earlier. Although fossils had been known for thousands of years and held as precious, mythological or God-given objects of great beauty and mystery, they were yet to be understood.  Plot realised, almost a century and a half before Buckland, that some rocks resembled living things and understood that, whilst some objects were truly just similar, others were almost certainly actual bones, shells and creatures turned to stone. He described these objects, with illustrations, as being of the appearance of this or that body part.  In the illustration shown in the image below, the large bulbous object next to the “foot” was described as resembling a body part but Plot recognised it as a large bone due to the porous interior structure.  It was not confirmed to be such by comparison to other bone specimens from suitably large animals such as horse and elephant.  In fact, it was part of the limb of – a megalosaurus.

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Robert Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire, 1677

Other specimens on display in the “holy of holies” included a book where the paddle of an plesiosaur was first described, based on a fossil found by Mary Anning.  although not entirely accurate it was a beginning both to describing this new creature and furthering the fledgling science of palaeontology.  It is unknown whether the drawing led to Mary arranging the fossil or the fossil was arranged by Mary then drawn.  However both the book and the original fossil are here, side by side, perfectly.

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Mary Anning’s plesiosaur paddle and the text in which it was published

Alongside was the important, very early collection of fossils belonging to Edward Lhwyd, assistant to Robert Plot who went on to succeed him as Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum.  The collection was formerly disbanded and spread out into different displays and stores.  Now the collection has been painstakingly re-assembled. Seventy five specimens can be identified in his published catalogue of British fossils in the Ashmolean Museum, Lithophylacii Britannici ichnographia, 1699. The book was written in Latin so it could be read throughout all of Europe.

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With great reluctance we concluded our tour, peeking into a specimen store on the way to see some of the larger fossils including holotype specimens such as Stratesaurus taylori and a huge pliosaur skull.

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Holotype skull fossil


Thus concluded our private tour, however we still had the whole of the museum to explore.  Exhibits include a vast range of specimens, displayed both by age and also type, to give a clear understanding of the relationships between organisms and across time.  I took a lot of photographs to assist me with cataloging some of my own finds once home.  There are also exhibits specific to Oxfordshire, organised by strata, skeletal exhibits, minerals and scientific displays including Buckland’s collections, the Oxfordshire dodo and a great deal more.

UKAFH would like to express our sincere thanks the OUMNH for welcoming us and particularly to Eliza and Juliet for their time and wealth of information provided.

The collections at are well worth a visit!

Sam Caethoven

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