Monday, 3 October 2011

Palaeontological Illustration: Petrifications And Their Teachings

One of my favourite palaeontology books was a gift from my wife for my birthday, an original copy of Gideon Mantell's handbook and explanatory catalogue of the Gallery of Organic Remains of the British Museum where these specimens were originally house before the construction of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington (Owen's edifice being completed in 1881, some thirty years after this book was published). Mantell is one of my personal heros and this marvellous book is a fine tribute to his ability and insight as well as his passion for his subject.

The illustrations are all black and white and no credit is attributed to the artist, however as the book was published by as part of Bohn's Scientific Library it's possible they had their own illustrators work on the plates, or they were sourced directly from the British Museum itself - more on that subject later. The images are all line work and are crisp and clear, with the details of fossils picked out and unfussy diagrams and reconstructions. Here is a small selection of the images I find particularly inspiring:

Skull of the Moa, excavated by Mantell's son, Walter in New Zealand.

Iguana lower jaw and teeth. This was part of the section on Mantell's beloved Iguanodon in which he compares the teeth of the reptile with those his wife Mary (so the story goes) found near Cuckfield. The specimen illustrated was presented to Mantell by Baron Cuvier.

Plesiosaurus hawkinsii. This specimen was recovered from a quarry in Street, Somerset by Thomas Hawkins after he had fled London in 1831 when Cholera arrived in the city. He gives a harrowing account of the situation in the capital ("what havoc and death!") before detailing his trip to Somerset across the Mendips (which he endearingly describes as "The British Alps", presumably having never seen Snowdonia, the Highlands or the actual Alps) on the Bath Mail coach. Much to his intense annoyance he found the specimen had been smashed to pieces by the quarry workers despite giving a quarryman named Creese a retainer to keep any bones he discovered with whilst quarrying. Several pieces had been lost, but Hawkins gathered the remainder up, "forgot the pestilence" and spent the next two months day and night prepping the piece, which he called his "hewn-god".

The superb Belemnoteuthis antiquus (modern spelling is Belemnotheutis) illustration, showing the soft tissues of this specimen. In 1843 Richard Owen misinterpreted some of the structures of this fossil, and concluded that this was a belemnite and not a separate genus. He then wrote a paper, named the species after himself and failed to credit the original amateur palaeontologist (one Joseph Channing Pearce) with the discovery. Five years later Mantell presented a description of Belemnotheutis fossils recovered by his son Reginald (who had been involved in the construction of the Great Western Railway) to the Royal Society proposing that Belemnotheutis was indeed a separate genus as originally thought, and Owen had got it all wrong despite receiving a Royal Medal for the paper (information gleaned from wikipedia). Unsurprisingly, Owen was unimpressed and Mantell was forced to defend himself publicly and Mantell alludes to this in a footnote in Petrifications and Their Teachings. Interestingly, the wikipedia page for Belemnotheutis credits this drawing to Samuel Pickworth Woodward, but I have not been able to verify this is correct. Woodward was First-class assistant in the Department of Geology and Mineralogy at the British Museum between 1848 and 1865, so all these illustrations could conceivably be attributed to him.

Mantell's footnotes provide wonderful insights into his life and the life of those collectors and scientists he so admired. His feud with Owen (at one point Mantell states "but alas! to doubt Professor Owen's infallibility was a deadly sin, and I have no hope of forgiveness!") was one of the great clashes of personality in the history of palaeontology.

Pterifications and their Teachings was published in 1851 and a year later the 62 year-old Mantell, disabled and wracked by the pain of injuries sustained in coaching accident years before, died of an opium overdose. Owen had part of Mantell's spine removed, pickled and stored at the Royal College of Surgeons. It was destroyed in 1969 for lack of space.

The wonderful illustrations in this book are a fitting tribute to one of the fathers of modern palaeontology, and should provide continuing inspiration to those who hold the craft of scientific illustration close to their hearts.

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