The museum is pleased to welcome our new Collections and Exhibitions intern Andrew Knapp. Andrew comes to us following a Master’s degree at the Natural History Museum in London, and is working with us to sort and catalogue the museum’s fossil collection, and develop a new fossil exhibition for our John Ray Natural History Gallery. Below is his first blog post on the fossil project – we hope you enjoy!
“It is surprising what can turn up where you least expect it. Take fossils, for instance. Essex is not well-known for its fossils. Its geology is not as ancient as Wales or the West Country; there are no rocky outcrops as you might find in Yorkshire, Dorset or The Isle of Wight, and no ancient reptiles have been discovered here. So, it may be surprising at what can be found locally. A trip to Walton-On-The-Naze may yield a tooth of Carcharodon megalodon, the largest shark that has ever lived. Fossil bird and reptile bones may be found in the mud of the Crouch estuary. And, more recently, giant mammals roamed Southern England. Rhinoceroses and Mammoths adapted to the extreme cold of the Ice Age and lived in this region as recently as 14,000 years ago. The bones of these are well-known from around the Thames Estuary, but Mammoth teeth have also been found in Bocking. Braintree District Museum possesses no less than four mammoth teeth that have been found locally over the years, and two of these are currently on display. The museum has also recently acquired giant shark’s tooth which is currently on display. Come along and marvel at the size of these two creatures!
Local fossils are not just restricted to the ice age. Much of the geological deposits that cover Essex were deposited during the last Ice Age, which ended around 12,000 years ago. During this time, great glaciers extended down the length of Britain and scoured the underlying rocks as they slowly flowed overhead. The material that they picked up was deposited as they melted away, leaving fragments from far across the island on the surface. So, a dig in the garden may turn up a fossil sea urchin from 85 million years ago, or a 200 million year-old relative of the oyster. Much of the fossil collection of the museum has been discovered in this way. A couple of generous bequests from the late 80s and early 90s have yielded an impressive array of small marine fossils that could quite easily be missed when digging a new flower bed. Just this year a beautiful fossil sea urchin was discovered very near the museum in Manor Street. It lived 90 million years ago, in the Cretaceous period, but who knows where it has travelled between then and now!
More mysterious still are the number of items in the collection of which we have no information. A glass displaycabinet of unlabeled fossils recently removed from the Victorian classroom contained, amongst other things, two large fragments of fossilised bone. These were certainly not found locally as the encasing rock is not from Essex, and they are in too good condition to have been dumped by a melting glacier. It is likely that they were donated at some point, but no paperwork exists to verify this. This is a mystery that will need the help of an expert, so I have contacted The Natural History Museum to help us in identifying where they’re from and what they are.
Keep an eye on this blog to find out more about the museum’s fossil collection and the progress of our fossil project. And next time you’re in the garden, taking a stroll, or rummaging through dusty boxes of fossils, take some time to look closer at what’s there. You might just surprise yourself.”