If you are in London in the vicinity of the Mall, perhaps visiting the ICA, take a half hour or so to nip into the nearby number 7 Carlton House Terrace, home of the Royal Society. It currently hosts a little gem of an exhibition called ‘Fossils: the evolution of an idea’. The exhibit is a great idea and very nicely executed with fossils from the University of Cambridge’s historic Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences along with books and archival material from the Royal Society Library. But it appears that very few people know of the exhibition’s existence. The good thing is that you will almost certainly have the place to yourself with an unimpeded view of the exhibits, which do need close scrutiny.
Most people today would perhaps claim to have a pretty clear idea of what fossils are – the bones and shells of extinct organisms such as dinosaurs, ammonites and trilobites. But such a clear-cut view has only been prevalent over the last 300 years or so. Before that the question of what exactly fossil are, how they are formed and what they originated from was one of the key debates in Renaissance Europe when the foundations of modern science were being laid down in Europe.
The 17th century idea of fossils differed significantly from our modern understanding. Over 300 years ago, a ‘fossil’ was literally something ‘dug up’ and was derived from the Latin noun ‘fossilis’. Consequently, the concept of ‘fossils’ included objects of both organic and inorganic origin. And, there was a long running debate over whether fossils were in fact stones formed within the ground, as indeed most natural mineral crystals are, or the remains of once living organisms, which had died and subsequently been buried in the ground.
The problem was that many fossils had a remarkably organic-looking form, often with close resemblances to living plants and animals. However, the stony mineral composition of such fossils confused the issue, especially as many fossils combine readily visible internal crystalline structures with an external organic form.
Fossils: the evolution of an ideaexplores the debate, using contemporary texts, illustrations and some of the actual fossils that were being argued about. You can see works by those, such as Martin Lister (1639-1702) and Edward Lhuyd (1660-1709), who argued against the organic nature of fossils and the likes of Nicolas Steno (1638-1686) and Robert Hooke (1635-1703) who were pioneers of their organic nature.
It is great to see the wonderful books and illustrations, many of which are really impressive and stand alone as high points in the history of scientific illustration. The addition of fossils from the Sedgwick Museum’s vast collections, is a real plus and gives the whole exhibition a lift.
Of particular interest are the fossils and illustrations by Agostino Scilla (1629-1700), a well known Sicilian painter and naturalist. Remarkably, his specimens have survived over the centuries in John Woodward’s (1665-1728) collection, which he bequeathed to the University of Cambridge and formed the basis for the Sedgwick Museum. When you look carefully at the specimens, the problems presented by fossils, as perceived in the 17th century, become much clearer. Not only are fossils ‘denatured’ with loss of soft tissues and colour but they are palpably stony and some are broken and distorted from their original form and have crystalline internal structures.
Given the lack of scientific understanding of the geological processes, which transform organic remains into lithified fossils, it is not surprising that the issue was not at all clear. And, considering all the huffing and puffing in recent decades about ‘Martian microbes’in meteorites and the present question of what are or what are not the earliest known microbial fossils, we should not be sniffy about our forbears confusion.
An exhibition at the Royal Society, London, 7, Carlton House Terrace
From Monday July 1st to Friday November 8th, 2013
The exhibition is free, open to all (Monday to Friday, 10.00am to 5.00pm) and no prior booking is necessary.