– ‘eclectic and wondrous’ Daily Telegraph
Luckily for Cambridge, the hugely successful Discoveries exhibition, which has been attracting very favourable reviews and crowds of people to 2 Temple Place in London is coming to Cambridge. The London viewing of this display of ‘Art, Science and Exploration from the University of Cambridge Museums’ comes to an end on 27th April but then opens again in the Fitzwilliam Museum from 27 May to 27 July.
Treasures from the Sedgwick Museum that will be on display include a magnificent Jurassic age ‘monster of the abyss’, an ichthyosaur from Lyme Regis in Dorset. This spectacular fossil was found nearly 200 years ago by Mary Anning, the famous fossil collector. It was one of her best and most complete finds of these extraordinary dolphin-shaped marine reptiles.
The specimen was bought in 1835 for £50 by Adam Sedgwick, the Woodwardian professor of geology, which was a great deal of money in the early 19th Century. But for Mary Anning and her family, such precious finds were rare, and excavating them from the coastal cliffs around Lyme Regis was a hazardous occupation. Mary’s father was badly injured in a fall and her dog was killed in another cliff collapse.
Another of the Sedgwick Museum specimens on display, is one which has visitors guessing. It is a large fossil ammonite with a curiously coiled shell – technically known as a heteromorph, which just means ‘different shape’. Instead of having a simple coiled shell, this one began to uncoil at a late stage in its growth.
The ammonites, as any fossil enthusiast will know, belong to a group of marine shellfish distantly related to the squids and cuttlefish, which died out at the same time as the dinosaurs – in the end Cretaceous extinction event, 65 million years ago.
Known as Australiceras, this particular ammonite is around 120 million years old and was found in Cretaceous age sandstones at Atherfield in the Isle of Wight. As its name suggests, this kind of ammonite is also known from Australia, which shows that they must have been able to swim freely across the oceans of the world.
The Sedgwick Museum’s contribution also includes some important historical specimens drawn from the original Woodwardian bequest of 9000 specimens, which formed the basis of this the oldest of the University’s museums and one of the oldest in the world with an intact collection dating from the late 17th Century. The collection was originally amassed by Dr John Woodward, a London physician, and includes a wide range of natural objects from gemstones and dried leaves to fossils and man-made objects such as Palaeolithic stone handaxes. When Woodward was assembling his cabinet of curiosities, there was still a question of what was and what was not a fossil.
Woodward became increasingly convinced by the modern argument that fossils are the remains of once living organisms, which have been preserved in ancient sedimentary rocks. However, his collection of ‘fossils’ includes some objects obtained from the Earth, which would today be regarded as inorganic in origin, such as the large septarian nodule on display. Such nodules develop in sediments as they are changing from being unconsolidated deposits into harder and more compact rocks, due to changing chemical environment. They often have curious amorphous shapes but some accidently end up with anthropomorphic forms which superficially resemble human limbs, which caused no end of confusion for early naturalists.
Woodward’s wonderful hoard is still in the process of being reassessed in modern terms and is producing some interesting surprises, such as a piece of dinosaur bone, which is one of the oldest surviving specimen of a dinosaur, found nearly 200 years before dinosaurs were first recognized as a distinctive group of extinct reptiles.
The Sedgwick Museum’s contribution to the ‘Discoveries’ exhibition is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If Discoveries stimulates you to find out more then come to the Museum to view our extensive display of rocks, minerals and fossils which illustrate the dramatic history and development of Earth, its life and environments.