Saturday, 14 September 2013

A palaeontological puzzle

Fairlynch Museum's Environment Room holds a store of treasures from a large range of sources. From stuffed birds and a Victorian ornithologist's jottings to the remarkable pebbles that Nobel prize winner Max Perutz wrote about in the 1930s. From Bronze Age tools and Roman pottery to collections of shells and fossils from the Jurassic coast.

Not too many of the latter were actually found in Budleigh, with a major exception which caused some excitement when it was first described in 1863. This was the discovery that the quartzite pebbles, or 'popples' as they were known, contained fossilised brachiopods - shellfish similar to molluscs. 
Shown above on display in the Museum, they were first written about by the amateur geologist William Vicary (1811-1903). A tanner by trade, Vicary did so well in business that he was able to retire to Exeter, where he was one of the founding members of the Devonshire Association, established in 1862. As an enthusiastic collector of fossils, encouraged by the naturalist John William Salter (1820-69), he communicated a paper on the Budleigh Salterton pebble bed to the Geological Society of London on 16 December 1863, describing 36 different fossils of which over ten were brachiopods. 

Budleigh Salterton cliffs west of Steamer Steps, a watercolour by Arthur Wyatt Edgell

One of the species which Salter named was Orthis budleighensis, a fossil which was to play an important part in matching the quartzite of the Budleigh beach pebbles to the Ordovician rocks in the Armorican Pensinsula of Normandy and Brittany. Vicary and Salter's conclusions were published the following year and were followed by further studies which appeared in learned journals. Authors included Arthur Wyatt Edgell (1837-1911), of Cowley Place, Exeter, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Devon Artillery Volunteers and Fellow of the Geological Society. An amateur watercolourist as well as an amateur geologist he noted in an 1874 article in the Society's Quarterly Journal his observation on the lamellibranchs - bivalve molluscs - of the Budleigh Salterton pebbles, while modestly adding: " This task would not have been attempted had there been any chance of a more competent person's undertaking it."

The most authoritative review of the fossils in the 19th century was by the palaeontologist Thomas Davidson (1817-85) who confirmed the geological link with France. His collection from Budleigh Salterton, largely given to him by other collectors was bequeathed to the Natural History Museum in 1885.

A former Keeper of Palaeontology at the Natural History Museum, Dr Robin Cocks, has pointed out Davidson's realisation that the Budleigh Salterton brachiopods came from two distinct Ordovician ages, the younger of which is associated with the fossils known as Orthis budleighensis.

Henry John Carter FRS,  surgeon, geologist and marine zoologist, born in Budleigh Salterton in 1813

Dr Cocks in an article of 1981 noted that it was "a Mr Carter who found the first fossils in  the pebbles in about 1835." He has since considered the possibility that it was in fact the spongiologist Henry Carter FRS (1813-95), the subject of Fairlynch's 2013 exhibition, who made the earlier discovery.

It may have been the same Carter, writes Dr Cocks, since Henry Carter wrote an extensive footnote in Davidson's 1881 monograph published by the Palaeontographical Society on the mineralogy of the various pebbles in the pebble bed. This is, he notes, the same paper in which Davidson lists 35 references to the pebbles previous to 1880.

Clearly the Budleigh pebbles have been a source of wonder for centuries. Henry Carter, the young medical student in his twenties who in future years would be praised for his studies of the geology of India and receive the Royal Society Medal would also have 26 different kinds of sponge named after him.  Perhaps the Budleigh fossils in Fairlynch Museum should be renamed Orthis carteri 

No comments:

Post a Comment