Support us | Visit us | Contact us
Original drawings of iguanodon and other fossil specimens, by Gideon Mantell FRS (1841)
Pieces of stone that looked like bones had been found for centuries along Britain's crumbling shorelines. But in the nineteenth century fossil-hunters like the famous Mary Anning discovered complete sets of bones belonging to frightening creatures from the past. Richard Owen FRS, an expert anatomist, named these dragon-like creatures 'dinosaurs'.
Victorian geologists such as Gideon Mantell FRS were fascinated by fossils and their evidence of extinct species. For the first time, maps of the earth's crust were drawn showing how the land had changed over the ages, with sea-beds becoming part of cliffs. People began to realise that the Earth was much older than they had suspected.
Artefacts on display
1. Aurochs skull with Neolithic axe.The aurochs was a species of cattle, once common throughout Europe but now extinct. This specimen has been dated to over 4000 years old. It was found in the fens near Cambridge in 1863, with a Neolithic axe embedded in the skull. The finders sold it to the assistant of Adam Sedgwick FRS, the Woodwardian Professor of Geology at the University of Cambridge.Courtesy of the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge.
2. Mineral specimens from the collection of Joseph Carne FRS.This is a small sample of the minerals collected by Joseph Carne FRS (1782-1858), a Cornish geologist and industrialist. Carne lived with his family in Penzance, and was particularly interested in local geology. He collected samples while visiting Cornish mines, and built up an important collection. When he died, he left his collection to his daughter Elizabeth, who also took over as head of the family bank. Unusually for the time, Elizabeth was elected a member of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall and published several articles in the Society's journal.Courtesy of the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge.
3. Fossils illustrating the work of Richard Owen FRS.Richard Owen (1804-1892) was a brilliant comparative anatomist and palaeontologist. He identified and catalogued animal and human specimens in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. His knowledge of anatomy helped him to predict the likely form of a fossil animal based on living examples. He invented the term 'dinosaur' and campaigned for the Natural History Museum to be founded. He researched a huge number of living and extinct animals, with the help of collections like this one.
Archaeopteryx, the earliest known bird. It dates from late in the Jurassic period (around 150-145 million years ago). The first specimen was discovered in 1861, and became a key piece of evidence in the contemporary debate over evolution. It was described by Richard Owen and mentioned by Darwin in On the Origin of Species (4th edition). This is a cast of a more complete specimen, found near Eichstätt, Germany, in 1876 or 1877.
Nautilus shell (Nautilus pompilius, modern). Owen's first significant publication was his Memoir on the Pearly Nautilus (1832), and this was largely responsible for his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1834.
Skeleton of the Venus' Flower Basket (Euplectella aspergillum, modern), a type of glass sponge. The delicate structure was very much admired in the Victorian period and specimens could fetch a high price. Owen named and described the species in 1841.
Belemnite rostrum (Belemnites sp.), a hard part of an extinct squid-like animal from the Early Jurassic (at about 190 million years ago). This example was found near Lyme Regis, an area famous for its fossils. Owen described the belemnite in a paper published in 1844 (his illustrations are on display in the exhibition).
Two teeth from the herbivorous dinosaur Iguanodon, from the Early Cretaceous period (at around 130 million years ago). These are casts of teeth found in Sussex by Gideon Mantell FRS (or possibly his wife, Mary Ann). Mantell was the first to describe Iguanodon in 1825.
The jaw of an anthracothere (Bothriodon sp.), an extinct hippopotamus-like animal from the Late Eocene (at around 35 million years ago), found on the Isle of Wight.
Extinct camel skull and foot (Poebrotherium wilsoni) from the Early Oligocene (at around 30 million years ago). In 1848, whilst working on fossils, Owen named two groups of Ungulates (hoofed mammals): the odd-toed (Perrisodactyla) and the even-toed (Artiodactyla).
Three glyptodont scutes. Glyptodons were large armadillo-like armoured mammals, some the size of a small car. Their armour was made of bone segments called scutes. Following Darwin, Owen worked on South American fossils, and in 1839 he identified and named the Glyptodon.
Ammonites; Lyme Regis and Folkestone, UK.
Brachiopods; Gloucestershire, UK.
Sea urchin; Kent, UK.
Bivalves; Kent, UK.
Lobster; Isle of Sheppey, UK.
All fossils kindly loaned by the Cambridge Science & Archaeology Forum.
Writings of Victorian Geologists: exhibition items and other material from the Royal Society's Library and Archives
1.Mastodon tooth, illustrated in Gideon Mantell's A Pictorial Atlas of Fossil Remains (London, 1850). Mantell published many books explaining fossils to a wide audience.
2. Fossil shells from chalk pits near Lewes, illustrated in Gideon Mantell's The Fossils of the South Downs (London, 1822). Mantell's wife, Mary Ann, drew all the illustrations in this volume.
3. Original manuscript of Richard Owen's article 'On the Archaeopteryx . . . with a description of the fossil remains of a long-tailed species', published in the Society's journal Philosophical Transactions in 1863. This was the first scientific description of Archaeopteryx. Owen persuaded the British Museum to buy the specimen, which had been discovered in Germany.
4. Illustrations from Richard Owen's article describing belemnites, published in 1844.
5. Illustrations from Gideon Mantell's article about belemnites, published in 1848.
6. Gideon Mantell's article 'Notice on the Iguanodon, a newly discovered fossil reptile', published in Philosophical Transactions (1825). This was Mantell's first annoucement of his new discovery, which led to his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society.
7. Contorted carboniferous rock strata at Lucan, near Dublin, by Henry James FRS, c.1843-46. James was recruited from the Royal Engineers to serve in the Ordnance Survey and as a local superintendent to the Geological Survey of Ireland. Royal Engineers were valued for their training in draughtsmanship and (from the Victorian period) photography.
Panel discussion 25 May
Public lecture 29 May
Full listing of our events and exhibitions.
Watch videos of past events.
Most of our talks are free and open to the public.
We host major conferences for leading scientists.
Explore our annual science exhibition
Contact the events team.