The Mineral collection at the Natural History Museum, and Flint Nodules along the River Thames

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Natural History Museum


Yesterday we went to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, on recommendation from Hedda, a friend of mine who also collects rocks. We were there largely to see their vast mineral collection and I wanted to see how their rocks were displayed – so we skipped all the animals and went straight for the geological section…

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I wanted to be systematic and to read every single label in loving, adoringly attentive detail – but… after the first few hundred rocks and mineral names you begin to lose the will to want to absorb or comprehend it all. There are just too many rocks. So.. many… rocks…….. The sheer volume is almost madness-inducing. And if you will believe the wikipedia entry on the Natural History Museum…

“J.E. Gray (Keeper of Zoology 1840-74) complained of the incidence of mental illness amongst staff: George Shaw threatened to put his foot on any shell not in the 12th edition of Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae; another had removed all the labels and registration numbers fromentomological cases arranged by a rival. The huge collection of conchologist Hugh Cuming was acquired by the museum, and Gray’s own wife had carried the open trays across the courtyard in a gale: all the labels blew away. That collection is said never to have recovered.”

(I haven’t been able to find any copy of Lynn Barber’s “The heyday of natural history, 1820-1870” in order to verify the colourful stories quoted in the entry above but I have to admit I do enjoy the idea of the natural sciences being an attractor for the eccentrics…)

Here is a quick run through the NMH’s collections:

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Molybdenite (Grey plates with quartz prisms, from Baker’s Mine, New South Wales, Australia)

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Silver

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Gold

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Bismuth

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Arsenic

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lovely mass of dendritic growths

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flattened cubo-octahedra

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Rhodochrosite massive + tapering prisms

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Chalcedony from Iceland (!!!)

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Dartmoor Granite (commonly used in london curbstones)

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Shap Granite (another commonly used British granite with pink feldspar)

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Agates

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Big lovely Geode

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Iridescent massive

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Slightly iridescent stalactite

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Fantastic radiating bladed crystals

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Another iridescent massive

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“Iron froth”

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Hematite

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Crystal crust

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Twin quartz crystal

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Interpenetrant twin crystals

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“Radiating crystalline in cavities of wad”. Who comes up with these excellent names for the rocks?

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Interlacing prisms

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Bluish banded massive

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Quartz

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Siliceous Sinter in rods and convolutions

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Sassolite

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Aurorite

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Calcite “Iceland Spar”

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More Calcite

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Even more Calcite

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Mamilated Crust with Malachite and Wad

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Botryoidal with Crystalline surface

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Group of prisms with cerussite

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Malachites

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Aurichalcites + Malachites

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Prehnite Geode

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Removed Specimens

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Rhodonite

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Lepidolite

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Stillbite

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Whitlockite

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Vivianite


Etc… There were more but near the end I was running through the aisles tearing my hair out whilst screaming “OH GOD, OH GOD, NOT MORE ROCKS”. Also, any one who brings their small child into the geological section – and who is not willing to read every single label to their child – even though their child is shorter than the display cabinets in the museum (and thus unable to see any of the rocks) and then leaves their child free to have a run around the museum like a psychotic howling monkey should be roundly smacked and their child should be taken outside and given a free double expresso. And a free kitten. And a big massive sugary stick of Blackpool Rock. Yeah, I bet that’ll teach them.

Has anyone actually managed to get through all the rocks? Or has everyone else fallen over after suffering the big fat massive rock photo-overload? Great, now I’ll get on with the interesting part of this post…

FLINT NODULES IN THE RIVER THAMES

If there was one useful thing I picked up after going through a few thousand rocks, it was that I have learnt that the type of “Thames River rock” that I have been seeing strewn along the banks of the part of the Thames in London could be identified as “Flint” or “Nodular Chert”.

I have been wondering about what kind of rocks they were for some time but no one could tell me and I did not have a geological dictionary nor the appropriate vocabulary to find what I was looking for. Visually, they are quite distinctive because they consist of a hard, waxy quartz type rock surrounded by a thin layer of something else.

The examples being displayed at NHM looked like this:

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‘FLINT’ from the Chalk
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‘FLINT’ enclosing chalcedony nodule


One might notice that they have chosen to describe it as ‘FLINT’ with the quotation marks around it. Apparently the terms “Flint” and “Chert” are often mixed up or used interchangeably in Britain…

From an information panel at the NHM: “Flint or chert?

The inconsistent use of the terms ‘flint’ and ‘chert’ for siliceous deposits leads to much confusion. However, it is widely understood that flint is a synonym for chert often referring to nodules and bands within the Chalk of Europe. Whereas chert refers to siliceous deposits occurring in other limestones and sandstones.

Flint is formed by the concentration of mobilized silica from siliceous organisms within the carbonate host rock into voids such as burrows and along bedding planes. This process occurs during the early stages of burial. Since the process replaces the host rock, some flint nodules preserve the original features of the Chalk.”

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Example of Flint Nodule at NHM


If you ask me, it looks like the Thames Rocks are indeed “flint” nodules then. This is what I observed on the pebbled banks of the Thames in October:

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If interested to poke about some rocks, you can find steps access to the River Thames along the south bank – there should be a couple not far from Southbank Centre / Oxo Building / Millennium Bridge.

On the Rights of Rocks to Stay or to Go

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Yesterday, a strange incident occurred here in Stamford Hill. It was somewhere after midnight when there was suddenly a loud shattering of glass in the room. No one was hurt, but the whole room was covered in small glass fragments, even in the bookshelves. We had been facing the other wall when it happened. We looked at the lightbulbs to see if they had blown, but in the end discovered the source of all the broken glass was a gaping hole in the window. Somebody or something had broken the window with some projectile. We could not ascertain if it had been a rock or a pellet gun or something more sinister, so we called the police to let them know – just in case it had been a serial incident in the area.

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After we had called the police, we discovered a small half-rock on the sofa. By half-rock I mean a rock that looked like it had been shattered into two by a hammer. Unfortunately, as people who have been following my blog or my work will know, I collect rocks (and half-rocks in particular). This is probably the first time that I’ve discovered any downside to being a rock collector, and that would be: Not being sure if the rock on the sofa is the projectile that someone just used to break the window – or just another a rock from your rock collection?…

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Example: Thames River half-rocks from my rock collection


So when Hackney police called back (and came by to file the report), we told them about the rock but with the caveat that that one of us was a rock collector and could not tell for sure if it was our rock or the offending projectile. This did, however, prompt me to take out my bag full of Thames rocks and Paris rocks and I examined all of them. Based on its appearance, it seemed like it could conceivably be one of my rocks… but what would it be doing in the sofa that we frequently dusted off and rearranged? It was a far leap from G’s mantlepiece. And the angle was all wrong for it to have come from the hole in the window…

“You can go ahead and touch the rock,” the policeman said when he came around, “we can’t take fingerprints on rocks or test for minerals or fibers, or that sort of thing.” Good thing to know next time you need to commit a crime with a rock… They ain’t gonna to be able to do much forensics with it after all…

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Later that night, after we had picked up most of the glass off the carpet, I decided to pick up and read The Book of Books which I picked up at dOCUMENTA(13). The book itself is ridiculously huge (23 x 6.1 x 28 cm) and heavy (2.5kg), so I have been deliberating on whether to take the book back to Singapore in my check-in luggage.

Since I can’t take an infinite amount of things in my luggage, I’ve taken the precautions of mailing back parcels of the large and heavy items I had accumulated over the last few months. Recently, I also shipped back a number of very heavy slabs of pavement rocks from Paris – rocks that technically had no value except that they were pavement rocks that I had collected by hand and exhibited in a show. People have been asking me whether I would bring the rocks back to Singapore – and I did think for a very long time about whether I should remove them from their country of origin. But there was no conceivable way that I could leave them there where I had found them, where no one would know their significance to me; how could I ever justify throwing them out? So, I was compelled to take them with me, no matter what. But 20kg of rocks is very expensive to ship from France to Singapore. Firstly, without the help of Elio I would never have been able to even shift them to the post office as they were too heavy for me to carry on my own; and secondly, as it was to be expected, it was enormously expensive to ship them back to Singapore: the resultant shipping for 20kg of rocks cost a few hundred Euros… and on top of that, they are still somewhere lost in transit as we speak… I suppose 20kg of rocks in a cardboard wrapping would look pretty suspicious…

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The weight of these items – which prevents them from being physically transported in a convenient or casual fashion – also gives them certain import. For example, after all these travels about Europe, I know for a certainty now that any single piece of luggage exceeding 28kg is physically impossible for me to lift – or so much as feebly drag along the ground, no matter how much I desire it. The truth of the matter is that it is physically impossible for me to lift any piece of luggage that is heavier than 28kg. If I had found a rock that was 28kg heavy, there would be absolutely no question of asking if I would carry the rock home with me because it would not be physically possible to do so in the first place.

I read Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s opening essay to The Book of Books with much interest because it involves a story about another abortive attempt to move a very big rock. She writes about one of the few projects that was publicly announced but eventually did not come to fulfillment at dOCUMENTA(13) – the proposal by Argentinian artists Guillermo Faivovich and Nicholas Goldberg to bring El Chaco, the second largest meteorite in the world, from its original resting place north of Argentina, to a temporary location in Kassel that would have been not far from Walter De Maria’s Vertical Earth Kilometre (a metal rod of 5cm diameter that appears as a flat circular disc when viewed from the top but which goes 1km deep into the ground).

Apparently Argentine law prohibits the removal of any of the meteorite fragments from the Chaco province, but had made a turn-around and approved the move of El Chaco specifically for the purposes of documents, with the provincial government citing it as a chance to spread awareness of the impoverished area of Chaco and its meteorites. However, there was opposition to the move from the aboriginal Moqoit natives for whom the El Chaco is a sacred monument, backed by scientists, some of whom have written passionately on the issue.

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Image from artinfo.com


As quoted in many articles, one of the most outspoken of letters is from a social anthropologist Alejandro López who wrote: “We firmly believe that this project implies a deeply colonialist attitude, wherein the artists’ desire is to link themselves with the wealth and valuables of the Chaco. Instead of this “transfer” of the meteorite as a sort of “cosmic curiosity,” it would be preferable for those who have the money and prestige to seek to promote the value of the meteorite within its place of origin.”

Searching for other articles on El Chaco, I have to admit that I found it somewhat maddening that most if not all of the news reports follow in the same tone as the letter above, condemning the artists’ intentions as “colonial” or upholding some manner of “deeply colonial attitudes” towards the ways in which “cultural objects” are to be handled.

An AFP report has the headline: “An unlikely alliance between the native Moqoit people and leading Argentine scientists has thwarted plans to ship the world’s second largest meteorite to Germany as a prestigious art exhibit.”

Thwarted! As if the artists were an evil and cruel money-grubbing force trying to steal the rock from the poor poor natives! No doubt, it remains indefensible that the artists failed to consult the Moqoit before submitting the proposal, and that past attempts by colonialists to steal their meteorites (because it was made of metal) have left “serious cultural damage” and left the Moqoit with a legacy of “suspicion and insecurity” towards anyone who should make advances on their rock.

But to chalk every subsequent proposal to move El Chaco down to an act of colonialism is surely just as much subjugating the Moquoi natives and forcing them to keep playing the role of “victim” — trapped within the old colonised-vs-colonialist mindset!

To cry “colonialist” is like falling into the trap of the “anti-colonial” stance; it perpetuates the old narratives of imperialism, colonialism, conquest, oppression, emancipation, etc; it expects that the stories should play out as power struggles between the oppressed and the oppressor; it expects that everyone in the world still has identities fixed by cultural or geographical origins; it expects that artists should make works which then have to be explained from their country of origin or socio-economic background or upbringing. And that is just so… boring.

Carolyn Christov-Bakagiev: “And what if we asked ourselves, beyond this irresolvable contradiction, what it was to see things from the position of the meteorite? It had travelled through vertiginous space before landing on Earth and settling. Would it have wished to go on this further journey? Does it have any rights, and if so, how can they be exercised? Can it asked to be buried again, as some of the Moqoit argue, or would it have enjoyed a short trip to an art exhibition, rather than a science or world’s fair? (…) What is this displaced position, generated by the perception of a simultaneous being in different spaces, where the collapse of time and distance provokes a new sense of what it means to be always in one place, and not in another place?”