Misunderstandings in the Model Dinosaur Park: Overheard in Crystal Palace


Ever since I saw that famous engraving of a dinner held inside the mould of the Iguanadon, I’ve wanted to see the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs in person. And so I went to see them some months ago! (Cripes, how time flies…)

Dinner in the Iguanadon on New Year’s Eve 1853
Illustrated London News, 7 January 1854

Today the Crystal Palace may no longer be standing on the top of the hill, but its dinosaurs still survive on!

Directed by Richard Owen using the very latest scientific knowledge of the Victorian era, sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and set in a rocky landscape designed by Joseph Paxton, the entire theme park was built between 1853 and 1855 (when Hawkins was told to stop work) and apparently looks more or less like it did back then, although I followed the audiotrail which takes you on a route in the opposite direction from which most Victorian visitors would have come by. These creatures underwent restoration between 2000-2003 and were upgraded from Grade II to Grade I listed after the restoration work.

Obviously over 150 years have passed since that day and our understanding and speculation on dinosaurs has changed a lot since then. It is also obvious that rivalries between scientists also added to their misshapen-ness. But their persisting interest to us today comes from them being one of the earliest known attempts to depict dinosaurs and other extinct animals – presenting these huge concrete reconstructions to the public in the form of this terrifying theme park and shaping early notions of dinosaurs in the collective imagination. Considering their size, the fact that these huge sculptures even managed to be completed was also quite a feat at that time.



Whilst walking around the park I could not help but overhear many curious statements uttered by visitors which made me worry that perhaps the people visiting the park were somehow too busy focusing on trying to get suntans or taking pictures and selfies with their handphones and not at all reading the many detailed informational signs around the park.

It is possible that some of them had even failed to understand the premise or context of these sculptures. Alas, I suppose the practical fact of the matter is that reading dusty noticeboards about prehistoric life and making educated speculations does not necessarily rank high on the priorities of everyone on a summer’s day out. Which brings us to…



Actual statements overheard on a trip to Crystal Palace on August 13, 2016


“Ooh! Look at the snake! See that snake? Can you see the snake? Snake?”
said a grown woman to her pre-language stage toddler.


“Why is the crocodile’s beak so long?”
asked a genuinely puzzled adult woman to her male companion.


“Say what you like about these reptiles, they’re the only ones still going!”
confidently said a grown man, to his young child and elderly father.

So… I’m going to end this with a picture of an angry squirrel that I also saw in the park. (It wanted nuts. I ran out of nuts.)



VERDICT: Dinosaurs today – Still misunderstood

The Tableaux Vivants of Manchester Museum


On a recent day trip to Manchester, I visited the Manchester Museum, the museum of the University of Manchester. It happened to be directly opposite the building I was in – right opposite Kilburn Building (blocky, red-bricked Computer Science building) and University Place (building which looks like a big tin can). I was unexpectedly ejected from a campus eatery at 2.30pm, and by this point I required a little break from the non-stop RUINS THEORISING going on, and how fortuitious to have a museum right there…

The ground floor has a temporary gallery space which currently has an exhibition called “From the War of Nature”, which uses tableaux vivants to tell various stories of different animal communities fighting for survival in nature. This temporary show has no scientific labels and the stories were painted in broad and rather general strokes, which seemed odd to me even if the taxidermy was beautiful. I actually almost stopped at this point, but fortunately I decided I might as well continue on to the second floor…



Things looked a lot more exciting upstairs, which began with some local archaeology of Manchester, including a collection of roman artefacts…





It was followed by what appears to be a rather comprehensive Ancient Egyptian collection, one of the most comprehensive in the UK – with apparently around 16000 objects in their Egyptology collection, including objects from prehistoric Egypt (c. 10,000 BC) to the Byzantine era (up to around AD 600).

I suppose one thing that endeared me to this museum was the presence of these screens everywhere, which featured actual interviews with people working with the artefacts, and some screens featuring young visitors’ reflections on the artefacts, drawing a connection between the artefacts and our daily life. This made the temporary exhibition downstairs make more sense – since I understood that the museum was designed to be as accessible as possible and more of an educational experience, a kind of space which wouldn’t really portray Natural History and Science as something technical and complex, but instead as something to inspire the imagination.




Next up was the most curious hall ever – more tableaux vivants which seemed almost like art installations, based on very broad issues and themes such as EXPERIENCE…. PEACE…. etc.

On the sides, they were flanked with thoughtful quotations by people working at University of Manchester who were deeply involved in researching those areas. For example, in a section about British Wildlife, they had an interview from a guy who worked in a wildlife protection group, and they had him telling a beatific story about how he went camping once and woke up alone in the middle of the English countryside and watched a bird flapping off into the sunrise in a sort of reverie, feeling the interconnectedness of life and the simple beauty of nature. I have to admit that this kind of naive earnestness in the video presentations veered rather dangerously on the romantic and trite – but in the end I still feel the intentions and sentiments behind it all were generally good.









An installation of cranes???


Floating stuffed dodos and eggs???




















Blaschka Glass Models!


Horned Murex










It says here that Manchester Museum has over 22000 type specimens. Also, to put things into perspective, Manchester Museum apparently has around 4 million specimens. Natural History Museum in London has over 28 million specimens. Still, these are collections that have involved the life’s work of so many different individuals over the years.






Silk-button Spangle Galls!!!
Need I explain how excited I am to see a plant gall section?


Fire Salamander in the vivarium, just arrived! (living animal section)

There are too many photos so I will end here for now. With such a vast collection including a section dedicated to “Museumology” and “collections”, where I saw a section on Egyptian fakes and its no surprise that later when I checked it up, I found out that Mark Dion’s “Bureau for the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and Its Legacy” was actually put together from Manchester Museum’s vast collections – which, as with any huge collection, is bound to be full of eccentricities and overlooked corners full of strange items, unusable models, fakes, and other items.

Windows & taxonomies (National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo)


There are a number of museums and attractions in the vicinity of Ueno Park, but out of all the things I saw there, the most impressive place that I visited in this area had to be the National Museum of Nature and Science, Japan’s main natural history museum. You will recognise it from the giant whale in front of the building.


First opened in 1871, the museum has apparently held several other names in the past, including Ministry of Education Museum, Tokyo Museum, Tokyo Science Museum, and the National Science Museum of Japan. Since a spate of renovations and redesigning of its halls in the 2000s, it is now known as the “National Museum of Nature and Science”. I feel that its original pedagogic aspirations are also well evident from its permanent exhibition design.

Out of all the natural history museums I have seen so far in various countries and cities, this is probably one of the best and most uniquely designed. No space is wasted in this place; this is not going to be one of those wide and empty museums; no, every inch of the wall here is covered in tiny descriptions and wall-mounted specimens. I was surprised at first at their choice to make their permanent collection display so dense, but in the end I really liked it because despite the density, a lot of thought (and design) had clearly gone into it – laser cut map outlines, strange box display designs, and a plethora of images.


The quality of the scientific models was very impressive and the displays were so lush – so rich, detailed and finely textured! No shonky taxidermy (unlike a lot of other natural history museums I’ve seen in other cities) – everything here is highly professional, all thoughtfully and sensitively produced.

What is even more impressive is when one finds out that the forerunner of this museum was completely destroyed by fire during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 – all of its exhibits and specimens were destroyed and extensive attempts had to be made to reconstruct it.


I particularly liked the “window” design to a lot of the display casings in this museum – they have a very distinctive look and initially I thought of them as lines on a graph or a grid; which would then be perfectly evocative of the history of taxonomy it was trying to illustrate here.


As I thought more about why they had this appearance, I realised that they were supposed to be like “shoji” screens – those room dividers in which bamboo lattice frames hold translucent papers to divide up a space – a feature commonly seen in Japanese architecture. These however, were made to be more solid and had glass or translucent frosted glass instead of paper. If you look through more images of the museum you will see that a lot of the background panelling of this museum was designed to have a “shoji screen” appearance, including the (ambient) ceiling lights themselves! Display items have their own spotlight, but the overall design of the space is that of a room with many shoji screens and light gently coming to the space.

And a history of life on earth? Not only can they write the literature about it, but they actually have the vast specimen collection to serve as the empirical evidence of this history. The collection includes a general collection and also a more focused collection of specimens from the Japanese archipelago – these collections are part of Japan’s National Collections; the museum is “nationally administered” and there appears to be a lot of emphasis on sharing this information with the public.










The Museum also takes in postdoc researchers from certain universities and provides professional training for researchers in taxonomy and other branches of natural history. They have departments for Zoology (Vertebrates, Marine Invertebrates, Terrestrial Invertebrates), Botany (Land Plants, Fungi and Algae, Plant Diversity and Conservation), Geology and Paleontology (Mineral Sciences, Biotic Evolution, Paleoenvironment and Paleoecology), Anthropology (Human Evolution), Science and Engineering (History of Science and Technology, Physical Sciences, Artifact Research). They also run the Tsukuba Botanical Garden, Institute for Nature Study (urban ecology research), Center for Molecular Biodiversity Research, Showa Memorial Institute, and Center of the History of Japanese Industrial Technology. Like the Miraikan (another very impressive museum in Tokyo which I will write about later), this is a living museum with an active research centre attached to it.

A number of displays were replete with the images of the individuals who had recovered and handled the specimens. Unable to read the japanese labels, I still had the impression that the image it wanted to portrayed of the field of archaeology in Japan was that it was an area of study that was very much alive, with individuals today still actively contribute to it greatly through their hard work and discoveries.
















Scientific Models of Fungi


Can you believe this is just a scientific model? First class modeling work.


Laser cut labels and map


Wall of Scientific Illustrations and Specimens



Language-wise: this museum was clearly mainly aimed at Japanese visitors (and children in particular) and has very few english descriptions or translations, but their vast collection is likely to blow most visitors away despite the language barrier. Japanese is a language I would love to learn – I can see there would be so much exciting and interesting material to read in Japanese!

Printed at the back of the English guidebook:


Blessed with a bountiful natural environment, the people of Japan have lived in step with nature and passage of the seasons, developing a rich culture, beliefs, and world view rooted in the nature that has sustained them. They have also applied their wisdom and ingenuity from time immemorial to improving their lives through exploiting nature, and we the people of present-day Japan, owe our high standard of living to these constant efforts. We would do well to remind ourselves that we are just one point in the history of the Japanese people. We of the present generation should make it our mission to cherish the nature and culture of Japan that has been shaped over so many centuries, and to hand them on in good shape to the next generation.

Although I did not understand Japanese, while walking through this I was struck by a perceived feeling of a stream of passive imbibing of information going on, evidenced by the quiet titterings by young Japanese visitors passing through its halls, like the sounds made by the tiniest little cogs, delicately enmeshed and working together to slowly turn the wheels of a larger and much more complex machine at large.

I spent too long looking at everything else so I didn’t have time to go see the Theater 360 until it was all over. Apparently the Theater 360 is a theatre in which visitors stand on a bridge in the middle of a 360 degree screen all around, to give the illusion of “floating”. I could be biased (or suffering from some form of art/history museum burnout!), but even for general visitors I would recommend this place over the (considerably drier) Tokyo National Museum which is located across the road – which I also visited.

For a decent trip to this museum, you should give yourself 2 hours or more. Last entry is at 4.30pm. General entry/university students ticket costs ¥620 and it is worth every penny. It is in walking distance from the JR Ueno Station and the cherry blossoms were blooming in Ueno Park when I was there; utterly gorgeous.

Material Culture and the Artefacts of Science History (Treasures Cadogan, Natural History Museum, London, Jan 2014)

In a small, special room tucked away in one corner of the Natural History Museum are a number of significant artefacts from the history of science in the Treasures Cadogan Gallery. After the mineral and rock collection – for which I have a soft spot – this definitely has to be my next most favorite part of the Museum. This is the scientific equivalent of going to the Louvre and seeing the originals of all the works you have ever read about in books – right there in front of you! The museum is complimented by a thorough history and contextualisation of each item (through a series of interactive screens) which are worth your time to read. A lot of importance is placed on this notion of having acquired the original, authentic specimen, but at the same time the “significance” of a scientific artefact in this room depends on what it has done for science. For example, a plant in Linnaneus’ book may not be exceptionally special, but because it represents something that has been used to bring scientific understanding forward, it is valuable for that reason. Obviously a lot of information is conveyed through other means (in this day and age when everyone can just google anything), but in the end, I like to think that material culture plays an crucial role in knowledge construction. More than just being a way of representing the scientific knowledge after the event of making a connection/discovery, I like to think that the materiality of these scientific artefacts is what brings us to the point where we can make connections in scientific knowledge.

A few selected highlights:

Dodo Skeleton
This is the Natural History Museum’s full and complete dodo bird skeleton. It is actually a composite made from bones from several dodo birds. So in actual fact it may be difficult to determine if this is the archetypal dodo bird. There are no complete dodo bird skeletons to go by. First seen by dutch sailors in 1598, it was to become the symbol of extinction after sailors and their domesticated animals hunted the flightless bird into extinction. In 1662 the last dodo was sighted, never to be seen again; since this was so very long ago, in the intervening years since then, some even considered it to be a mythical creature.

The NHM also houses the famous dodo painting also known as “Edwards’ Dodo”, as it was painted by the ornithologist George Edwards in 1626. Because there exist no other definitive images of the dodo, Edwards’ Dodo is often used as the source for numerous other dodo illustration, and it depicts a particularly fat dodo bird that might be inclined to waddle about. It is debatable that the fat dodo image is a result of these images and paintings being based on a fat captive bird, or a poorly stuffed specimen, or even a dodo puffing itself up as a kind of display.

Archaeopteryx (London Specimen, BMNH 37001)
This is apparently the most valuable fossil in the NHM’s collection, and needs no introduction – this is the FIRST skeleton of the Archaeopteryx to be ever found, and it was unearthed in 1861 near Langenaltheim, Germany, and eventually sold to the NHM. It is the earliest known bird (that is universally recognized – there are a few so-called “older” fossils whose authenticity are disputable, but almost everyone can agree that archaeopteryx is likeliest to be the most primitive bird) and this specimen was the first Archaeopteryx ever found by man. The Archaeopteryx specimen provided the first evidence that birds had evolved from dinosaurs. This item is the “type specimen”, which means that is it referred to by scientists as the first known description and reference of the animal. There had been an interesting debate on whether the feather should represent the type specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica, but in 2011 the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature declared the entire skeleton fossil to be the type specimen, something that apparently generated a lot of discussion and debate amongst taxonomists.

The ONLY piece of Apollo Moon rock that was given to the UK by President Nixon. In order to prove that the US moon mission was a peaceful one, flags of 135 countries were sent up with the astronauts, and fragments from the moon were taken back and distributed on plaques with these flags that had travelled to the moon and back. For some reason I can’t quite explain right now this gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Blaschka glass models
The label for this item actually reads: “Glass models of marine invertebrates made by Leopold and Rudolf Blascka using techniques no one has been able to replicate.” When I read this, I was like, “OH YEAH? CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!” Sadly I am not a glass worker. But surely someone else with the ability to work with glass has read this before? COME ON!

Having seen these models, and then the fungi glass models at Uni of Cambridge not long after, I have to admit I never thought there was a thing about making glass scientific models. Just to be sure, I went to check up, and the glass fungi models at Whipple Museum were made by a fungi specialist Dr. Dillon Weston’s glass models. Those were made between 1936 and 1953, and seems to have been created because he wanted a beautiful demonstration tool he could show to people and farmers.

Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolf made their models about 70 years before that, at a time when it was hard to find good teaching models. They also apparently produced other things like exotic flowers, sea slugs, and all sorts of other animals in glass, and were valued because of their attention to detail. Since glass could keep forever, it apparently represented an improvement over other methods of presentation and preservation. So I am surprised – why are there not more scientific glass models today, or an even more sophisticated glass modelling methods today? (This is something I will need to find out more about…)

A page from Audubon’s amazing hand-coloured prints from The Birds of America. John James Audubon is considered one of the greatest bird illustrators. The book itself consists of 433 life-sized paintings of birds, and he dedicated his entire life to this great work – having decided at age 35 that he would go on to draw EVERY BIRD IN NORTH AMERICA. I like this kind of obsession. He had to travel to England because his engravings were so large and they could not be done in America at the time. NHM changes the page every other month to prevent fading to any particular page.

The story of how Audubon’s book came to be is also an interesting study of the economics of art and the production of rare books – for example, he apparently did not have any text in the book because it became so extravagantly costly to produce the book that he had try to avoid having to give free copies to public libraries (circumventing legal deposition requirements) in England.

Last year was the centennial of Robert Falcon Scott’s epic journey, so we were suitably inundated with a revival of the story and the story has really fascinated me and here, here is the actual egg. One of the five they picked up and hid in their mittens. 2 broke along the way, leaving only 3, and this one is one of the 3 eggs to make it here.

[Alright there were many other great stories in the gallery but I will stop here now and you can go and see them for yourself.]

Scientific Illustrations for the Blind (Natural History Museum, London, Jan 2014)

In the last few months I’ve gotten quite interested in scientific illustration and scientific models. Just as I am fascinated by maps as both art and information, I suppose I really like scientific images because they are also both art and a record of the natural world. I am actually more excited when I see a scientific image/model which is fantastically detailed and beautiful and then discover that its maker says that they consider themselves to be a scientist/botanist/anatomical specialist first and foremost before considering themselves an artist, because more often than not it will indicate more attention to detail and accuracy. (Alas, I have to admit I am quite pedantic and a geek at heart). Even though there can be photographs (and in the case of mapping, satellite data), in the end there is a lot more value and skill involved in scientific illustration and cartography because they often capture details which other methods of imaging cannot. The color and form of a living object can be captured forever and selected important details can be extracted and highlighted so as to make it more understandable and valuable as a record than just a photograph could.

Since school is so very close to the Natural History Museum, it has been my goal to go there as often as I can. Unfortunately its vastness often means that I spend a lot of time just wandering about or blithely finding my way around the exhibits (I am also that annoying sort of person who has to read all the text, which then takes a very long time).

The other day, I FINALLY found the Images of Nature section (how did I miss it before?), which included a very interesting Braille and Tactile guide to its exhibits. I was very excited because I had been told these guides existed but hadn’t really noticed or found them before. This is what they looked like on the inside:

Images of Nature – Braille and Tactile Guide





Textures and arrows!
The textures were very interesting to touch, but… I don’t know about you but I seriously cannot imagine what meaning an arrow would have for a person who has been blind since birth. Not to say that a blind person could not learn what an arrow means, but as the most expedient manner to explain something – what is an arrow? An arrow does not exist in a blind person’s world, surely! What meaning would an arrow have to a person who cannot see what it is pointing at? How would that understanding that an arrow means to refer to something, or to gesture towards it or a direction (or to direct one’s gaze towards something). Would it work the same way for a blind person then?


More exciting textures

Braille (lots of this)

As you will have noticed, a lot of these images were just outlines of exhibits, with their outlines raised up. I was very amused by it but also not sure if this was sufficient to explain a thing. Perhaps it is – i don’t know myself since I have never had to rely entirely on touching to understand an exhibit. But let’s say a blind man could touch every single part of an rhino on a page. Would it make it any clearer to the blind person that this was a rhino, and this was what it was like? Is this not a bit like that joke where a group of blind men approach an elephant and each of them happens to hold on to a different part, prompting each to say “the elephant is like a long string!” (tail) or “the elephant is like a tree trunk!” (leg) or “the elephant is like a papery flat sheet!” (ear)

There was an exhibit comparing the different representations of dodo birds in scientific illustrations. The guide tries to explain that there are differences (subtle differences) between the two drawings. I am not sure but will one be able to tell the difference through touch? DOES IT WORK? Will someone visually impaired please tell me?

The two different dodo bird pictures in reality.

Touching a dodo…
An interesting fact is that the “original” dodo skeleton they have at the Natural History Museum is actually made up from several different dodo skeleton, and this means that its famous depiction as a slightly dumpy fat bird might actually be flawed, and there have been attempts to reimagine it as something a little more “svelte” than it is thought to be by most. I’ll write about that more in another post about their “Treasures” collection (which is also absolutely fantastic for anyone interested in the history of science)…

The funny part is imagining a blind person touching an embossed impression of a bird that now no longer exists, and on top of that perhaps even the impression of the dodo bird is all wrong anyway, because even the seeing-people don’t really know either!

Incorrect use of the braille sheets.
What can I say, with all the children and their pencils running around the museum, it was bound to happen…

The Chert of Pulau Saigon, a former island in the Singapore River

I must confess that I had not thought much about the chert of Southeast Asia until now. Is there a lot of chert in Southeast Asia? I don’t really know firsthand. Most of the accessible beaches of Singapore are artificial and made of recent sand depositions from other places, and there are no points at which I can simply casually wade in and around the gravel of the Singapore River – much unlike the Thames in London, which has many wide banks upon which one can wander about without disturbance. I have, on past occasions, observed the proliferation of chert in the River Thames, and also, the endless amounts of chert/flint on Lyme Bay. So, what sort of rock is to be found in the rivers of Southeast Asia then?

Chert/Flint with cute echinoid in Natural History Museum, London


Chert/Flint on River Thames (London, 2012)


Chert/Flint on Lyme Bay (Jurassic Coast, 2012)
To be honest, to this day I still feel that my definition of “chert” is a bit fuzzy, despite having several encounters with chert and having read up on chert before. I do know at very least that Chert is formed by the recrystallization of siliceous skeletons of marine animals into microcrystalline sedimentary rock. From what I have read so far on it, I’m going to just take it to be a more inclusive term for most of the microcrystalline quartz or silica. And as from what I saw and read at the Natural History Museum in London, flint refers to the chert commonly found in chalk or limestone…

From Wikipedia: “There is much confusion concerning the exact meanings and differences among the terms “chert”, “chalcedony” and “flint” (as well as their numerous varieties). In petrology the term “chert” is used to refer generally to all rocks composed primarily of microcrystalline, cryptocrystalline and microfibrous quartz. The term does not include quartzite. Chalcedony is a microfibrous (microcrystaline with a fibrous structure) variety of quartz.

Strictly speaking, the term “flint” is reserved for varieties of chert which occur in chalk and marly limestone formations. Among non-geologists (in particular among archaeologists), the distinction between “flint” and “chert” is often one of quality – chert being lower quality than flint. This usage of the terminology is prevalent in America and is likely caused by early immigrants who imported the terms from England where most true flint (that found in chalk formations) was indeed of better quality than “common chert” (from limestone formations).

Among petrologists, chalcedony is sometimes considered separately from chert due to its fibrous structure. Since many cherts contain both microcrystaline and microfibrous quartz, it is sometimes difficult to classify a rock as completely chalcedony, thus its general inclusion as a variety of chert.”

I am fed up with local people having the name “Chert”, thus foiling my attempts to investigate whether Chert rock naturally occurs in this region. Anyway, the reason why I am wondering whether there is a lot of chert in the Singapore River is because of this chert specimen in the Singapore River. Knowing that some of the slate comes from the UK, I realised I had never seen THE CHERT OF SINGAPORE in person before, although I have many Chert specimens from the UK, so I wondered if this chert rock had actually come from elsewhere….


Chert rescued from Pulau Saigon, a former island in the Singapore River
How do we tell this is “chert”? Largely because of its “waxy luster” and conchoidal fractures, which produce a sharp edge. Brittle materials such as chert have this quality, allowing it to be shaped into knives and tools.


Conchoidal fractures



Waxy Luster
Today I was very fortunate to be able to spend a few hours at the Archaeology Lab at NUS, where I attempted to do a preliminary photoshoot of certain artefacts from Pulau Saigon, and began running some shots through Autodesk’s 123d Catch in order to produce 3d models of some of the objects. Thank you to John Miksic and Goh Geok Yian for letting me occupy their pantry for the entire day and sharing with me about their work. It will take me some time to process all the information captured today, but you can expect more posts on the topic in coming weeks… (They always need more committed and responsible volunteers at their lab to help them sift through, sort through, and wash material, so if you’re interested in archaeology in Singapore and are available to volunteer your time on Fridays between 10-5pm, leave me a note and I will pass your contact on to them.)

Pulau Saigon (PSG) Stone and Rocks






14th C Stoneware


European Porcelain

Oh and another strange thing that happened is that I encountered the word “Diatomaceous” twice within one hour today. Whilst reading the comments to an instructable about building a solar food dryer to find out if others were worried about insects getting into their solar food dryer, I discovered a comment suggesting that “Diatomaceous earth” be scattered because its tiny, light yet highly abrasive nature makes it suitable as a mechanical insecticide, making it unpleasant for tiny ants to walk upon – basically getting inbetween their tiny exoskeleton joints and absorbing lipids from the waxy outer layer of insects’ exoskeletons, causing them to dehydrate from the inside out rather quickly, leading to the death of the insects. A few minutes later I read that chert occurs in diatomaceous deposits and that kind of chert is known as diatomaceous chert. The word diatomaceous refers to diatoms, which consist of tiny microscopic marine phytoplankton, along with their fossils…

Which brings me to…. MICROPALEONTOLOGY, and the study of microfossils! Anything that you can study with the naked eye is probably considered a macrofossil. Micropaleontology is surely a field of study that is after my heart. A micropaleontologist might typically be a specialists in one or more taxonomic groups because it is something that requires so much specialisation to study the fossils of tiny tiny creatures. Speaking of tiny things, this reminds me of micrometeorites. And subsequently… astrogeology. I think this week if you asked me what is my dream job might be, it might be to study to become a micropaleontologist or an astrogeologist. Yeah, I can dream, can’t I?

See also:

The Mineral collection at the Natural History Museum, and Flint Nodules along the River Thames
Bone, Metal, Wood, and Other Artefacts found on Pulau Saigon
Made-up Road Names and Temporary Islands
Ruins in Reverse

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




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…


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:



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











lovely mass of dendritic growths


flattened cubo-octahedra


Rhodochrosite massive + tapering prisms


Chalcedony from Iceland (!!!)


Dartmoor Granite (commonly used in london curbstones)


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




Big lovely Geode


Iridescent massive


Slightly iridescent stalactite


Fantastic radiating bladed crystals


Another iridescent massive


“Iron froth”




Crystal crust


Twin quartz crystal


Interpenetrant twin crystals


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


Interlacing prisms


Bluish banded massive




Siliceous Sinter in rods and convolutions






Calcite “Iceland Spar”


More Calcite


Even more Calcite


Mamilated Crust with Malachite and Wad


Botryoidal with Crystalline surface


Group of prisms with cerussite




Aurichalcites + Malachites


Prehnite Geode


Removed Specimens











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…


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:


‘FLINT’ from the Chalk
Isle of Wight


‘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.”


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:




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.