Wednesday 30 August 2017

The 'Poo Table': August's Cabinet of Curiosities by Charlotte Wightwick

I hope you all had a great Bank Holiday Weekend. Mine was brilliant: I stayed with friends in Weymouth. The sun (unusually, for Bank Holiday) shone and we had a great time at the beach and barbequing. While I was there, I started to think about what I should include in this month’s Cabinet of Curiosities, and I remembered another trip to the Jurassic Coast, last year.

The Jurassic Coast is a 95-mile long World Heritage Site, made up of sedimentary rocks which together form a near-complete record of 185 million years of history. Last summer we took a day trip to Lyme Regis. Obviously, I was excited to see the Cobb (famous to all Jane Austen fans as the site of Louisa Musgrove’s accident in Persuasion).

But the Jurassic Coast – and perhaps in particular Lyme Regis - not only has some of the best fossils in the world, but was also home some of the most dramatic scientific discoveries of the early and mid-nineteenth century. Regular readers of this blog will know I have a strong interest in the early fossil hunters and scientists, and their discoveries (see January’s Cabinet of Curiosities )

So I was looking forward to the fossils: seeing them and learning more about them, maybe even finding some for myself on the beach. (Which I did, by the way!)

What I didn’t expect to find, but what forms today’s entry for the Cabinet of Curiosities, was a table made of fossilised poo.

William Buckland's coprolite table, Lyme Regis museum
The technical term for fossilised faeces is a coprolite, and they are surprisingly common.

You can find the ‘Poo Table’ (as it is un-technically called) in the excellent museum at Lyme Regis. It belonged to William Buckland, first Professor of Geology at Oxford University and later Dean of Westminster. He spent a lot of time in Lyme, working with the fossil hunter Mary Anning. One type of fossil they studied resembled strange round stones. Anning observing that were often found within – or very close to - the skeletons of the sea creatures she had excavated. Buckland reported to the scientific world that these were fossilised faecal matter from the sea creatures, opening up a whole new area of study.

William Buckland, c. 1845
 Despite this, the table in the Lyme museum does not appear to be made from coprolites from the Lyme area – they are more likely to have come from Edinburgh, from a trip Buckland made in 1834.

I would love to say that the reason I’ve chosen this table is because of its symbolism, as an artefact of an amazing time in scientific history. I could talk about the importance of the discovery of coprolites in understanding the reality of the prehistoric world. Or I could talk about the relationship between Mary Anning – who was, until recently, largely excised from the historical record - and the ‘scientific gentlemen’ like Buckland who often took the credit for describing and interpreting her discoveries.

Mary Anning (and dog Tray), before 1842
 But I’m afraid my motivations are considerably less academic. In the museum is the following label:

"[William Buckland’s] son Francis remembered this table in his father’s drawing room where ‘it was often admired by persons who had not the least idea of what they were looking at. I have seen in actual use ear-rings made of polished portions of coprolites… and have made out distinctly the scales and bones of the fish which once formed the dinner of a hideous lizard.’ The ‘belles’ who wore the ear-rings had no idea what they were made of."

Who can resist the idea of prim Victorian ladies placing their tea cups demurely on the Dean of Westminster’s side table, with no idea of what it was made of? Or wearing jewellery, thinking only that they were the height of fashion and not that they were wearing something which, if they had known, they would not be able to discuss in fashionable society? Even better, perhaps some of them knew perfectly well what they were doing, and the joke was on the more ignorant members of that society who admired them?

We can’t know – but it is tremendously good fun to speculate. At least it is if you have my childish sense of humour. In my own defence, it’s clear I’m not the only one to find the even the idea of coprolites entertaining. John Shute Duncan, a contemporary of Buckland, wrote the following verse (quoted in Deborah Cadbury’s ‘The Dinosaur Hunters’.)

“Approach, approach ingenuous youth

And learn this fundamental truth

The noble science of geology

Is firmly bottomed on Coprology”

Lavatory humour, it seems, like so much else, is not a modern invention.


Deborah Cadbury - The Dinosaur Hunters: A true story of scientific rivalry and the discovery of the prehistoric world (Harper Collins, 2000)

Photos of Buckland and Anning from Wikimedia Commons.  Photo of coprolite table my own.


Sue Purkiss said...

We once went to a big birthday party thrown by someone we didn't know very well. In our town there was then a shop which sold jewellery and fossils. We had a brilliant idea - NOBODY else would think of giving her a piece of polished dinosaur poo! I can still see her face as we explained to her what it was...

Joan Lennon said...

Love the idea of poo earrings! And this is no bad place to remind readers of the History Girls' wonderful Daughters of Time anthology, in which I had the pleasure of writing a story about Mary Anning. Came out 3 years ago (!) and still going strong!

Mary Hoffman said...

A lovely post and, Joan, that was a lovely story!

Pippa Goodhart said...

What an amazing table! I live on top of a 'dinosaur toilet', sort of. We built our house where coprolites were dug, as they were in a line across East Anglia, in the 1860s so as to be ground into fertiliser. But fossils, as well as coprolites, were often found too, and so we know that both hairy mammoth and rhinos lived in this village in very different times. A lovely post, Charlotte.