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First find your fossils


Just because a historical fossil collection is said to be 'lost' doesn't mean it can't be found, says Svetlana Nikolaeva*. Nina Morgan reports.

Geoscientist 20.6 June 2010

If you want to study the fossils illustrated in a particular book, one of your first tasks is to find your figured fossils. This, it turns out, can involve a considerable amount of detective work – even when the fossils in question are preserved in the collections of major museums.

A case in point is the figured and referred specimens illustrated in John Phillips's monograph Illustrations of the Geology of Yorkshire Part II The Mountain Limestone District (Illustrations Part II), published in 1836. Orphaned at seven and brought up by his uncle, William Smith, Phillips learned his geology and palaeontology working as Smith's apprentice, and grew up to be a prolific author and recognised palaeontological and geological expert. Lacking a university education, Phillips nevertheless rose to become Professor of Geology at Oxford in 1860 - a post he held until his death in 1874.

Phillips's goniatite drawings

Lost, stolen or mislaid?

In Illustrations Part II Phillips figured and described a large number of Carboniferous fossils, many being new species and thus of considerable importance. When Svetlana began studying Carboniferous ammonoids, she was advised of the 'regrettable but inevitable' fact that most of Phillips’s type specimens had been lost, and therefore we could never be completely sure of the names he proposed. Even before this loss was first publicised by the great science archivist Charles Davies Sherborn in 1940, lurid rumours had spread suggesting that these fossils had been stolen or worse, dumped into the Thames from Blackfriars Bridge (see Distant Thunder).

However, because some specimens figured in Illustrations Part II surfaced from time to time in scientific publications, Svetlana became convinced that the collection had not disappeared forever. Her hunch turned out to be correct. It turned out that the illustrated fossils were neither lost, stolen nor even strayed. Rather, they had been incorporated into the systematic collection of the Palaeontology Department at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London. Locating individual specimens in order to bring back together the ammonoid collection that Phillips figured turned out to be a fascinating project requiring much historical sleuthing.

A convoluted fate

The figures published in Illustrations Part II mostly derive from Phillips's original drawings, and are largely based on a collection made by William Gilbertson of Preston, a pharmaceutical chemist and enthusiastic amateur naturalist. Although he purchased some material, Gilbertson was a keen collector and paid close attention to locality details whenever possible. Because he understood the potentially important contributions that amateur collectors such as he could play in advancing palaeontology, he generally sent his materials to experts, including Phillips, for examination.

Phillips was suitably grateful and full of praise for Gilbertson's 'liberal and genuine devotion to science'. He chose to picture specimens from the Gilbertson collection in his book because 'they are generally the best that could be found'.

After the publication of Illustrations Part II, Gilbertson's collection suffered a convoluted fate. In 1841 at least some of it was purchased by the Zoological Branch of the then Natural History Department of the British Museum, (now the Natural History Museum) by the recently appointed Keeper of the Zoological Branch, J E Gray. Its housing stimulated much debate. Gray insisted that fossil organisms should be studied and housed along with living counterparts and resolved this debate in a very straightforward way – by one day taking the collection and moving it all to his branch!

As with many historical collections in the NHM, the specimens from the Gilbertson Collection were gradually re-numbered and re-labelled by a number of different curators before being fully incorporated into the general collection. When the museum was moved to its new quarters in South Kensington in 1882, the collection again changed hands and ended up in the Geology Department, now the Department of Palaeontology.

Making matches

Separating out the ammonoid specimens referred to in Illustrations Part II from the general cephalopod collections in the NHM proved an interesting – if time-consuming – puzzle. Svetlana began by examining all the ammonoid specimens in the NHM collection that could potentially be Phillips’s “types” (see Box). By looking carefully through the collection she could see that this collection also appeared to contain other specimens that Phillips had recognised as belonging to his new species.

Because Phillips’s descriptions are very short, and his drawings do not always give a clear idea of the specimens (some species were not illustrated at all!) she went on to examine the originals of the Phillips drawings and the accompanying list of identifications in Phillips's handwriting, in the Hope Library at the OUMNH.

Even with such a wealth of information, matching the drawings to the figures in Illustrations Part II, let alone to specimens in the NHM collection, was far from straightforward. Svetlana found that the original drawings for the plates contained more specimens than were actually published. On some drawings, figured specimens were marked ‘may be omitted’ or ‘omit’ - and these had never appeared in the final publication.

Phillips's magnum opus Perhaps the reason for these omissions lies in the fact that Phillips planned to use some specimens in later publications. Some of the omitted specimens were subsequently described and figured in Phillips’s Figures and descriptions of the Palaeozoic fossils of Cornwall, Devon, and West Somerset; observed in the course of the Ordnance Geological Survey of that district (1841). In the case of Goniatites spiralis (now Neoglyphioceras spirale), Phillips provides an insight into the reasons behind the delay in publication when he writes: “I have seen this species in the mountain limestone in Yorkshire and Ireland, but not good specimens. Those, from which I describe are compressed flat, but shew the dorsal aspect of the shell....”.

This statement, and the presence of the drawing of Goniatites spiralis in Phillips’ notes, suggests that this specimen (NHM C268) should be regarded as a syntype [see Box]. This is an important discovery because the actual type specimen of Goniatites spiralis figured by Phillips in his 1841 book is lost. It is also a good example of how re-examinations of historical collections can help to clarify the taxonomic identities of species. Altogether, in the course of her work Svetlana managed to locate 182 specimens of ammonoids (some of which were later re-identified as nautiloids and gastropods) figured by Phillips in the Illustrations Part II. Most had been purchased from Gilbertson in 1841.

D. gilbertsoni

Expert amateurs

This sort of information not only serves to excite taxonomists. It also provides new insights into the important role played by dedicated and highly skilled amateur collectors in discovering new species and sorting out stratigraphy – something Svetlana will be studying in more detail in a new grant-funded research project examining historical collections in the Palaeontology Department at the NHM. Her new project will include collections made by civil engineer William Bisat, 19th Century whitesmith Samuel Gibson, and medical man Wheelton Hind – all of whom pursued their professional careers while writing papers and monographs on Carboniferous fossils and rocks. Although none were professional palaeontologists, they all made important contributions to the field of stratigraphic palaeontology.

Svetlana is keen to find out more about their lives and work. If you can help, please do get in touch!


Svetlana Nikolaeva thanks the many people who helped at all stages of her research. Special thanks are due to Sarah Long, Michael Howarth and Adrian Rushton (all NHM); J D D Smith (ICZN); N J Riley (BGS); Derek Siveter, Stella Brecknell and Rennison Hall (OUMNH); and Mark Williams (Leicester University). Nina Morgan thanks Svetlana Nikolaeva for the invitation to co-author a feature about this research for publication in Geoscientist, and Philip Powell of the OUMNH for providing background information about zoological nomenclature and palaeontological curation.

*Dr Svetlana Nikolaeva, is Scientific Editor of the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature, and an employee of the Paleontological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Her own palaeontological research interests focus on the Palaeozoic. To find out more about her study, contact Svetlana at: [email protected]. Dr Nina Morgan is a geologist and freelance science writer based near Oxford.

Further reading

  • Cleevely, R J, 1983, World Palaeontological Collections, BMNH, Mansell, London, 365pp
  • Edmonds, J M 1977, The legend of John Phillips's 'lost fossil collection', J. Soc. Biblphy. Nat. Hist., 8(2), pp. 160-175
  • Nikolaeva, Svetlana, 2008, The Carboniferous ammonoids from the Gilbertson collection described by John Phillips, Palaeontographical Society Monograph, part 626 of volume 160: pp. 1-70.
  • Phillips, John, 1836, Illustrations of the geology of Yorkshire; or a description of the strata and organic remains: accompanied by a geological map, sections and diagrams and figures of fossils, Part II (Scanned version at
  • Sherborn, C D, 1940, Where is the ... collection?: an account of the various natural history collections which have come under the notice of the compiler Charles Davies Sherborn between 1880 and 1939, The University Press, Cambridge, 140 pp.
  • Trustees of the British Museum, 1904, The History of the Collections contained in the Natural History Departments of the British Museum, volume 1.