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March 2010

Remarkable Creatures

Tracy Chevalier
Published by: Harper Collins
Publication date: 2009
ISBN: 978-0-00-717837-7 (hbk)
List price: £15.99
352 pp

ChevalierIt is not often that a novel is written about a female geologist, and so to have two palaeontological heroines in one book is probably unique. This novel deals with the early life of Mary Anning (1799-1847), a dinosaur hunter, and Elizabeth Philpot (1779-1857) a fossil fish collector. The chapters alternate between Mary’s poor, local, working girl point of view and those of Elizabeth, a middle class London spinster who has fallen on hard times. The book opens in 1804 with Mary musing on surviving a lightning strike. This ‘nonconformist’ theme is echoed throughout the book - indeed Mary is depicted as strange, having survived experiences like nearly being buried alive in a landslide. She is considered an outsider in her own small conservative Dorset seaside town (“No one wants someone like me for a wife” (p 257)), and people are afraid of her and her uncanny ability to find ‘monsters’.

In Chapter 2, at the age of 25, Elizabeth comes to live in Lyme with her two spinster sisters. The stage is set for these two remarkable women to meet. The description of their first meeting has Elizabeth describing Mary as a “tall, lean child” with “a … face made interesting by bold, brown eyes like pebbles.” A shared interest in fossil hunting and collecting brings these two unlikely women together.

The differences between them - class, age, religion - are set against a background of scientific and social conflict: the age of the Earth, the problem of Cuvier’s extinctions, the social difficulties of women travelling, working, collecting. In places the author mirrors the 19th Century writer’s habit of explaining scientific concepts through dialogue – in this case between an aunt and her nephew about extinction (p 293). It is pleasing to see this particular genre developed in the book.

The strong themes of female friendship and support, set against a backdrop of lack of acknowledgement of scientific ability and knowledge, run throughout the book. However, I enjoyed the fictitious way that Elizabeth Philpot gets into the “Men Only” Geological Society to hear Conybeare’s report on the plesiosaur, and empathised with her description of the label on her donated fossil fish items in the Natural History Museum: “On the label the collector was called simply Philpot, neatly sidestepping the question of my sex”. Regarding Mary: “Her name will never be recorded in scientific journals or books, but will be forgotten. … A women’s life is always a compromise.”

Overall I think the book will raise awareness of both the role of women in an 18th- 19th Century scientific context, and the important, time consuming work of fossil hunting. I recommend it and would put it in the same category as The Dinosaur Hunters by Cadbury or Emma Darwin by Healey. It is a shame the author didn’t mention Burek & Higgs 2007, but I am probably biased!


  • Burek, C.V. & Higgs, B. 2007. The Role of Women in the History of Geology, Geological Society of London Special Publication No.281.
  • Cadbury, D. 2001. The Dinosaur Hunters: A true story of scientific rivalry and the discovery of the prehistoric world, Fourth Estate.
  • Healey, E. 2002. Emma Darwin, the Inspirational Wife of a Genius, Headline Book Publishing.

Cynthia Burek,
University of Chester

Geology of the Vredefort Impact Structure: A guide to sites of interest
Memoir 97 of the Council for Geoscience

Roger L. Gibson & Wolf Uwe Reimold
Published by: CGS, South Africa
Publication date: 2008
ISBN: 978-1-920226-10-7
List price: R250.00; US$58.00
181 pp

VredefortThe Vredefort Dome forms the central part of the impact structure, a 90km-wide structural and topographic feature 120km south of Johannesburg, and set in Archaean and Palaeoproterozoic rocks of the central Kaapvaal craton. B B Brock and Louis Nicolaysen vigorously defended its endogenous origin in the 1960s (I visited it with the latter), but it is now accepted as exposing the deep levels of a giant impact structure, 300 km across – both the oldest such terrestrial structure recognised at ~2000 myrs and the largest.

This memoir represents an update of Council for Geoscience Memoir 92 (2001), incorporating new research findings, and is divided into three main parts. The first of these, ‘Introduction and Geology’, describes the regional geological context and provides an historical overview of research during the last century, with emphasis on the development of hypotheses about the structure. It deals concisely with shock metamorphism (shatter cones, PDFs, coesite and stishovite high-shock pressure-indicator occurrences) and the age of the impact event. The second section deals with the pre–impact evolution of the Archaean basement complex in the core of the dome. The third section provides a field guide to 29 sites of interest.

The text is well written with 138 figures, mostly in colour, but lacks an index. The volume provides a summary overview, and interested readers should refer to the publications in the reference list for more detail on particular aspects of the structure.

There is a much smaller analogue of Vredefort in Western Australia, Lake Teague (now Shoemaker), 30km in diameter and of Mesoproterozoic age (Pirajno, 2002). At the time of my visit in 1973, having spent a decade of rift-valley volcanic rock mapping, I was impressed by Nicolaysen’s counter-arguments; but the 175 or so terrestrial impact structures now recognised are mostly well validated, and Vredefort must be.

This is a splendidly produced publication and should be on all geological library shelves.


  • McCall, G.J.H. 2009. Half a century of progress on terrestrial impact structures: a review. Earth Science Reviews, 92, 99-116.
  • Pirajno, F. 2002. Geology of the Shoemaker Impact Structure, Western Australia. Geological Survey of Western Australia Report No.82.
Joe McCall

Picnic in Siluria

Format: DVD
Running time: 26m
Released by: The Woolhope Club
Produced by: Field of Vision
Published: 2008
Copies from: Dr Paul Olver, The Buttridge, Wellington Lane, CANON PYON, Hereford, HR4 8NL T: 01432 761693; E: [email protected]
Price: £12-00

PicnicOn 18 May 1852, members of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club (founded 1851) were taken on their first ever geological excursion. It rained all day. But the Club was not deterred, and the field excursion reconstructed in this charming and informative DVD (to Croft Ambrey, near Aymestrey) took place a decade or so later, in splendid weather.

The leader of the later excursion was the King of Siluria himself, founder member of the Woolhope Club, Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, then Director of the Geological Survey, and Charles Lyell was among the party. Thirty years had passed since Sir Roderick’s first researches there, which had led him to publish The Silurian System in ?1839, so this excursion must itself have been something of a trip down memory lane for the great man.

After an early morning train ride on the new-fangled steam railway to Kingsland and transfer by pony and trap to Aymestry, the party enjoyed breakfast at the Crown Inn at nine o’clock. There, Sir Roderick addressed the gentlemen (ladies ate in another room, their delicate constitutions being deemed unequal to the intellectual strain of listening to such hifalutin scientific banter). After the climb to Croft Ambrey, pausing to examine typical fossils, the party enjoyed a picnic and commanding views of Sir Roderick’s “kingdom”. The day finished at Aymestrey Church, and a speech of thanks by Murchison’s inadequately acknowledged local collaborator, the Rev. Thomas Taylor Lewis (played by the film’s producer, Dr Paul Olver).

The Woolhope Club is to be congratulated not only on the stylish re-enactment this red-letter day from their long history, but on intercutting it with a historical-geological preamble and a modern-day coda (with Torrens and Olver speaking from a working quarry in the same rocks). Spoiled as we are for filmed costume dramas with high production values, we might wince at the video-standard texture, and the occasional gleam of polyester; but the period re-enactment is well done and suffers mainly from being insufficiently mud-spattered. Yet there are compensations, for not only were its extras drafted from the Woolhope’s membership. This is your chance to see Prof. Hugh Torrens himself interpreting the role of Murchison. I noticed one Mike Rosenbaum among the cast, and was particularly delighted to recognise Mr Lawrence Banks (playing his ancestor Richard Banks) whom, many years ago as a young journalist, I interviewed over lunch in a private suite somewhere in the City.

Apart from a few writerly niggles about anachronistic language (Murchison would not, I think, have known the concept of a “role model”) - I can think of little that could improve these delightful 26 minutes in the company of the Woolhope Club members ancient and modern, amid the unrivalled geology of Siluria - creatures of a vanished age inquiring after those of another.

Ted Nield