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Rock addicts

Geologist and science writer Nina Morgan discusses the geological obsession with possession

Geoscientist 22.08 September 2012

Corsi drawersCollecting is a basic human trait that goes back a very long time. The urge to collect geological specimens seems to have evolved very early in human history - collections of Upper Cretaceous flint sea urchins have been found in association with prehistoric graves (Geoscientist 22.5 June 2012 pp14-19). Although collecting is a relatively harmless activity that can potentially enhance to store of human knowledge, it can lead to serious obsessions - not to mention storage problems. Just ask the mother of any geology student, as she struggles to prevent her offspring’s growing rock/fossil/mineral/map collection from taking over the family home, and then, once the degree has been awarded, is faced with the even more difficult task engineering its removal.

With that in mind, spare some sympathy for Mrs Corsi, wife of the Roman lawyer, Faustino Corsi. Corsi caught the collecting bug in the first quarter of the 19th Century. His obsession started innocently enough, with an interest in the antique and decorative marbles used in by the ancient Romans. But enthusiasm took over, and his collecting activities extended to obtaining samples of decorative stones used in Italian buildings from medieval to his own times.
Corsi Then he went on to add samples of decorative stones from sites as far afield as Derbyshire and America. By around 1826 Corsi’s collection, described by William Buckland, first Reader in Geology at Oxford University, as “…quite unique in its kind, and such as is never likely to be made by any other individual…” included nearly 1000 large (approximately 15x7x4 cm) uniformly cut and polished specimens, all carefully numbered and arranged in geological order and accompanied by a comprehensive printed catalogue.

Then, suddenly, it seems Corsi deemed his collection was complete, and decided to sell. The specimens, along with all the available copies of the catalogue were bought by Stephen Jarrett, a wealthy Oxford undergraduate in 1827 for more than £1000. Jarrett donated the lot to Oxford University, where it is now housed at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

As for Corsi’s motives for selling, one can only guess. But it’s interesting to speculate that Mrs Corsi might have had a hand in influencing his decision. Imagine what it must have been like living in a second floor city centre apartment with an obsessive collector and his vast collection of stone samples. And to top it off, the sheer weight of the collection must certainly have posed a structural risk to an old building located in seismically active Italy.


This vignette was inspired by a talk given by Monica Price of the Oxford University of Natural History to celebrate the launch of a website documenting the Corsi Collection (see: which includes high resolution images and descriptions of all the samples as well as a copy and modern translation of Corsi’s catalogue. Other sources include The Corsi Collection in Oxford, by Lisa Cooke and Monica T. Price, in Asmosia 5: Interdisciplinary Studies on Ancient Stone, Hermann, J.J. Jr, Herz, N and Newman, R eds, Archetype Publications, London, 2002 ISBN: I-873132-085, and Decorative Stone: The complete sourcebook by Monica T Price, Thames and Hudson, London, 2007, ISBN 9780500513415, and abstracts by Monica Price and Stuart Baldwin included in the abstracts for the talks and posters presented at the Conference on Geological Collectors and Collecting, April 2011 available free to download as a pdf file from (link below) .
  •  If the past is the key to your present interests, why not join the History of Geology Group (HOGG)? For more information and to read the latest HOGG newsletter, visit: HOGG, where the programme and abstracts from the Conference on Geological Collectors and Collecting are available as a pdf file free to download.

* Nina Morgan is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford.