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William Smith's Fossils Reunited!

An exquisitely produced new book celebrates and completes William Smith’s seminal unfinished work "Strata Identified by Organized Fossils" – and demonstrates the extraordinary skill of early nineteenth-century engravers and map makers.
This article appeared in May, 2019

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William Smith's Fossils Reunited!

Cover of William Smith's Fossils Reunited. In the early 19th century the newly formed Geological Society of London did not treat William Smith, aka ‘The Father of English Geology’ kindly. He was neither a gentleman nor ordained, as most of the founding members of the world’s oldest geological society were, and with the snobbery of the age, they thus took some time to realise the significance of Smith’s crowning achievement: his 1815 geological map of England, Wales and Scotland, the first nationwide geological map.

However, the Society has been trying to rectify its mistake ever since. In 1831, it awarded him the first Wollaston Medal – its highest honour – in recognition of his achievement. It now annually presents the William Smith Medal for contributions to applied or economic aspects of geoscience, and an original copy of his famous map hangs in pride of place on the Society’s walls.

And in March 2019, the Society held a party to celebrate William Smith’s 250th birthday, where a wonderful new book, William Smith’s Fossils Reunited, was unveiled, which brings together the original fossils Smith used to delineate the strata on his map, and the illustrations of these fossils prepared for books and pamphlets explaining his ideas.

Seminal Publications

William Smith's Map. An example of the earliest issue of Smith's 1815 map. Courtesy of the Geological Society. Merged with a composite image from is 1819 Geologic Map of Wiltshire (UKOGL). “People don’t realise that William Smith effectively founded the science of stratigraphy by using fossils to recognise layers in the Earth,” explains geologist Dr Peter Wigley, who was the driving force behind this new book. Peter was involved with the Geological Society’s celebrations of the bicentennial of the map back in 2015, and was instrumental in the creation of www.strata-smith.com website, with interactive recreations of the maps.

Both for his work as a surveyor but also in the course of his geological research, Smith travelled the length and breadth of the country; gathering, describing and collating fossils as he went and amassing a sizeable collection, many of which he used for his book. Unfortunately, money problems and poor business decisions forced him into bankruptcy and in 1818 he had to sell his treasured collection, for less than its worth – a mere £700 – to the newly formed British Museum. He provided the museum with a full catalogue of the fossils, which he called A Stratigraphical System of Organized Fossils. When London’s Natural History Museum was established in 1881, Smith’s fossil collection was moved there.

While researching for the website project, Peter was given copies of two of Smith’s publications, part of his unfinished work Strata Identified by Organized Fossils, which he had begun in 1816. “He had planned seven parts, but due to perennial money problems, the last three were never published,” Peter continues. “The book was structured to explain the rocks of England and Wales from top to bottom – or youngest to oldest – illustrated by exquisitely engraved images of the fossils found in each layer, drawn by renowned naturalist, mineralogist and illustrator, James Sowerby, from specimens provided by Smith. This is a seminal work; the first time anyone had tried to categorise strata by using fossils.”

“Knowing how important the fossils were for the story of William Smith, I had produced cleaned-up digitised versions of the illustrations to go on the map website,” Peter says. “Then I met Jill Darrell, who is Curator of the William Smith collection at London’s Natural History Museum, and the idea to match the fossils in the books with the originals in the museum just grew.” 

  • Page from original book.

  • Corresponding updated page.

Three Years Work

For the new book, Peter and his team of enthusiastic helpers digitized all the text of the unfinished book and of his fossil catalogue, and scanned the plates of illustrations. With the help of Hugh Torrens, they also located in the US the notes for the unpublished part of the book, which covered the older parts of the succession, from before the Carboniferous. These were also digitised, along with further original material, complete with notes and edits in Smith’s own hand, which were stored in the William Smith archive in Oxford University.

  • Dr Peter Wigley introducing the new book.

  • Happy 250th birthday, William Smith!

After all the material had been gathered and digitised, Jill Darrell, assisted by Diana Clements and Peter, set about matching the illustrations to the original fossils in the Museum’s collection. “That was a hard grind ,” Peter says. “Sometimes it was easy to find the match, but many were less so and we had to comb the whole collection of over 2,680 specimens to identify each illustration. In the process we managed to interpret William Smith’s coding system, which was useful!

“We have compiled the book so that a scan of the original page is on one page, and facing it is the reconstruction of the same page with high resolution photos of the same fossils. Each page of Smith’s original book was colour coded to agree with the strata colours he used in his map; he really was an original thinker,” Peter adds.

“Smith was careful to note the exact geographical location of each fossil and also the rock layer from which it came and in the book these locations are shown on copies of Smith’s own geological maps.

“The whole project took us over three years, working several days a week. We were very keen to have it published by the 250th birthday celebrations, and with help from the Peter Dolan Charitable trust, which picked up a lot of the publishing costs, we made it just in time.

250th Birthday Party

Sir David Attenborough, who wrote the book's preface, giving a short talk about William Smith. Photo credit: Jane Whaley. Having completed the book in time, it was only fitting that a party was given to celebrate its publication along with the momentous birthday. A gathering of the great and the good of geology met at the Geological Society in London, where they were addressed by Sir David Attenborough, who had kindly written a forward to the book. Many of those present, myself included, had not realised that Sir David is a geologist, having studied the subject at university, and he used the occasion to put in a plea for William Smith to be better recognised by the general populace, believing that his contribution to science has been seriously undervalued.

Congratulations must be offered to team who put together this beautiful book, and particularly to Peter Wigley, who conceived the idea and was the driving force behind it. Was it worth the effort, I asked him?

“Definitely!”, he replied. “Apart from being aesthetically pleasing in its own right as a coffee table book, I think reuniting these fossils and marking their original locations is of great scientific interest – but I hope it will also appeal to people who just want to learn a bit more about geology and about William Smith.”

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