Curator's Choice: Dinosaur dung

A photograph showing a coprolite

© Lyme Regis Museum

    • One of the journalists on our other website Culture24 has interviewed Mary Goodwin,  a curator from the Philpott Museum in Lyme Regis about her favourite object – a table made from mahogany and fossilised dinosaur dung.

      The team here at Show Me thought it was so good, we wanted share it with our readers too.

      This is Mary  with the infamous table made of coprolites (the proper name for dinosaur poo). By the way, the fossilised dinosaur dung used to make the table was from an Ichthyosaur.

      This is what Mary had to say about her chosen object:

      "The first time I saw it, I just thought, "What a weird thing." It's something like inlaid furniture, and you naturally feel an urge to touch it. Schoolchildren who visit the museum certainly seem to have that urge, so I encourage them. That's when I tell them it's made of poo.

      Of course, after they've finished going, "Urrrgh!" and recoiling in horror, they find a teacher who hasn't been paying attention and get them to do the same. The excrement is prehistoric – the centrepiece of the table is a slab of inlaid coprolites, otherwise known as dinosaur dung.

      In their natural state, coprolites are pretty nondescript – they just look like little boring stones. Those you see in the table have been sliced right through so they're in cross-section, like half a boiled egg, then polished.

      There's a plaque on the table that says, "This slab of inlaid coprolites was formerly the property of William Buckland, Dean of Westminster and Professor of Geology and Mineralogy at the University of Oxford." Buckland was one of the 'big guys' of early palaeontology. He was quite a character, and had a reputation for eating anything and everything that had once had a pulse, including a bluebottle, a panther, a crocodile and the preserved heart of the French King Louis XIV.

      Buckland was born locally, in Axminster, and was a great chum of Mary Anning's. They used to go fossil hunting together. It was just about OK for them to do this, since they were engaged in a scientific pursuit. Otherwise, it really wouldn't have been on at the time for a man and a woman to go out alone. Nevertheless, there was gossip about them; rumours circulated about a possible romance...

      The story is that the coprolites were discovered at Lyme and nobody knew at first what they were. It was Buckland who realised these little round brownish-grey stones were fossilised excrement and gave them a name.

      There definitely was a dialogue between Mary and Buckland about coprolites, and she certainly knew what they were. Buckland wrote, "Miss Anning informs me that since her attention has been directed to these bodies she has found them near the ribs and in the pelvis of almost every perfect skeleton of Ichthyosaurus," implying that he pointed them out to her, but she would have noticed them anyway. It was a joint effort, really.

      Fossil hunters – Mary Anning included – were able to sell their finds as 'curiosities' to collectors, which were taken to private museums in London. They sold to people who considered themselves to have a scientific interest – it was a huge rage at the time.”

      If you want to read the whole interview, you can find it on our other site, Culture24.

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