1. Essays:  
  2. A Case of Mistaken Identity
  3.   |  
  4. Fossils for sale
  5.   |  
  6. The Dark Art of Regional Geology

  8. The Dark Art's Great Payoff
  9.   |  
  10. Don't lose your Plagiosaur
  11.   |  
  12. Presenting ... Your Career

A Case of Mistaken Identity

with Mick Oates

From "52 More Things You Should Know About Palaeontology" edited by Alex Cullum and Allard Martinius, Agile Libre Publications, 2017.

From the dawn of civilization, humans have been picking up fossils and pondering what they could possibly mean. Up until the Age of Reason (mid-seventeenth to mid-eighteenth century) very few considered that fossils could ever have been alive. And why should they? There was no concept of geological time, and how could an animal have been turned to stone, except perhaps by an encounter with a Gorgon? Fossils were variously described as "sports of nature", products of a "plastic virtue latent in the earth", or unsuccessful attempts by life to emerge from the rock by spontaneous generation. The Danish anatomist Nicholas Steno was one of the first to recognize that fossils had once been living creatures, when in 1666 he connected curios known as "tongue stones" with modern-day sharks' teeth.

The realization that fossils were ancient life forms brought a slew of misidentifications which, although hilarious today, were perfectly understandable at the time. The organic and inorganic were routinely confused, so innocent concretions became "stone hearts", "bulls' heads" and "flint feet", while belemnite guards were thought to be "thunderbolts". And, notoriously, one of the earliest dinosaur bones was mistaken for a pair of testicles. If you look at the illustration, it's easy to see why. The fossil, actually part of the femur of the predatory Megalosaurus, was first described by Robert Plot in his Natural History of Oxfordshire (1677). Plot speculated that the bone came from a race of giants that once populated the Earth, but the physician Richard Brookes clearly had a very specific part of the anatomy in mind when, in 1766, he reclassified the specimen as Scrotum humanum. Lest we chortle too much, let's not forget that it would be another 60 years before the first dinosaur – fittingly, Megalosaurus - was described by William Buckland.

In those days, it was pretty easy to make mistakes about function too. Henry de la Beche's famous drawing Ancient Dorsetshire (1830) – rightfully celebrated as one of the first attempts to envisage a palaeoenvironment – shows ammonites sailing serenely on the surface like Spanish galleons amongst the general Jurassic carnage. The notion seems to have persisted in William Evans, Lord Energlyn's Through the Crust of the Earth (1973), which has the recumbent bivalve Gryphaea riding the ocean wave like a boat, while ammonites become "ancient submarines". A regular Jurassic flotilla…..

It's also perfectly possible to perceive signs of life based on no evidence whatsoever. We've all done it at some time or other. Stare at a page of random dots for long enough, and eventually you start seeing complex shapes. This human need to discern patterns in meaningless information has even got a name: apophenia. Its greatest geological exponent was Randolph Kirkpatrick (1863-1950), an assistant keeper at the British Natural History Museum. Kirkpatrick became obsessed with the large foraminifera called nummulites, and started seeing their characteristic concentric patterns everywhere, including in igneous rocks. Full-blown monomania took over when, in 1912, he published The Nummulosphere, a monumental work that more or less postulates that the entire Earth is made of nummulites. Given enough time, and access to the Hubble Telescope, Kirkpatrick would probably have extended his thesis farther into the cosmos.

So does Kirkpatrick take away the coveted "Master of Self-Delusion" prize? Not even close! Step forward, one Lewis A. Manson. His masterwork, The Birth of the Moon (1978), published by an apparently reputable university press, displayed powers of misinterpretation so great as to leave us breathless with admiration. Manson was clearly a man who knew his own mind, and was not about to be diverted by inconvenient details such as mainstream scientific thought. Whilst also reinventing most of astronomy and atomic physics, his refreshing take on geology included a new era, the Diastrophic.

This era lasted but 96 hours, during which time a passing star dragged off enough crust to form the moon, opening faults into which all sea life disappeared, to be converted to oil 60 miles down. When these chasms slammed shut, huge quantities of sand spurted out, together with the petrified remains of molluscs' fleshy parts (bits of flint to you and me). Manson's lavish illustrations also indentify a fibrous gypsum specimen as a piece of coconut "with the fibres perfectly preserved" and a copper ore concretion as a petrified frog (the green colour was a dead giveaway). Oh, and we almost forgot to mention the dessicated hadrosaur head observed on the lunar surface, and that "man, of course, evolved in the Devonian".

So why are we fascinated by this stuff? Is it just because we like to feel superior? Not at all – these books would be among the first we'd rescue from a burning building. The ability to be spectacularly wrong, shrug your shoulders and move on, is one of the joys or working in an imprecise science. We might even admit to a few howlers of our own, although fortunately space considerations do not permit us to go into those right now.


Energlyn, Lord (William David Evans). 1973. Through the crust of the Earth. McGraw-Hill.

Kirkpatrick, R. 1912. The Nummulosphere: An Account of the Organic Origin of So-called Igneous Rocks and Abyssal Red Clays. Lamley & Co. 424p.

Manson, L.A. 1978. The Birth of the Moon. Dennis-Landman Publishers. 205p.

Plot, R. 1677. The Natural History of Oxfordshire. 358p.

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Fossils for sale

From "52 More Things You Should Know About Palaeontology" edited by Alex Cullum and Allard Martinius, Agile Libre Publications, 2017.

Back in the late 1970s, there was an uproar in Britain's normally reserved palaeontological community. Commercial fossil hunters, mainly from the European mainland, had arrived in the country with power tools and explosives and were excavating well-known fossil sites, including type localities and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). What bugged the palaeontologists was not just the apparent destruction of the sites, but also the fact that these people were out-and-out professionals, with no interest in the fossils save for their money-making capability. In some cases they even hired helicopters to airlift their haul, so clearly there was a lot of money to be made by adorning the mantelpieces of the well-heeled.

A by-product of this invasion was that the localities now had spoil-heaps, full of fossil fragments discarded in favour of the perfect specimens. These reports came to the attention of me and my old college friend Mick Oates, fossil-hunter extraordinaire, so we decided to visit a few and see what we could scavenge.

Our first visit was to the Silurian shales of Lesmahagow, near Glasgow, where, as my wife frequently reminds me, I spent my first wedding anniversary covered from head to toe in mud. The locality is famous for well-preserved eurypterids (giant sea scorpions). Sure enough the evidence of commercial activity was there, together with signs written in what I will tactfully call a “mainland European language”, warning away future miscreants. More remarkable, however, was the fact that road works by the local authorities had excavated an order of magnitude more rock. Large quantities of fossiliferous shales had been packaged up into gabions (wire baskets, filled with stones and used to reinforce roadsides) and the best Slimonia tail section found that day had to be carefully teased out through a wire mesh. Not quite what we'd been led to expect.

Next stop was Orkney, where the bituminous flagstones of the Devonian Sandwick Fish Bed contain beautiful lacustrine fossils, including some of the earliest lungfish. Once again, the reality didn't quite seem to justify the reports or the red-faced indignation. The main locality there was in fact a disused quarry, and the wicked exploiters had created new exposures where previously there had just been a weathered rock face.

A theme is emerging, is it not? Nobody wants to see an SSSI obliterated, but re-opening of a degraded locality is another thing entirely. And in order to have a classic fossil locality, something has to create the exposure in the first place, whether or not we approve of the motives. In fact, it can be shown that many of the most critical fossils in the history of palaeontology came to us, not through the diligence of palaeontologists, but from opportunists looking for some extra income. The gentleman geologists of the 19th Century, who made some of the biggest strides in the history of palaeontology, rarely found their own fossils. They relied instead on workers in the quarries, building sites, railway cuttings and canals who were only too eager to supplement their meagre incomes with a bit of fossil selling. The most famous 19th century fossil supplier was undoubtedly Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, Dorset, the daughter of a carpenter who supported herself and her family by selling fossils found along what is now called the Jurassic Coast. Along the way she made some of the most important finds in palaeontology, including the first Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus, as well as the first British pterosaur, and was patronized by some of the biggest palaeontological names of the day such as William Buckland and Henry de la Beche.

Significant and sometimes ground-breaking contributions by the professional sellers have continued to this day. The title of “modern-day Mary Anning” unquestionably belongs to Stan Wood, a self-taught fossil dealer and enthusiast from Edinburgh, Scotland. Unlike Anning, who found most of her specimens by braving dangerous rock-falls on the foreshore, Stan wasn't averse to using a mechanical digger in the middle of a suburban area (with permission, I assume). Stan brought revolutionary extraction and preparation techniques to the science, supplying fossils for research and display worldwide. He eventually became a paleontological celebrity through his many discoveries, which included one of the earliest reptiles, the Carboniferous Westlothiana lizziae. Stan passed away in 2012, but his business, Mr. Wood's Fossils, continues in Edinburgh.

So it seems there has always been a somewhat uneasy symbiosis between palaeontologists and the fossil sellers. But perhaps now, at time of writing, the pendulum has swung too far in the commercial direction. Fossils are big business – they have become globalized and are just too available. At a reasonable price, any home can have one of those beautiful brown sectioned Madagascar ammonites (mostly Cleoniceras, Albian) or a slab of those ubiquitous Moroccan nautiloids, polished beyond all recognition. On the one hand it's good that the fossils are there for all to see. On the other hand they are devoid of context; as with many globalized commodities, we have become desensitized to what they actually mean. For me, nothing comes close to finding a well-preserved fossil in situ, opening a window into an ancient and vastly different world. No mantelpiece specimen you can buy can replicate that sense of wonder and mystery.

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The Dark Art of Regional Geology

From "52 Things You Should Know About Geology" edited by Matt Hall, Agile Libre Publications, 2013.

A friend and mentor of mine delights in telling me, 'Tony, make no mistake: geology is a Dark Art!' He should know I guess, since this dubious practice has taken him to the upper echelons of the oil industry. Furthermore, many of you reading this will know immediately what he means. There's something a bit suspect, a bit smoke and mirrors about geology. It's far too imprecise to be a real science, right?

But what's so dark about it? Well, perhaps it's because you sometimes have to conjure something out of almost nothing. Perhaps it's because what you conjure up is kind of counterfeit, a bit suspicious, and very seldom the product you were expecting. Or perhaps it's because not everyone approves of the results of our art, which includes the black stuff that — for a lot of us — pays our wages. And let's not forget, we are the Dirt People, as theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper haughtily declared in The Big Bang Theory.

Why an art? Well, geology wasn't originally a recognizable science at all, more the preserve of leisured aristocrats and clergymen who saw geology as an extension of theology. Even now, a disproportionate number of geologists seem to moonlight as painters, poets, or musicians. More than most sciences, geology is about imagination and creativity. It uses diverse media and initially unpromising materials to create a credible picture — pretty much the way an artist does. So yes, it's a bona fide Dark Art. And it's my contention that regional geology is the darkest art of all.

But wait, you say. Geology's not like that anymore. The solitary visionary trying to reconstruct ancient worlds with a hammer and a grubby map — that doesn't represent geology now. Our discipline has entered a new domain where it's far more precise, more analytical, more experimental. Or as I read somewhere a few years back, 'Geology has now moved out of the field and into the laboratory'. Well, if that's true, I for one am going back to playing my guitar. But I suppose I know what they mean. Things have changed unrecognizably over the last few decades. Laboratory analyses, 3D seismic volumes, limitless processing power, and infinitely flexible workstation techniques have given us unprecedented scope for analysis and precision. That kind of precision is pretty important in the petroleum industry when it comes to pinpointing the remaining oil in a field, or guiding a horizontal well along a thin sandstone layer. A new breed of geologist has even arisen to ride this wave. I think of them as the Detail People.

I truly respect the Detail People. "God (or his opposite number) is in the detail", we're often told. And how can you not admire someone who knows how to focus the technology on the tiniest forensic points, relentlessly interrogating them until they beg for mercy and finally yield their story? Not least, I love the Detail People because they can do something I can't. Maybe due to a chronic lack of patience, my own grasp of detail has never been wonderful.

However, there's one thing that many of the Detail People can't do, and that's envisage the big picture. In my current company role of roaming advisor and busybody I see this often. I might, for example, find myself sitting with an interpreter who is coaxing beautiful 3D renderings of depositional systems from a seismic volume, but who doesn't know — or particularly care — what happens just outside the block, let alone what the tectonic setting in the Late Cretaceous was.

This isn't a rare occurrence — it's almost the norm. Furthermore, it's not unreasonable. As you spread your net wider things get fuzzier, more hypothetical, the unique solutions disappear, and that makes people more reluctant to commit. It's time to summon a devotee of the Dark Art. This is their domain. It's a murky, uncertain place, but it's also where many of the big discoveries are made.

( Sheldon Cooper is quoted from The Big Bang Theory season 4, episode 15 "The Benefactor Factor". )

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The Dark Art's Great Payoff

From "52 Things You Should Know About Geology" edited by Matt Hall, Agile Libre Publications, 2013.

The jigsaw puzzle is a very seductive proxy for any kind of mystery, mainly because you just have to determine which piece fits where and eventually the whole picture will gloriously emerge.

The trouble is some vindictive person (probably that theoretical physicist I mention in The Dark Art of regional geology) has grabbed a handful of pieces from the middle and thrown them out of the window. They're going to take a long time to find! We still want to complete the picture — but how?

The highly focused scientists I call Detail People would say, 'Obviously, we need more data.' True, but right now we don't have that luxury. Fortunately, regional geologists are quite comfortable, because that hole is where they spend most of their time. To them, there's already an abundance of information. The hills and fields around the outside tell you it's a pastoral scene. It's reasonable to suggest more hills or a lake in the middle. A tractor or grazing cow is quite plausible. On the other hand, a battleship is vanishingly unlikely.

That's the regional geologist's job — to propose credible models using scattered and uneven data, and to extrapolate, often over long distances. You can confirm or modify this working model as you get more data. Of course, you might have been spectacularly wrong, too. In which case, open that window again and throw your hypothesis out. There's no room for pride in regional geology. Good regional geologists crave confirmation of their ideas, but they love arguing even more. The last thing they want is for their ideas to be slavishly applied without challenge.

Why is all this useful? The answer is that great new ideas often arise by combining the knowledge of the Detail People, who don't have the time or inclination to think about how their areas relate, into what regional geologists do. Good regional geologists beg, borrow, and steal. They promiscuously absorb other people's ideas and weld this second-hand information into a new whole. In the petroleum industry, that new whole can sometimes lead to big discoveries.

Major oil companies have vast databases, consistent methodologies for calculating risk and resources, and an ability to rank every basin on the globe. And yet they are not usually the first entrant into a new play. That's because, despite what pundits tell you, you can't systematize your way to frontier success. In fact, most of the major breakthroughs over the last decade, both conventional and unconventional, were made by independent oil companies without the benefit of big databases and systematics. Sure the big boys came in later, wallets bulging, to mop up the spoils, but for all their advantages they weren't the mold-breakers.

I have asked a number of experienced industry analysts why this is the case. Were the successful independents just the lottery winners? For every success, were there another 20 who went bust? Well, maybe. But it also turns out that a common factor between many of the successful independents was their hiring policy — the deliberate targeting of geologists with proven track records and big regional ideas. They couldn't afford to amass a global investment portfolio and play the odds, so instead they opted to dabble in the Dark Art. They brought in a few highly qualified obsessives, and gave them the resources to play their ideas out. Invariably, those ideas came down to making connections: extrapolating between basins, or boldly extending a geological idea into a new domain.

All of which might explain why I ended a recent talk to a group of regional geologists with the slogan 'the next big oil play is already in our heads.' I meant that the individuals in the room had bodies of knowledge which, when combined and nurtured, might result in a flash of insight and a new exploration direction. For me, seeing a new idea materialize in that way is one of our Dark Art's great payoffs.

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Don't lose your Plagiosaur

From "52 Things You Should Know About Palaeontology" edited by Alex Cullum and Allard Martinius, Agile Libre Publications, 2014.

Let me first declare my fraudulent credentials — I'm not a palaeontologist, I'm an oilman. But, like many geologists, my love of the science started in early adolescence, in my case when I first stumbled on the wonder of fossils while out hiking the Derbyshire Dales with my parents. Even now, after a long career dominated by seismic, logs, and petroleum systems, occasionally something happens to bring back that initial thrill. So I want to tell you about such a once-in-a-lifetime event that took place on a trip to Arctic Norway's Svalbard archipelago in 1984, ostensibly to study the petroleum potential of the Barents Sea.

The Arctic is one of the world's last great wildernesses. As a first-time visitor, I felt as if I was seeing everything with the first human eyes. I thought of Mary Anning walking the pristine Dorset shores a century or more before. Around the next corner, one might just stumble on something new and amazing. So it was that we were scrambling up the Upper Triassic shales of Miseryfjellet (Mount Misery) on Bear Island, the tiny frozen island south of Spitsbergen immortalized in Alistair MacLean's novel. Most of the party weren't interested in fossils and had ploughed on to the summit, while a couple of us were taking it more slowly, hoping for one of the rare Triassic ammonites that turned up from time to time.

Suddenly we spotted a few fossilized bones lying around, and excitedly started excavating — no doubt in a highly unprofessional way. Can you blame us? This was one of those cathartic moments I was telling you about. Hiding under large siltstone slabs we found more bones, including a backbone, rib cage, and skull, enough to show that this was a sizeable vertebrate. Then, to our astonishment, on lifting another slab we found — a sardine can! My acute geological insight told me immediately that tinned food hadn't yet been invented in the Triassic, so what was the explanation? A Norwegian friend had the answer; he remembered hearing a story that one of Norway's largest fossil vertebrates had been found — then lost again — on Bear Island many years before.

It turns out that the fossil, a giant amphibian, had been discovered during a Cambridge University ecological survey in the year of my birth, 1948. The party lacked the equipment to collect and curate the hundreds of bone pieces, so they took a few samples for study then covered the amphibian up again. A letter to Nature by J Lowy in 1985 described the find, and remarked that it was unlikely that the fossil would survive the ravages of the next few winters. But after briefly breaking the surface for the first time in 210 million years, our amphibian wasn't to be denied. In all probability it was further covered by slippage of scree material, allowing it to be preserved until we stumbled on it 36 years later. A bit of later detective work in dusty museum corridors resulted in us finding the original expedition's bone material and photographs. The photos showed the same fossil, albeit in slightly better condition. And there, sitting among the ribs and presumably for scale, was a gleaming new sardine can!

The amphibian is a plagiosaur, probably related to the genera Plagiosternum or Gerrothorax, but much larger than any known species of either. At 3 m (nearly 10 ft) long, it is considerably larger than any living amphibian. These forms supposedly had salamander-like external gills and are characterized by broad, shield-like skulls — the Bear Island amphibian's skull is an impressive 70 cm wide. The fossil was airlifted by helicopter off the slopes of Miseryfjellet with a little help from oil company money, and taken to the Palaeontological Museum in Oslo for restoration.

A friend and I published a brief note on the rediscovery, but unfortunately, that's where the story currently ends. Apparently decisions at the museum fell under the sway of a trilobite man who held all fossils younger than Silurian in contempt, and the restoration never took place. So one of Norway's most unique fossils fell victim to palaeontological tribalism, and our giant amphibian waits patiently to emerge into the light for the third time.

Doré, A.G. and Wandaas, B. (1985). Lost fossil amphibian of Bear Island. Geological Curator 4 (3), 169-171.
Lowy, J (1949). A labyrinthodont from the Trias of Bear Island, Spitzbergen. Nature 163, 1002.
Romer, A.S. (1971). Vertebrate Paleontology. University of Chicago Press. 468p.

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Presenting ... Your Career

From "52 Things You Should Know About Geology" edited by Matt Hall, Agile Libre Publications, 2013.

Whether you're in geoscience or accountancy, you're living in a PowerPoint world. This one piece of software dominates the way we approach presentations. For those geoscientists who used to travel to meetings burdened by profiles, maps, and transparencies, the benefits are obvious. A tiny flash drive does the trick now, or we can just pull the stuff off the net. Then there's the flexibility — we can reorder, combine, import, animate, and alter with minimum effort. We should be in presentation Nirvana.

Unfortunately, as with most things digital, the PowerPoint world brings its own pitfalls. There are probably more bad presentations around than ever before, because it's just too easy. Throw a few slides together from diverse sources and you've got a scientific talk. That's why many of our geological conferences are over-subscribed with substandard papers. The tool can be misused, and the casualty is good scientific communication. However, I'm not writing this to bewail the standard of geological presentations. There's a more pressing matter — your career.

Your contact with the power brokers is probably limited. A presentation is a rare occurrence when you, personally, are being showcased. Trust me on this — a single presentation can leave a lasting impression and be pivotal in your career, whether academic or industrial. I've been on both sides of the leadership fence and I know it's true. I've also observed that getting a few big things right is paramount; the rest is purely cosmetic.

Top of my list is this: enthusiasm conquers almost everything, including lack of formal technique. There are courses that claim to iron out wrinkles in your communication skills, but be careful you don't lose what comes naturally. Most of these courses will put you on video so you can see your idiosyncrasies laid bare. You could end up more self-conscious than before. What really counts is engagement with your subject, looking your audience in the eye, and making them part of your passion. If that involves waving your arms about, so be it. I've seen people with severe tics and stammers give storming presentations.

Next: when you rehearse, concentrate hardest on what connects the current slide to the next one. You already know the content of each slide pretty well. But just describing them in turn is like one of those embarrassing after-dinner speeches where the speaker keeps saying 'And another thing…'. The links turn a series of disjointed slides into a story, and create a flow that will both engage and impress your audience.

At the same time, think about who your audience is. Are they geoscientists or civilians? Are they management, your peers, or some combination? Then pitch your talk accordingly. 'Polyphase deformation in retreating extensional subduction systems' will impress your colleagues, but will send the average executive into a reverie on last night's big game.

As a geologist, treat raw GIS outputs and 3D workstation screen dumps with caution. Wonderful as these tools are at assembling and representing geological information, without editing they don't usually make very good slides. Remember, your public has only seconds to understand a picture. Simplify maps: you are trying to communicate an idea, not impress people with the complexity of your data.

Carefully tailor your presentation to the allotted time. The old rule about a minute per slide isn't bad. Most critically, try to make sure you have enough time to say what you want to say. We all underestimate the time we need. You've heard it before: 'I can do this in 15 minutes, easy!' And you know the usual outcome. If you're on a strict time schedule, and you have any say at all, try to keep the discussion for the end. It's very easy for a presentation to be derailed by overenthusiastic debate so you never get to make your main point.

Don't revisit and rephrase points, except perhaps in your conclusions. I inwardly groan when someone, having explained a point perfectly well, then says 'So what I mean is…' It sounds like you're having trouble grasping the point yourself, and of course it creates time stress.

Finally, use bullets as cues, not scripts. The bulleted list is a staple PowerPoint tool, but it's critical not to overload it with text. Reading out a wordy point verbatim sounds unprofessional and, because your audience can actually read, they are probably doing so instead of listening to you! Remember, you have every reason to be confident. You have a tremendous advantage over your audience: They're coming to this cold, whereas you've prepared hard, got a good storyline, and know it inside out. For 20 minutes, you are the world expert. So unleash your enthusiasm and go knock 'em dead!

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