Dan Pemberton, Collections Manager at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, writes:
Well not quite – unicorns are of course mythical beasts; however one of the specimens being prepared for an exhibition at Two Temple Place, London is described as ”Unicornu Fossile-Canstadiense” (fossil unicorn of Konstanz?). The specimen is in fact several fragments of fossil tusk, probably from a mammoth. This is just one of the fascinating specimens in the collection of Dr John Woodward, the founding collection of the Sedgwick Museum that was assembled between 1688 and 1728. This particular specimen was sent to Woodward by Johan Jakob Scheuchzer (1672-1733) a Zurich physician, now famous for his ‘Homo diluvii testis’ a fossil giant salamander he thought was the skeleton of a human killed during the biblical flood.
Two drawers of specimens have been chosen from Woodward’s collection as part of the Sedgwick Museum’s contribution to the University of Cambridge Museums’ (UCM) joint exhibition ‘Discoveries’ to be held at Two Temple Place January 31st to April 27th 2014. One drawer contains the bones and teeth of recent animals and fish alongside fir-cones and the shells and spines of sea-urchins. The other contains the bones and teeth of fossil animals and fish. These drawers were chosen because they relate to one of the most hotly contested scientific debates of Woodward’s time: whether fossils were the remains of once living things, were ‘sports of nature’ that grew in the ground (through some mysterious force such as the ‘vis plastica’) or were the remains of mythical beasts (unicorns, Cyclops etc.) or troublesome creatures ‘petrified’ by saints.
Much of the contents of these two drawers comes from the collection of the Renaissance artist and naturalist Agostino Scilla (1629-1700). Scilla studied painting in Rome under the artist Andrea Sacchi and painted the fresco on the ceiling of the Sacrament Chapel in Siracusa cathedral Sicily. Scilla was from Messina and collected many fossils from Messina, Calabria and Malta which he compared with the bones, teeth and shells of animals from the Mediterranean. As well as commenting on the striking similarities between the bones, teeth and shells of his local sea-life and the Miocene (23-5 million years ago) fossils of the region he made some other important scientific observations. He found that fossil sea urchin shells never contained sediment grains bigger than the largest opening in the shell even if the rock enclosing the shell did. For him this was evidence that fossil sea urchins could not have grown in the rock as a ‘sport of nature’, since this would have resulted in the grain size being identical inside and outside the shells. He also noticed that fossil sea-urchin shells are often crushed (evidence of sediment compaction) and that fossil shark teeth are often water-worn, both highly suggestive that the fossils could not have grown inside the rock. Scilla’s findings were published in Italian alongside his highly accurate drawings in 1670 in a book entitled ‘La vana speculazione disingannata dal senso’ (‘The vain speculation disillusioned by the sense’). This publication is considered to be the first that used scientific observation and reasoning to argue that fossils are the remains of plants and animals from the past.
Scilla’s views did not reach a mass audience at the time because it was published in Italian, although it was later translated into Latin, the international scientific language of the time. Woodward purchased Scilla’s collection and presumably his drawings as these too can be found in his collection. Woodward very much adhered to Scilla’s principles of scientific observation and deduction carrying out his own experiments, for example filling modern shells with lead to mimic mouldic fossils. Woodward agreed with Scilla’s view that fossils were the remains of plants and animals that had once been alive and his comments in his published catalogue of 1728 are remarkably insightful for the time. Interestingly Woodward often recorded the identifications given to specimens by their donors, so alongside Scheuchzer’s ‘fossil unicorn of Konstanz’ are Dr Leopold’s ‘Glossopetrae Luneburgensis’ (tongue-stones of Lüneburg = shark teeth). This in itself is illustrative of some of the various ideas respecting the nature of fossils that were prevalent at the time.
Woodward wrote his own book ‘Essay towards a Natural History of the Earth’ published in 1695. It was written in English, a very progressive act for the time. The arguments Woodward put forward in his book lead to a more general acceptance that fossils were not sports of nature but the remains of plants and animals that had once been alive.
(photographs by Eva-Louise Fowler)