Friday, 27 March 2009


Nearly here. The Tucson containers have been unloaded in Bristol and my crates are currently being tampered with by Simon. Once he's finished, he'll kindly condense and ship them up to Edinburgh.

All being well, they should be on the pavement outside the shop sometime on Tuesday. And then an hour or so later, inside the shop.

It's a busy few days for me, but I enjoy them. Unpacking all the stuff I bought in January and February that I've almost forgotten about. Working out prices, making new labels, and getting things on the shelves.

Monday, 23 March 2009

On the sea shore

For Ada Lovelace Day...

Mary Anning was, for a long time, an unsung heroine of palaeontology. She lived in early 19th Century Lyme Regis, Dorset, on England's fossil-rich South coast. Her parents were poor, and her father supplemented his income making furniture by collecting and sellng fossils. There was a small tourist trade in fossils at the time, and Mary and her brother took to the beaches to help their father.

The fact that seven of Mary's brothers and sisters did not live past early infancy allows some insight into the circumstances of the time, and Mary was only eleven when her father died, leaving the family in even more desparate circumstances.

While Mary would have been selling her early finds to tourists, the science of palaeontology was by now beginning to find its feet. Fossil enthusiasts began to seek out fossil hunters to quickly expand their collections and understanding of their importance. It wasn't long before Mary was supplying these budding palaeontologists with material and they began to provide her with a steadier income.

Mary made some very significant finds, including the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton, a plesiosaur and even a pterosaur. Her family recieved a welcome financial hand from one of her customers, who sold his collection to help support Mary's work. It wasn't until much later in life that she began to recievemore official recognition for her discoveries. She was awarded regular funding for her contributions to science and, just before her death in 1847, was granted honourary membership of the Geological Society. Honourary only, as she was a woman.

The famous tongue twister 'She sells sea shells...' is thought to be about her.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Mother-of-pearl Day

Ammonite fossils sometimes show a mother-of-pearl like layer where the aragonite of the original shell has not changed to calcite, as usually happens. Light reflecting from the thin layers of aragonite undergoes an interference which leads to a beautiful spectrum of colour display.

Ammonites from Majunga in Madagascar can show this effect and those of a South Dakota locality, and there are some Somerset ammonites which can display fine colour too, but by far the best examples come from Placenticeras ammonites in 70 million year old rocks in Alberta, Canada. Here the stone is called ammolite (among other names) and the better grades of ammolite show a fantastically intense, opal-like colour.

Colour ranges across the spectrum, but greens and reds are most common. The purply-blues are rare, and fetch a bit more money. The highest grade gems can be pretty expensive, but it is possible to get nice colour at a reasonable price. Complete ammonites can be found, though they are rare and can take hundreds of hours of painstaking preparation to reveal the colour fully. Needless to say, the ammonites cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Ammolite has been officially classified as a gemstone, though quite what that means I don't know. Nobody's officially classified me as anything. Something to do with grading? Marketing? What I do know is that it looks great. It's one of my favourite stones. I try not to take stones home, but with ammolite I find it very difficult to part with some pieces. I buy mine from a good friend, who collects, cuts and polishes it himself. Not many people are allowed to collect the material, and it's also very difficult to actually find it. Can be dangerous, too - the best stuff is found on the steep, scree covered banks of a torrential river, accessible only for a short period of the year. A large part of the formation is found on a Kainah tribal reservation, and permission to collect is controlled.

The Blackfeet consider the stone to help with the buffalo hunt and call it buffalo stone. There aren't many buffalo near where I live, but I may try it out on some cows. I won't actually hunt them, though. Maybe just sneak up on them.

I've been selling ammolite in the shop for a decade now, and people love it. It took me a while to get round to selling jewellery, but now it's a jewellery line that is memorably different and it's been doing well. This year I picked out a few pendants but also got a bunch of pieces that I will get made into pendants and rings. It takes a bit of time to get them done that way, but is worth doing.

Thought as it was Mothers Day this weekend, I'd pick a gem as a theme today...

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Hands off approach

Last week, I overheard a comment as a couple of people were leaving the shop. It's one I've heard a few times before, and went a little along the lines of:

'I don't think they should be allowed to take things from the Earth. It's like shells, isn't it?'

I can understand the conservational principles behind the thinking, but cannot agree with the sentiment. Firstly, there's a significant difference between the shell trade and fossils. Without knowing a great deal about the shell business I can't say what standard practice is, but there is at least the potential for dealers being pro-active - actually killing lots of cuddly little slime-lumps to sell their homes to somebody. Rather than just filling a bucket with shells from the beach after a high tide, for example. I don't know if this goes on or not and I don't want to be in any way accusatory, but my point is that with fossils, it can't. Nobody can go out with a shotgun, a flask of coffee and a couple of cheese and pickle sandwiches on a day's trilobite hunting. Beaten to the punch by hundreds of millions of years.

A common comment in the shop is 'Why aren't all these things in museums?'. I'm pretty sure I've addressed this issue in an earlier post. If I can be bothered, maybe I'll go and have a look later, and edit this. Would be a good exercise in posting a link, which I should get round to. (Stone sentinels - ooh, look, I could be bothered). Anyway, there's clearly a link with these lines of thinking. With one, an assumption of intrinsic scarcity leading to the feeling that everything should be locked away and looked after by somebody for the greater good. And with the other, perhaps, the feeling of collective ownership, or ownership by 'the planet' leading to a feeling of suspicion of those exploiting a common resource. Both 'hands off those fossils' lines of thinking, in different ways.

As I said, I have addressed the former point already, but one moment of tv annoyed me greatly. Let me vent for a second. Tony Robinson's Time Team archaeology program had a sideways dip into matters palaeontological a few years ago. Early in this programme, they stated that they knew very little about the subject, and less about the commercial side to the subject. Yet later on they were scathing and condemnatory about a little 'Mom and Pop' store they came across selling fragments of dinosaur bone and eggshell. They were horrified that anyone should be selling this precious and rare material, and were outraged that it wasn't all safely locked away in a museum somewhere. I don't think there would have been many museums that would have taken that stuff if they had offered to drop it on their doorstep. It's purely commercial material, of little or no scientific value. And they ought to have done a little research into that before writing off a whole industry like that.

On to the second 'pillaging the Earth' line. If fossils weren't collected then nobody would see them. Nobody would learn from them. Nobody would be able to appreciate their beauty. Those that are lying around on the surface may be seen by a few diligent beachcombers or desert wanderers, but would eventually be destroyed by the elements. Those buried within the rocks, the vast majority, would stay there, benefitting no-one, until the rock is eroded. However many fossils are found and collected (and sold), most will remain hidden from view.

One issue that I should probably raise here is the possibility that the Earth would 'feel' the loss of the stones. I mean as some sort of sentient being. Mother Earth. I've said before that I hold very strong atheist views, so this doesn't hold any water for me. Gaia Theory is a fascinating topic, and one I'll save for another post, but I would contend that it's a form of religion for scientists. Poor Mother Earth would also then presumably feel the loss of metal ores, oils and gases by that measure. In which case the loss of a few fossils here and there is small beer.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

In the field

I did my geology degree at Glasgow University. At the time, the course provided more hours spent in the field than any other in Britain. Geological field trips are far from random. Destinations are selected very carefully.

Obviously, the geology and exposure of the area is important, but first and foremost is the weather. Geology can only properly be studied in temperatures that will make your nose turn black and fall off, fingers curl into pitiful talons and eyes freeze to icy marbles. Wind is vital - it has to be fierce, and, ideally, unpredictable. The cardinal rule, though, is that precipitation must be heavy and near constant. Gaps between raindrops, hailstones or snowflakes must only be enough to allow sheltered breathing.

This, perhaps, is why Scotland has been the source of so many key figures in the development of the science. During my time at Glasgow University we covered a great deal of Scottish soil. And saw very few days of clement weather. That said - our final year trip was from a choice of three. One to Ireland, one to the North of Scotland, where I had recently spent 6 weeks mapping, and one to the South of Spain. I went to Spain. It was very hot, very sunny, and there were a lot of bars fighting for the custom of a big group of sun-scorched students. The one downside of the trip - mammoth minibus journeys in baking heat, jolting around pitted, narrow, twisting and precipitous mountain roads. With hangovers.

My mapping project aside, the most memorable Scottish trip was to the Ardnamurchan peninsula. It's a truly lovely place, but, at least while we were there, not blessed with the most welcoming climate. It rained, snowed, hailed and was incredibly windy throughout, save for one memorable instant. the hotel we were staying in laid on packed lunches for the students every day. They tried to give us a little variety, but clinging to a rocky hillside in a howling hailstorm I remember not being overly pleased to be trying to spread a frozen block of butter onto a cream cracker with a flimsy plastic knife, with the reluctant lump of cheese-ice scowling at me before flying into the gale.

Later that day, though, the rain stopped, the wind died and a bright warm sun appeared from nowhere. It went quiet, and then we heard a muffled thundering noise. We looked around as the sound grew louder, and then around the bend in the valley came a huge herd of red deer. They ran right past, metres away, and disappeared over the small hill behind us. It was a magical moment, broken only when the rain resumed its war of attrition, very shortly after.