18. Fighting the Establishment 1820-1824

Two establishment geologists, both devout members of the Church of England, then came together at Oxford and explored the local landscape looking for fossils. William Buckland (1784-1856) and the Rev William Conybeare (1787-1856) were very interested in Smith’s local map and its implied sequence of strata. They went on to use another of Smith’s less detailed national maps to test their own observations of the rock sequences further afield, eventually going into mainland Europe.

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Throughout the 1820s Buckland tried to reconcile the state of geological knowledge of the early nineteenth century with contemporary Christian values. He argued that the Superficial Gravels which contained elephant remains were from a gentle marine inundation, rather than the tsunami-like roar proposed by de Luc. There were also some interesting teeth and bones from a quarry at Stonesfield but he put them in a box at the museum and left them unidentified. He also argued that Cuvier’s fossils of hoofed mammals that were thought to be related to cattle, had been divinely designed for human use, so they were proxy humans, alive with Noah at the time of the Flood, good proof of the biblical creation. This was Buckland’s so-called Diluvial Theory to explain the extinct mammals of the Superficial Gravels and stony clays near the earth’s surface as evidence for the Flood. It was also how he explained the specimens then in the Oxford museum that included the large femur collected from Oxfordshire in the seventeenth century by Robert Plot.

Smith’s map had helped the parson-geologist Conybeare find fossils of a marine reptile from clays of deep strata that the map showed to be Secondary or Jurassic. He called these Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus, now known to be extinct crocodile-like creatures, like those that Jules Verne dramatized in Journey to the Centre of the Earth. The links first made by Conybeare compared the fossils with not-so-very-different modern species. Cuvier and Buckland joined in this work with more detailed comparisons, not too happy about explaining such strange creatures from such deep rocks as victims of the deluge. But they held to their beliefs, fixed as they were to so much tradition and to so many powerful institutions, the church, the learned societies, the whole establishment. Really, it was only people like William Smith who were free to consider these very different causes.

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The strength of the conservatives encouraged another outsider to speak out with an unfashionable explanation of some fossil teeth he had found in deeper strata from Sussex. A Lewes doctor, Gideon Mantell (1790-1852) spent as much of his spare time as he could fossil-hunting, and around 1820 he had found the teeth scattered on the floor of a quarry just north of the Downs, along with really large animal bones and fossil plants of palms, cycads and giant ferns, though many of them were unfamiliar.  Some of the bones were like Conybeare’s reptiles but he had a number of teeth that he thought were certainly not: they were more like the worn teeth of a herbivore.

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In October 1821 Mantell had an unexpected visit from one of Buckland’s students, Charles Lyell (1792-1875), wanting to hear about the large fossils and suspicious that they may be similar to the Oxfordshire specimens that he had seen in the Oxford museum. Lyell had attended Buckland’s lectures while he was a student there, graduating in Classics in 1819 but always being more interested in geology. Now he was visiting Sussex training as a lawyer and was still more interested in Mantell’s fossils than in the legal proceedings in the court nearby.

The two men became good friends and Lyell encouraged Mantell to write about the unusual fossil teeth and their similarity with the Oxford specimens. Fossils of the South Downs was published in 1822 with a full account of the teeth, vertebrae and the other bones which Mantell attributed to “one or more gigantic animals of the lizard tribe”. Also understanding the new importance of getting the establishment on your side, the humble author, no doubt stimulated by the aristocratic Lyell, proudly announced at the head of the subscription list, that King George IV had asked for four copies. So it was with great confidence that Mantell went into the Geological Society to present his fossils and his publication to the membership. In the chair at the front sat Professor Buckland, with Conybeare by his side, and their frowns showed that they weren’t going to let him get away with it.

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They said the badly preserved fossil teeth either belonged to a large fish, perhaps a wolf-fish, or were from a mammal that lived over the last few thousand years. Furthermore, and with some justification at the time, the professional geologists couldn’t accept that the Sussex clays were of the kind of ancient deep strata that Mantell assumed. There was no evidence for the age of the deposits and that was the end of the matter. Buckland wouldn’t surrender his Diluvial Theory or his supremacy.

But Mantell was not one to give up easily even though he left London that day in 1822 full of despair and anger. His marriage was beginning to suffer from the long hours he spent with his fossils rather than his family. His medical practice suffered because the good doctor’s attention was obviously elsewhere and many of his patients moved to other physicians. He was running out of money, friends and energy. But again, quite unexpectedly, his friend Charles Lyell came along with a very good idea that lifted his spirits. Lyell was planning a trip to Paris and wanted to call on Cuvier with Mantell’s controversial teeth specimens. It would be interesting to know what the world’s leading expert had to say about them.

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Whatever happened next has become distorted through nearly two centuries of retelling, so we cannot be sure. Lyell did show the Sussex specimens to Cuvier and the reaction was bad news for Mantell. Some say that Cuvier looked at the specimens very quickly, identified one as the incisor of a rhinoceros and asked Lyell to leave. Many say that Buckland had briefed Cuvier about the claim and that it was wrong. Others say Cuvier later admitted the meeting had been “at an evening party”. Lyell didn’t have anything very nice to say about Cuvier, but he had something to observe about his office: “I got into Cuvier’s sanctum sanctorum yesterday, and it is truly characteristic of the man. .. It is a longish room comfortably furnished, lighted from above, with eleven desks to stand to like a public office for so many clerks. But all is for the one man, who multiplies himself as author, and admitting no-one into his room, moves as he finds necessary, of as fancy inclines him, from one occupation to another. Each desk is furnished with a complete establishment of inkstands, pens, etc. .. The collaborators are well chosen, find references, are rarely admitted to the study, receive orders and speak not.”

Mantell was only 32 years old when all this happened, still with enough energy and faith in himself to keep going with what he’d worked out for himself. He still had a reputation as a local collector and palaeontology has a popular pastime for the middle classes of Sussex. People still visited him to see his collections. He also carried on visiting new rock and clay exposures, still excited about what might turn up. By 1824 he had collected a range of new specimens of the teeth, many much better preserved, and all exciting enough to send to Cuvier again. By then, the verdict was different: “some of the great bones that you possess should belong to this animal which, at present, is unique of its kind.” It went on to be the first dinosaur to be recognized.

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