Jul 30, 2014

Scilla’s Fossils: The collection at the core of the Sedgwick

A new project is underway at Cambridge’s oldest museum, the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. Funding from Arts Council England’s ‘Designation Development Fund’ is enabling the Museum to make some of its most historically important specimens available to visitors for the first time as high-quality, interactive digital 3D objects.
Category: 2014
Posted by: Sarah

The nucleus of the Museum’s collections is comprised of the 9,400 rocks, minerals, fossils, archaeological and ethnographic artefacts collected by its founder, Dr John Woodward (1665-1728) between 1688 and his death. He was a prodigious collector who endeavoured to amass as many British and foreign specimens as possible. Many of his British specimens he collected himself or with the aid of his assistants, his foreign specimens were bought from or exchanged with a wide circle of correspondents many of whom lived or travelled overseas.

Perhaps one of the most historically important contributions to Woodward’s collection are the specimens he obtained from Agostino Scilla (1629-1700). Scilla was a Renaissance painter and naturalist who had turned his eye for detail to the collection and study of the abundant marine fossils which were to be found in the pale limestones around his Sicilian home town of Messina. Scilla added to his collection similar fossils from Malta and the Calabria region of mainland Italy, he also acquired the bones, teeth and shells of local sea life with which to compare them. In order to better understand anatomy, he regularly observed nature alongside leading scientists of the day including Marcello Malpighi and Paolo Boccone and was regarded by some as one of the best scientific illustrators of the time. This collection of fossils and their modern counterparts provided Scilla with comparative materials that lead him to conclude that fossils are the remains of plants and animals from the past, a view that was not widely accepted at the time. Scilla published his ideas in 1670 in a book that sets out one of the earliest detailed and illustrated arguments that fossils are the remains of living animals. In doing so he articulated ideas that were crystallising in the scientific community at the time and helped lay the foundations of modern palaeontology.

Figure 1. a. The frontispiece of La vana speculazione disingannata dal senso in which a young man, representing the god Mercury, points to an array of marine fossils in the rock and holds up an echinoid for the inspection of a female figure representing ‘vain speculation’. Photograph by Dr Kenneth McNamara.
Figure 1. b. An original drawing for one of the twenty nine figure plates from La vana speculazione disingannata dal senso. Each hand drawn plate was then copied onto copperplate and engraved by a specialist artist – Pietro Santi Bartoli. These plates formed an important part of Scilla’s arguments and depicted both fossil and extant comparative specimens. Photograph by Eva-Louise Fowler.

Scilla’s book - La vana speculazione disingannata dal senso (Vain speculation undeceived by sense) - was written and published in Italian as a conscious political statement in an age where all serious scientific texts were presented in Latin. The book was later translated into Latin with some loss of fidelity as the florid Italian was replaced by more sober tones. John Woodward recognised the importance of Scilla’s work and the collection that had inspired it. He acquired around 350 specimens from him, some of which were figured in the book. The Sedgwick Museum holds an original Italian language first edition of Scilla’s book into which Scilla’s original drawings have been bound. The book is currently being translated into English for the first time so that a more faithful account of Scilla’s original prose and ideas can be made more widely available.

It is thanks to Woodward’s fastidiousness in cataloguing that we can compare Scilla’s and Woodward’s account of the same fossils. We’re finding that it’s not unusual for them to disagree on identifications! For instance, one specimen is listed by Woodward in his catalogue as ‘a tusk of the Morse or Walrous’. This contradicts Scilla’s identification of the object as Woodward goes on to write ‘He [Scilla] thought this part of the tooth of an elephant’. Comparison with modern specimens and other fossils from similar beds show that in this case Scilla’s original identification of the tusk was correct.

Figure 2. A drawer from one of Woodward’s cabinets. The specimens are arranged in drawers according to Woodward’s system of classification and so specimens acquired from Scilla are spread throughout Woodward’s collection according to fossil type. This drawer is dominated by the teeth of sharks and bony fish, mostly acquired from Scilla. The conical specimen visible in the lower right corner is the tusk over which Scilla and Woodward disagreed. Photograph by Eva-Louise Fowler.

Around 340 years later, the portion of Scilla’s collection acquired by Woodward remains almost complete and is still here at the Sedgwick Museum. Now, the Museum is recognising not just the importance of the Woodwardian collection but specifically of Scilla’s contribution by making Scilla’s fossils and words available to visitors in a digitised form. The majority of Scilla’s fossils are still stored in drawers within Woodward’s personal collectors cabinets and so are sadly not on display to visitors. We are currently using a range of 3D scanning technologies and conventional photography alongside Scilla’s original observations, illustrations and interpretations of the specimens to give museum visitors the opportunity to see these incredible fossils and understand the major role that they played in the birth of modern palaeontology.

- Dr Kelly R. Richards

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