I received an email recently from one of my contacts in the Museum's library which simply said: 'Zoe Hughes has a doorstop with an interesting story'.
Intrigued, I fired off an email to fossil invertebrates (Brachiopods and Cephalopods) curator Zoe and made a date to meet her to talk about the doorstop. But we would soon discover that this was just the beginning of the story.
The item in question was a very heavy iron cast of a brachiopod, Spirifer striata, that had been found in the roof of a cave in Derbyshire by fossil collector William Gilbertson. From there the fossil came into the possession of Edmund Garwood, a professor of geology and mineralogy. The fossil was then cast in iron by a member of the Slade School of Art, part of University College London.
Before we go any further, let me briefly explain what a brachiopod is, because I didn't know before Zoe told me. A brachiopod is a sea-dwelling creature. Most anchor themselves to the ocean floor with a worm-like pedicle (or 'arm foot'; literally brachio = arm and poda = foot). Some cement themselves to stones and shells, others have spines which anchor them and some just rest on the ocean floor. Originally thought to be part of the mollusc family which includes mussels and clams, it was later discovered that brachiopods were their own phylum (the taxonomic rank below kingdom and above class). On the outside, brachiopoda resemble bivalve molluscs in that they're comprised of two shells (also known as valves), but inside, they're orientated top to bottom instead of left to right, and feed in a different way. Brachiopods are one of the oldest animals found in the fossil record, and were most abundant in the Paleozoic era, around 250-500 million years ago. There are 30,000 species of brachiopods described, but only around 385 of those occur today.
Now, back to the story. Upon the death of Professor Garwood in 1949, the cast iron brachiopod was given to Helen Muir-Wood, who had carried out post-graduate research on Palaeozoic brachiopod faunas with Garwood at University College London. Muir-Wood worked at the Museum (then the British Museum of Natural History) from 1922 until she retired from her role as curator of the Brachiopoda in 1961. She was the first woman to reach the rank of Deputy Keeper of Palaeontology at the Museum, and (as far as we know) the first to use the brachiopod cast as a doorstop. When she retired, she took the cast home with her to Findon, from where it was recovered after her death in 1968 by brachiopod curator Ellis Owen.
Owen was the custodian of the brachiopod cast until his retirement in 1983, at which time he passed it to Howard Brunton (another curator of the Brachiopoda) who wrote the label that sits in the box in which the cast is housed today, where it comes under the remit of Zoe Hughes.
The cast iron brachiopod, formerly used as a doorstop.
And that brings the story back to the present day. At least it did at the point I first began writing this blog. But then a few days later I received a rather excited email from Zoe.
I've just found the actual specimen the cast was taken from! I never imagined that I would, as there's no specimen info with it. It was just a lucky find. I happened to open the particular drawer it was in on a tour this morning!
But that wasn't all, she said.
The brachiopod is part of the Davidson collection, which is a very important historical collection. Thomas Davidson wrote a series of monographs charting British brachiopods. And even more excitingly, this brachiopod is figured in one of the monographs. Plus we have Davidson's original notebooks with the initial notes and drawings he created to write the final monographs.
The original brachiopod fossil from which the cast was made.
It really was an extraordinary and serendipitous find, which has added a new chapter to the 'doorstop with an interesting story'.
Both specimens - the original fossil and the cast - have now been officially registered in the Museum's digital database in recognition of their scientific, and artistic, merit (specimen number NHMUK PI B 321, to be precise), and housed together in our vast collection. It marks a satisfying conclusion to a tale that spans several generations of scientists and more than 120 years of Museum history.
Thomas Davidson's sketches of the brachiopod fossil (left), and the illustrations that appeared in his book The Monography of British fossil Brachiopoda (right).