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On 13 Feb a new temporary exhibition opened here at the Museum entitled Britain: one million years of the human story. It includes some images of microfossils from our collection in the display.

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Scanning electron microscope (SEM) images of pollen grains from our collection that appear in the exhibition.

 

These and other microfossil collections housed behind the scenes help with dating the finds, reconstructing the environment, landscape and climate of these first human settlements in Britain and provide the climatic context for the recent discovery of the earliest human footprints in Britain on a Norfolk beach.

 

The AHOB Project and micropalaeontology

 

The exhibition highlights the work of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) Project and its predecessor projects. The current project, funded by Calleva, is investigating the timing and nature of human occupation of the British Isles, the technology they used, their behaviour, the environment they lived in and the fauna sharing the landscape. The microfaunas and floras mentioned here were recovered by project researcher Mark Lewis and project associate member John Whittaker.

 

Mark is a palynologist and has used the distribution of pollen grains in the sediments surrounding the human finds to interpret ancient climates and landscapes. Pollen grains that range in size from 10-100 microns can be found in sediments millions of years after the plants that produced them have died and decayed.

 

The Museum collections

 

Mark regularly uses our collection of modern pollen and spores to interpret the pollen floras that he recovers as part of the AHOB Project. We recently transferred this collection from the Botany Department and the images in the exhibition were taken from the collection of SEM prints and negatives that accompanies that collection.

 

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Part of our modern pollen collection. Slides are housed in special plastic sleeves and arranged by plant family name.

 

John Whittaker spent his entire career as a researcher here at the Museum and is a now a Scientific Associate in the Earth Sciences Department as well as being an Associate Member of the AHOB Project. In a previous blog post I highlighted his microfossil finds from three key early human sites at Boxgrove about 500,000 years old, Pakefield about 700,000 years old and Happisburgh (prounced Haze-boro) about 900,000 years old. Many of John Whittaker's microfossil slides are deposited here at the Museum.

 

Ancient landscapes

 

The pollen grain illustrations from the exhibition were chosen because of their use and importance in reconstructing ancient environments, particularly the vegetation dominating the landscapes in which the ancient humans lived. The scanning electron microscope images shown above from left to right are:

 

1. Dandelion-type e.g. Taraxacum - this herb indicates dry grassland or disturbed open ground

2. Dwarf willow, Salix herbacea - characteristic of rocky, open ground as found during cold periods

3. Montpellier maple, Acer monspessulanum - currently native to the Mediterranean and central Europe, this tree was present in Britain only during the last (Ipswichian) interglacial about 125,000 years ago

4. Bogbean, Menyanthes trifoliata - shallow water inhabitant of bogs and fens during both temperate and cold periods

5. Common valerian, Valeriana officinalis - herb indicating either dry or damp grassland as well as rough ground

 

Environments of deposition of sediments


Ostracods and Foraminifera collected by John Whittaker from Boxgrove indicate a marine raised beach and a later terrestrial deposit with freshwater ponds below chalk cliffs.

 

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The saltmarsh foraminiferal species Jadammina macrescens has been recovered from Happisburgh and is consistent with interpretations that the site is situated near the mouth of the ancient large river, possibly the River Thames.

 

070314-2.jpgThe foraminiferal species Jadammina macrescens is common in saltmarsh environments.

 

The microfossils were able to show that the Slindon Sands were deposited in a wholly marine high-energy environment, whereas the Slindon Silts were deposited in a shallow intertidal environment at the margin of a regressive sea. This sort of information is vital when interpreting the archaeological finds from the site.

 

Ancient climates

 

River sediments containing flint artefacts have been found on the coast of East Anglia at Pakefield. The oldest artefacts came from the upper levels of estuarine silts where both marine and brackish ostracods and foraminifera have been recovered.

 

070314-1.JPGReconstruction of a scene at Happisburgh about 900,000 years ago by John Sibbick. (copyright AHOB/John Sibbick)

 

Other evidence from mammal, beetle and plant remains suggests a setting on the floodplain of a slow flowing river where marshy areas were common. The river sediments were deposited during a previously unrecognised warm stage (interglacial) and the presence of several warmth loving plants and animals suggests that the climate was similar to that in present day southern Europe.

 

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Pollen and mammal fossils recovered from Happisburgh suggest that the climate was similar to that of southern Sweden and Norway of today with extensive conifer forest and grasslands. The floodplains were roamed by herds of mammoth and horses. Foraminifera such as the species Ammonia batavus are characteristic of warmer climates.

 

Evidence of reworking of some sediments

 

The interglacial sediments at Pakefield are overlain by a thick sequence of glacial deposits which include till and outwash sands and gravels. These contain reworked (Cretaceous and Neogene) microfossils transported from the North Sea Basin by glaciers. This is important information as fossils found in these redeposited sediments could be give false indications as to the climatic setting and dating of any finds.

 

Dating deposits

 

The dating of the deposit at Happisburgh is provided by a combination of mammoth, horse, beetle and vole finds as well as the Middle Pleistocene ostracod Scordiscia marinae. Work by John Whittaker and the AHOB team at a number of other Pleistocene sites across the SE of Britain has increased the potential of ostracods as tools for dating these sediments.

 

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The extinct freshwater ostracod Scordiscia marinae has been found at both Pakefield and Boxgrove and is

characteristic of the Middle Pleistocene period. An example of a microfossil that is useful for dating sediments.

 

Earliest footprints

 

A flint handaxe recovered from sediments recently exposed on the foreshore at Happisburgh provides part of the evidence for the earliest human occupation of Britain. Several other Palaeolithic sites have since been discovered there including sets of early human footprints on the foreshore that made the national news at the time of the opening of the exhibition.


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A Palaeogeographic map of Britain the in Early Pleistocene showing the land bridge between Europe and the position of the Thames and Bytham rivers. (Courtesy of Simon Parfitt and the AHOB Project)

 

Pinus-Picea HSB_blog.jpgPine (Pinus) and spruce (Picea) pollen recovered by Mark Lewis from the sediments that preserved the Happisburgh footprints.

 

Pollen analysis of the sediments adjoining the footprints revealed the local vegetation consisted of an open coniferous forest of pine (Pinus), spruce (Picea), with some birch (Betula). There were some wetter areas where Alder (Alnus) was growing; patches of heath and grassland were also present. These all indicate a cooler climate typical of the beginning or the end of an interglacial recognised at other Happisburgh sites.

 

Come and see the exhibition

 

I would recommend that you come and see the exhibition Britain: one million years of the human story if you can, before it closes at the end of September. If you can't then there are a wealth of interesting items on the Museum website including a video showing the recently discovered footprints.

 

Quite rightly the artefacts and larger fossil materials collected from these early human sites in Britain dominate the exhibition along with the amazing life-sized models like 'Ned the Neanderthal'. Hopefully this post has shown that there are many other undisplayed collections held behind the scenes here at the Museum that are just as important in telling us how, when and where the earliest humans lived in Britain.

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By Elena Lo Giudice, University of Kiel

 

This is Elena, a PhD student at the University of Kiel, in Germany. I’m an oceanographer so this is my first time on land and I never thought that the life of a geologist could be so exciting.

 

Our adventure started early in the morning trying to communicate with our driver, a very nice, patient and always-smiling guy. After a couple of misunderstandings we arrived at the outcrop and we started the initial investigation of the area. Our curiosity about a missing part of the rock succession drove us at first to the playground of a school, which was built in the middle of the section. Here we were accepted as rockstars - everybody wanted a picture of us - and then we reached the base of the outcrop, a very important point for our work. We were working on the edge of a mining area - there are lots of coal mines here. We will work on mined outcrops higher up in the section later this week but first we need to have health and safety training so we can be safe around the mining roads.

 


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Nathan and me with students at the local school

 

Our work today consisted of logging the outcrop, for instance defining the different rocks and geological structures present in the strata – from the base to the top - and measuring them. We make this information into a diagram (a log) so that other people on our trip can use them when they want to collect from the section. This way they will know where their fossil or rock samples came from and when we work out the ages and palaeoenvironments of the sections, they can relate that information back to the fossil faunas and floras they have identified and have more information on how they lived.

 

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Layers of clay, silt and sandstone at the Stadion Section near Samarinda

 

So, after this amazing day, I came back to the hotel with our driver’s smile impressed in my mind, a lot of pictures with the school guys and, of course, 80m of logged section, what can I ask more for just a single day?

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By Amanda Frigola Boix, University of Bremen

 

My name is Amanda and I am a mathematician. You’ll be wondering what I am doing here. I am using climate models to reconstruct the ancient climate of the Indonesian region and I will compare model outputs to the data collected by my Throughflow colleagues. How can we do this? They are taking samples of fossils that will allow them to derive different properties of the past water currents and I am here to learn what these techniques are and how they can be used.

 

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Geologists pontificating


I am enjoying this opportunity to stick my nose into the geology world. Geologists are passionate people to the point that some white marks on a rock (coralline algae ) can make their eyes shine like a child’s, they love photographing pencils to scale objects, not only rocks, they scale anything, even butterflies.

 

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Rainbow

 

Today we visited two limestone outcrops, one between Teuggarong and Senoni and the second one close to Senoni. The aim of the trip was to get a general overview of the place, think about which team members could be interested in it and whether it would be possible to make a good log of it. To get there we drove through forty kilometres of winding road, through rice fields, mud, palm trees and colourful wooden houses built on the river Mahakam. The outcrops were located in quarries, often family businesses with strong people but with an extremely easy and sincere smile at the same time. Among them an old man, who instantly recognized the Dutch in our group, as he used to deal with then when Indonesia was a Dutch colony.

 

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Barge

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Meet the sheep in What's new at the Museum

Posted by Rose Oct 8, 2009
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Young Bee takes a break from her munch marathon in the Wildlife Garden

 

Since the sheep arrived in the Museum Wildlife Garden in August (see my first blog post 'It's sheep time'), I have wanted to meet them. Last week I did. Good thing too, because it looks like they may be leaving soon. Honey, Bella and Bee were busy grazing in the meadow by the pond and seemed a bit shy and preoccupied. But I got a good glimpse of their gorgeously shaggy, woolly coats up-close and witnessed just what voracious munchers they are. Apparently they graze most of the grassland areas including the chalk, meadow, large pond and and the orchard - which is roughly a quarter of the entire Wildlife Garden area - in about 5 weeks. With a little help recently from 2 moorhens so I'm told.

 

I learned from the garden's keeper that Bee, Bella's lamb, is nearly 5 months old and has been rather adventurous finding holes in the fencing and grazing in other areas she's not supposed to.

 

On my visit, I also spotted a sign that listed recent sightings in the garden. Some exciting ones, including a Great Spotted Woodpecker and a slow worm. And of course the foxes, spiders and dragonflies which are familiar in the Wildlife Garden at this time of year.

 

 

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Bee, Bella and Honey in the meadow by the Wildlife Garden pond

It was really good to enjoy a brief respite in the tranquil garden, admiring the reflections of the majestic Museum building in the pond's water, near the sheep. (Thanks Matt for accompanying me to take some photos.) You can catch the sheep in the garden if you hurry. And I recommend a last stroll around before the garden closes to the public on 31 October. See some of the highlights you might encounter in our Wildlife Garden slideshow.


I will keep you posted on what’s happening behind the scenes over the winter months. It’s a very busy time for the garden and its carers.

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Atmospheric wall projection on the Cocoon tour

Yesterday, Tuesday 8 September, was the big preview of the new Darwin Centre to the press and media. Throughout the day journalists and film crews were shown around the whole Darwin Centre and Cocoon experience for the first time. It was a busy day and we are already getting a fabulous response in the papers, magazines and on TV. Here's some of the brilliant coverage so far, following yesterday's media event:

 

BBC  One O’clock News

BBC News online Day in pictures

Daily  Mail Online

Daily  Mirror

Daily  Telegraph

Guardian Online

Times  Online

New  Scientist online

 

Among the press and media favourites were the cocoon itself – the breathtaking building really is the star of the show – and on the Cocoon tour, both the planning an expedition and the mosquito challenge interactive games attracted lots of attention.

 

Press visitors had the added bonus of getting a free NaturePlus card that uses barcode technology to save exhibit highlights to enjoy online and enjoyed the unique chance to come face-to-face with scientists at work preparing specimens and ask them questions. Down on the centre’s ground floor, the spectacular interactive Climate Change Wall added another wow factor. The wall's images and films featured a lot in last night’s ITV 10 o’clock news special on the Darwin Centre.


Take a look at the new and updated wide-look Visiting the Darwin Centre website for a sense of what the fuss is all about. It features some of the latest photos taken by our Museum photographers at our special preview events and reveals much more about the centre's main attractions for visitors. I’ve worked day and night recently (in fact the security staff had to throw me out over the weekend!) to get these web pages ready in time for yesterday’s media launch.


There’ll be more online updates to come, so keep re-visiting the Darwin Centre website. Next stop, Monday 14 September when Prince William and Sir  David Attenborough arrive for the VIP launch, the day before public opening on 15 September…