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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
As part of my job I often work with other curators and museum professionals. Part of having such a good network of colleagues is that we can learn from each other (us 'experts' don't know everything!).
Back in January (27th - 31st), I had the pleasure of the assistance of Alex Peaker who is a palaeontologist at Dinosaur Isle Museum on the Isle of Wight. Alex wanted to come to the Palaeontology Section to see how we document our specimens and deal with research visitors.
Here Alex tells us a bit about his job at Dinosaur Isle Museum and what he got up to during the week...
Dinosaur Isle is a museum that promotes the wealth of geology and palaeontology that can be found on the Isle of Wight. It displays a particularly fantastic collection of local dinosaur finds.
In a normal day's work I mostly deal with curation of the collection, spending much of my time documenting specimens into our electronic database, working with associated documentation, assisting with any enquiries, and facilitating research on our specimens.
Last year I had the fantastic opportunity to work for the museum with the Isle of Wight Destination Management Organisation, BBC, and 20th Century Fox, teaming together to work on promotion for the recently-released film Walking with Dinosaurs - the 3d movie. The result saw the creation of the Dinosaur Island augmented reality app, which has been a fantastic success in promoting the movie, the island, and our dinosaurs.
Recently I was given the chance to spend a week working at the Natural History Museum, which was greatly appreciated; the time that I spent there was absolutely amazing. The reason for the trip was to further my ability in curation, to work with people who have a wealth of experience in the area and to see how our practices compare to that of a national museum.
It was great to be able to work with such an amazing collection, and often with fossils that I have only seen in books. Virtually every drawer I opened seemed to have either a type fossil (the single specimen designated by an author to formally describe a new species), or something with an interesting history (e.g. donated by Sir Richard Owen). My personal favourites were a large Brychaetus (prehistoric bony fish) skull from the Isle of Sheppey, and a particularly large megalodon tooth (everybody loves a big shark, but even for megalodon this one was a real beast).
Large Brychaetus skull (NHMUK PV P 3893), found from the Isle of Sheppey, UK.
Megalodon tooth (NHMUK PV P 14534), found in Virgina, USA.
I was also given a chance to visit the Cephalopod and Brachiopod Section with Zoe Hughes, which was very interesting. I was shown some fantastic fossils including an amazing squid showing preservation of all of its soft tissue, and was even privileged enough to have a viewing of the 'Royal Brachiopod' (a fossil collected by Darwin on the Falklands that is often used as an example to royal visitors).
Thankfully the procedures set up at the Museum are very similar to those that I would work by at Dinosaur Isle but with some differences, most of which seem to derive from the size of the collections and slightly different collection policies (apart from a few comparative pieces, our collection holds exclusively Isle of Wight fossils whereas the Museum collects specimens from all over the world).
I learnt a lot in a week at the Museum with much of my newly-gained experience already having been a help at Dinosaur Isle. It was great to work with a fantastic group of people who were incredibly helpful and showed me a lot of great things.
Alex photographing shark fin spines we brought back from Morocco.
Thanks very much to Alex for all his help during the week. He helped to document a lot of the specimens we collected whilst in Morocco and locate several specimens connected with our upcoming Sir Arthur Smith Woodward Symposium. I also learnt from Alex by discussing how he carries tasks out at Dinosaur Isle.
From 1 December we tweeted a picture of one of our microfossil Christmas card themed slides every day until Christmas in a successful advent series. This brought our collections to a new audience and showed that reaching a wider exposure on Twitter is reliant on retweets from major players such as the Museum's main account, @NHM_London, and good timing of tweets. Other factors included the relative aesthetic beauty of some slides compared to others and may have reflected the skill of the slidemakers concerned.
Some of the Earland and Heron-Allen Microfossil Christmas Card images tweeted last December.
Despite this increased exposure of our collection we did not have an increased number of visitors, enquiries or loans, some of the more traditional key performance indicators. We reached an audience who would not normally be able to visit the Museum and if they could, would not see microfossil specimens on display. In this post I look at the question 'can Twitter actually benefit our collections?'
What is Twitter?
Not all my readers will be familiar with Twitter so here is a short summary of how it works. Users post online pictures and/or text of no more than 140 characters. Each user decides who to follow and can choose to read a feed consisting of all the messages posted by other users that they follow.
If someone posts a message that looks interesting, it can be flagged as a 'favourite' or be 'retweeted' and re-sent to all your own followers. Users can post replies to messages, engage in conversations or search for subjects being discussed under a particular hashtag (we used #microfossiladvent).
How did it work for us?
We had over 450 retweets for our pictures and gained 150 new followers to our feed. Before we started, we had about 450 followers to our twitter feed that we had been running for about a year. The increase in followers by 150 in less than a month was therefore significant, and the trend in the increase in our number of followers has reduced to a steady trickle since then.
Why were some tweets more successful than others?
It was immediately obvious that two main factors were responsible for enhanced interest in the pictures, firstly weekend tweets hardly ever got retweeted compared to the weekday ones. The second and most striking correlation was that pictures retweeted by @NHM_London had significantly more retweets than all the others. This feed is followed by nearly 500,000 people so this is hardly surprising.
Three more tweeted images, all roughly the size of a thumbprint in real life. The middle one was most popular as it was retweeted 45 times and caused my phone to buzz continuously in my pocket for a couple of hours during a meeting!
Another issue we considered was whether some images got retweeted because they were more visually appealing than others? Half the slides tweeted were made by Arthur Earland and the other half by Edward Heron-Allen. Was one maker more adept at making pretty slides than the other and got more retweets? (For details of their relationship and more information about these slides see my post on Microfossil Christmas Cards). We found that, taking into account the issues stated above, Earland's slides were on average twice as popular as Heron-Allen's.
Who is our Twitter audience?
Usually we would make our collections available to academic enquirers who would request a visit, a loan or send an enquiry for details about the collection. Twitter has opened up a completely new audience. Some of our academic stakeholders do follow us but they are in the minority and many on our list of followers will never visit the Museum because they live too far away and even if they did, they wouldn't see any of our microfossil collection on display.
What has it done for our collection?
If you consider the traditional 'key performance indicators' (KPIs) of visitor days, numbers of specimens loaned and enquiries, then Twitter has done very little for our collection that can be measurably demonstrated. What it has done is to bring the collection out to a new audience, making it available and relevant much more widely. Has this engagement been little more than having a number of people agree that pictures of our collection are pretty? Possibly. Can this engagement actually be measured?
What can Twitter do for us?
An interesting post on the London Museums Group site by Digital Analyst Elena Villaespesa looks at quantifying the impact of Twitter on an exhibition at the Tate Modern. They have used Twitter as a communication tool to engage in conversation with visitors and research their audience. To do this they have analysed the number of comments under a certain hashtag as well as the number of visitors who participated with meaningful responses. Social media analysis software is available to help with these analyses if there is a large amount of data.
Another post that has caught my eye recently was by Sarah Miller who blogged on how Twitter has been used as a cultural resource outreach tool. She lists as positive outcomes for her Twitter campaign:
In a previous blog I looked at the benefits of blogging about collections and showed that it has enhanced the profile of the collection in the national press, helped with its management, encouraged donations, enabled fundraising and produced research collaboration offers. Looking at our Twitter feed over the last year we can point to examples of all these 'traditional KPI related' outcomes. However, I think that with our advent Twitter campaign we have built an excellent platform for measureable future engagement. Looking at numbers of retweets we are receiving is a good sign but there is much more we can do in future by engaging in conversations with a wider audience.
An example of an interaction that followed a #FossilFriday tweet of a specimen from our collection.
Whether you follow Twitter or not you can see all the messages posted by us on our NHM Micropalaeontology Twitter feed and learn more about how museums use social media by looking at the London Museums Group site (see a guest post by fellow NaturePlus blogger, Librarian Hellen Sharman).