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It feels strange recommending readers to go to another museum. However, this is a great example of the application of Micropalaeontology to archaeological studies and the use of our nannofossil collection. My colleague Tom Hill has just returned from a meeting on 'Geological applications in Archaeology' so this subject is receiving a lot of interest at the moment.


Just before Christmas I had an enquiry from the British Museum asking me to provide a high definition image of a nannofossil for their multimedia gallery guides. The image was taken by my former colleague Jeremy Young as part of research on the Folkton Drums published in the journal Antiquity in 2004 with British Museum staff Andrew Middleton and Janet Ambers.


The Folkton Drums


These carved stone cylinders known as the Folkton Drums were found associated with a child's burial site at Folkton near Filey northeast Yorkshire. The diameter of the largest is 146mm and they are made of incised stone with a grooved ware pottery design indicating a probable Later Neolithic age of about 2,500-2,000 BC.


Folkton_Drums_AN00155870_001_blog.jpgThe Folkton Drums. Image copyright: The Trustees of the British Museum, ref AN155870001, registration number 1893,1228.15.


Nannofossils and the museum collection


Jeremy Young was asked to analyse a very small amount of material removed from a blemish on the bottom of the smallest item. At the time it was not known if the stone was chalk or magnesian limestone. Chalk contains the remains of tiny calcareous coccolith plates formed by a unicellular plant called a coccolithophore. These are present in the oceans of today and are widely used for studies on recent changes to our oceans and environment.


The Museum houses a large collection of fossil and recent coccolith preparations, and images made by Jeremy Young. Because most coccoliths are less than a thousandth of a millimetre in size, it is very difficult to isolate them as individual specimens or to find the same specimen again even using a scanning electron microscope. As a result, images are just as important as the preparations from which the images were made and species are often defined by images alone. We have a collection of tens of thousands of such images.



A  false coloured scanning electron microscope image of the fragment of Folkton Drum analysed by Jeremy Young.
The scale bar is 10 microns which is 0.01 mm.


What the nannofossils told us?


The fragment contained a typical late Cretaceous coccolith assemblage dominated by Watznaueria barnesae, Biscutum constans and Prediscosphaera cretacea. The species Micula staurophora suggests a Coniacean-Masstrichtian age of the Cretaceous (c. 65-85 Mya). The coccolith evidence suggests that the drums were made from deposits of the Upper Chalk rather than Magnesian Limestone.


Chalk is available locally and Magnesian Limestone from deposits about 45kms away. However, the results cannot show for certain that the chalk used was derived locally as the outcrop of the Upper Chalk Formation covers a large area of England. A non-destructive method called Raman Spectroscopy used by Janet Ambers at the British Museum also confirmed a chalk rather than Magnesian Limestone composition.


Where to see them?


The Folkton Drums can been seen in Gallery 51 at the British Museum. The nannofossil image is shown as part of the British Museum multimedia guide available in 11 different languages on request. If you are interested in the subject of 'Geological applications in Archaeology' then further details can be found via the University of Leicester web site.


I'm very excited to see that the Museum is running a half term activity called Curious Collectors. As a child I would have loved this as I was an avid collector and had my own rock collection under my bed. Some of my Geology undergraduate colleagues may even remember me at the end of a field trip to Cyprus sitting next to an enormous pile of rocks I had collected and telling me 'you can't possibly take ALL those home on the plane...'


My passion for collecting and collections led me to a career as a curator at the Natural History Museum. What path led me to that dream job and more importantly, what do you need to do to become a curator?



My first field sketch aged 7 and my holiday diary recounting a visit to the Lizard, Cornwall to collect some serpentinite. (Yes serpentinite has purples, reds and greens!). I still have the specimen I collected that day with the help of family friend Chris Moat, frequent donor to 'Museum Giles'.


First off though, what is a curator? This question is probably worthy of a separate blog post and frequently leads to differences in opinion. 'Curator' can mean different things in different types of museums and in different parts of the world. In North America a museum curator is hired to do research and there my job would probably be labelled 'Collections Manager'.


I like the idea that in Australia a curator prepares the pitch for test match cricket but I'm inclined to agree with University College curator Nicholas J Booth who prefers to restrict the use of the term to museums. For the purposes of this blog post I shall say that a curator cares for a collection by enhancing its documentation and storage, maintains access to it by facilitating loans, visits and exhibits and promotes its relevance by engaging with potential users. With that, here's how to become one:


  • Take advice on what to study at University

To work as a curator at the Museum you need to have a relevant science degree. My degree choice of Geology was entirely driven by my desire to find out about the specimens in my personal collection. I remember coming to the Museum in the early 1980s to ask my family friend, the late John Thackray, what A-levels I required to study Geology at University and being dismayed at his answer of 'Maths, Physics and Chemistry'. You will notice that I did not study Biology. At the time I did not know that I would be so inspired to take further studies on microfossils and become a Palaeontologist.


  • Take a further degree?

There is no right or wrong answer here. When I first came to the Museum I was are rare example of a curator in my department with a PhD. A further degree in a relevant subject certainly helps but is not absolutely neccessary. In some ways, curatorial jobs at the Museum are unusually specialised as our main interactions are with research scientists. For positions in other museums it can be more advantageous to have a broader background because you would usually be expected to responsible a much wider range of collections and focus on different tasks. A masters in Museum Studies is often a requirement in these situations. Having said that, the majority of my curatorial colleagues do not have this qualification.


  • Get some work experience

Specialising made my career prospects narrower and my PhD was followed by a lengthy period of job seeking. I was not getting interviews because I had qualifications but no experience. I decided that a spot of volunteering was what was required to boost my CV and get me on the career ladder so I moved from Leicester to London to volunteer at the Museum. It's never too early to start thinking about getting some experience and school work experience students often come to the Museum. Volunteer and work experience opportunities are advertised regularly on the museum web site.


  • Be in the right place at the right time

I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time as I volunteered just as a new microfossil collection had been donated that was relevant to my PhD. Shortly afterwards a temporary position became available as Curator of the former BP Microfossil Collection. I held this temporary position for 6 years until I was successful with an application to get a position on the permanent staff. It's the same in almost any profession. Being in the right place at the right time can make a big difference and sometimes you have to be patient before the right opportunity comes up.


  • Find out more

If you'd like information about curators and their activities then consider joining the Geological Curators' Group or the Natural Sciences Collections Assocation (NatSCA).  There are many curators like myself blogging and you can also find out more about their daily activities through Facebook or Twitter (follow us on @NHM_Micropalaeo). The Museum web site includes a fossil hunting guide if you feel inspired to go out and do some collecting yourself.


  • Start now!

Don't leave it too late to get involved like I did. If you can get to London between 18th-22nd Feb then why not sign up to be a Curious Collector?  If you can't get to London then why not contact your local museum and get involved in similar activities? It's a great way to start gathering that experience needed to help you become a curator.##

Giles Miller

Giles Miller

Member since: Apr 21, 2010

This is Giles Miller's Curator of Micropalaeontology blog. I make the Museum micropalaeontology collections available to visitors from all over the world, publish articles on the collections, give public talks and occasionally make collections myself.

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