Tag Archives: Geology

Lyell Inspires!

This month we learn that Erin, one of our Lyell project volunteers, has had her eyes opened to the present-day natural world – thanks to inspiration from our Sir Charles Lyell Collection.

We have all caught the Lyell / Geology bug here at the Sir Charles Lyell Collection Project HQ. Each of us has developed a preoccupation with spotting and identifying pebbles, fossils, gneiss, and schist and so on. Our work and personal libraries groaning with the additional weight of multiple biographies of Lyell, and an almost absurd array of spotters guides to rocks, minerals and fossils. Even our twitter feeds are increasingly populated with evidence of geological time lines (mostly pebbles with veins). No return from a trip to the beach complete without a pocketful of geological specimens; pebbles of grey granite, ovoid pebbles of slate with quartz vein running through it, fragments of whitish chert, and things we used to know, simply, as shells.

A digital photographic image showing a handwritten, in pencil and in ink, list of shells which were sent to Bedford Place, dated 5 February 1840. from Sir Charles Lyell’s Notebook, No. 80, 5 February – 25 June, 1840, Ref: Coll-203/A1/80)

A list of shells sent to Bedford Place, dated 5 February 1840, from Sir Charles Lyell’s Notebook, No. 80, 5 February 1840 – 25 June, 1840, (Ref: Coll-203/A1/80)

On my desk, as I type, are an assortment of granite, quartzite, and possibly metamorphic mud – a recent haul from Point beach on the Isle of Lismore. It is one of the great privileges of working so intimately with historical collections: we are repeatedly offered a unique opportunity to develop knowledge and interest in a person, subject, or era that, most likely, would have eluded us had we chosen a different line of work. Earlier this week I read, in the New York Times, Dennis Overbye’s review of the renovated hall of gems and minerals at the American Museum of Natural History. He suggests that ‘Geology Is Our Destiny’.1 For all of us working together to interpret, catalogue and make accessible the Sir Charles Lyell Collection, it would certainly seem so.

Project volunteer, Erin, has developed only a little infatuation with molluscs (to the extent that her new found knowledge required the creation of its very own data-set – Erin is a qualified archivist after all). In working with the Lyell notebooks, Erin has begun to see the world through Lyell’s nineteenth-century geological wisdom. The present-day natural world has opened up to Erin in a way she had never imagined possible. Here, Erin tells us more about her work transcribing Lyell’s notebook indexes and how it has fuelled her growing obsession.

“Transcribing Sir Charles Lyell’s scientific notebook indexes has been a sometimes ruffling but always captivating journey. The one thing I never expected was that like Lyell, I found myself becoming fascinated with molluscs. The Mollusca phylum is:

“one of the most diverse groups of animals on the planet, with at least 50,000 living species (and more likely around 200,000) [and it] includes such familiar organisms as snails, octopuses, squid, clams, scallops, oysters, and chitons”.2

Lyell often took note of the different genera and species he found during his travels. In notebook 80, for instance, I found a list of shells belonging to various molluscs which Lyell had identified and had sent to his home in London.

I felt like both an amateur detective and biologist as I hunted for these bivalves and gastropods on the World Register of Marine Species and MolluscaBase (a global species database, covering all marine, freshwater and terrestrial molluscs, both recent and fossil). As I transcribed, I felt compelled to document them and my new found knowledge about them in an Excel data-set. Some of them proved very elusive and some others are still a mystery. The excitement I felt each time I was able to find a mollusc Lyell had listed was extremely gratifying, particularly when the name he had recorded had fallen out of accepted or general use.

What I have loved most about transcribing Lyell’s notebook indexes is how much I am able to learn from only one index entry; nineteen molluscs in a single page that I had the pleasure of trying to find and learn about! This is what I feel is the most rewarding part of being an archivist. Through this amazing collection we are given the opportunity to explore the life and times of Sir Charles Lyell while presenting his knowledge, research, ideas and wondrous curiosity to a wider audience.

Now, each time I go to Yellowcraigs or North Berwick for a wild swim, I can’t help but stop and examine the rocks, the shells, the crab skeletons, the little pools full of marine life and of course the molluscs. I never would have stopped to explore in this way had I not first discovered so much through the eyes of Sir Charles Lyell.”

We hope you enjoyed reading about how the Sir Charles Lyell Collection has inspired our project volunteer, Erin, to observe and learn about her natural surroundings with new-found enthusiasm.  Erin’s story is just one example of the power of historical collections to enable, support and enhance the acquisition of new knowledge, learning and understanding. We would love to know how you might use the collection to aid learning, teaching and research. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Thanks to Dr. Gillian McCay, assistant curator at the Cockburn Geological Museum, for her help in identifying the Point beach pebbles. Look out for our next blog post, (coming very soon), when we will be taking a bit of a deep-dive into Lyell’s indexes and hearing from another of our project volunteers, Michael. Thanks for reading!

Elaine MacGillivray, Senior Lyell Archivist
Erin McRae, Lyell Project Volunteer

Sources and further information:
1. Dennis Overbye, ‘Why Geology Is Our Destiny’, The New York Times, 22 June 2021 (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/22/science/natural-history-museum-gems-minerals.html), [accessed 25 June 2021].
2. Paul Bunje, ‘Lophotrochozoa: The Mollusca: Sea slugs, squid, snails, and scallops,’ Proceedings of the Royal Society B274(1624):2413-2419 (https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/taxa/inverts/mollusca/mollusca.php), [accessed 25 June 2021] .
World Register of Marine Species
MulluscaBase

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The Lyell Project Team is Growing!

22 February marks the anniversary of the death of renowned Scottish geologist, Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875). Newly appointed Senior Lyell Archivist, Elaine MacGillivray, says ‘hello’ and reflects on Lyell’s contribution to our understanding of the world.  

Headshot of Elaine MacGillivray, newly appointed Senior Lyell Archivist at the Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh

Elaine MacGillivray
Senior Lyell Archivist

Hello Everyone! My name is Elaine MacGillivray and I am very happy to introduce myself as the newly appointed Senior Lyell Archivist at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections.

I am a registered archivist and bring to the project almost 20 years of experience working across archives in the local authority, business, community, and higher education sectors. I have worked at the University of Edinburgh since 2014, first as the archive lead on the School of Scottish Studies Archives refurbishment project and later, managing two Wellcome-funded, collaborative, archive cataloguing projects. In 2019, I was awarded ‘Record Keeper of the Year’ by the UK Archives and Records Association. I am a trustee of, and professional advisor to, a number of rural heritage organisations.

I enjoy the meticulous organisation of what often seems to others like utter chaos, and I love to connect people and their research interests to each other and to archive collections. When I am not knee-deep in project management and archive metadata, you will find me outdoors; up a hill, or exploring the back roads of Perthshire on my bicycle.

It is a real privilege to be entrusted with responsibility for the Sir Charles Lyell archive collections. Prior to the collections being transferred to the Centre for Research Collections, it is clear that the Lyell family invested a great deal of time and care in preserving and organising the collections whilst in their care. This places our archives and conservation team on a great foothold as we progress conserving and cataloguing the collections further, in order to ensure that they are preserved for posterity and, at the same time, made more widely accessible.

Lyell’s notebooks, correspondence, papers and objects are an immense and invaluable body of evidence. Collectively, they serve to illustrate how Lyell and others in his vast network came to formulate, interrogate and revise their ideas and their understanding of the world around them. Lyell is renowned for his contributions to geology, but the collections bring to light yet more about his own and others’ thinking, across a range of subjects and disciplines.

Earlier this week, Europe’s most active and iconic volcano, Mount Etna in Sicily, erupted once again. The 3,350m tall mountain has the longest recorded history of volcanic eruptions, dating back to 1500BC. The historic lava flows are considered to date as old as 300,000 years. It was Lyell’s systematic and methodical observations of Mount Etna from 1828 onwards that led him to develop his theories around geological time and to argue that the Earth was much older than had been previously believed. Lyell’s work throughout the nineteenth century was key to a monumental shift in our understanding of time and our place in the universe.

In 2021, Mount Etna is still one of the best-studied and monitored volcanoes in the world and its significance endorsed by its status as a Unesco World Heritage Site of Outstanding Universal Value.

Detail of a hand-drawn watercolour map of Mount Etna from the Sir Charles Lyell archive (Ref: Coll-203/Uncat).

Detail of a hand-drawn watercolour map of Mount Etna from the Sir Charles Lyell archive (Ref: Coll-203/Uncat).

One of my favourite items from the collection thus far is a hand-drawn watercolour illustration of Mount Etna. My colleague and Head of Special Collections, Daryl Green, discovered the drawing in August 2020 as he sifted through part of the collection shortly after it arrived at the Centre for Research Collections. The drawing forms part of the continuous record of observations of Mount Etna dating from 1500BC to the present day. I suspect that it is only the first of many remarkable finds to come.

I am looking forward to working with colleagues, building on the fantastic work already undertaken in cataloguing, digitising and making the collections more accessible. We will continue to share our discoveries and project progress here.

We want to hear from you!

What else would you like to see on the ‘Through Lyell’s Eyes’ blog? Would you like to hear from our volunteers and interns? Perhaps you would like to read guest posts from academic experts? Would you like to meet more of our team? What about a ‘behind the scenes’ look at some of our cataloguing, transcription or conservation work? Should we include more visual content illustrating some of the items from our the collections? Would you be interested in more audio-visual content?

Let me know your thoughts and ideas in the comments below – I look forward to hearing from you.

Elaine MacGillivray
Senior Lyell Archivist

 

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