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Fossil ‘treasure trove’ found in British Geological Survey vaults



The British Geological Survey is home to more than three million fossils collected over two centuries and catalogued with enormous precision. However, as generations of curators have come and gone, a few collections have lain forgotten and their significance has gradually passed out of memory. Six months ago, I pulled opened some drawers marked ‘unregistered fossil plants’ in one of the Survey's windowless vaults in Keyworth, in central England. What I found inside made my jaw drop. Contained within were hundreds of beautiful thin sections of fossil wood dating from the early nineteenth century. The collection was assembled by botanist Joseph Hooker (Darwin's best friend) while he was briefly employed by the Survey in 1846. The material includes some of the first thin sections ever made by William Nicol, the pioneer of petrography, in the late 1820s, as well as specimens picked up by Darwin and Hooker on their round-the-world voyages in the 1830s and 1840s. The collection is particularly interesting in the way it sheds light on the vibrant and sometimes murky world of early nineteenth century science. This is the story of these fascinating fossils.