Monday, 19 December 2011


It's been a while since the last post. I'll put it down to the weather, but really it's a number of things. I've been busy, there haven't been any geological stories that have particularly prodded me to write about, and I'm struggling for motivation a little. Doing the Facebook page most days is good for keeping me up to date on relevant stories, but it's added to the list of things I should be doing and sometimes I begin to resent that list.

I'm awful at the mailing list, for example. I know that's supposed to be good business practice; building a mailing list and keeping your customers informed. But I've always felt these sort of things can be intrusive, and almost never sign up to such lists myself. I forget that (in most cases) people are actively subscribing and may actually want to learn of new stock. I think I've only sent out about 5 mails in four or five years. The last one was the other week and the first reply was nearly instantaneous - an email saying simply 'Unsubscribe. Cheers!'. Kind of demoralising. Clearly an email a year is just too much for some people. Wonder why they wrote their name in the book... That said, I did get a couple of sales from it, as well as a trade offer. At the moment, I'm getting an email every day from an online florists, despite never actively adding my name. Now it's easy enough to ignore these things and send them to the spam folder, but that level of frequency is annoying. I've tried to unsubscribe twice. No luck so far.

So there's that. What else? Hmm. Well, I had my first Tucson-related nightmare last week, which means it's coming closer. This was one I've had before - arriving at the room of my main Green River fish dealer to find it empty; everything sold. There are other dealers I buy fish from, but my reliance on a few particular dealers is pretty heavy, and the thought of not being able to buy the quality and quantity of fish I need does actually scare me a bit. Most things I'd be able to source similar quality and numbers some way or another, but there are a few lines that I need to get to before they've been picked over too much. It's a great concern in the preceding month or so: hence nightmares.

Another significant thing in the Mr Wood's world lately has been a staffing issue. Riley, who has been here for three years or so now, will be leaving for a job in Turkey in February and I've had to find a replacement. I've been incredibly lucky in recruitment so far and I think I've found someone to continue the run.

So. Bit of a scattergun post this time. Back to geological things next time, most likely.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Fade to blue

I was wrapping up a nice Diplomystus for a customer when a woman asked to see a pendant in the cabinet. Riley had stopped in, so he opened the case and handed her the jewellery. I was still talking to the fish-buyer at this point, but could pick up the conversation in the background.

'So -what is this? It's a lovely colour.'
'It's a dyed turquoise from Arizona. They call it turtle turquoise.'
'Dyed? So does it fade?'
'Well, I don't think so.Um. You'd be be better asking Matt, there, I think.'
'This is dyed. Will it fade? What colour did it used to be?'
'We've had some of this material for a few years now, and I've not noticed any fading - it's not likely to fade any quicker than any other stone. It was most likely just very pale turquoise that they might not have had a market for. Quite a lot of the stuff sold as turquoise is really just dyed howlite. But it's pretty stuff, and dying it makes it of some use for jewellery. If you were to leave it out in bright sunlight for a while it might fade, I suppose, like many naturally coloured stones.'
'But will it? Why did they dye it? It's such a lovely colour - is that because of the dye?'
'...I think so. Yes, probably.'
'I'm going to get it. It's lovely. I just hope it's as nice in ten years time.'
'Me too.'

Friday, 18 November 2011

Meteorites and meteowrongs

Most days, a meteorite will fall to Earth somewhere. Almost all of them are stone, with only a small percentage iron-nickel or stony-iron. It's hard to recognise a stony meteorite - with an iron one you can feel the unusual weight, cut it to see the metallic sheen inside, etch it for crystal pattern and so on. With a stony one, it usually just looks like a slightly shiny stone. And there are plenty of them lying around. I'm sure you've noticed. So how do you find a meteorite?

Short of one smashing a hole in your house or flattening your car, chances are you're not likely to come across one, but it's not impossible. It was once thought the chances of finding a meteorite were too low to bother, but one man made it his life's work to change that perception. In 1923 Harvey Nininger, a teacher, saw a fireball and became fascinated with meteorites. Eventually he quit his job to focus on hunting them, and he was offered space in Denver Museum, with his collection on display. He worked out a system. 'Go out and educate the people; tell the people what they're like, offer a bonus if they find any. And in a country where the land is farmed, they will turn these things up. And that's the way I made the collection.' In 1946,  he founded the American Meteorite Museum near Winslow, Arizona, close to Meteor Crater. By this time he'd built up an enormous collection of material, and he began to push for the study of meteorites to be taken more seriously. The museum moved to Sedona after a new highway was built, and when business began to fall away, Nininger sold his collection to the British Museum and the Center for Meteorite Studies at Arizona State University. He was now in a position to spend more time hunting, so went back to his hobby while writing books and giving lectures on the subject. Science owes this man a great deal.

I frequently get people bringing me their 'meteorite' finds. So far there hasn't been a meteorite among them. Pyrite nodules quite often. Industrial slag. A piece of pottery. Some galena and a lot of... well... pebbles. But, you never know. There was a nice story earlier this month about a farmer who in 2006 had found a big lump of pallasite, spectacularly speckled with olivine. He cut a bit off, realised he had something special, and it ended up being recently designated a new find and given its own name - Conception Junction, after the town in Missouri where it was found. So there can be a happy ending.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

By the light of the sun

Vikings, as everybody knows, got around a bit. By sailing, largely. They are thought to have reached America, long before it was being called that, they made themselves busy round most of the European coastline and reached the Mediterranean, the Black and the Caspian Seas. They knew how to handle a boat.

This all took place before there were magnetic compasses to help them navigate, so it's all the more remarkable. I had a customer come into the shop last week looking for a piece of iolite, a blue-violet variety of cordierite. They wanted it because they knew it as Viking's Compass - apparently it had been used by Vikings to find the sun on overcast days. Iolite is pleochroic; the colour varies as you turn the stone in the light. This happens as light of different polarizations is bent to different degrees by the mineral structure as it passes through. I'd not heard of this use of the stone before, and also hadn't heard of an iolite source in Scandinavia. It's not a hugely rare stone, however, and I mentioned above, these were some well-travelled guys.

In the news today, though, is an article about a cleavage rhomb of Iceland Spar - or optical calcite, above right - found on an Elizabethan ship sunk in 1592. It looks like it had been used as a navigation aid in a manner similar to that mentioned above. This clear form of calcite has a set of recurring planes of weaknesses - cleavages - which cause it to break into distinct rhombic shapes. It's known for its birefringence, where light passing thought the rhomb will produce a double image. Another way to find the sun, by rotating the stone until the images are of the same intensity. This find, though dating to a few hundred years after the Vikings had calmed down somewhat, adds weight to the belief that they used some form of crystal to find the sun and, subsequently, their direction. And it'd have been pretty easy for Vikings to get their hands on samples of Iceland spar. Somewhere or other.

Friday, 21 October 2011


 And finally...

It's been a long time coming, but here's the new shop front, more or less finished. Couple of tiny bits to touch up, but I'm happy with it. I may miss the fossil stencils a little.

Given the trouble it's taken to get this done, I'm not keen to ever go through the process again. I was thinking recently about - in the longer term - opening another shop. It would either be a fossil shop elsewhere or maybe a shop selling something else in Edinburgh. Fossils and minerals are what I know best, but the benefits of being able to spend time in the other place without hours of travelling means it's worth exploring new possibilities. Not something I'm going to do anything about in the near future anyway.

As the sign writer was working his magic (and he was impressively quick) I thought it'd be a nice touch to add a little extra. So I got him to put the date the business was established on the wall, too. I had to do a little checking to make sure of it, as I'd come across 1988 in a couple of Stan's old documents, but the shop was opened in June 1987. I even found a picture of a proud and beaming Stan at the launch event - it was from the Scotsman's archives, and available through SCRAN. I've bought the image for the shop, and will license it for use on the blog in time for next year's 25th anniversary.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

On the map

The Grassmarket is a great place. It's got a reputation as a bit of a drinking den, which may still be true to a lesser extent, but I think that does it a huge disservice. It's more than that, and always has been. It has an amazing history, some lovely architecture and - obviously - a proliferation of interesting, independent businesses. Its mix of little shops, cafes, restaurants and bars make a visit a very different experience to walking along a town high street or through a modern shopping mall. A bit of character, not a list of familiar brand names and logos.

Small businesses are by nature more susceptible to trying financial times - it can be difficult to weather lengthy downturns and there has often been a bit of swapping around in the area as shops close and new ones fill the gaps. While there are a few empty premises at the moment, things have been relatively stable of late and I believe the Grassmarket is beginning to see its status and profile climb a little.

Last week, The Guardian added Edinburgh to its popular City Guide feature in the online Travel section. For these, it selects ten businesses in a few categories, writes a brief review and marks them on a map. A linked accompanying article collates the reviews. Mr Wood's Fossils makes the list of Independent Shops, which made me very proud, but also included were three other Grassmarket traders - Hannah Zakari, Deadhead Comics and I.J. Mellis, the cheesemonger. Red Door Galleries made the Craft & Vintage section, The Grain Store is in Restaurants, Under The Stairs in Cocktail bars and The Last Drop in pubs. Transreal Fiction, my old neighbour, and Anaglogue Books have also been featured by the same newspaper in the past couple of weeks. Publicity like this - unpaid recognition on merit alone - is a fantastic boon for small businesses like these and hopefully will help build the Grassmarket's reputation as a place to spend a few hours browsing shops, having lunch or just wandering around.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Marked cards

Every time I sell something - from a piece of dinosaur bone for 25p to a dinosaur egg at £640 - I write out a little label with the information to go with it. I don't know how many I've written in 13 years I've been here but it's likely to be in the gazillions. I'll bet I've written 'million years old' more than 99% of people in the world. Probably there's no award of any kind I can get for that. No world record. Never mind.

The labels are important though. For a number of reasons. Firstly it means something to me that people leave with a little bit of knowledge about what they've bought. Even if they aren't particularly interested after a couple of days, the name and locality will be there for them should they ever choose to look. Or if they want to impress their friends with the age of their meteorite or whatever.

Secondly, hand-writing the labels is a small but effective act of customer service. Almost everyone is pleased to have the details written down - sometimes they've already been jotting it down on a scrap of paper as they browse, or taken a picture of the label on their phone. The fact they're hand-written at the time of purchase, rather than pre-printed is also helpful, I think. It suits the unique nature of the fossils and minerals themselves, and reinforces the idea that these aren't mass-marketed, manufactured products, but something a little bit special. We're a small business and don't spend a great deal on advertising. Word of mouth is our most efficient method of getting known, so treating the customer well is essential. I want people to remember the shop for the right reasons.

Which leads me to the last role of the labels - they act as a form of background advertising in themselves. There are a ton of little orange cards out there, each with Mr Wood's Fossils written on them. And the address. And phone number. Anyone curious about the fossil can pick up the card to see what it is. They can also see exactly where it came from and how they might go about getting one of their own, should they feel inclined. So while it can be a pain to write out the tags for a pile of thirty mixed tumblestones... it's usually worth it.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Creep on creepin' on

Last week, two young women are looking at the trilobites.

'Ooh, look at these eels! How weird.'
'Those aren't eels - they're some sort of fish.'

Most weeks I'll be asked what trilobites were. To reply you need to gauge exactly how interested people are in the answer. Some are more than happy to listen to your five minute spiel about one of the most interesting animals to have graced the planet. Most aren't, though, and some variation of 'kind of like a slater that lived in the sea' is what they're after.

For a beastie that's given so much to science, I reckon they're still flying under the radar a little. As I mentioned a few weeks back, Attenborough's First Life last year got them some publicity, and some ten years ago Richard Fortey's Trilobite was something of a popular science sensation. His engaging enthusiasm for trilobites made for an accessible and rewarding read for people with no geological background. For a few weeks, trilobites made the papers. I can see that they're a harder sell than dinosaurs. Not as immediately recognisable as the iconic spiral of the ammonite, or as dramatic as giant shark teeth. They may be destined to remain the creepy crawly of the fossil record (I once had a woman return one to the shop as she 'couldn't sleep with it in the house'), but trilobites deserve a little more love, I reckon.

Monday, 26 September 2011

A present

A taxi pulled up outside the shop today, and the driver got out. He came in and I recognised him from last week, when he'd found a couple of minerals he'd been looking for. I can't remember exactly what. I think maybe aquamarine and something else.

'Hi. Just wanted to say I was delighted with the crystals I got here the other day, and I brought you this.'
He put down a bottle of blackcurrant Lucozade.
'Oh. Thanks very much!'
'You're welcome. Bye!'


Friday, 23 September 2011

Dinner with the Denisovans

And maybe a little more than dinner in a few cases.

I linked a couple of news stories to the Mr Wood's Fossils Facebook page today which are about the movement of humans across the globe. One was about how DNA studies shed a little light on how aboriginal Australians made their way there, and when. The other was a little more general, and concerned the gradual population of Asia with Homo sapiens.

When we humans spread ourselves around, it was eventually at the expense of our closest relatives. Neanderthal is the most famous non-human hominin to have been been out-competed to extinction, but let's not forget old Uncle erectus and Auntie Denisova. Who? Not much is known of the Denisovans. In fact, only a bit of finger bone and a tooth. It's thought they were part of a migration from Africa between that of the Homo erectus and modern humans, and the mitochondrial DNA results of the bone analysis suggest a common ancestor with both the Neanderthal and us at about 1 million years ago, then with the Neanderthals alone at a later date. So - once split, the Denisovans toddled off across Asia and made themselves at home.We know they lived in the Altai Mountains of Siberia around 40,000 years ago - that's where/when the fossils are from - but they probably were reasonably widespread.

They would have lived alongside both Neanderthals and humans, and those first groups of humans that passed through Asia on their way to Indonesia, Australia and points Antipodean show a higher percentage of shared DNA with the Denisovan line than those that came along later. Some level of interbreeding went on with the locals as these migrations passed through.

Anyway - just a little more to add to the storyline. There are a few sites that illustrate the human migration pretty well, though keeping these up to date must be a constant task. Have a look at these - The Bradshaw Foundation's Journey of Mankind, and the Genographic Project's Atlas of the Human Journey. It's far easier to understand when there's a map and a big arrow, I think.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Clash of the titans

Planet Dinosaur kicks off on BBC1 at 8.30 tonight with a battle between two stars of the commercial dinosaur world. Carcharodontosaurus saharicus and Spinosaurus aegyptiacus were both busy terrifying what's now Northern Africa around the middle of the Cretaceous Period. They were huge animals. Enormous. With big teeth and claws. Which are readily available for sale! They are well represented in the remains found in the Kem Kem region around Taouz, Morocco, one of the biggest and most productive dinosaur sites ever found. Before material started coming out of there in quantity, the only dinosaur teeth relatively easy to buy were from a couple of US sites and they were far more expensive. The Kem Kem teeth are so plentiful they have allowed dinosaur fossils to be sold at prices affordable to children with a little pocket money. The better examples are, of course, more costly, but a dinosaur tooth is still a dinosaur tooth. The possession of real fossils can strengthen a passion for the subject and instill desire for further learning; create a depth of respect for history that doesn't always come from pictures in a book.

Spinosaurus has seen a fairly rapid rise in fame. When I was a kid, the dinosaur hall-of-fame included  Tyrannosaurus rex, the undisputed king, Stegosaurus, Diplodocus, Triceratops and the sadly-missed Brontosaurus. Today's crop of dinosaur superstars has to have Velociraptor and Spinosaurus in there, too, thanks to the Jurassic Park factor. There's no disputing the effect a blockbuster movie or big-budget tv series can have. Amber sales are still influenced by the first of the Jurassic Park films, and Attenborough's programs on early life shown late last year sparked a noticeable run on trilobites for months after. Good for business, of course, and I'm looking forward to the day when a fossil sea urchin gets to the last round of X Factor. Probably never happen. Anyway. I hope Planet Dinosaur meets expectations; Spino vs Carch is a brilliant way to open.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Bear bones

After a few years without, I've finally got a few cave bear paws in stock. The price went a little crazy, and I'm not sure I'll be able to buy them again unless a new find is made. Not unlikely, but just a case of wait-and-see. I came very close to buying a complete cave bear skeleton a while ago, but chickened out thinking I'd not have the space to display it. Wish I had now, as the price has trebled since. At this point, as some seem to get disproportionally upset by this, I should point out that these paws are from Ursus uralensis, which is not the true cave bear, but rather more similar to a modern grizzly. They still spent long enough in caves to fall down big holes and pile up in great numbers, though, so I'm not particularly bothered with the distinction. Fact is that cave bears were so named because most of their fossils were found in caves, so it was assumed that's where they spent most of the time. The same assumption can easily be made for uralensis, though they were clearly different animals.

Proper cave bears - Ursus spelaeus - lived all across Europe until a little over 27,000 years ago at the onset of the peak of the last ice age. Possible reduction in available foods and likely competition for shelter with humans are thought to be responsible for their demise. They looked like large brown bears, but had slightly wider skulls and heavier limbs. Their dentition was slightly different, too, and it's thought their diet was more vegetarian than that of brown bears.

The Carpathian Mountains have proved a huge source of cave bear remains, with sites in Romania and Slovakia being particularly rich. We had a cave bear skull once, which sold for a good bit less than it'd cost to replace now. Teeth are reasonably easy to keep in stock, and are good sellers, while claws are harder to come by and don't sell as well. We even had a baculum once, I remember. I had to make an extra little sign to sit beside it, saying 'Yes, really.' Baculum are penis bones, which almost all mammals have, to some extent. Not humans, as you may have noticed. I've linked the word above to the Wiki entry, to save you googling 'penis bone'. I'd advise against that. Walrus baculum, known in Alaska as oosik, can be two feet long, and were used as clubs. What a way to go.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Amber - caution

The other day a woman approached Riley and said she was looking to replace an amber pendant she'd had when she was young. It had been very dear to her and had been lost. Might we have anything similar? Riley got out the bag of amber pendants we have before asking her to describe it. It had a seahorse in it, the woman explained.

'Ah', said Riley. Sadly he couldn't find a pendant that matched the one she lost. If seahorses were ever arboreal it was for a very short period in their evolutionary history. They just weren't cut out for climbing.

Fake amber isn't uncommon. Commercial amber is usually from one of three sources - the Baltic Sea, the Dominican Republic and the Chiapas Hills in Mexico. There are plenty of other places amber's found, but not in such quantities, and not of such quality. Amber is, of course, fossilised tree resin - in the case of the Dominican stuff, it's mostly from the hymenaea tree. In Baltic examples it's from pine or eucalyptus trees. I've seen insects 'planted' in reconstituted amber, and in plastic, and very often if it looks too good to be true, it possibly is... For something to become trapped in tree sap it has to be somewhere near a tree. If your prized piece of amber contains a seahorse, or a strawberry, or a digital watch, you should be suspicious.

There are ways to check for fakery, though. Ether or acetone (or paint thinner, or nail polish remover) will usually start to melt plastic but leave amber unharmed. Sticking a heated needle into the piece will give off a tell-tale smell. Amber gives off a pine sap smell (perhaps unsurprisingly) while plastic will give of the smell of burnt plastic. You knew that. Amber can be scratched by a coin, where most of the plastics used are a little harder. All of these are a little destructive. I'd expect were you to blow up pieces of plastic and amber with the same amount of gunpower, the fragments of plastic would fly further, but it's not really a test you'd want to put your amber through. Alternatively, you can putting your piece in some salt water. Amber should float. Or try a UV lamp - amber fluoresces as shown in this video.

Lastly, some sell copal as amber. This may simply through ignorance, however, and isn't really on the same level of deceit as bugs in plastic, if it can be called deceit at all. Copal is basically young amber - still resin from trees - and can be found containing insects in Madagascar, Bolivia, Colombia and a few other sites. These places produce material ranging in age from around 100,000 to 500,000 years old, where most amber is 25 million years old and more. Copal isn't as hard as amber, so doesn't work as well for jewellery. It tends to be paler in colour, too.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011


If I wrote a blog entry today, it would be a long and tiresome rant. So I'll spare you.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Approaching signal orange

After a little more hoop-jumping the listed building consent application has been submitted, amended and appended. I had to provide a scale elevation showing the proposed colour and new signage. That's it over to the right. Now the plans are posted for three weeks to allow any objections to come in, and I have been assigned an application agent. Or whatever the role is called. Anyway. I'm told the application is to be a 'Fast Track Decision'. This was in bold on the letter, too. Which means I may expect a determination on the application by the 30th of September. Imagine my excitement. Within two months I might be allowed to paint my shop back to the colour it used to be.

Having asked around, I've found it's unusual for people to check before painting their properties. I've found out why, since..

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Dog's life

A skull found in Siberia looks like adding to the story of the dog. Dogs are descended from the grey wolf, but when and where it first began is still a developing story. The new find dates to around 33,000 years ago, and the shorter, broader muzzle resembles those of early dogs while the teeth are those of a wolf. Previously the earliest signs of domestication were about 15,000 years ago, so this pushes the date back hugely.

Once tamed, the gradual change to separate breeds - all dogs are the same species, Canis lupus, with the subspecies familiaris - happens in two ways. Initially there's an adaptation to the animal's environment.  This leads to landraces - body forms, colouration, behavioural traits and so on that become a set of distinguishing features particular to a group of a certain habitat. Then there's the human intervention - selective breeding for purpose, temperament or latterly for aesthetics. Which leads, eventually, to the strange idea that a Great Dane and a Chihuahua are exactly the same species. It lends strength to the argument of the genetic 'lumper', I think.

Most had put the origins in Eastern Asia due to the huge variety of breeds with roots there; the thinking being it will have taken longer to reach that level of diversity. Even that's not clear cut. The most primitive breeds (closest to the wolf) are from Asia (Husky, Samoyed) but interestingly another of the oldest breeds, the Basenji, comes from Africa. It isn't descended from the hunting dog, or jackal, though; it's still from the same line. Genetic mixing within world breeds seems evenly spread. So although we're sure about dogs coming from the grey wolf, we don't know exactly where those wolves were.

I'd be very surprised if canine domestication didn't start in many places at many times. The benefits or having a friendly wolf in your family/community are clear. You have a bit of help hunting, an alarm system, something to keep your feet warm. The tendency to report the earliest find as being the first incident of something is a bit of a problem. It's the first known, but to make it sound like it's the actual first is opening a can of worms that will need dealing with later. I don't remember ever having seen canned worms for sale. I suppose the market was pretty much killed when that phrase got popular. I seem to have strayed somewhat, so I'll stop.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Welcome back

The National Museum of Scotland re-opened today after a three year, £47M refurbishment. At 9.15am they pulled back the tarpaulin from a big animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex, which mucked about for a little while, aided by a few explorers in pith helmets. There was quite a crowd. Then there was a bit of drumming and some marching. I'd left by then.

Not because I didn't want to go in, but because I had to open up the shop. I'm a professional. My partner went to a preview night on Wednesday and was impressed, so I'm looking forward to getting in and having a proper look round. I've missed it while it was closed - it's always been one of my favourite places. The cavernous main hall, with its fish ponds and pillars was always amazingly relaxing considering it was often very busy.

There has been a gradual move in museums away from piling everything they have into cabinets and putting a huge list of numbered labels somewhere near the bottom. Nowadays the idea is to have far fewer objects and use the story of the item to flesh out a historical or scientific theme. As an educational approach it's far more engaging, and for those that miss the 'more is more' technique there has been a simultaneous trend towards open storage policies. Meaning you can have access to what's kept in the collections behind the scenes, to varying extent from museum to museum of course. Some have huge racking systems that can be pulled out, allowing a visitor to view rows of stuffed starlings, lines of antique china plates, or trays of Roman coins. And so on.

For an old fashioned, everything on the wall, cabinet of curiosities museum, try Oxford University's Pitt-Rivers Museum. It's a great place, that has deliberately kept its traditional style. Meantime - get yourself to Chambers Street to see the T. rex skeleton.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Red tape

Okay, so not so soon, it seems. I've entered the horrendously bureaucratic world of listed buildings. The shop is part of a C(S) listed building, so I have to make a proper application. This will take six weeks, minimum. I need to give them the proper paint number, which I don't yet know. I need to give them a photo of the shop, which it seems I can't do by email as the file is 3Mb. I have to supply a site plan, but don't know exactly what is required,  even though I asked. I did point out that they have the address, and that they could just look at Google street view, but that's not allowed.

I tried to register online so I could eventually submit my application, but the link didn't work. Another two phone calls and I've found another way to register and am in the middle of that process now. Once the application is in, I will get a visit from someone to have a look at the place and check I'm not planning to demolish the building with a jackhammer. Then there will be a three week period where signs are posted telling people the proposed change and allowing them to object. All to paint the shop back to the colour it was a few years ago.

Fun, fun, fun.


I'm currently trying to get the front of the shop tidied up. It's looking a little sorry these days. I should have started the process a little earlier so it was ready for the festival, but that would have needed some level of organisation and foresight.

I've spoken to a company about a new sign for above the window. The old one was painted years and years ago in a highly stylised font, which is barely legible from even a short distance away. The new one will use the new(ish) logo and be visible from the bottom of Victoria Street, the way most Grassmarket visitors approach the area. People will be able to see what the shop sells from across the road. I'm hoping that'll help a little.

I've left a message with the guys that painted it last time, some seven years ago. I presume they can come up with something like the dark, coppery orange I have in mind. In the meantime, though, I need to run the idea past the council to check it'll be okay. It should be, as there are currently two orange shops nearby, and the pub next door was a bright orange a few years ago. There is an official application you can use, which costs some money and involves paperwork, but I was told the normal procedure is to phone a planning officer to get the go-ahead or advice on what might need to be changed. I finally got hold of one yesterday, who thought it would be fine, but asked me to email the listed buildings department with images of the nearby orange shops and one of the current Mr Wood's front. That email got bounced by their firewall for being too large. I sent them separately and they all bounced as the destination inbox was full. I might post them coloured-in sketches instead. I don't know how long it'll be to get the official approval I'll need before the painters start and the sign can be put up, but it doesn't look like being early August now.

Soon, though, there will be a new-look Mr Wood's Fossils.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Knew it

A woman is sitting beside a couple of amethyst geodes.

'Are these made in volcanoes?'
'Not directly, no, but there can be a link. The crystals of amethyst gradually grow into cavities in a rock, which can be sedimentary or igneous. Very often, though, the original cavities are related to volcanic activity - they can be bubbles of gas in lava flows. When the lava cools and hardens the pockets of gas are trapped. These little caves can then be filled with mineral growth as the material the crystals need to form and grow is washed through the rock with the movement of groundwater.'
'Ah. I knew it. Because they look like volcanoes, don't they?'

Friday, 17 June 2011

Show time

I leave on Monday for the show in Sainte Marie aux Mines in Alsace. Work, you know. Let's leave aside the fact that it's a beautiful place surrounded by vineyards, wooded valleys and peaceful farmlands. That the Kronenbourg brewery is in nearby Strasbourg. And that I'm staying in a lodge on an organic apple orchard with a group of friends. With a big barbecue area. Leaving all of that aside - this is a work trip.

On the list for this trip are lumps of North Sea mammoth, French ammonites, German urchins, Belgian brachiopods, Russian meteorites, Brazilian agates, Peruvian clams and Moroccan trilobites. Although it's a far smaller show than Tucson, people do travel from far and wide to sell there. I wonder if part of that is just because it's an amazing place to spend a little time. Remember - I do this so you don't have to. I know, I know. You're welcome.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Is there anybody out there?

Different meteorites contain different stuff. Not a revelation, and I've probably mentioned this before. Most that are found are iron, but most that fall are stony meteorites - chondrites. There are a wide range of chondrites, but possibly the most important ones, for a very specific reason, are the carbonaceous ones.

Carbonaceous chondrites have organic content  - and again there is quite a range. They are not common, and the challenge is to find as wide a range as possible - to try to form as complete a picture as possible. This will then provide a fair estimation of the 'starting point' of organic matter at the time the solar system, and Earth, were formed some 4.55 billion years ago. A line of thinking being researched now is common-source hypothesis, which suggests almost all organics are derived from a single source and that the early diversity stems from exposure to hydrothermal activity in their host bodies.

One of the biggest questions science faces is the origin of life. Evolution provides a comprehensive answer to the diversity and complexity of life, but so far the very beginnings are still to be revealed. It's a hot topic and there are many hypotheses currently being explored, but one that has come to prominence in recent years has been the idea that life, or at least the means to it, came to Earth from space. Not in a shiny silver rocket or flying saucer, but by way of a meteorite. This possibility is looking increasingly likely.

It follows that if the vast majority of organics in our solar system come from a solitary source that was being spread at the time of formation, the other planets were likely to have received their share. And, further to that, had the common source been outwith the system to begin with, surely the same material would be more widespread than just our solar system; would probably be elsewhere. Out there. Quick! To Area 51! Or whatever it is.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Mr Wood

A guy walking past as I put the sign out the other day suggested changing the shop's name to Mr Stone's Fossils. A few friends asked when I bought the business whether it would become Mr Dale's Fossils. But it's not a name pulled from the air - there is a Mr Wood, and he set up the business in the first place. They really were Mr Wood's fossils.

Stan Wood was in the merchant navy. He sold insurance. And then he found a fossil, whilst walking his dog, and fossils took over his life. Something about his find sparked his interest and he quickly learned more on the subject. Stan has a vital thing for fossil hunters - the eye. Where others see rocks, he sees fish. It didn't take Stan long to become an expert in the obscure fauna of Scotland's Palaeozoic, and he worked with Glasgow University's Hunterian Museum and others to provide scientifically important material for study. During this time he discovered the famous Lizzie - Westlothiana lizziae - and the shop's logo, the stethacanthid shark Akmonistion zangerli, as well as a host of other rare and wonderful animals. Stan has not only featured in a series by that hero of natural history, David Attenborough - Lost Worlds and Vanished Lives - but was also the subject of his own BBC documentary, Stan, Stan, the Fossil Man. He has a string of creatures named after him and a discovery record to match any. As fossil hunters go, he's a celebrity. And he's still going, wading through the rivers of The Borders to find material that will soon be on display in a special exhibition in the National Museum of Scotland, before touring the country.

It's a name to be proud of, so it's always going to be Mr Wood's Fossils.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Shaken and stirred

On April the 6th, 2009, there was an earthquake which killed 309 people in L'Aquila, Italy. Thousands of people were made homeless and a national disaster was declared. Two years later, though, there are still some after-effects being felt. Legal, not geological.

Increased seismic activity in the area had prompted the setting up of a committee to assess the threat posed. The group felt that while the main fault was clearly active, the consistent series of smaller movements they had experienced was ensuring energy was being released and that, consequently, the chances of a larger scale quake were lessened. Their findings were summarised and communicated to the public by a non-geologist from the group, a government official from the Civil Protection Agency. He felt the geologists had been relatively positive and gave the opinion that the threat of a major earthquake wasn't too serious.

And then...

Currently, six seismologists from that committee are to face trial for manslaughter alongside the government official. Apparently they are being prosecuted because the report offered 'incomplete, imprecise and contradictory public information.' For being wrong. Because they had falsely assured the public. Firstly are we to assume 'the public' will have taken this report as a cast-iron promise nothing bad would happen? I doubt that. Let's also leave aside the fact that some of the geologists feel their discussions had been misrepresented  - that may be legal positioning in advance of the blame game ahead. Predicting earthquakes - while aided now by far more technology and understanding than ever before - is still a very, very difficult job. Even coming reasonably close to accuracy is mightily impressive, given the number of factors at play. So can these guys be blamed? Be given ten year prison sentences for not being able to predict natural phenomena? To me, that seems far beyond harsh. It's looking for someone to blame.

The logistical and financial nightmare of evacuating a city means it rarely happens. Lost trade, the risk of crime, moving the elderly and sick, etc, etc. There have been occasions when seismologists have been advised to play down potential risks to avoid widespread panic, too. Then where would the blame lie? Who would carry the can? If this prosecution goes ahead, surely there will be far fewer seismologists willing to offer risk assessment short of advising everyone to run at the first sign of a tremor. You could employ anyone to wave their arms about and scream, you don't need a seismologist for that. This is stupid and may have serious repercussions.

Thursday, 26 May 2011


Today I was supposed to leave a little early so Kate could get to her book group. I got the grille up, the sign in and half of the storm doors closed. As usual in these situations, someone came in.

'Hi, the museum sent me down here, because they were too busy.'
'Oh, right. Okay.'
'Here, look.' He pulls a stone from his pocket and hands it to me.
'Look - here - a face. With one of those... you know. Like this.' He gestures.
'A ruff?'
'Yeah. And a big collar, look.'
'And here is another face, a bit smaller, in this shape... here. You can see it better if you wet it a bit. See?.'
'Look on the back. It looks like a number.'
'I don't... I can't... really see what you mean. I think it's igneous. A volcanic rock. You don't get... fossils in igneous rocks, though.'
'Do you not see what I see?'
'No. No, not really. Sorry.'
'I have another. Here, look at this.'
'Well this one looks like a piece of ironstone nodule I think.'
'Not a meteorite, you don't think?'
No. Sorry. Look, I really have to close up now. Sorry I couldn't be more helpful.'
'Ok, no problem. It's just the museum folk sent me down here. Too busy.'

Friday, 20 May 2011

Star born

There are over 4,500 named minerals on Earth. There will be plenty more found and named, too, unless the latest bunch of Rapture people are right about tomorrow and things all go pear-shaped. There haven't always been this many, though. At the moment it's thought that when the planet was formed there were only around sixty minerals. Discovering a new mineral must be quite a thrill - I met a guy once who had been named as official discoverer of a few, though I can't remember the names. A couple have been found recently that date right back to the origins of the solar system. Krotite and Wassonite were both found by careful study of meteorite sections.

Krotite was found in a meteorite from North Africa and contains a substance that can only form under conditions of temperature and pressure that match the creation of our solar system 4.55-4.6 billion years ago. Further study of the mineral might help scientists understand more about how minerals originally formed from the collapsing molecular cloud during that time. As the nebula cooled particles of matter began to group together and minerals were precipitated. Those minerals that form at the highest temperatures would obviously have formed earliest, and krotite would have been amongst the first.

Wassonite was discovered in an Antarctic meteorite which had been found some 42 years ago. The crystals of the mineral were too small to be seen until recent technology - the Bond-villain-esque ion beam - allowed a proper analysis. Wassonite is titanium sulphide. And really, really tiny.

As technology develops mineralogists will be able to find more and more minerals in meteorites. Meteorites are pretty tremendous in themselves, just for being a rock that's fallen out of space, but when you think of them as some of the first solids to have formed at the formation of our solar system, they gain a little something. Respect your elders.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Old school malware

Phone rings.

'Good afternoon, Mr Wood's Fossils.'
'Hello, can I speak to Matt Dale, please?'
'Hello Mr Dale. Are you in charge of the company's computers?'
'Um. Yes'.
'I'm calling from the Computer Maintenance Department.'
'The what? Computer Maintenance Department of what?'
'Of Microsoft. Do you use Microsoft Windows?'
'We are calling because your warranty has expired, which is why we have been receiving error messages in our department.'
'Which warranty? I haven't been getting any error messages. My computer's fine. What are you talking about?'
'Your software's warranty has expired, leaving your computer open to virus infection. We have been receiving error...'
'My software's warranty. Right. Well, I haven't had any error messages, and I have anti-virus. Everything's fine. Thanks for being so worried. Got to go now. Bye.'

Hang up.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Cut glass

Obsidian is a volcanic glass made when lava cools very rapidly. It happens too quickly for a distinct structure to form and when fractured, the edges can be just over a molecule thick. Which makes for a pretty sharp edge. Unsurprisingly, then, it's perhaps best known for its use in prehistoric times as a source of arrowheads, cutting blades and the like. Less well known is that obsidian is used to make surgical scalpel blades now, as they produce a narrower cut than a conventional steel blade and result in less scarring.

Most obsidian looks black at first glance, but on closer inspection it is usually translucent if thin enough and dark brown, grey or even greenish in colour. Above left is a polished piece of rainbow obsidian. Layers of tiny bubbles arranged along flow layers create a colourful iridescent effect. There are other well-known forms called mahogany, where high concentrations of iron makes a red/brown pattern throughout, and snowflake obsidian, which has clusters of white cristobalite.

Apache tears (shown right) are little blobs of obsidian found near Superior, Arizona. They are found surrounded by grey/white perlite, which is a hydrated form of obsidian. These little pebbles have a folk story of their own. In the 1870s, a group of US cavalry and volunteers set out to attack a band of Pinal Apaches, prompted by repeated cattle raids on a nearby settlement. The Apache, seventy five strong, were attacked at Big Pacacho and most of their number were killed in the initial gunfight. The remaining warriors, rather than submit to the cavalry, committed suicide, riding their horses over the cliff to their deaths. The tears of their families, on falling to the white sands surrounding the base of the cliffs, were turned to stone by the creator, Ussen, to mark the memory of the fallen Apaches.

Friday, 29 April 2011


Riley found this image on the net the other day. Sadly it was without context. Would be nice to know how extensive the publication is; whether it goes on to explain why it thinks the planet is only thousands of years old.

I get asked about the dating of fossils frequently, and it's a logical question. How do we know? People ask if they get a certificate of authenticity with their fossil and I have to explain that there is no world authority on everything fossily that supplies a thumbs-up sticker with every sale. With all sales in the shop the customer takes away a label with the basic details. Age, locality, name, etc. The fossils I sell do come with tags on them that tell us how old they are. There's a degree of trust involved here. The label I write then becomes a de facto certificate. It legitimizes the fossil somehow, and I sometimes feel a bit guilty about that. Why should people suddenly take what I write on a card as truth? I do not work out the ages myself. I don't do the tests personally. However - I have an understanding of how the dating processes work, and I know that the tests are repeatable, empirical, objective. Facts are objective. Truth is subjective. I feel comfortable that I'm passing on the best information I have when I sell something - it's important to me that I get as much right as I can. It's very much in the interests of the wholesalers to know as much about their stock as possible, and most do. When they provide detailed information, I'm happy with that. When there is some doubt or missing data, I'll try to look into it; try to find out more by spending a little time on the internet reading about the fossil or the site it came from. It's as 'true' as it can be.

Which takes me back to the original question - why believe the ages involved? My answer is - why not? For a long time I had a regular visitor to the shop who would ask me about my lack of religious belief and he told me he didn't believe the age of the Earth was 4.55 billion years old. He said that just 'felt wrong'. That he couldn't really comprehend that scale of time and that the biblically derived estimations of age as a few thousands of years were far more likely. In reply I'd tell him I didn't think that was justification enough to disregard the scientific view and embrace one based on far more dubious principles. The calculations involved, I mean. To get to be a scientist working in a specialised field takes years of study and a deep understanding of their subject. Why would I not put more store in what they say about that topic than someone who knows nothing about it? I'd far rather put my trust in tried and tested scientific processes than take the religious line without asking why. How can blind faith be regarded as more worthy than reason and critical thinking?

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Where it all went wrong

I need a healing stone.
What sort of stone - do you know the name?
A healing stone - so my friend can take the next step.
Well I can give you this book to look through and you can...
Nah, nah, I don't need that. I'll just look... right - there it is. No, dinnae wrap it up, just give us it here.
You don't want to know what it is? 
It's £3.50.
But a label with the name, I mean?
Nah, nah. Nae disrespect man, but that's where it all went wrong.
Where did it all go wrong?
Naming things.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Time of our lives

Our planet is about 4.55 billion years old. Billion. That's four and a half thousand million, or 4,550,000,000. That's a really long time. We humans have only been around for a couple of hundred thousand years as we are now. We've really only been aware of these things for a relatively short time.

You've heard the metaphors before - if the history of the Earth were a 24hr period, etc. This site lets you work out your own metaphor. An easy one being that if the planet's history were laid out as a metre, recorded human history would be the last .002174mm. We just haven't been around that long. It seems like it to us, but we haven't. Until recently we were more concerned with where our next meal was coming from than the bigger questions - why we're here, how we got here. Where are we going? Who's that crouching behind the bushes? We're not geared up for thinking in geological time - we've not had any need to and it remains largely beyond our comprehension.

So. Why am I dribbling on about time and human insignificance again? Well - earthquakes have been in the news a great deal of late. Horribly tragic headlines from a number of countries. It seems to us, amidst the turmoil and disaster, that there have been an unusual number of big quakes in a short period of time, and the natural reaction is to look for a reason behind this. Is there a pattern? Where is it leading? We know a lot more about what causes earthquakes now, and roughly where they are more likely to occur. We can even have a stab at predicting events based on gaseous emissions, small tremors and so on, and seismologists are getting better at it. But as for discerning a pattern within a broader setting, that's just not possible. We view things from our own understanding of time. Geological time is another thing altogether, and current seismic happenings can only really be given their true context with proper hindsight. Not now, and not in the near future. Statistics based on so little information are next to meaningless, and there is no point scaring everyone with warnings of megaquakes, supervolcanoes, Godzilla attacks and so on. In the backs of our minds we know they can happen, but there's not much we can do about it. In a few billion years another galaxy will probably crash into ours, or the sun will turn into a red giant and eat us up. Gather ye roses.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Mother Earth

This Saturday I'll have a stall at a pagan conference. A gathering of witches and druids and so on. It's the third year in a row and it's been enjoyable enough so far - I don't take a great deal on the day, but it costs very little to set up and I think I get a bit of business from it afterwards. I'm not a pagan. I'm very firmly atheist and don't hold any religion or spiritual belief in any great regard. On the whole they're a very friendly bunch - and I'd have to say I can understand the underpinning of spiritual belief with all things natural. Just seems more accessible to me than the more - what? - human-centred religions. An embracing of the natural world rather than some historic prophetic figure.

The world of science has a religion of its own, of sorts, and at its core it has some resemblance to many of the tenets of paganism. In the 60s, James Lovelock, an environmental scientist working for NASA on the possibility of life on Mars. developed an idea that became the Gaia Hypothesis. He worked on it through the 60s and 70s before publishing Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth in 1979. Gaia was the Greek goddess of the Earth. The Earth Mother: a central figure in many belief systems. The central idea of Gaia, very simply put, is that the planet is some sort of self-regulating entity, reacting to constantly changing conditions to maintain some sort of balanced environment suitable for life. A range of interpretations have emerged and broadly the hypothesis can be split into Hard and Soft Gaia, which in turn cover a spectrum of more specific definitions.

I don't have the time, the space or the ability to give an in-depth explanation of the full hypothesis. However - I'll give a brief summary a go.... Soft Gaia holds that most of the processes of life on Earth are connected and influence each other and their surrounding environment directly. That living beings have changed their habitat by their very presence. It's hard to deny there's some truth to this and science will always be learning more about how the natural world fits together and operates as it does. Soft Gaia does not claim the planet has an active part to play in this, though. Hard Gaia goes further, though again along a sliding scale of immersion. It suggests the Earth is more actively self-regulating, and to this way of thinking the extreme is a living entity in itself. Mother Earth watching out for herself, taking steps to redress damage inflicted by her wards. Within this, some believe that all life is intrinsically connected to the point of it all being part of one living whole, a being of beings. You can see how this begins to become quasi-religious.

The concept wasn't exactly universally embraced - Lovelock came in for a bit of stick from the scientific world. Nonetheless, it's stuck around and Lovelock has had a long and very successful career. He's a formidably bright guy, and has been an active environmental campaigner, turning to his hypothesis from time to time to reflect contemporary understanding of green issues. The increasing awareness of global climate change and the unfortunate effect humanity has had on pretty much everything around us has ensured Gaia has stayed firmly in the consciousness. Soft Gaia's highlighting of interconnectivity is a productive outcome - we have become better at anticipating the potential implications of actions we may have previously thought of in isolation.

To me, while a nice idea, Hard Gaia is almost a shrugging of responsibility; a dereliction of duty. Like most religions, I see it as a reassurance - someone, something is taking care of stuff. Taking care of us. It doesn't really matter what we do to the planet, because it can look after itself. I see the appeal, but we need to accept that there are consequences for what mess we humans make.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Wee things big

I got a new toy - a USB microscope. It's not quite as effective as a proper microscope but it's fun to play around with, wasn't too expensive and is easy to use. Plug it into the computer, load a bit of software and muck around. I'm not entirely sure why I got it.

So now I need something to do with it. I think I might have a monthly competition on the Facebook page - name the mineral/fossil win a prize. Actually, monthly sounds like a lot of work. Perhaps annual.

When I stumbled into studying geology I was surprised at just how big a field it was. Maths, physics, chemistry, statistics, biology, etc. A large chunk of time was spent staring down a microscope at thin sections of minerals, learning to identify crystal shapes, growth patterns, associations and so on. I got there, eventually, but I never learned to love the microscope. Maybe that will change.

As you can see, I've had a play around with it now and these images are the results of two or three minutes fiddling. Haven't had to tinker with the images, though, and I'm pretty impressed with the quality given the price. Amber with bugs seemed the obvious choice and it looks like it's going to be quite useful for that alone.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Bring the hair

I've said it before and I'll say it again. I want a mammoth. The Japanese team at Osaka's Kinki University made the news again this week. They hope to 'make' a mammoth within the next few years. They started the project a while ago, but had to abandon the work they had done on skin samples as they found the cell damage from ice was too advanced. Scientists at another Japanese university recently had success in cloning a mouse from frozen cells giving the Kinki team fresh hope. That aside, cloning techniques with other animals have advanced since then and the group hope a new find on their summer trip to Siberia will provide material in viable condition. Global warming has resulted in more mammoth finds in Siberia and the problem in finding one is mostly one of time and transportation.

The process involves the insertion of mammoth cells into elephant eggs with their own nucleus removed, to produce an embryo which is then implanted into an elephant to carry to birth. The optimism of the Kinki bunch is all very well, but significant problems lie ahead. Even if they find their material (and they may yet turn to previous finds in the hands of Russian academic bodies) and it's in decent shape, the percentage of prepared elephant eggs that turn out to be usable is still very low. While the numbers involved still make the project look like something of a long shot, it's a step along the way. I think at some point in the near future a mammoth will be born for the first time in nearly four thousand years.

There are some ethical considerations. Let's leave aside the negligibly weak 'playing god' argument and focus on the fuzzy little bundle of joy itself. If and when it's born, it'll be all alone. That's a fairly bleak thought, and brings to mind the footage of the last thylacine from the Australian zoo in the 30s. So if it's to be done, I think there should be more than one - and it's pretty safe to assume there will be. Having sunk so much time and effort into the campaign so far, it would be weird to stop at one, barring disaster. Another concern that has been raised is the spectre of commercialism. Is this being done for scientific or financial reasons? Let's be generous and say primarily the former, but it's unrealistic to discount the pull and potential of the latter. Make the most of it, I'd say - go the whole hog and make a Jurassic Park equivalent. Seems to be their ultimate intention, after looking into a bit more - Pleistocene Park. Mammoths and mastodons, woolly rhinos, cave bears, aurochs, smilodons, Irish elk - the works. Revenues can fund further research. And I get to see the hairy beasts.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Dinosaur mad, he is

A slow March day. Maybe even summon up the energy to dust some stuff. Glance at the clock. 2.34.

Guy comes in, and up to the counter.
'You got any dinosaur stuff?'
'Yes - there are a few teeth to choose from - Spinosaurus, Carcharodontosaurus, Edmontosaurus, Triceratops... There's some eggshell, bone, coproli...'
(Interrupting) 'Any T.rex teeth? See, what it is... My boy, right, he loves dinosaurs. It's all dinosaurs at the moment. Dinosaurs, dinosaurs, dinosaurs. T. rex is his favourite. Got any T. rex teeth?'
'No, afraid not. They're really expensive - I don't see very many and I couldn't afford to buy and sell them anyway. Have a look at these, though. Carcharodontosaurus were very similar to Tyrannosaurus in size and shape - they filled the same role in Northern Africa as T. rex in North America. Quite a range of prices - got some at £32 and the biggest is this one at £330. They look a lot like T. rex teeth.'
'Hmm. What about Velociraptor claws? Got any of those?'
'No, sorry. Claws are far, far more expensive than teeth. Dinosaurs grew and shed teeth constantly, so for every one dinosaur there could be thousands of teeth over its lifetime. The last claw I had was this size and £300 I think, but I haven't got one at the moment. There are plenty teeth to choose from though. I sell a lot of these Spinosaurus ones at £5 and £16.'
'He loves T. rex. Dinosaur mad, he is. Knows all the names and everything.'
'Well what about a bit of dinosaur eggshell?'
'What are these things? Snails?'
'They're ammonites. Sort of like an octopus that lived in a spiral shell.'
'I'll take one of these. And one of those things, there.'
'That's a brachiopod.'
'And one of these, too, please. What's this?'
'An oyster.'
'That's £15, please. Thanks. Bye.'

Glance at the clock. 2.41. Reach for the glass polish and the cloth.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Here comes the sea

On the shelf at the back of the shop there are some Mesosaurus brasiliensis fossils. Mesosaurs were long-necked reptiles that lived in freshwater lakes in the Early Permian. Big deal? The important thing about mesosaurs is exactly where they were found. Finds of the same age in Southern Africa and Eastern South America were one of the first signs of continental drift and plate tectonics in general. They had been swimming in lakes which had formed in rift valleys as the supercontinent of Gondwanaland began to pull apart.

Plate tectonics has been big news of late, sadly, with earthquakes causing horrendous destruction and tens of thousands of deaths in Japan and New Zealand. It may not make the news all the time, but it is happening all the time. The Earth's surface is comprised of a group of plates which are moved around by the convection currents created in the molten rock of the core beneath them. The relationship between the plates is complicated but their constant movement has shaped the face of the planet - the atlas would look very different were it not for continental drift. Far more is known about the processes involved now than even a few decades ago. David Attenborough remembers a skeptical geology lecturer dismissing the idea when he was at university. There is still a lot to be learned about how the plates interact, though. A fuller understanding may help seismologists predict earthquakes over the longer term, so it's an area that deserves to see a lot of research.

Africa and South America parted ways some 200 million years ago, but in Eastern Africa a similar process is happening right now. The Rift Valley in Ethiopia is a depression caused by the pulling apart of the continental crust as - very slowly - a new ocean is formed. It's not like you need worry about having to buy a new map or anything; it's going to take quite some time. In geological terms, though, the separation is happening pretty quickly, and the volcanoes and earthquakes are a sign of what's happening not far below the surface.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Internet Business Database Company Online Directory

Most of the calls I get are not people wanting to buy things, but people wanting to sell things. Advertising. Electricity. Phone line rental. Most weeks I will get a call from someone from a company with a name made up from a small group of words. Internet, business, online, directory, marketing, database, company, and pages.

I'm not the best at remembering company names, really, but I do tend to have a vague idea of adverts I've paid for through the year. The first time I got one of these calls I was a little confused. Who? Internet Business Database? Hmm. You're checking to see if I want to make any changes to my listing this year? At first there's no mention of any cost, so as the guy runs through his checklist of contact details and keywords I nod to myself, make the right noises. Then it comes to the part about how much I need to pay for this year's listing. Good news, though - they can offer me an extra six months free as I'm an existing customer. I'm worried that I don't remember becoming a customer in the first place and tell the guy I need to check first. I tell him to call me back another day as I have a customer.

I run back through the books for a year, two years. No mention of Internet Business Database. I haven't paid them anything. The guy never calls back, but a few weeks later - a call from Business Directory Online. Similar spiel. This time I'm suspicious, so I ask how long ago I took out the advert. A pause, then 'Eighteen months'. Okay. I know fine well this time that I didn't. How much did it cost me last time? '£120 plus VAT'. I tell him I don't remember ever dealing with his company and that I don't want to continue the listing in any case. His reply was something along the lines of 'Oh - sorry - must be some mistake in our system. Bye'.

In the case of bigger companies with larger advertising budgets and more staff, I'm sure it's easy to lose track of which ads have been taken out in the year and assume the call is genuine. These scams must be effective enough to be worth pursuing because the calls, with small variations in company name, brilliant offer and small details, are frequent now. The last time I cut him off straight away with 'Don't bother' and hung up. Next time I'm going to string them along, though. Ask them why I still haven't received payment for the fossil they bought from me 18 months ago. I'll be happy to continue my listing if they send me the cheque for the balance of £314.

I have had a couple of slightly more sinister ones, telling me not that my listing is about to run out, but that I owe money for an advert campaign which has already been running. Those seem far more obvious to spot, though - not many internet marketing companies would do the work first and call later about payment. The people in this instances are aggressive to the point of threatening and I got incredibly angry with one woman who said I should expect to be taken to court by their legal department. I'm not really sure about what the proper thing to do in these circumstances. I should probably find out, really. Scum.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Earn your stripes

One of the things I was glad to get at the show in Arizona was Zebra Rock. I'd seen it around for a few years and while I'd bought a piece for myself, I'd thought it too expensive to work in the shop. Last year I noticed some at a far more reasonable price and gave it a go - lots of little tumblestone-sized pieces and a few larger lumps. It went very well. This year I couldn't find exactly the same stuff, but the seller told me he had a lot of rough material at another venue. A couple of days later I found it, and picked out a few kilos from a huge barrel. I'll need to wash it and sand it down a little, but the extra effort will be well worth it.

It's unusual stuff, and there has been a lot of discussion on exactly how it formed. It was first found in Argyle Station, in East Kimberley, Western Australia in the 1920s by a geologist visiting from New York. This locality is now under reservoir water and more sources have been found nearby - the stuff I have is from Kununurra, a little further North.

It's a silicious argillite - that's clay or siltstone with quartz and is pre-Cambrian in age; over 600 million years old. What makes it special, though, is its amazing banding pattern. It varies from spots to (more frequently) stripes but usually surprisingly regular. It looks like it has been hand-painted. These bands and how they were formed is the subject for debate. Originally it had been thought that it was the result of deformation of original sedimentary layers, or possibly the introduction of an iron-rich mineral into a pale clay. The grain-size and texture is consistent across the pattern, though, which would suggest the first of these is unlikely and the structure of the patterning provides difficulties for the second. What seems the most plausible explanation is that hematite-rich bands are the result of a hydrothermal precipitation of sorts - mineral-saturated water moving through the body of rock distributing iron-rich patches as it built sufficient concentration. This paper provides a better explanation than I can, and looks at the part magnetism may have played. Be warned - it's complimacated and has far more words than pictures. It's enough for me - and most others - that it looks nice.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Kicked by Thunder Thighs

A new sauropod has been found in a Utah site and named Brontomerus mcintoshi. Thunder thighs. Nice. The designation is on the strength of bones from two specimens collected in the 90s from the Hotel Mesa Quarry in Grand County, Utah, dated to about 110 million years old. Its hip bones suggest huge thigh muscles, hence the name. Comparing the bones with those of better-known relatives, it's thought the adults may have been around 14 metres long and weighed six tonnes. The heavy musculature of the upper rear limbs meant the animal could probably have delivered hefty kicks, either for defence or to establish dominance for mating rights. It may also have been able to 'stand up' for short periods, perhaps for browsing. Another suggestion is that the extra strength could have been to power very long legs - not enough material was found to support this idea, though.

A nice find. What really caught my attention, though, was the kicking given to commercial collectors in the article. A large chunk was given over to it. It describes the bones as 'rescued' from the quarry, and in this case I don't think the journalist means saved from the elements. The piece says the site 'has been looted by commercial fossil-hunters' and Dr Taylor, one of the researchers involved, describes the site as vandalised. He says commercial collectors smashed up the bones they didn't want - which seems unlikely to me. They may well have been broken but it's purely speculative to say how, why (if intentional at all) and by whom.

I definitely understand his frustration at not having more of the specimen(s) to study, and of course anyone collecting - privately, commercially or academically - needs to go about it correctly, respecting the site and material and recording helpful information. Seeing bone material used to weigh down a tarpaulin would annoy me, too. Reading a little more about the site's history shows the place 'previously known to private collectors' and that collecting had gone on there for some time. Difficult to see how the research team can feel all proprietorial about it - because they weren't there first and didn't find everything they wanted the site has been 'pillaged'? A bit rich if you ask me.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Roll up! Roll up!

I have a couple of nice enrolled trilobites at home already, but bought this one in Tucson. It's a phacopid from Morocco, near Western Sahara. Think its name is Gravlops. Trilobites had a diverse array of body shapes and ornamentation, but most trilobites could roll up to some extent to protect their soft undersides with their exoskeleton. Some into balls like a hedgehog, some tucking into their broad headshield, some, like the tiny Agnostus, folding flat like a... like a... pastie? Phacops and its close relatives became masters of the ball defence, developing specialised grooves to enable a precise enrollment.

Many trilobites are preserved with a common sort of  bend, their cephalon at a ninety degree angle to their bodies. It's known that many were burrowers and these bent trilobites may have died while poking out of their burrows, head resting on the surface, the rest tucked safely away. What would they have been hiding from? Trilobites were around for about 280 million years, so what they were eating and what was eating them changed a fair bit over that time. To begin with, in the early Cambrian 520 million years ago, they would have had to hide from nautiloids, eurypterids and the star of the Burgess Shale, Anomolocaris. With the rise of the fish in the Devonian, trilobites had something else to worry about. The final curtain, though, was the Great Dying, the extinction event at the end of the Permian, 250 million years ago, when 96% of marine species kicked the bucket. Rolling up into a ball doesn't save you from everything.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Scorched earth

So - two full buying days and I'm running out of money. I always manage to spend more than I bring, leaving Tucson with a list of complicated arrangements to sort out at home. It's better than missing out on a good buy. After sorting out the fish, trilobites and shark teeth my main concern now is a bed that doesn't deflate fifteen minutes after lying down on it. I'm sleeping on the floor of a friend's selling room, watched over by the huge skull of a Tarbosaurus and a hadrosaur tail balanced carefully on a metal stand. I'm not scared of the teeth, but I'm terrified of knocking the table.

It's hot and dry here, and I keep forgetting to drink water. They're very big on dust in Arizona. Dust and gravel. Out of the city, though, the desert is beautiful. The Sonora has those iconic saguaro cactus lining the hills and I want to try to get a trip at some point next week - doesn't really matter where. In the past I've been to Mexico, Tombstone, Bisbee and a few places nearer Tucson. The Grand Canyon is reasonably close, and to my shame I've never managed to make it there. Maybe this will be the year.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Dead cow

I recently got a new batch of files back from the photographer and can put some more lines up on the website. You know. At some point... Actually, I have managed a couple of new ammonite entries. Took me a little while to remember how to format the images. I have great plans for when I get back, though. Longer term procrastination.

Among the additions will be little pieces of a mesosiderite from Chile. Mesosiderites are a type of stony-iron meteorite with an even balance of the familiar iron-nickel material and a silicate mixture. There aren't very many known falls, and these pieces are from one of the larger ones in the endearingly named Vaca Muerta area of the Atacama desert. Dead Cow. Not a holiday hotspot. That's one above. Not very exciting looking, I know, but it came from outer space! Plus as meteorite material goes, it's very cheap. I have a couple more meteorite lines to put up, too - Seymchan pallasite from Russia and relatively run-of-the-mill NWA chondrite stuff. Not NWA like Dr Dre. They're from North West Africa.

Anyone collecting in the Atacama deserves to find something. It's the driest place in the world, with almost no rain at all. Not a nice place to spend a lot of time. Nobody goes hunting for meteorites in the Bahamas, or in Milan. It has to be somewhere inhospitable. If it's not sand, it's ice. If it's not ice, it's mosquitoes. Meteorites aren't picky about where they fall, but it's easier to find a meteorite in the desert than in a forest, under a branch of Debenhams, or at the bottom of the deep blue sea. In the desert, anything that's not sand is worth checking out. Finding meteorites must make it well worthwhile being dusty and thirsty all the time. Thankfully.

Friday, 14 January 2011

To the sun

After a cold and icy winter, I'm looking forward to getting to Arizona this year. It'll be about 22C in Tucson over the next few days, which would be manageable. Haven't really been planning this trip much this year, so I'll have to work out what I need over the next week, pile my scraps of scribbled paper and have a guess at just how empty I can leave the bank account. The scary part. Then I need to gather all the stuff I want to take, get the suitcase from the loft and leave it in a huge pile for everyone to trip over for a week. I think that's the best way to prepare for a journey. I'll be flying to New York for a couple of days first, and while Edinburgh's snow has finally gone, there's plenty of it there. Hopefully there won't be any trouble with flight cancellations and so on - Riley has been delayed in returning from Ohio by the weather and should get back today.

This will be my 12th Tucson trip I think, and I've been pretty lucky with travel so far. A few delays, missed connections and so on, but nothing more than a few hours here and there. The thought of spending a couple of days in an airport is not appealing. £19.67 for a packet of crisps and some water, then sitting hunched over a book for hours on end. I hate all the waiting around involved - departure lounges, waiting for the line of passengers to finally be allowed to shuffle out of the plane, the queue for the passport control gates, and the agonising fifteen minutes at the baggage carousel. I do like some aspects of travel, though. I don't like watching movies I really want to see on a plane - the tiny screen and uncomfortable seat don't really do a film justice - but I quite like having a range of films to choose from that I haven't picked myself. You can feel better about watching a terrible film. And even though the food may not be much cop, I love it when the meal comes. Maybe it's just because something is happening. Even having to tuck your elbows into your flanks to butter your cracker and worrying your coffee is about to spill into your salad doesn't spoil it. Cramped dining. Thrills.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Prophet margin

It's 2011. Happy New Year and so on. This week, a bunch of dead blackbirds fell out of the Arkansas sky and a tide of dead crabs washed up on Kent beaches. Portentous events? Spine-chilling omens? Apparently some sect or other expects the world to end in May this year. It's reckoned the crabs were killed by the cold. Sounds feasible to me - it's been freezing. It was also horribly cold last year, and last year - guess what - thousands of crabs washed up on beaches. The blackbirds? As well as in Arkansas, a bunch of birds met the ground with a fluffy thump in Sweden a couple of days later. Oh no! But have a quick look on the net and there are dead-birds-falling stories from 11th March 2010, 28th January 2009, and 23rd July 2008. On the first page of results. And the world keeps turning.

Far more people are fully expecting the apocalypse to come along in 2012. Only a year away! Quick - blow all your savings on cakes, fine wines and electronic goods! Well, actually, nearly two years as it's supposedly December 12th 2012. 12/12/12. Why? Because of The Mayan Prophesy. Except, it's not really a prophesy at all. All that happens is a calendar runs out then - a new one starts. The Maya are still around and are keen to point that out. They aren't smashing their piggy banks.

There have been loads of doomsday predictions throughout history. So far, obviously, none of them has been correct. This must have left scores of sects, cults and prophetophiles trying to bury their disappointment in a nice steak pie and convince themselves they're not secretly a little relieved. There was even a fair amount of nervous tension in what considers itself the civilized world as the year 2000 approached. Quite what was expected, I don't know. The Four Horsemen?  Because it was a nice round number. Something significant ought to happen, because it's a round number. Why are people so keen for the world to end? Some bits of it are really good. I've never been to Tanzania, Japan or Peru and I want to. I think probably what makes people so excitable about the idea of Armageddon is that they have become convinced that they are among a chosen few that are going to do pretty well out of it. Everyone else will die, sure, but they are going to go somewhere really nice. The Rapture, or whatever version of it suits the theory.

Big business, prophesies of doom. All so negative, though. I will attempt to redress the balance a tiny bit. Prophesies of Alrightness. I hereby predict that the world will not end in May. It will not end in 2012. Everything is going to be relatively okay. Remember - you heard it here first.