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by Shelley Emling

The man who mapped England's history

Helping to probe fossils from their hiding places was the Industrial Revolution which — thanks to a population explosion brought on by a decreasing death rate and increased fertility — led to the need for a rapid transportation system for both goods and people. Railways were proliferating; quarrying for limestone in order to make cement was expanding. Added to this was the rapidly growing mining industry. The result of this frenzy of activity was digging, lots of digging. And all of this digging was generating a prodigious number of fossil finds. The mass excavations also were bringing to light Earth's many layers of rock, one on top of the other. On closer scrutiny, it became apparent that these layers actually were a reliable record of time. Most rock is made gradually from either mud that settles and hardens or from lava that flows from a volcano. Because each layer of mud or lava gets deposited on top of older layers, rock strata are an easy-to-read chronicle of Earth's history. As one moves farther down, the rocks get older; as one moves up, they get younger.

This was easy enough for most people to understand. But what wasn't logical was the extreme thickness and depth of the rock record — many miles of layers on top of layers on top of layers — much longer than a few thousand years. The fossils themselves didn't seem to make any sense either. In the more recent layers, the fossilized creatures looked similar to modern species, but those nearer the bottom looked nothing like anything anyone had ever seen.

One reason the early geologists were finally able to start connecting the dots was the pioneering work of an obscure but single-minded canal surveyor named William Smith. Smith had had little formal education, but six years supervising the digging of the Somerset Canal in southwestern England in the mid-1790s had taught him a thing or two about rocks. The son of a farmer, who died when William was eight, Smith grew up collecting the "pundibs" that were strewn across his family's property. These pundibs, which made perfect marbles for Smith and his friends, were really ancient brachiopods, or marine invertebrates.

As a grown man, Smith became obsessed with the disguised underbelly of England. For instance, he noticed that each different kind of rock in a stack boasted its own particular kind of fossils — fossils not evident in any other layer. One layer of rock exposed a certain category of fossils and thereby a certain point in time. In particular, Smith was struck by how fossils in the layers were so often arranged in the same predictable pattern from top to bottom. Again and again, he came across the same sequences of fossils, even as he crisscrossed England on his meager salary. To Smith, it seemed that type of animal must have lived during a particular span of time, spans that overlapped into those of other animals. Soon he was able to go to any part of England and describe — without looking — the order in which rocks had been formed.

But Smith's biggest accomplishment was the composition of the first geological map of England, which appeared in 1815. The intricate map, beautifully painted by hand, was more than eight feet tall and nearly as wide. Yet it had taken Smith 16 years to get it published. Never a natural self-promoter, Smith found it hard to gain recognition for his groundbreaking geological work, especially among the upper classes. Even four years after the map's publication, he still hadn't been adequately compensated — or acknowledged. With his young wife spiraling toward insanity — and rumored to be a nymphomaniac — Smith ultimately found himself bankrupt and in a debtors' prison after his maps were copied and sold without his permission for lower prices than he was asking. Eventually he fled London for the north of England, where he roamed for ten long years in search of employment. It would be several years more before his accomplishments were rediscovered by the scientific establishment. Surviving financial hardship and the prejudices of the aristocrats, he was finally recognized as a pioneer in 1831, when he received the Geological Society's highest award, the Wollaston Medal.

Today Smith is considered to be among the first to recognize that fossils are really time markers in rock formations. And his map was the first to illustrate hundreds of millions of years of changing landscapes.

Excerpted from The Fossil Hunter by Shelley Emling. Copyright © 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.

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Articles in this Issue

Garbage, by Jeanne Koskela
Time v. Frank Moran, A Heavyweight Bout, by Robert G. Byrnes
A Brooklyn of My Mind, by Linda McMeniman
The Parchment Brothers, by Alan Hirshfeld
Military History, by Amanda Ringer
Photography, by Carlos Albaladejo
Geology, by Shelley Emling
September 2009


Shelley Emling has been a journalist for 20 years. She is a foreign correspondent for Cox Newspapers, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Fortune, USA Today, and the International Herald Tribune. She lives in New York.

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