Palaeobotanical studies and collecting in the 19th century, with particular reference to the Ravenhead collection and Henry Hugh Higgins
W. Simkiss, A. J. Bowden, 2005. "Palaeobotanical studies and collecting in the 19th century, with particular reference to the Ravenhead collection and Henry Hugh Higgins", History of Palaeobotany: Selected Essays, A.J. Bowden, C.V. Burek, R. Wilding
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Palaeobotanical studies in the NW of England could be said to originate with Mr William Barton and Charles Leigh in the latter part of the 17th century. These individuals merely noted the existence of fossil plant remains in the Coal Measure deposits around Lancashire. However, it was not until the 19th century before any real studies were carried out on the flora found within the Lancashire Coalfield.
The Ravenhead collection is primarily made up of an Upper Carboniferous Langsettian flora, fish and bivalves with some insect remains. The collector was Liverpool Museum volunteer Reverend Henry Hugh Higgins and the collection was made from a railway construction site in 1870. The site exposed two coal seams known as the Upper and Lower Ravenhead Coals.
The collection was exhibited at the British Association meeting held in Liverpool in 1870 and at once created a great deal of interest. W. Carruthers remarked upon the fine preservation and the importance of having material where the separate components can now with certainty be shown to be part of the same plant.
Higgins published the first paper on the Ravenhead collection in 1871. A year later, museum assistant Frederick Price Marrat produced an extensive paper for the Liverpool Geological Society in which he attempted a more detailed description of the Ravenhead flora. This paper described 58 true and seed fern specimens with variations, nine types that included five holotypes and two syntypes. However, Marrat admitted he found identification of plant remains by relying on external features extremely difficult and Williamson’s methods of examining the microstructures of fossilized material were not yet in use. He published a further paper in 1872, listing the Sphenopsids found at the Ravenhead site. The bulk of the Ravenhead collection, including most of the types, survived the May 1941 blitz that virtually destroyed the museum. Unfortunately, all of the Ravenhead display material was lost in the fire.
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Often regarded as the ‘Cinderella’ of palaeontological studies, palaeobotany has a history that contains some fascinating insights into scientific endeavour, especially by palaeontologists who were perusing a personal interest rather than a career. The problems of maintaining research facilities in universities, especially in the modern era, are described and reveal a noticeable absence of a national UK strategy to preserve centres of excellence in an avowedly specialist area. Accounts of some of the pioneers demonstrate the importance of collaboration between taxonomists and illustrators. The importance of palaeobotany in the rise of geoconservation is outlined, as well as the significant and influential role of women in the discipline. Although this volume has a predominantly UK focus, two very interesting studies outline the history of palaeobotanical work in Argentina and China.