Abstract

It is suggested that the Roman pillars at Pozzuoli, near Naples, the great symbols of uniformitarianism, record not gradual but very sudden changes in sea level and a more catastrophic, or at least episodic, concept of changes in the recent geological past than was envisaged by Charles Lyell.

The great symbols of uniformitarianism were the marine borings in the Roman pillars of Serapeo (Serapis) at Pozzuoli near Naples. Charles Lyell used the pillars as the frontispiece of his great book Principles of Geology 1831, which was to have such a fundamental effect on geological thought in the last century. They also appear on the reverse side of the Lyell Medal of the Geological Society of London. The importance of these pillars was that they proved that changes in sea level had occurred in historic times. They were the proof, it might be said, that the present may be used as the key to the past. If sea level changes could occur so recently, then all the complex pattern of transgressions and regressions in the geological past could be explained by reference to what was seen happening today. They put an end, it was thought, to catastrophism and the doctrine of sudden, short-lived episodes in earth history, which was always associated with the thought of that great Frenchman Georges Cuvier. But the Lyell and Cuvier of standard text-books are cardboard figures, as Stephen Gould called them (1987), Cuvier is particularly maligned and blamed for all the later excesses of catastrophism. It

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