Did you know you live on an ancient desert?!

On Saturday I was in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter (RAMM) helping to run a specimen handling collection called ‘Local Finds’. It’s a great initiative that brings objects out from the collections of the Museum and makes them available to the public to handle and explore on their own terms, with someone who knows or loves the objects there to talk with the visitor about them. As a volunteer working with the specimens you can choose which mini-collection to work with; animal bones, hand axes (flint tools), seashore items, ceramics, or geology. I, obviously, chose the geology one – both because I know a bit about the specimens selected and I LOVE talking to people about geology (come on it’s awesome!)!!

Local Finds at RAMM

A selection of some of the objects you can handle at RAMM in Exeter.

There are a number of really interesting objects in the geology tray – a lump of cassiterite (a tin bearing mineral that miners in the southwest have searched for for hundreds of years), a piece of pre-victorian slag (or industrial waste – the remains of metal smelting) a bit of limestone with loads of fossils in it, a selection of fossilised shells and invertebrates, and a coprolite. Now for those of you who don’t know, a coprolite is fossilised poo. Additionally, as anyone who has ever talked to children about trace fossils (those fossils that are left behind by the creature, but not the actual remains of the creature – footprints, burrows, tooth marks etc) will know, a piece of fossilised poo is one of the most entertaining things to engage children with about geology and can really highlight how much the child (or adult) knows about fossils. For example, one of the people I spoke to was a little girl, about 8 or 9 years old, who homed in on the fossils on my table like a shark in the water! Picking up the coprolite she said:

Girl: What’s this?

Me: What do you think it is? (again – a science communicator’s favourite question – if in doubt ask this!!)

Girl: Is it a fossil?

Me: It is, what made you think that?

Girl: Um I dunno, it looks like a fossil.

{Interlude – a bit of dancing around what it looked like and what kind of fossil it might be eventually lead us to…}

Me: Well it’s not a normal fossil, clearly and it was found in Lyme Regis. Does that give you any clues, have you been there?

Girl: Oh, is it a coprolite?

{Mum looks over in amazement}

Me: That’s right!

Girl’s little sister: What is a coprolite?

Girl: It’s a fossil poo!!

{Mum looks even more amazed, whilst girls giggle over fossil poo and have a smell to see if it is still smelly, which they eventually decide it’s not, because ‘it’s really old and has become a rock’}

Me: So it’s a fossil poo, from what creature?

Girl: A pliosaur?

At this point the girls’ mother comes over and really gets involved with the interaction. We work out that because the coprolite has scales in it (probably from fish) and because of it’s size, it’s likely from an ichthyosaur rather than a pliosaur. The girls move off to speak to my colleague about some animal bones and I get chatting with the Mum. It turns out she comes from Torquay, near me, and she mentions how she doesn’t always know what to do with her girls’ interest in science – she doesn’t really feel confident in encouraging them and so is frequently surprised by how much they know. She gave the impression that she loves how much they obviously enjoy science, but doesn’t know how best to support them. Luckily Torquay is in the middle of a Geopark – a kind of area of celebration about geology, because it’s really fabulously interesting! Trust me.

The English Riviera Geopark

The Geopark has lots of aspects – this is a geo-themed playpark; where was this when I was a kid?! Jealous.

This lead to a discussion of some of the best things to see and do in Torquay if you are into geology, but also made me have a bigger idea. If you could share two geological ideas about your area with someone who is interested, but isn’t sure how to find more, what would they be? For me, Torbay (my immediate area) has two really big selling points. First our sand on the beach is red. Like¬† a bright ochery orange. I didn’t realise how strange this was as I’ve grown up with it, but some friends who visited me recently were amazed – red sand!

This for me was awesome geo-idea about Torbay number 1

Red sands of Torbay

The red sands of Torbay, ok it’s a sunny day which bleaches them out a bit, but you get the idea.

Torbay used to be a desert. A really big desert. And it was a desert for a long time – about 40 million years – from 290 million years ago to 248 million years ago! This for me is one of the great things about sedimentary rocks, you just think about where in the world, today, would you find materials like what the rock is made from and you have a good idea of the environment that existed when the rock started to form. So I was talking to this lady about geology in Torquay and we started talking about the red sand and where else in the world do you see red sand? The Sahara Desert! So by using the idea above, she got the idea that she was living on an ancient desert!

But one idea is not enough, the next idea followed on from this by moving from taking the familiar and realising something unfamiliar, to finding something familiar in a place you would never expect.

Awesome geo-idea about Torbay number 2….

Gold from Hope’s Nose ¬© Ian Jones

There’s gold in them there hills! Yes it’s true. Whilst most of Torbay is characterised by the Red Sandstone rocks deposited during the desert locked Permian Age, the very tip of Torquay headland is limestone, laid down in a warm shallow sea many years before in the Devonian Age (Devon-Devonian, right?). This part of Torbay is called Hope’s Nose. Now aside from a wealth of small fossils, shells, corals and the like, there are a lot of interesting minerals that can be found at Hope’s Nose. Some of these minerals are so unusual that the area has been legally protected and designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (so the motto if you want to visit is look but don’t touch any minerals you see). One of these unusual mineral is in fact, gold. A strange form of dendritic (meaning plant like) gold has been discovered, right here, in the English Riviera! Now let’s be realistic, it was a very small amount, but it existed – and surely thats exciting? I wonder how many school children in the bay know that one of the most sought after substances in the world may still lie in tiny amounts, right under their noses?! Not to mention brand new mineral discoveries like Chrisstanleyite!

So those are my two favourite ideas about Torbay, an area often shunned by geo-enthusiasts for her flashier coastal neighbour Lyme Regis, or more austere inland aunt Dartmoor, but fascinating to me.

What about you, does your local area have hidden geo-gems?


Paar et al (1998) A new mineral, chrisstanleyite, Ag2Pd3Se4, from Hope’s Nose, Torquay, Devon, England

Russell (1929) On the occurence of native gold at Hope’s Nose, Torquay, Devonshire

Stanley, Criddle and Lloyd (1990) Precious and base metal selenide mineralisation at Hope’s Nose, Torquay, Devon

Warrington and Scrivener (1990) The Permian of Devon, England