Notable Local Geologists: William Buckland
William Buckland (1784–1856)
Megalosaurus, Jurassic mammals and coprolite
William Buckland is perhaps best known for his description in 1824 of the dinosaur Megalosaurus whose fossilised bones had been found in Jurassic deposits in Stonesfield Quarry near Oxford. He also developed the study of fossil faeces, for which he coined the name ‘coprolite’, to aid the reconstruction of ancient ecosystems.
Buckland was also at pains to reconcile the scriptural account of creation with continuing geological discoveries that suggested the Earth was very much older and he became a proponent of the ‘Gap Theory’ which interpreted the biblical account of Genesis as referring to two separate episodes of creation.
As a child, Buckland accompanied his father on walks around Axmister, Devon, collecting fossils from the Jurassic rocks exposed in local quarries. Whilst studying for the Christian ministry at the University of Oxford he also attended lectures on mineralogy and chemistry. Later, in 1813, he was appointed Reader in Mineralogy and in 1818 became the first holder of a new Readership in Geology.
"Geology holds the keys of one of the kingdoms of nature; and it cannot be said that a science which extends our Knowledge, and by consequence our Power, over a third part of nature, holds a low place among intellectual employments."
William Buckland (1820)
Megalosaurus, a genus of carnivorous theropod dinosaur, dates from about 166 million years ago. The only certain remains of Megalosaurus bucklandii come from the late Middle Jurassic of Oxfordshire. The earliest fossils of the genus came from the Taynton Limestone Formation in Stonesfield Quarry. One of these was the lower part of a femur, discovered in the 17th century. It was originally described by Robert Plot as a thigh bone of a Roman war elephant, and then as a biblical giant. The earliest name for it was Scrotum humanum, created by Richard Brookes in 1763 as a caption for an illustration.
In 1815, more bones of giant tetrapods were found at the Stonesfield Quarry. The bones were apparently acquired by Buckland, together with a lower jaw bone. In 1818, the French comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier visited Buckland and realised that the bones were those of a giant lizard-like creature. Buckland further studied the remains with William Conybeare who in 1821 referred to them as the ’Huge Lizard’ – ‘Megalosaurus’ and the name was informally made public in 1822.
Buckland continued to work on the bones during 1823, and his future wife, Mary Morland made drawings. Finally, on 20 February 1824, during a meeting of the Geological Society of London in which Conybeare described a very complete specimen of Plesiosaurus, Buckland formally announced Megalosaurus. The name and a description of the bones were published in the ‘Transactions of the Geological Society’ (1824) under the title: ‘Notice on the Megalosaurus or Great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield’, the first genus of dinosaur to be validly named. The type species, Megalosaurus bucklandii, was named by Gideon Mantell in 1827. In 1842, Megalosaurus was one of three genera on which Richard Owen based his clade ‘Dinosauria’. Although many other species were subsequently classified under the genus Megalosaurus, it is now recognised that M. bucklandii is the only species. The bones which Buckland studied are displayed in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
The Dorset fossil hunter, Mary Anning, had observed stony objects, known as ‘bezoar stones’, in the abdominal regions of ichthyosaur skeletons from the Blue Lias Formation at Lyme Regis. When broken, the stones were found to contain fossilised fish bones and scales and bones from small ichthyosaurs. These observations led Buckland to propose that the stones were fossilised faeces. He also concluded that the spiral markings on the fossils indicated that ichthyosaurs had spiral ridges in their intestines, like modern sharks, and that some of the coprolites were black because the
ichthyosaur had ingested ink sacs from belemnites. His descriptions of the Liassic food chain inspired Henry De la Beche to paint ‘Duria Antiquior’
"No conclusion is more fully established, than the important fact of the total absence of any vestiges of the human species throughout the entire series of geological formations."
William Buckland (1836)
In 1823 Buckland discovered in Paviland Cave in South Wales, amongst the bones of extinct mammals including mammoth, a skeleton which he named the ‘Red Lady of Paviland’, the oldest anatomically modern human found in Britain. The skeleton, now known to be male, has been dated to c. 33 000 years BP.
In 1818 Buckland‘s inaugural address as Reader in Geology included a justification of the ‘new’ science of geology and also some reconciliation of geological evidence with the biblical accounts of creation and Noah's Flood. The address was published as ‘Vindiciae Geologiae; or the Connexion of Geology with Religion Explained’. Buckland developed the hypothesis that the word ‘beginning’ in the Book of Genesis referred to a period between the origin of the Earth and the creation of its current inhabitants, during which a long series of extinctions and creations of new species had occurred. His form of the ‘Catastrophism’ theory thus incorporated ‘Gap Creationism’. At this time James Hutton's contrasting theories of infinitely repeating cycles of erosion and sedimentation, implying the vastness of geological time in which there is ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’, were becoming more influential.
At Kirkdale Cave, Yorkshire, Buckland had found fossilised bones of hyenas and the animals they had eaten. He believed that the thin layer of mud covering the remains had been deposited after the Flood in the subsequent 'Universal Deluge' but later changed his mind. In his famous ‘Bridgewater Treatise’, published in 1836, Buckland acknowledged that the Biblical account of Noah's Flood could not be confirmed by geological evidence.
By 1840 Buckland was promoting the view that what had previously been interpreted as evidence of the 'Universal Deluge' was in fact evidence of a major glaciation. Buckland had become interested in the theory of Swiss-born geologist, Louis Agassiz that polished and striated rocks, as well as transported material, were the work of ancient glaciers. He travelled to Switzerland to meet Agassiz and see the evidence for himself. He was there reminded of what he had seen in Britain but had previously attributed to the Flood. In 1840, he and Agassiz went on a tour of Scotland and found more evidence of glaciation. Despite hostile reactions to his presentation of the theory at the Geological Society, Buckland was satisfied that glaciation had been the origin of much of the surface deposits covering Britain.