Field Excursion to the Wealden Group (Early Cretaceous) of the Isle of Wight
2nd September 2000 - Leader: Dave Martill
The Lower Cretaceous Wealden Group rocks of the southeast and southwest coasts of the Isle of Wight are of international importance for the abundance, diversity and high quality of preservation of dinosaur fossils. No other site in Europe yields dinosaurs in such profusion, and because very few sites of similar age are known elsewhere in the world, the Isle of Wight fossils offer a unique window to life in and around the coastal swamps and lagoons of Europe approximately 120 million years ago. Although fishermen and beachcombers surely must have found dinosaur fossils on the beaches and while dredging for scallops in historic times, the first description of dinosaur bones from the Island was not written until 1829. The accolade of first person to describe an Isle of Wight dinosaur bone goes to Dean William Buckland, then at Oxford, who described some fragmentary remains of Iguanodon found on the beach at Yaverland on the southeast coast (Buckland 1829). Since that time hundreds of dinosaur fossils have been discovered and described. Many famous scientists visited the Isle of Wight during the Victorian Era, including even Charles Darwin, who apparently began writing The Origin of Species while holidaying at Sandown. It is not known if Darwin collected fossils while on the Island, or whether or not he met any of the fossil collectors living on the Island at the time. But many other eminent scientists did.
Today, experts in geology and palaeontology continue to explore the Island for its ancient treasures. Oil companies use the Island's cliffs to familiarise their geologists with rocks unseen deep below the-English Channel and Western approaches where recent offshore exploration has discovered oil reserves deserved of further exploration. The Geology of the Isle of Wight clearly has an important role to play in our national natural, cultural and economic activities.
THE EARLY SCIENTIFIC PERIOD
Dean William Buckland (b. 1784, d. 1856)
Considered by many historians to have been one of the Great British eccentrics, William Buckland was of sound mind, a great thinker and certainly not too eccentric, for he later became Dean of Westminster Abbey. His eccentricity is in part attributed to his keeping of wild animals such as bears and jackals.... in his house! But he was also one of the earliest of a long list of eminent clergy who studied natural history and geology in a scientific fashion. Perhaps it was this activity that was considered eccentric in the earliest part of the 19th century! Buckland was one of the founders of modern vertebrate palaeontology and a major scientific achievement attributable to him is that he was first to name and scientifically describe a dinosaur, Megalosaurus, in 1824, beating Gideon Mantell by just one year (Searjeant 1997). It is worth noting here that Buckland did not invent the name Megalosaurus, this can be attributed to James Parkinson (1822). Besides being the first person to scientifically describe dinosaur remains (which came from Qxfordshire), Buckland also had a collection of dinosaur bones from Yaverland, near Sandown. These appear to have been collected during the Summer of 1842 or 1843 in one group and filled five boxes (as recorded in a letter written by Buckland to a Mr Stowe of Buckingham in December 1843 and reproduced by Phillips (1871, p. 245)). These probably represent the first Isle of Wight dinosaur bones to have ended up in a scientific collection. Buckland described one of these bones, a large pedal phalange, in 1829, and thus became the first person to figure and describe a dinosaur bone form the Isle of Wight. Buckland was also in possession of a complete skeleton of Hypsilophodon from the Isle of Wight (one of a pair found together at Barnes High, the other went to Gideon Mantell). These specimens went undescribed because both Buckland and Mantell thought the skeletons were of young Iguanodon
Gideon Algernon Mantell (b. 1790, d. 1852)
Gideon Algernon Mantell was a physician and surgeon who lived in Lewes, East Sussex. His biggest claim to fame is as the discoverer and earliest scientific describer of the first ornithischian dinosaur to be found, a fossil he called Iguanodon. However, like Buckland, Mantell did not know his new animal as a dinosaur, for the term was not invented for another 16 years. A possibly apocryphal story suggests that it was his wife Mary Anne who, in 1822, found a large and highly unusual tooth in a stone pile during a protracted wait while Mantell attended to a patient. This story has subsequently been claimed to be nothing more than sentimental romanticism, and the truth is much more mundane (Dean 1999). However, (Lucas (1999) considers Dean's claim to be unconvincing, so there may be some truth in the story yet. Later, Mantell (1825) went on to describe this and other teeth, as well as numerous bones, obtained from strata in the Tilgate Forest of the Weald of Sussex and from around the village of Cuckfield. Had he described the tooth when it was first found he would have been credited with being the first person to describe and name a dinosaur. However, he was beaten by Dean William Buckland (see above) who described his Jurassic Megalosaurus from Oxfordshire just one year earlier (Buckland 1824).
Mantell wrote several books on geology and palaeontology, including Geological Excursions round the Isle of Wight and along the adjacent coast of Dorsetshire (Mantell 1854). He also wrote a number of scientific papers in which he described dinosaur remains from the Isle of Wight (e.g., Mantell 1846). He is remembered by scientists for having several Lower Cretaceous fossil species named after him including the fish Lepidotes mantelli and the dinosaur Iguanodon mantelli.