Tuesday, 26 January 2016

What do I do all day? (Tuesday)

My week of blogs continues...

A 9am start, meeting the curator of the University of Bristol collections in the stunning Will's Memorial Building. He leads me into the hidden rooms behind the grand hall, where the thick walls shroud the wooden drawers in total silence. We find the specimens and take them to an empty room where I can set up my gear for a day of research.

Specimen drawer to the left of me, microscope to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with Borealestes. (Apologies
for the finger in the bottom corner, I hadn't had my coffee yet.)

Hopefully no-one could hear me gasping and squeeking with delight as I placed each specimen under the microscope and opened up a tiny world of 166 million year old anatomy. In my notebook, I record the details of the specimen, and notes on what I see.

After an hour of microscope hunching, I take a break to meet up with the wonderful Pam Gill for a coffee. It's always great to meet up with other researchers and share news and information, and Pam is not only one of the leading experts in Mesozoic mammals (especially the Welsh fissure fills) but is an all-round lovely person. We discuss our current projects, take a look at the specimens together, and make plans for future collaborations and project ideas.

In the afternoon I photograph the specimens of greatest importance to my research. This is no easy task: the bones and teeth and very small, so getting enough light - even with my specialist ring flash kit - is tricky and time consuming.
Drawer of specimens - it takes more time than you think to look at all of these teeth and bones.

The holotype specimen of Borealestes serendipitus, the docodont species my research is centered on.

The rest of my day is devoted to pouring through Robert Savage's notebooks, photographs and correspondance. I have a small desk in the hot stuffy basement, sandwiched between the rock-filled shelves. The bowels of the building humm and whirr around me, as I open each box and search through. Original journal manuscripts, field notebooks from Libya, Australia, Africa and Europe, photographs of specimens on thick photo paper, yellowed and crumpled along the edges. It smells amazing: like dry leaves and dusty hot summer afternoons. The sheer volume of correspondance is impressive. It's sad to think that in the age of emails and data storage such archives will be rendered obsolete.

The many drawers in the basement of the University, filled with fossils, rocks and other treasures of the earth.

Boxes of Savage's notes, papers, correspondence and photographs.
One of the greatest things about rummaging around in collections is the random stuff you find. Today I discovered several mystery boxes, each one opening to reveal something unexpected. One of them was filled with shallow drawers of tooth cross sections, including a platypus. In another, test tubes with mammal inner ear bones. I also find a picture of Savage with an Irish Elk skull, found in Ireland in 1953.

What's in the box?


...cross sections of mammal teeth of course!

...including a platypus.

5.30pm, and I'm ready to call it a day. It's been productive, and I've had a good look at the most important specimens. But there's no rest for the wicked. Back in my room, I download the pictures from my camera and label them, and make further notes on what I've seen. Tomorrow I'll be back at it again, but until then...

Photograph of Savage inspecting the fossil of an Irish Elk, found at Lough Beg in 1953

Return tomorrow for the next blog!

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