January 18, 1823 (a Saturday)

William Buckland

William Buckland

William Buckland, Professor of Geology at Oxford University and an ordained priest in the Church of England, had been contacted by the Talbot family of Penrice Castle on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales, England, who had reported finding “bones of elephants” on 27 December 1822. Descending into Paviland Cave (or Goat’s Hole Cave) on today’s date, Buckland discovered one of the best-known prehistoric burials in Britain – the notoriously misnamed “Red Lady of Paviland.”

In the field, Buckland had identified the skeleton as male, suggesting that the bones were those of a Customs Officer murdered by smugglers. By the time of publication later that year, however, the gender and age of the skeleton had changed with a new and better, but still erroneous, story.

Found at Paviland

Buckland, a devout Christian, believed no human remains could have been older than the Biblical Great Flood, and thus wildly underestimated its true age, believing the remains to date back to the Roman era. He believed the skeleton was female in large part because it was discovered with decorative items, including perforated seashell necklaces and ivory jewelry. These decorative items combined with the skeleton’s red dye caused Buckland to mistakenly speculate that the remains belonged to a Roman prostitute or witch. He later wrote in his book Reliquiae Diluvianae (Evidence of the Flood):

[I found the skeleton] enveloped by a coating of a kind of ruddle…which stained the earth, and in some parts extended itself to the distance of about half an inch [12mm] around the surface of the bones… Close to that part of the thigh bone where the pocket is usually worn surrounded also by ruddle [were] about two handfuls of the Nerita littoralis [periwinkle shells]. At another part of the skeleton, viz in contact with the ribs [were] forty or fifty fragments of ivory rods…[also]…some small fragments of rings made of the same ivory and found with the rods… Both rods and rings, as well as the Nerite shells, were stained superficially with red, and lay in the same red substance that enveloped the bones.

The “lady” has since been identified as a man, probably no older than 21, who lived about 26,000 years ago (26,350 ± 550 BP). It remains the first human fossil found and identified soon after its discovery and the oldest anatomically modern human remains found in the United Kingdom.

Buckland is also famous for being the first person to discover, name, and scientifically describe a fossilized creature that came to be recognized as what Richard Owen was to call a dinosaur. Buckland’s name for the animal was Megalosaurus, Greek for “great lizard”. Though he was not the first person to find a Megalosaurus bone (Robert Plot discovered a fossilized femur of one as far back as 1676), Buckland was the first to realize that these fossils belonged to an unknown class of huge reptiles. According to his calculations, the animal must have exceeded forty feet in length and weighed as much as a large elephant. Some people think his 1824 paper to the Geological Society of London (“Notice on the Megalosaurus or Great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield”) inaugurated the modern study of dinosaurs.

Buckland’s interest in dinosaur remains included more than bones. He also carried out a large amount of research into fossilized dinosaur feces. At a meeting of the Geological Society of London on 6 February 1829, Buckland described them and introduced the term coprolites (from the Greek words “kopros”, meaning dung, and “lithos”, meaning stone). His paper, “On the Discovery of Coprolites, or Fossil Faeces, in the Lias at Lyme Regis”, states that they have “undergone no process of rolling, but retain their natural form, as if they had fallen from the animal into soft mud, and there been preserved,” later comparing them to “oblong pebbles or kidney-potatoes.”

William Buckland Fossil Faeces (Coprolites).

William Buckland Fossil Faeces (Coprolites).

Interestingly, Buckland was very eccentric. He caused such a stir with his explicit lectures on the mating habits of reptiles that The Times of London felt he should restrain his enthusiasm “in the presence of ladies”. He always wore his academic gown when out digging for fossils. The hallway of his Oxford home was lined with the skulls of animals. Monkeys, a bear (in a mortarboard) and a hyena, amongst other animals, had the run of the house (the hyena ate the family’s guinea pig).

But strangest of all was Buckland’s diet. He was a committed zoophagist — an eater of animals. All animals. In Buckland’s opinion, the Creator had placed the creatures of the world at Man’s service, to feed and clothe him and to be his companions, and it was Man’s duty to eat the rich bounty of foods provided by the Almighty for his sustenance. And eat them he did — from elephant trunk soup, panther chops, horse tongue, porpoise head, crispy mice in batter, kangaroo ham, and eland steaks to accidentally grilled giraffe (there had been a fire at the London Zoo). He found the taste of mole to be the worst, until he tasted bluebottles.

Once, while touring a church, the local vicar showed him “martyr’s blood” dripping from the rafters — Buckland dropped to his knees and began to lap at the miraculous liquid, which was, he announced between laps, bats’ urine. On a visit to Nuneham House, he was shown a silver casket holding what was reputed to be the heart of King Louis XIV of France. Before anyone could stop him, Buckland announced, “I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before,” before snatching it up and swallowing it.

Buckland’s eccentricities earned him a famous description by Charles Darwin, who wrote: “though very good-humoured and good-natured [he] seemed to me a vulgar and almost coarse man. He was incited more by a craving for notoriety, which sometimes made him act like a buffoon, than by a love of science.”

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