Amgueddfa Blog

No one fails to be impressed by the imposing stone building that is the Oakdale Institute.  It was built in 1917, with a loan from the Tredegar Iron and Coal Company and which the miners repaid over the following years.  There were no philanthropic Quaker businessmen, like Joseph Rowntree in York and George Cadbury in Bournville, to fund facilities for workers in South Wales.

As volunteers we explain the importance of the actual building but we wish it to be remembered as it was, a cultural centre for the mining community where they educated themselves and enjoyed social activities on a regular basis. We welcome visitors and over the past year have had people from many countries come in to the building from as far away as New Zealand and America.

We have had classes of school children with interesting questions and have endeavoured to bring the institute to life for them and, through stories and laughter, show them how the building was the centre of the community.

On the upper floor of the Institute is a large function room, with a sprung dance floor. One visitor we met used to live in Oakdale and recalled the room full and the floor shaking as he and his friends danced along to a live performance by Shakin’ Stevens - himself a Welshman, from Ely, Cardiff.  The function room also houses a pianola, usually an object of curiosity to visitors. However, one visitor recounted how his family used to own a pianola at home, when he was a child.  He and his brothers and sisters all contracted scarlet fever, a dangerous illness in the days before antibiotics.  Fortunately they all survived but his parents threw the pianola and all the music rolls onto a bonfire, in case they remained sources of infection!  The pianola can also be played, of course, as a piano and a visiting French student treated us to a Chopin étude.  On another occasion, as the pianola played a dance tune, a couple of visitors spontaneously waltzed around the floor.

Downstairs the miners originally used the reading room, in their precious off duty time, to read newspapers and play card games and dominoes.  Today there is a selection of games for children, instead, to play, although mums and dads not infrequently join in. Children wander in, with their parents telling them anxiously not to touch anything.  Their reaction when they are told to choose a game is always heartwarming.  We sometimes have opportunity to play the games with the children (they invariably win) and often have to explain the rules of forgotten board games to kids who are more familiar with Fortnite than draughts.  It is a two way process, however and some have taught us new card games, such as Trash, which was most entertaining.  The old fashioned games of snakes and ladders, Ludo, dominoes, draughts and magnetic fishing pool are still enjoyed, though.  It is great, in school holiday times, to see a table full of children engrossed in winning their chosen game.

We’re looking forward to an end to the terrible coronavirus illness which is plaguing the world at this time.  Oakdale survived Spanish Flu, to flourish again and we look forward to it being able to entertain visitors once again in the future.

In 2016 I received a phone call from Nichola Thomas. She had a son, Rhys, who would love to volunteer at the museum. He was seventeen and in college part-time and he was autistic.

We decided to meet Rhys and Nichola to find out what his interests were and how he could help out in the museum.

Rhys was quite shy at first and didn’t say much, but took everything in. We worked out a plan that he could come for two hours every Wednesday from eleven o’clock until one o’clock. Rhys would help me with a ‘handling object’ table and we would encourage visitors to hold objects from the 1950s, 60s and 70s and talk about their memories or just learn about the objects. Things like ‘Green Shield Stamps’, cigarette coupons, old electrical items and old tools.

Now, most of the staff at the museum had little or no understanding of autism. One lady, Suzanne, has an autistic son and she could explain things like how to interact with Rhys. We all felt we should be better informed, so all the staff were offered ‘autism awareness’ training. I think everybody signed up.

The training really opened our eyes to the world of autism. One huge point that came out of the training was that many organisations have a ‘chill-out’ space. This is for anyone who is feeling anxious or stressed or just needs to get away from the hustle and bustle. We decided we needed something like this at the museum.

National Waterfront Museum Volunteer Rhys Thomas in one of the Museum's electric vehicle exhibits 

By now Rhys had really started to enjoy his time at ‘work’. Everybody noticed a real transformation as he became more outgoing and less shy and regularly starting conversations with complete strangers. We asked Rhys to help us with the design of the ‘Chill-out’ Room. He came into his own, making great recommendations and also being our spokesperson about what we were trying to achieve. He even made a number of radio appearances on the Wynne Evans show.

Rhys became such a favourite on the show that he invited  Wynne to come and officially open our ‘Chill-out’ room.

Rhys is full-time in college now so can only volunteer at the museum during holidays. We always love to see him and he really adds something to our team. Our ‘chill-out’ room is a total success and is used daily.

In July 2108 the first Intergenerational Group was held at Big Pit. The aim of the group is to bring old and young together, to break down the barriers which exist between generations, whilst also supporting members of the community who may be experiencing or living with dementia.

Each monthly group has a different theme, and people from all ages come together to share their experiences and memories, to sometimes learn something new, to visit a new place or just for a cup of tea and a natter.

We have a number of old and young volunteers, including some who are living with dementia.

The couple you see here are Gavin and Kim. Gavin is a younger person with dementia who has recently come on board as an operational volunteer for the group, and who has also led group art activities.

 From the early sessions, a noticeable improvement in people’s confidence has been observed, and willingness to share skills, ideas and information has grown week upon week. Many friendships which span generations have been made, with people arranging to take part in social activity outside group sessions.

If you would like to join the group as a volunteer, or would like more information about the group, please contact the Volunteering Department

In partnership with Blaenavon Town Council, supported by Blaenavon Hwb Youth Setting and Western Power Distribution.

Here are some quotes and feedback from members and their family:

“[My Mother] has been telling me all about it and I got the impression she had a great afternoon…she was really pleased with her drawings depicting the pit…she’s done more drawing the last couple of days than I’ve seen her do for years! She loves meeting up with people she knows too for a good chat”

Feedback from the daughter of a participant of the Blaenavon Intergenerational Group. The lady has recently suffered a stroke which has affected her eyesight so she has lost some of her independence.

“I always love coming to the group. You always make us feel special, and being with the children is lovely. They give you a different outlook. You can feel lonely in the home, even with lots of people around you. I can’t thank you all enough”

Resident of care home. Regular attendee of the Blaenavon Intergenerational Group.

News of a very special new fossil from north Wales was recently published in the scientific journal Royal Society Open ScienceI was lucky enough to be involved in the study of the fossil, which was led by Dr Stephen Pates of Harvard University and also included two Museum Honorary Research Fellows, Dr Joe Botting and Dr Lucy Muir.  Joe and Lucy found the fossil back in 2012, during fieldwork funded by the National Geographic Society, and donated it to the Museum along with other fascinating fossils from the same site, including various sponges and worms.  The fossil was not looked at in any detail until Stephen visited the Museum last year to research other fossils from our collections.  His experience told him that it looked like something unusual, so we decided to investigate further.  We studied it under the microscope and took detailed photographs, which were then compared with fossils from other places.  It turned out to be not only an animal previously unknown to science, but the first of its kind ever to be found in the UK, and probably the smallest known example of its kind.

The stream section near Arenig Fawr in north Wales where the new fossil was found.

Where is the fossil from?

The fossil was found in a block of rock collected from a stream section close to the Arenig Fawr mountain, near Bala in north Wales.  You can see a video of Joe collecting fossils at the site here.  It comes from the Dol-cy-Afon Formation, rocks that were laid down in the sea around 480 million years ago. What we think of as Wales today, was at that time part of a continent called Avalonia, which was located in the southern hemisphereThe animal was fossilised inside a large burrow, along with remains of other small creatures.  We don't know if it was intentionally brought in by the burrow's owner (as a meal perhaps), or if its remains just happened to be present in mud that was pulled in during burrowing. 


What kind of fossil is it?

The new fossil radiodont 'claw'.

The fossil is tiny, less than 2mm long.  It looks a bit like a comb, with long, thin spines coming off a chunkier shaft.  It is actually only part of an animal, a 'claw' used by a creature called a radiodont for feeding with.  Radiodonts are relatives of modern-day arthropods such as crabs, insects, spiders and scorpions - segmented animals with hard skins.  They were unusual in lacking the jointed legs that their distant cousins scuttle around on.  Instead, they had a row of overlapping flaps along the sides of their segmented body, used for swimming rapidly through the ocean.  They had large eyes on the end of stalks, one of the features that equipped them to be the earliest known group of large predators to exist on Earth.  The new Welsh fossil represents one of a pair of large segmented, spiny claws, which these animals had at the front of their head for capturing food.

Radiodont means 'wheel spoke tooth', a name that reflects their circular mouth, which had a ring of hard, sharp-edged plates that looks a bit like a pineapple ring with razor-sharp teeth.  The most famous member of the group is Anomalocaris, first found in Canada's Burgess Shale and thought to have been top predator in the seas over 500 million years ago.  If Jaws had been made about the Cambrian Period when it lived, the film might have been called Claws and Anomalocaris would've been the reason not to go back in the water.  It is thought to have spied its prey using its large eyes, swooped down and grabbed it with its spiny claws, and then crushed it between the hard plates of its circular mouth.  

But while Anomalocaris was a giant for its time, one of the largest animals in existence 500 million years ago at up to half a metre in length, the new Welsh animal was tiny.  The whole creature is estimated to have been only around a centimetre long.  That makes it the smallest radiodont fossil ever found.  We can't tell if it was a fully-grown adult or not, because, as far as we know, juvenile radiodonts looked like their parents.


What did it look like and how did it feed?

Reconstruction of Hurdia victoria, a close relative of the new Welsh radiodont from Canada.  White arrow points to the 'claws', equivalent to the Welsh fossil.  Credit: image adapted from original by Apokryltaros, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Not all radiodonts were predators like Anomalocaris. Features of their 'claws' provide evidence about how they likely lived.  Some had tiny secondary spines coming off the long main spines, creating a network of fine combs that they used for sifting food particles out of mud at the bottom of the sea, or for filtering them out of the water.  The Welsh fossil 'claw' has a small number of these secondary spines on it, and it may originally have had these along the full length of the main spines.  In any case, its main spines are very close together, which suggests that it was either using them as filters to trap small food particles, or was using them to actively pick up very small items of food. 

Although we have only found the fossilised 'claw' of this animal, the bodies of other known radiodonts are all fairly similar, so we can make a good educated guess as to what the rest of it probably looked like.  It is likely to have looked similar to one of its closest known relatives, Hurdia, which is known from North America and the Czech Republic.  The head was likely covered in a tough carapace with stalked eyes, a mouth underneath consisting of a circle of tooth plates, and the pair of claws attached in front of the mouth to capture and shovel in its food.  The segmented body likely narrowed backwards, and had an overlapping row of flaps along its sides for swimming, with gills along its back for breathing.  Almost all radiodonts, like the Welsh animal, would have been good swimmers, perhaps spending much of their time skimming along just above the sea bed in search of food.  Intriguingly, this tiny Welsh animal is a very similar age to the largest radiodont ever discovered, its relative Aegirocassis from Morocco, which reached two metres in length.  By 480 million years ago, radiodonts had clearly adapted to life at both ends of the size scale.

The radiodont shared its home with a huge variety of different sponges.  There were also various kinds of worms around, trilobites, shellfish including brachiopods and primitive molluscs, and primitive relatives of starfish.


What can I do if I find an unusual-looking fossil?

Reconstruction of Aegirocassis benmoulai, the largest radiodont ever discovered.  It lived in Morocco at around the same time as its relative, the new Welsh radiodont.  White arrow points to the 'claws', equivalent to the Welsh fossil

Credit: image adapted from original by Nobu Tamura, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

As this fossil shows, there are still lots of exciting new things to discover in Wales.  If you find something that looks interesting and you're not sure what it is, our Museum scientists would be happy to try to identify it for you, whether it's a fossil, rock, mineral, animal or plant.  Just send us a photo (with a coin or ruler included for scale) with details of where you found it.  You can contact us via our website or on Twitter: @CardiffCurator

“Codi i’r Wyneb - Brought to the Surface” is a project on freshwater snails led by the Museum’s Department of Natural Sciences, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. For more information on the project I recommend reading; Shells at the Surface of “Brought to the Surface” (January, 2019) and “Brought to the Surface” Now in Full Flow (June, 2019). 

Ben and I have been busy since the last blog entry in June 2019! We took our project on tour, visiting a variety of different public events, training workshops and conferences. As a result, we have had the pleasure of engaging with a bunch of interesting people. 1,263 people to be exact! This has included professional consultants, scientific researchers, amateur naturalists, keen gardeners and more! We would like to thank you all so much! Your commentary and feedback has supported us on our way to producing an identification guide for environmentalists of all ages and backgrounds.

Snail Safari was one of our favourite public events of the last year. The bilingual educational workshop was designed for children aged 8-11 and was held at St Fagans National Museum of History. The purpose of the event, which consisted of two separate sessions, was to simulate and promote the type of work that we, as taxonomists, carry out at the museum.

For the introductory session we led the group on a safari to survey the ponds and lakes in the gardens at St Fagans. With nets and buckets the children collected freshwater snails to examine back at the classroom where, many of them were given a chance to use a microscope for the first time! The Gweithdy carpentry workshop served as an excellent impromptu laboratory with plenty of space for the group to lay out trays of pond water for sifting. The session ended with a lively competition to find the biggest and/or fastest snail. The enthusiasm displayed by the group impressed us so much, that we decided to kick it up a notch for the second session.

Inspired by Guess Who, Guess Whorl is a competitive card game in which players take turns asking questions about identifying features. The goal is to deduce the identity of a mystery freshwater snail species using the process of elimination, with questions such as, “Does your snail have a pointy shell?” or “Does the shell have stripes?”. The indoor Snail Safari session consisted of an exciting tournament to award the best taxonomist and Guess Whorl player in the group. Driven by the competitive element, the children became fascinated by our card game and the variety of different snail shells illustrated on the cards. With 17 species to guess from and 9 different identifying features, Guess Whorl kept us occupied for an entire afternoon!

By the end of the session, the group had learned about the differences between types of British pond snails and how to deduce and describe those differences in the same way as a taxonomist might. With some nets and buckets, a few laminated cards, and a bit of ‘thinking outside the box’ we delivered our favourite workshop yet.

Guess Whorl can now be used as a useful teaching tool for a variety of future public engagement events. With some adjustments, we think that the card game could be used for training purposes in identification courses for professionals as well as beginners!

We would like to thank Ian Daniel from St Fagans for his enthusiastic approach and brilliant improvisational skills. Thank you to the children from Ysgol Plasmawr, Ysgol Bro Edern, Ysgol Glantaf, and year 7,8 and 9 ladder group and platform group from Cardiff West Community High School, for taking part in our Snail Safari.