Amgueddfa Blog: Geology

On the 22nd June our new summer exhibition opened. This family friendly exhibition runs until September and delves into the captivating life of snakes, helping you to find out more about these extraordinary and misunderstood creatures. We are hoping to feature more detailed stories about all of the things mentioned below in a series of blogs running through July and August so keep tuning in to find out more.

Dr Rhys Jones at our opening launch event.

Snakes is a touring exhibition created by a company called Blue Tokay with added bonus content generated by our team. Work began on bringing together all of this way back in September 2018 and since then we have been busy researching, writing text and preparing some great specimens for you all to enjoy.

The main exhibition covers all aspects of the lives of snakes, so we focused our efforts on highlighting our collections at the museum. We hold over 3.5 million natural history specimens here, and as you can imagine, not everything is on display. We hold a small collection of 500 reptiles from all over the world. These are mostly preserved in alcohol and stored in jars, but we also have skeletons, skins and eggs. We chose 32 of our best snakes to go out on display. Each of these were carefully rehoused and conserved as many of the specimens were old and in need of work.

Some of the fantastic snake collections at the museum.

Our Conservation intern, Caitlin Jenkins, hard at work rehousing the snakes.

But it’s not just snakes in jars. We have also displayed some fantastic casts of 49 million years old fossil snakes, and 3D printed the vertebra of Titanoboa, the largest snake that ever lived.

Snake evolution case featuring casts of snake fossils.

One of my favourite features of the exhibit are our objects dealing with snake folklore and mythology, featuring a 13th century manuscript showing how snakes were used in medicinal remedies. Also some fantastic ‘snakestones’, actually fossil ammonites with snake heads carved on to the top.

Getting out the Snakestones from the collections.

You may also recognise the statue of Perseus that has long been displayed in our main hall. Perseus is enjoying his new surroundings, with Medusa’s snake ridden head looking positively sinister with the new lighting.

Perseus with the severed head of the serpent haired Medusa.

The exhibition features six live snakes and as I’m sure you can imagine, bringing live animals into a museum requires a LOT of preparation. We have done a great deal of work to ensure that their time with us is spent in 5 star accommodation. Their ‘vivaria’ are purpose built to ensure our snakes are well cared for, including warm and cool spots, as well as a water feature for a bathe. We have a fantastic (and very brave) set of staff who are volunteering their time to looking after them including changing water bowls, and clearing up their poo! Dr Rhys Jones (Cardiff University) has been fantastic with helping throughout this whole process, including coming in every week to feed them. The snakes are all provided by a company called Bugs n Stuff, you can see a video of them installing the live snakes here.

The largest of our live snakes, Prestwick, the Jungle Carpet Python.

Dr Rhys Jones with some of our staff at the live snake care team meeting.

Guy Tansley from Bugs N Stuff with Mela, the Boa constrictor.

Finally, our fantastic learning department, design team and technicians have worked hard to add some fun activities for all to enjoy. Our Spot the Snake pit features, amongst other things, two beautifully conserved models of a cobra and a rattlesnake that date back to 1903, and a real freeze-dried adder! We also have a snake expert quiz, a world map of snakes, and drawing and colouring stations. Volunteers will be in the gallery periodically across the summer with snake handling specimens including a real full length skin of an African Rock Python.

The exhibition runs till 15th September 2019, entry charges do apply, and all your contributions go towards bringing you even bigger and better exhibitions in the future. Please note that there is no live handling of the snakes within the exhibition, there will be a series of bookable handling sessions throughout the summer as well as a Venom themed Open Day in August. To find out more about all of this, go to our What's On page.

 

In recognition of this Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales will be running a series of monthly blogs, each one covering a different chemical element and its significance to Wales. Look out for these throughout the year on our website.

To start off our series of blogs, for January we have silver.

Silver (chemical symbol – Ag), atomic number 47, is one of the original seven metals of alchemy and was represented by the symbol of a crescent moon. Silver is a precious metal, but it has never been as valuable as gold.

In Wales, silver has played an important role in the history of Wales, but this is often forgotten. In the northernmost part of Ceredigion (the old county of Cardiganshire) near to the village of Goginan lie a number of disused mines which were some of the richest silver producers in the history of the British Isles. The Romans almost certainly had a part to play in the discovery of the metal-rich mineral veins, but it was Queen Elizabeth I who oversaw their development as silver mines.

It is reported that the first rich discovery of silver was made at Cwmsymlog (sometimes written as Cum sum luck in historical records) mine in 1583 by Thomas Smythe, Chief Customs Officer for the Port of London. It is much more likely that it was discovered by Ulrich Frosse, a German mining engineer experienced in silver mining who visited the mine at about the same time and advised Smythe. During the reign of Elizabeth I it is estimated that 4 tons of silver was produced from the Cardiganshire mines.

King James I and King Charles I both made handsome profits from the mines (producing 7 and 100 tons of silver respectively), so much so that in 1638 Charles I decided to establish a mint nearby at Aberystwyth Castle. Its success ultimately led to its destruction by Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War in 1646.

Amgueddfa Cymru holds examples of the many silver coins minted at Aberystwyth. Their characteristic feature is the three feathers on both sides of the coin. The addition of a small open book at the top signifies that the silver was produced by Thomas Bushell from the Cardiganshire mines on behalf of the Company of Mines Royal.

Maps and mine plans produced to market the silver mines to investors are some of the earliest to have been made in Britain. The Library at AC-NMW holds several versions of William Waller’s maps produced for the Company of Mine Adventurers in 1693 and 1704 as well as Sir John Pettus’ Fodinae Regales published in 1670.

One of the mines, Bwlch-yr-eskir-hir [Esgair Hir], was much hyped as the Welsh Potosi and from the silver was produced a silver ewer inscribed ‘The Mines of Bwlch-yr-Eskir-hir’, c.1692. The mine was, however, a failure. The quantity of silver produced never lived up to expectations, but this was more to do with the geology than mining methods. It is perhaps better known as the site involved in a legal case against the Crown’s control over precious metals. The case, brought by the landowner Sir Carbery Pryse in 1693, ended the tyranny of the Mines Royal.

Productive silver mining continued in north Cardiganshire, firstly, under the Company of Mine Adventurers and then through the Industrial Revolution by a number of private companies. Total silver production within this part of Wales exceeded 150 tons of silver metal.

Remarkably, it took until the 1980s for geologists to identify the mineral responsible for the high concentrations of silver in the small area of Wales. It is tetrahedrite – a copper, zinc, iron, antimony sulphide mineral - within which silver can replace some of the copper, zinc and iron. At Esgair Hir mine tetrahedrite has been recorded as containing up to 18 wt. % silver. Important ore specimens used during the identification of this mineral are preserved in our geological collections at the Museum.

Naturally occurring silver metal – known as native silver – does not occur in visible concentrations in any of the Welsh mines, but the Museum holds some of the world’s finest examples in its mineral collection. The specimens, from the Kongsberg mine in Norway, are exceptional in their quality and were acquired during the 1980s as part of the R. J. King collection.

 

Hope that you have been following our Natural Science #MuseumAdvent Calendar

Our curators and scientists in the Natural Science Department at National Museum Cardiff have been choosing their favourite objects from the collections, to place behind the doors of our very own museum advent calendar. As it is Christmas Eve, all of the doors are now open and we wanted to share with you all of the wonderful 24 objects chosen, and the staff who have helped created it. 

Why not have a look back through all of the doors and find out about these amazing objects and specimens within Amgueddfa Cymru collections.

Nadolig Llawen a blwyddyn newydd dda oddi wrth @CardiffCurator
 
Merry Christmas and a happy new year from @CardiffCurator

We are busy preparing our Natural History #MuseumAdvent calendar and we couldn't resist sharing with you a sneak preview! This year the backdrop for the calendar is a snowy National Museum Cardiff. Each of our 24 natural science curators and scientists have selected one of their favourite objects from the collections to showcase each day. The advent calendar will feature on the @CardiffCurator Twitter account, so why not tune in each day and see what natural science specimen or object is behind each door. The calendar will feature plants, insects, sea worms, shells, fossils, minerals, seaweed and diatoms to name but a few. Once we have opened all of the doors, we will reveal the curators behind the favourite objects.

Lava medallions and coins in lava from Mount Vesuvius, Italy

The National Museum Wales Petrology (Rock) collection comprises 35,000 specimens, with many interesting rock samples from across Wales and the wider World. In the drawers of the Italian collection, alongside the pumice, volcanic ash and obsidian are these curious rocks.

NMW GR.206 - Lava medallion with stamp of unknown figurehead, Vesuvius, 1871. (front)

They are called lava medallions or tablets, and along with coins embedded in lava they were probably first produced in the mid-18th Century when the ‘Grand Tour’ become fasionable among the wealthy elite of Europe.  Taking in European cities like Paris, Rome, Venice, Florence and Naples, the ‘students’ would travel with a tutor on a Grand Tour to learn about languages, geography, culture, art and architecture. When passing through Naples, the volcano of Mount Vesuvius (Vesuvio) became a must see stop on the tour. Forget postcards, fridge magnets and selfies, the take home souvenir of the day was the lava medallion!

People have long been fascinated by destructive power of Mount Vesuvius, the volcano had lain dormant for centuries before the famous eruption in 79 A.D. when the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed. Over the last two thousand years, the volcano has erupted many times. Between eruptions, Vesuvius can lie almost dormant for long periods of time before erupting violently once again. Volcanoes the world over that erupt in this explosive style after long periods of dormancy are known as Vesuvian eruption volcanoes.

To make a lava medallion, molten lava would have been retrieved (by some very brave individual with a long stick!) from a recent lava flow or lava close enough to the surface that was accessible and still hot enough to be malleable. It was then moulded, pressed with a stamp, or embedded with a coin, cooled in a bucket of water and sold to a passing grand tourist.

The French Revolution in 1789 marked then end of Grand Tours as they were known, but with the advent of the railways in the early 19th Century and the beginnings of mass tourism, these distinct souvenirs once again became popular take-home keepsakes, and they were produced in their thousands.

Over the years many of these medallions and lava coins have found their way into museum collections across the world. They often depict kings, Roman Emperors, famous scientists or events. All of the medallions and coins in the AC NMW collection date from the 19th Century, and originate from Mount Vesuvius, but examples in other collections have originated from Mount Etna, Sicily.

If you would like to know more about lava medallions, please contact Andrew Haycock via:

https://museum.wales/staff/665/Andrew-Haycock/


NMW GR.206 – Lava medallion with stamp detailing date and place of collection, Vesuvius, 1871. (back)

NMW 15.133.GR.1 - Vesuvius, 1834. ‘note with specimen 'medallion struck in lava when it was in a hot and pasty condition’ (front)

NMW 15.133.GR.1 - Vesuvius, 1834. Note with specimen 'medallion struck in lava when it was in a hot and pasty condition’.

NMW 15.277.GR.6 – Lava with embedded coin (Victor Emmanuel II), Vesuvius. (1860s?)

NMW 15.277.GR.3 – Stamped tablet with [S]ALVATOR MADONNA one side and 1844 on other. (front)

NMW 15.277.GR.3 – Stamped tablet with [S]ALVATOR MADONNA one side and 1844 on other. (back)

NMW 24.113.GR.6 – Lava with image of Galileo, Vesuvius, 1879. (front)

NMW 24.113.GR.6 – Lava with image of Galileo, Vesuvius, 1879. (back)

NMW 15.133.GR3 – Lava with embedded coin (corroded), Vesuvius.