Amgueddfa Blog: Collections & Research

Mary Anning – pioneering fossil collector

Cindy Howells and Caroline Buttler, 2 March 2023

Mary Anning is remembered as an iconic woman from the early 19th Century. Despite her working-class origins, she made scientific discoveries that equalled any made by male geologists of the time.

Mary was born on 21st May 1799 in the little town of Lyme Regis, in Dorset. Her father was a carpenter who died when she was just 11 years old leaving the family with debts and no steady income. They had been supplementing their income by collecting and selling fossils to tourists for a number of years, and young Mary became extremely good at this. She had an excellent eye for spotting small portions of fossilized bone in rocks, and developed the skill of delicately extracting them using hammer and chisel. Her mother Molly took over the business of selling the fossils, and between them they developed a successful shop which attracted visiting tourists and scientists. It was hard work collecting fossils from the beach in all weathers, then taking them back to be cleaned up and sold. 

When Mary was 12, she and her brother Joseph found parts of a 5m long reptile skeleton. This was bought for the price of £23 (about 6 months wages for a labourer at the time). Up to this time, all large reptilian fossils found nearby were thought to be the remains of crocodiles, as no other large animals of this type were known. Mary’s specimen was studied by various scientists and formed the basis of work on a new type of marine reptile called an ichthyosaur (meaning fish-lizard).

Over the next few decades Mary found many new and unusual fossils, including the first plesiosaur, the first pterosaur (flying reptile) outside Germany, and several new fish. Her clever observation of what she was finding enabled her to interpret finds in new ways. No-one knew the origins of the common, twisted lumps of hard rock called bezoar stones, but Mary saw their close association to ichthyosaur skeletons and worked out that they must be the fossilized remains of their droppings – we now call them coprolites. Her fame spread widely and soon she was being visited and consulted by leading geologists.

Mary was a curious character who didn’t fit into any regular categories. She had only a few years of schooling in the local Sunday school yet was able to write well and express herself fluently. However, her class meant she was unable to mix socially with her intellectual equals. As a woman, she was totally barred from joining the Geological Society of London where she would have been able to share and discuss her scientific ideas. Also, although her name is mentioned in scientific papers, she was never included as one of the authors.

She was described as independent, confident, proud and opinionated, and her letters show she felt bitter about the circumstances of her life. Yet she could also be kind and generous and helped many local townspeople when she could. 

Visitors to Lyme have been able see Mary Anning’s gravestone and the stained-glass window dedicated to her memory in the church, but it was only in 2022 that a statue of her was unveiled. This was the culmination of a remarkable campaign started when nine-year old Evie Swire asked her mother Anya Pearson where there was a statute of Mary, only to be told there wasn’t one. This sparked the foundation of Mary Anning Rocks which crowdfunded over £100,000 to pay for a statue. Artist Denise Dutton was commissioned to create the sculpture which can now been seen at the sea front, depicting Mary striding purposefully toward the beach with her dog ready to make exciting new finds.

Rights and Rites; a new project to digitise and investigate botanical specimens from South Asia

Nathan Kitto and Heather Pardoe, 21 February 2023

Work has started on the UK Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded Rights and Rites, project, which explores, with community groups, plants and plant products originating in South Asia, primarily India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. 

The Amgueddfa Cymru biocultural collections (comprising approximately 5500 specimens), include a wide range of medicinal plants, notably plants important in traditional Ayurveda and Siddha medicinal systems, food products and raw materials. Specimens in the collection were originally donated by individuals and institutions, such as the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, and the Imperial Institute. The biocultural specimens, together with linked herbarium specimens and botanical illustrations are being explored in workshops involving curators and local community groups, with links to the places of origin of these specimens.

The aim of this collaboration is to combine the scientific knowledge of the curatorial and research staff with the expertise of local members of the Asian diaspora, to provide cultural context for specimens in the Museum’s collections. We aim to work together to increase knowledge of plant species used in traditional medicine, cuisine, ceremonies and culture. Through this collaboration, we are co-curating new interpretations for South Asian specimens, drawing on people’s lived-experience and cultural understanding of the specimens’ country of origin. The updated records on our collection databases have the scientific botanic information augmented with contextual information on medicinal and culinary properties.

This extends what we know about the collections, combining scientific details with information on traditional uses of the plant products. Access to specimens in the collection is being enhanced by digitising the South Asian specimens in the collection and also by producing 3D scans of the selection of specimens. Furthermore, we are researching the provenance of the botanical specimens concerned and creating new permanent records to include the new, co-created content.  We intend to make the economic botany collection more accessible to local communities, other institutions and scientists across the globe.

The project employs new scanning equipment, purchased using an AHRC grant, to scan specimens.  The scans will act as a catalyst to spark dialogue and knowledge-exchange about the Indian flora both between curators and the community and within the local diaspora community. 


Spices and herbs from South Asia

Hasminder Kaur Aulakh, 21 February 2023

Recently, curators from the Botany section have been working on an AHRC-funded project, Rights and Rites. The project aims to co-create new interpretations for South Asian specimens, drawing on people’s lived-experiences and cultural understanding of the specimens’ country of origin; to engage community groups of Asian heritage with relevant biocultural specimens; and to encourage dialogue and knowledge-exchange about the South Asian flora.

We have developed new partnerships with several members of the local Asian community through a series of interactive workshops.  These events provided a wonderful opportunity to share knowledge about the use of plant products in cooking and medicine, in traditional Asian cultures.  Here guest blogger, Hasminder Kaur Aulakh, shares her experience of using fennel, fenugreek and green cardamon at home.


Spices and herbs are staples of kitchens all over the world and their smell can invoke memories of home, family, events, and happy memories. These seeds, leaves, stems, and husks have a place in the heart, reminding us of our ancestors, homelands, and roots, and in the body by helping us cure and ease ailments. 


Saumph (Fennel)

Take the humble fennel, or Saumph as my Punjabi family refer to it, which can be found in South Asian households as dried seeds or in powdered form. Saumph is a key ingredient of the palate cleansing mix of seeds offered by many Indian restaurants to freshen one’s breath, and this mix is often kept in Indian homes for the residents and guests after meals. However, this seed also assists with digestion due to the high fibre content, which can come in handy after a large meal, and is said to calm the intestinal lining. Babies with colic are often fed saumph seeds in water. Chewing saumph is also linked to stabilising blood pressure and regulating heart rate.


The digestive benefits of saumph can be complemented with mooli, white radish in English, and saumph is a necessary ingredient in the making of mooli wala paronthe. Saumph is also a key ingredient in cha, Indian masala tea, and in Ayurveda steeping saumph is the most effective way of consuming the herb. 


Methi (Fenugreek)

Methi, known as fenugreek in English, is another staple of Indian households. This herb is useful as fresh and leaves and as seeds. Fresh methi leaves is to Indian cooking what fresh basil is to Italian cooking, and the widely popular Punjabi dish of butter chicken wouldn’t taste the same without a sprinkling of methi on top. As well as improving the taste of food methi contains saponins which can help reduce the absorption of cholesterol, improving the eater’s health. Methi is also a popular preservative for pickles. 


Methi has a place in home remedies as well, such as being made into a tea along with honey and lemon to help break fevers. Skin issues are also said to be helped by treating them with methi paste, such as eczema, burns and abscesses. Methi paste can also be used to treat an itchy scalp and dandruff and is used in cosmetic soaps for this purpose. Some believe methi to have antacid properties, and when ingested can reduce heartburn.


Elaichi (Green Cardamom)

Despite being considered a truly divisive herb, with some not being able to stand the taste and others who can happily eat a whole pod raw, elaichi nonetheless has a steadfast place in South Asian kitchen. From its use in savoury dishes such as biryani and bread to sweet treats like cha and sweets elaichi’s importance in South Asian cooking and baking cannot be denied. Elaichi’s form in a kitchen, much like its uses, are versatile and can be found in pod, seed, and/or powder form, and can be green or black. Green elaichi is the more commonly used in South Asia, but elaichi is used all over the world in its various forms.



Elaichi is thought to have antimicrobial properties, and has therefore been used herbal treatments against harmful bacteria. Much like the earlier discussed saumph, elaichi’s antimicrobial properties make it a top choice for use as a mouth freshener and it is thought that chewing on the pods can aid in the fight against oral bacteria that can cause problems such as infections and cavities in teeth. It is also thought to be a powerful anti-inflammatory, and consumption of the herb is said to aid with digestion and help avoid problems such as acid reflux and stomach cramping. The anti-inflammatory properties also lend itself to being helpful with relieving sore throats when steeped in hot water or tea.


And there we have it, the versatility of herbs and spices in South Asia. Whilst these do not replace strong antibiotics, vaccines, or painkillers, they can certainly help with minor conditions. The great smelling and tasting herbs and spices that create South Asian cuisine have such an important role to play in keeping our stomach’s full and bodies healthy, and these uses have been passed down through generations.

Digitising botanical specimens from South Asia for the Rights and Rites project

Nathan Kitto and Heather Pardoe, 21 February 2023

Over the last 7 months curators have been working on an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project, Rights and Rites. The project aims to work with members of the local community to reinterpret Botany specimens from South Asia, primarily in the Economic Botany Collection, to provide cultural context, to understand traditional methods of using the plant products and to improve access to the collections.

The Economic Botany Collection, comprising approximately 5500 specimens, contains a variety of different plant products, such as leaves, roots, fibres and seeds, all with significant economic, cultural or medicinal value. In addition, the project has drawn on collections of herbarium specimens, botanical illustrations, lower plant specimens and materia medica.

A key approach to making the collections more accessible is to digitise the specimens, producing images that can be shared with museum staff, researchers and communities outside of the museum.   Several techniques have been used to digitise the specimens, depending on the size and form of the specimens.

Working with different equipment and technology, Research Assistant Nathan Kitto has built up a collection of over a thousand images that include vascular herbarium sheets, specimens in jars and boxes and beautiful hand drawn illustrations. These images will be stored on the museum’s Natural Sciences online image library, along with specimen data, which can then be used as a research and reference tool. In future the images will be made more widely available through Collections Online

Initially 2D images were created using a high quality digital SLR camera.  This is a vital step to record unique details of the specimen, including accession number, common name and scientific species name and origin.  A colour chart is normally included in the image to ensure consistency in colour, size and scale. Micrograph equipment also has been used to take extreme close ups of specimens. By magnifying the specimen, it is possible to distinguish fine details which cannot normally be seen, giving a completely different dimension. 

New high-tech 3D scanning equipment has been purchased recently, supported by a grant from AHRC. Very detailed 3D scans have been produced of selected specimens that were suitable in terms of size and shape. The equipment allows us to capture a full 3D image of a specimen and permits end-users to rotate the specimen so that it can be viewed from any angle, providing quite a different perspective compared to a two-dimensional image. 

The scanners work by taking multiple frames or images of the object from different angles to build up a real 3D image. One type of scanner, the Artec Micro, has a more automated process; with the equipment doing most of the work, by rotating and choosing specific angles from which to take high quality images. In contrast, the Artec Space Spider is a handheld scanner, controlled by the operator, that takes a higher number of images while the object is rotating. It was very easy to use and was very accurate as well. After acquiring enough images from different orientations, the images are then merged using specialised Artec Studio software. With a few tweaks and repositioning, a 3D model is created and uploaded to Sketchfab. This is the online studio where the 3D image of the specimen can be optimised with lighting and positional edits. The Economic Botany 3D image library, which can be found here, displays 21 models of specimens, supplemented by information on traditional medicinal and cultural uses of individual species.

There are many benefits of creating 3D models of museum specimens; they make the collection accessible to anyone, and suitable for online searches. Preservation of the object is facilitated, since it allows the user to get a close look at delicate objects without the danger of causing damage. A digital asset will not deteriorate with time and can be copied and stored in multiple places and it also can be used to create 3D printed models. Furthermore, a digital 3D object allows for a different interaction with an object. 

The 3D models have been used to make museum specimens accessible to members of the public during community workshops.  This form of engagement generated very positive feedback and provided a good starting point for discussions about museum collections and the many uses of the specimens. The creation of these 3D models is just the starting point.  The curators on the Rights and Rites project look forward to seeing how people will continue to interact with the models in the future and hope it can be a useful and engaging resource for the public and museum to share.  If you have any comments about the objects shown in this blog, then please contact:



Where Have All Our Seabirds Gone?

Jennifer Gallichan, 23 January 2023

Regular visitors to the Natural History galleries at National Museum Cardiff will be familiar with our fantastic dioramas, particularly the one recreating a Pembrokeshire sea cliff complete with nesting sea birds, rock pools and life-size basking shark. Recent visitors will have noticed however a distinct lack of sea birds as we have had an outbreak of clothes moths which has threatened to eat all the taxidermy specimens! All the specimens have had to be removed for treatment and some will unfortunately not be returning as the damage is too severe.

A sad fact is that this disappearance is mirroring what is happening in the outside world. Birds are suffering a pandemic of their own, the worst outbreak of avian flu ever known in the northern hemisphere. A new strain of bird flu has been attacking bird populations since the autumn of 2021, spreading from intensively farmed poultry in China. By late spring of 2022 there were increasing reports of the disease in seabird colonies in the north of the UK, and this has now spread across the whole of the country.

Avian flu is a virus that affects a range of birds but as with other viruses there are many different strains, most of which cause few or moderate symptoms. The difference is that this current strain, HPAI H5N1, is transmitted easily and causes symptoms that can be fatal to birds.

The effect on wild bird populations has been devastating, particularly on sea birds who live in large dense colonies along cliffs and islands where the virus is easily transmitted. It is estimated that tens of thousands of birds have died - you may well have seen some of the footage of dead or dying birds or even seen dead birds along our coasts.

In the UK we are privileged to host internationally important breeding populations of seabirds, a whopping 25% of Europe’s breeding seabirds. Worst affected species are the Great Skua and Northern Gannet populations. Up to 11% (over 2,200 birds) of the UK population of Great Skuas have been lost and scientists have recorded such high numbers of Gannet deaths that they think some populations are near collapse. 

The situation is continuing to be monitored, particularly with waterfowl, like geese, who overwinter in the UK. The hope is that populations will eventually develop an immunity to the disease, and there have been some encouraging signs in some birds, like Puffins, who seem to have had a good breeding year in 2022.

We hope to see the return of our seabirds both in the galleries and along our coasts soon!

You can find more information and recent updates on the situation in Wales here: Avian influenza (bird flu): latest update | GOV.WALES. You can also read a more detailed blog about it on The Wildlife Trust blog pages: Avian flu – the latest symptom of our ailing ecosystems | The Wildlife Trusts.

If you want to help, there are several organizations appealing for support to help monitor the situation and help seabirds recover: The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO): BTO Avian Influenza Appeal | BTO - British Trust for Ornithology and RSPB: Bird Flu Emergency Appeal Donation Form | The RSPB.

If you find dead wild birds, you should follow the latest guidance on GOV.WALES (Report and dispose of dead birds | GOV.WALES) or GOV.UK (Report dead wild birds - GOV.UK ( or  webpages. Remember not to touch or handle any dead or sick birds.

For a handy guide to identifying Welsh coastal birds, download our Nature On Your Doorstep spotters guide: Spotter's Guide | Museum Wales