Amgueddfa Blog: Geology


The discovery of the Welsh dinosaur Dracoraptor showed us that dinosaurs lived in the Jurassic of south Wales 200 million years ago. However if you went back to that time you would also have seen little shrew-like mammals hiding in the undergrowth, these are the very earliest mammals.


The bones and teeth of these tiny, furry creatures are preserved in caves and fissures in rocks, where perhaps they were sheltering, or even hibernating during cold winters. Fossils of these minute mammals were first found in a quarry in south Wales seventy years ago. Palaeontologists have pieced together the fragile bones to reconstruct what the animals would have looked like. One early mammal has been named Morganucodon which means "Glamorgan tooth”


New research undertaken at Bristol University, funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council, used powerful X-rays to scan these tiny bones making it possible to piece together the fragments digitally. Then, using modern mammals as a guide, palaeontologists digitally recreated muscles on scanned images of the skeleton. Bristol scientists used computer simulations to work out how a skeleton worked. By looking at their teeth they could tell that some early mammals were able to crunch insects with hard wing cases, while others could only bite softer ones.


We have a new display in our Insight gallery highlighting this research which includes an amazing model of Morganucodon, made by palaeoartist Bob Nicholls. It looks unbelievably lifelike and answers to the name Morgie!

There are numerous hash tags celebrating the natural world on Twitter. However, #FossilFriday remains one of our favourites. Each week we showcase the wonderful paleontological collections that are housed at National Museum Cardiff as well as the research that goes on every day behind the scenes.

We not read some of our latest #FossilFriday Tweets and discover more about the fascinating world of fossils

 The numbers of specimens in geological collections in the UK alone reach into the tens of millions. These collections are important for research, education and also commercially. Museums hold collections, but so do individuals and companies; exploration companies keep rock core samples which can be as valuable as £1,000 per meter.

There is now sufficient evidence to dispel the myth that geological collections are inherently stable and require fewer resources to preserve them than other areas of museum collections. In fact, a proportion of geological collections demand a level of attention and maintenance comparable with archaeological metal collections. This includes similar environmental and pollution-related considerations.

About 10% of known mineral species are sensitive to changes in temperature or humidity, or may react with air pollutants. One such mineral is pyrite – common in geological collections and one that is particularly troublesome. However, despite centuries of research on pyrite decay there is a dearth of knowledge in subjects that would help museums improve the effectiveness of their care of geological collections. This includes the categorisation of damage to specimens, methodologies for objective routine condition assessment, the definition of an adequate storage environment, and successful conservation treatments.

Currently available methodologies are not suitable for routine collection monitoring, results are not necessarily replicable, and, in the absence of guidance on suitable storage conditions, triggers and the suitability of conservation actions are difficult to determine. We need a more robust approach to the delivery of preventive conservation of geological collections.

We have now teamed up with the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology (SEAHA) at University College London, University of Oxford and University of Brighton to investigate these aspects of preservation of geological collections. A four-year studentship has been advertised which will be based at Oxford University but spend a considerable amount of time working at National Museum Cardiff. If you are interested in this subject, and have a background in, ideally, geology, chemistry or engineering, please do get in touch.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter.


What's all this dinosaur havoc going on around Cardiff City Centre?

Who (or what?!) damaged our newly erected statue of Thomas H Thomas and is causing mayhem on the streets of Cardiff?!

If you spot any monstrous goings-on or dino-mischief around Cardiff then please let us know over on Twitter using the hashtag #DinoOnTheLoose.

This is an unfolding story - updates will be brought to you as we become aware of them.

Follow the story: #DinoOnTheLoose

The first dinosaur footprints found anywhere in Europe

One sunny evening in September 1878, Welsh artist and naturalist Thomas Henry Thomas was wandering around the small village of Nottage, just outside Porthcawl. The rays of the setting sun were shining across a large slab of rock placed on the edge of the churchyard. The local villagers told him that the five strange markings on the rock were the footprints of the devil as he strode across the slab. The rock had lain between the church and the village pub for years, and was a local curiosity.

Thomas was a well-educated man, born in Pontypool in 1839, and had studied Art at the Royal Academy, before returning to Wales. He was a key member of the Cardiff Naturalists Society, and a well-respected artist as well. On discovering the footprints, illuminated by the setting sun in the churchyard, he was struck by the similarity between these markings and newly found dinosaur footprints in North America. He quickly sketched the prints and informed various local geologists. John Storrie, curator of the Cardiff Museum, visited the site and made a cast of the trackway.

The President of the Cardiff Naturalists Society was Colonel Turbervill, who arranged for the rock to be brought to the Cardiff Museum for safe-keeping.

Thomas H. Thomas wrote a short paper, in January 1879, describing the footprints and also his attempts at Bristol Zoo, to persuade a suspicious Emu to walk across modelling clay, for comparison! He described the footprints as "Tridactyl Uniserial Ichnolites", but left it to Professor W Sollas of Bristol University to publish a formal description, with the name Brontozoum thomasi. We now know that these footprints were made 220 million years ago by a medium-sized meat-eating dinosaur, similar to Megalosaurus which evolved later.

The original footprint slab was around 6' 6" long and 5' 6" wide, and about 6 inches thick, although excess rock was later removed to make it easier to handle and display. When the collections of the old Cardiff Museum were transferred to the new National Museum of Wales in 1907, the footprints were one of its most important acquisitions. Currently the fossil is on display in the Evolution of Wales gallery, as befitting the first dinosaur footprints found anywhere in Europe.

Wales has an important place in the evolutionary history of dinosaurs; not only this early set of footprints, but also another major trackway site near the town of Barry, which is one of the most significant sites of its age in Europe. The rocks of this area were laid down around 220 million years ago, at a time when Wales was a low-lying desert, similar to those in the Arabian Gulf today, and dinosaurs had just evolved. Over the next 20 million years, the sea-level rose and the deserts disappeared underwater. However the dinosaurs living on higher ground continued to diversify into different species, one of which was Dracoraptor, the small theropod dinosaur found near to Penarth in 2014, and now on display at the National Museum Cardiff.