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The Culture of English Geology, 1815-1851: A Science Revealed Through its Collecting

Out of Print

By: Simon J Knell

377 pages, Figs, maps


Hardback | May 2000 | #111174 | ISBN: 1840146257
Out of Print Details

About this book

Using fossils as a common currency linking labourer to aristocrat, dilettante to savant, gift-giver to local elite, this book explains why geology became so popular in the early nineteenth century. It is a study which says as much about English society as it does about geology's own internal workings.

Taken on a journey across provincial England, through Yorkshire, Devon and the Malverns, and then into Wales, the reader discovers a science of jealousy and contradiction where social skills are as important as fieldcraft; where rival societies use science to pursue civic status and fossils become integral to social progression and hopes of immortality; where geology is legitimised by an elite, but built upon the efforts of the lowly.

Here collecting and the exchange of fossils become means to understand motives and relationships. Prominent in this book are William Smith, here shown in new light, his nephew John Phillips, the English philosophical societies and Henry De la Beche's Geological Survey. It is a book of detail, of involving stories, analysis and synthesis which looks beyond science as simply the pursuit of natural knowledge and explains this popularity as more than the product of mere fashion. Here geology becomes much more fundamental to human existence than either of these. The result of eight years' research in museums and archives, and built on some twenty years of museum experience, this book culminates in a rethinking of geology's heroic age, showing that the geologists themselves were also carefully constructing an image of themselves for future generations.


Part 1 Geology in wider perspective: fossil collecting and the culture of geology; gathering means, unfolding opportunities. Part 2 Provincial centres of geology: a culture of museums and collections; stratifying the collecting community; slaves of the collection. Part 3 Collecting in an age of individualism: fossils as commodities and gifts; evangelists, collectors and localities; excavating answers; Saurians in the market place. Part 4 Collecting - the end of "laissez-faire": the problem of free enterprise; fossil collecting under government control; a phoenix from the ashes. Part 5 The culture of English geology: the making of an heroic age.

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