Enormous fossil collection donated to University of Portsmouth

Some of the fossils, minerals and rocks

A collection of more than 5,000 specimens of fossils, minerals and rocks has been donated to the University of Portsmouth

  • 01 September 2022
  • 5 min read

A collection of more than 5,000 specimens of fossils, minerals and rocks has been donated to the University of Portsmouth.

The items include a plesiosaur thorax, Cretaceous and Jurassic starfish, giant shark and mammoth teeth, ammonites and even flint hand axes made by prehistoric man.

Some of the fossils date from the Proterozoic Eon when life was only in its infancy some 1,500 million years ago and have been donated by the widow of geologist Dr Paul Olver.

Professor David Martill and his PhD student Roy Smith, from the School of Environment, Geography and Geosciences, collected the three truck-loads of specimens from Herefordshire. 

 

Paul spent his whole life as a dedicated geologist who was passionate about sharing his enthusiasm for earth history with others. It’s very fitting that his collection will now be used to inspire our current and future students.

David Martill, Professor of Palaeobiology

He said: “Paul amassed this enormous collection over decades, which will be a fantastic resource for teaching.

“We’re still busy sorting through everything but we’ve already identified some impressive specimens. There is a plesiosaur thorax, which is very rare, and often compared with reconstruction of the Loch Ness Monster.

“There’s a beautiful starfish that’s split right through the middle so you can see all the little segments in its arms and there’s a very impressive ice age mammoth tooth.

“There’s also a tooth of a shark that is famed for its gigantic teeth. It’s a highly polished example from a Carcharodon, which was found at Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex.”

Susan Olver wanted the extensive collection to continue to be of value to students in earth sciences.

She said: “The original collection would have been put into a skip on the closure of St Mary’s College London University geology department in 1994/5. Paul had an SOS call from Dr Middlemass to help save it.

“A van was hired to bring the enormous collection to our new house in Godalming, Surrey and we filled the garage. This collection was then stored in another shed and other specimens already collected by Paul from many parts of the UK, Italy, France and Germany plus some flint axes from a relative. 

“Then the collection went on the move again by me and my young son Jonathan to join Paul up in Hereford with his younger brother Christopher to be installed in another house. Some more specimens were added when Paul and I went on our many field trips to Europe.”

Plesiosaur thorax and other specimens

A plesiosaur thorax and other specimens from the collection

Professor Martill added: “Paul spent his whole life as a dedicated geologist who was passionate about sharing his enthusiasm for earth history with others. It’s very fitting that his collection will now be used to inspire our current and future students.”

The collection has specimens of volcanic glass, a product of rapidly cooling magma, volcanic bombs, a mass of partially molten rock with a teardrop shape after being blasted high in the air, and ropy lava, which resembles twisted rope.

There’s also Pele’s hair, a volcanic glass formation of thin glass fibres produced from lava cooling rapidly in a jet of hot volcanic gas, and a beautiful slab of Cotham marble, which has the appearance of little trees growing on the slope of a hill, but is actually a form of fossilised blue-green algae.

Current palaeontology students are busy dividing the collection into fossils, minerals and rocks ready for the start of the new academic year.

Professor Martill said: “We’re particularly interested in the fossils because we were the first university in the UK to have a single subject palaeontology degree, and these specimens will be of great value to our students. It is an enormous boost to our teaching collection.”