Curator's Choice: Mary Godwin of the Philpott Museum chooses a dinosaur dung coprolite table

Mary Godwin interviewed by Chris Broughton | 01 March 2009
An image of a woman standing beside a dark wooden table.

Image courtesy Philpot Museum

Curator's Choice: In her own words... Mary Godwin, Curator at the Philpot Museum in Lyme Regis, talks about a Coprolite table, made from mahogany and fossilised Ichthyosaur (dinosaur) dung.

"The first time I saw it, I just thought, "What a weird thing." It's something like inlaid furniture, and you naturally feel an urge to touch it. Schoolchildren who visit the museum certainly seem to have that urge, so I encourage them. That's when I tell them it's made of poo.

Of course, after they've finished going, "Urrrgh!" and recoiling in horror, they find a teacher who hasn't been paying attention and get them to do the same. The excrement is prehistoric – the centrepiece of the table is a slab of inlaid coprolites, otherwise known as dinosaur dung.

In their natural state, coprolites are pretty nondescript – they just look like little boring stones. Those you see in the table have been sliced right through so they're in cross-section, like half a boiled egg, then polished.

The fossilisation process has obviously involved some sort of metal, so the coprolites have a lovely metallic finish. Each is a sort of metal oval with a beetle-like shape in the middle – presumably the heart of the poo, which has been calcified in various ways to produce some quartz and some light metals. It's pretty amazing, really.

The slab itself is 60cm by 45cm, and it's mounted in what is essentially a picture frame with scalloped edges. It looks like it might be mahogany. The base is actually modern; it's not contemporaneous with the top, and I don't know what it would have been originally.

There's a plaque on the table that says, "This slab of inlaid coprolites was formerly the property of William Buckland, Dean of Westminster and Professor of Geology and Mineralogy at the University of Oxford." Buckland was one of the 'big guys' of early palaeontology. He was quite a character, and had a reputation for eating anything and everything that had once had a pulse, including bluebottle, panther, crocodile and the preserved heart of the French King Louis XIV.

Buckland was born locally, in Axminster, and was a great chum of Mary Anning's. They used to go fossiling together. It was just about OK for them to do this, since they were engaged in a scientific pursuit. Otherwise, it really wouldn't have been on at the time for a man and a woman to go out alone. Nevertheless, there was gossip about them; rumours circulated and very oblique references to a possible romance remain.

The story is that the coprolites were discovered at Lyme and nobody knew at first what they were. It was Buckland who realised these little round brownish-grey stones were fossilised excrement and gave them a name. He presented his paper to the Geological Society in 1829.

There definitely was a dialogue between Mary and Buckland about coprolites, and she certainly knew what they were. Buckland wrote, "Miss Anning informs me that since her attention has been directed to these bodies she has found them near the ribs and in the pelvis of almost every perfect skeleton of Ichthyosaurus," implying that he pointed them out to her, but she would have noticed them anyway. It was a joint effort, really.

Fossil hunters – Mary Anning included – were able to sell their finds as 'curiosities' to collectors, which were taken to private museums in London. They sold to people who considered themselves to have a scientific interest – it was a huge rage at the time.

Still, not much of a looker, a coprolite – so it's lovely that a few of them have been elevated by this fascinating piece. We don't know when it was made, but William Buckland definitely had it in his house – his son talked about having seen it. It can't have been a functional item; it's too small to have had much practical use. I suppose it might have had an aspidistra on it, or something."

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