Plymouth, in the UK, lies on top of a very hard, grey limestone. It looks fairly dull and un-noteworthy, but it actually tells a tale of an ancient marine world going way back to the Devonian Period (around 400 million years ago).
We can see the faded remains of some corals. If we squint we may be able to make out a prehistoric sponge. White squiggles may even be the ghostly outlines of some ancient shell. But this rock has been baked for quite a few years removing evidence of most of the original fruity ingredients. Almost all of the tropical marine creatures that were swimming around 400 million years ago are lost forever in this overcooked limestone.
100 years ago, without television or internet, a visit to a museum was the only way for people to see the incredible diversity of life that we are a part of.* Due to the lack of good fossils locally, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery bought many examples of the main groups of fossils when it opened in 1910. These included the familiar bivalves, molluscs, a few sea urchins, some small trilobites and a few fragmented vertebrates.
To spice up the displays a little, the museum also purchased a number of plaster casts.^ These were the real show stoppers, the crowd pullers, the pièce de résistance. Well, apparently.
I only recently discovered this treasure chest of fossil casts. ‘Treasure chest’ makes it sound very exciting; there were no jewels. Far, far, far from it. The stiff drawers were full of unrecognisable creatures. Cast from an ancient mould long, long ago (some say cast by children) the resulting plaster replicas, wobbling as the drawer opened, were pretty bad.
The majority were purchased from Gregory & Gregory whom appear to have had a monopoly on creating and selling crap casts. What’s even more delightful is that this company didn’t give any information about which specimen the cast was made from. They have a lot to answer for.
All museums hold some strange specimens; I have heard tales of one museum having several extremely large casts of fossilised tree stumps; another has a collection of dinosaur toys, fully accessioned. These posts about ‘Bad Casts’ are no criticism about the museum that holds them; in fact it is a nice way of getting these quirky little objects out to the public. A story may be woven, even from the most shambolic of reproductions.
This series of posts will examine these fossil replicas and make a serious attempt to look at the fossil as it would have been in life. In some cases the cast may be too bad to even write about.
Bad Cast #1: The ghost in the rock
Bad Cast #2: An ichthyosaur paddle with a terrible paint job
Bad Cast #3: Size is important for these bad casts
Bad Cast #4: A terrible cast of an awesome extinct shark
Bad Cast #5: That nipple-toothed beast!
Bad Cast #6: Before high definition casts
Bad Cast #7: The Pterodactylus that never was
Bad Cast #8: The most pointless cast
Bad Cast #9: A truly awful cast
Bad Cast #10: The bad cast of an amazing Iguanodon tooth
Bad Cast #11: The bizarre beaked beast
Bad Cast #12: The road kill fossil
Bad Cast #13: A pretty darn good bad cast
Bad Cast #14: The king lizard whale
Bad Cast #15: A bad cast of a truly bad fossil
Bad Cast #16: An ancient time that animals forgot
Bad Cast #17: A bath time gem
Bad Cast #18: Original beauty
Bad Cast #19: A quick lesson in Trilobite anatomy
Bad Cast #20: The trilobite’s arse
Bad Cast #21: The demon’s hand
Bad Cast #22: A cast not worthy
Bad Cast #23: Hidden beauty
Bad Cast #24: The beauty of the beast
*This actually hasn’t changed. Exotic creatures can be seen on the television and internet today, and fossils can be digitally brought back to life. But nothing compares to the face of real amazement when a family look at a fossil that is millions of years old for the first time. The pure joy as they silently study a preserved animal in real life only a few inches away. Museums still hold that sense of wonder for all visitors of all ages.
^Many museums across the world hold casts of fossils, simply because there are very few of the rare fossils like dinosaurs or pterosaurs discovered. I like to think that even those bad casts in museum do inspire a little bit of wonder from someone somewhere. That would be nice. Just one person a year, or even one person a decade, to smile at the majesty of a fossil cast. Or even just to ponder why?