Super Symposium September – One Month, Four Conferences, Four Collections Visits, and a Fossil Festival!

Written by © Meghan Jenkinson, PhD Student and GCG Committee Member

September was truly an incredibly rewarding and inspiring month for a relatively average palaeontologist such as myself.

I took a deep dive into the collections of several culturally significant but scientifically underrepresented museums, and also visited some nationally beloved collections too. I met many incredibly talented, hard-working, and generous curators, without whom none of my work would be possible. I also made countless invaluable connections, meeting researchers from all over the world and getting to meet others in-person for the first time.

Full of travel and activities, I have never experienced as much personal growth and development in a single month as I did during September 2022!

Doncaster Museum – Wednesday 7th September

Everything kicked off bright and early. I was on my way to Doncaster, but to my dismay, my first train was cancelled which caused me to miss both connections. After scrambling around on many packed rush hour trains, I finally arrived in Doncaster an hour after I had planned and made my way to meet Laura Trinogga (Cultural Services Manager of Collections and Exhibitions) at the Danum Gallery, Library and Museum.

I had come to assess a specimen of the Toarcian crocodile Plagiophthalmosuchus gracilirostris from Yorkshire. This specimen has previously been published on and is one of the best-known of this species.  

However, the crocodile was on display alongside the holotype of Ichthyosaurus anningae in what must have been the world’s most complicated display cabinet to open. Whilst I waited for the amazing museum team to wrangle the croc free, I explored the rest of the museum and ate my lunch by two real steam engines before walking around the main gallery. I was particularly fond of the carpet and choice of music in the reconstruction of a 1950s living room.

Bigger than expected: The holotype of Icthyosaurus anningae on display in Doncaster, which was much larger than I remember it being from previous visits. © Meghan Jenkinson.

Finally, the beast was free! We took the crocodile to a study room upstairs where I was able to collect the data I needed. During this time, I rediscovered a photograph of the specimen which had been sent to me a long time ago, and which also showed the jaw of a second crocodile fossil. I recognised the jaw as significant, and Laura and I were able to locate the specimen in the stores. It is indeed a very rare and significant specimen!

Hull and East Riding Museum – Friday 9th September

I grew up about an hour from Hull, so on occasion we would drive there as a family to visit The Deep. I have a very strong memory of Hull being dull and grey, and always raining when we visited. Of course, as the train pulled into the city the clouds opened, and it began to rain. I think at this point it might be me and I’m just cursed to get rained on.

However, to my sheer delight, Hull’s town centre was not dull and grey, and is in fact much more beautiful than I expected. As I walked to the Museums Quarter the old streets felt like home; the nostalgic flare of York’s historic streets with its own port-town charm.  

Hull continued to impress upon arrival at the Museums Quarter. The Hull and East Riding Museum seamlessly merges natural history with the arrival of Vikings and Romans in Hull, whilst the Streetlife Museum might just be the perfect museum. The imagination is fully immersed, taking you from the Jurassic seas of Yorkshire to a Roman Villa, from Victorian backstreets to an old timey train station, these two museums have got it all. I almost forgot I was visiting to see a fossil crocodile, but before long it was time to meet Paula Gentil (Curator of Archaeology).  

I had come to see a Lower Jurassic crocodile which originated in North Yorkshire but was brought down the coast as a glacial erratic and found on Skipsea beach. The isolated skull was well weathered and extremely rounded which made it difficult to distinguish any identifiable features. Regardless, the fascinating history of the specimen’s journey to the collection was well worth the visit. I like the collection in Hull a lot. Many hidden treasures lay waiting in the stores, whilst others tragically succumbed to the destruction of the original museum in 1943 during an air-raid. More can be read on the fascinating history of the Hull collection in the Geological Curator 3(8).

Afterwards, I made my way to the University of Hull where I caught up with Natalia Jagielska at the Geological Association conference icebreaker. A flooded pub kitchen meant food was off the menu, and subsequently we found sustenance at the student union instead.

The journey back to York overnight was just my luck, as the last train was cancelled, meaning I had to be picked up from Selby and suffered a late night as a result.

Geological Association Conference – Saturday 10th September

The following morning was another early start, and after the late night before I was definitely feeling it. Thankfully the train departed on time, but upon arrival in Hull I struggled to catch a bus to the university as they kept departing from the wrong stops.

I eventually made it to the Geological Association conference with roughly one minute to spare before the first talk commenced. The theme this year was fantastic fossils on your doorstep, and all speakers were invited due to their involvement in some of the amazing discoveries made over the past few years.

A whole new world: Knitted Mary Anning riding on the back of Dearc sgiathanach at the Geological Association conference. © Meghan Jenkinson.

First up was Bryony Caswell with the history of palaeontology in East Yorkshire, followed by Emily Swaby on the excavation of the Rutland Ichthyosaur. Next was Danielle Schreve with exciting Ice Age mammal cave finds across SW Britain and their biogeography in relation to past climate. After the break Will McMahon spoke about the discovery of the largest known Arthropleura, and Natalia Jagielska introduced us to Dearc sgiathanach; the 3D printed skull and soft toy reconstruction of which made their way around the lecture theatre. Tim Ewin presented the final talk before lunch, covering a new lagerstätte of beautifully preserved crinoids.  

During lunch I met geology students from Scarborough Sixth Form College at various stages of their A-level studies. It was fantastic to see them attending and forming valuable contacts at such an early stage of their geological journeys.

To close the day, Simon Penn gave an insight into recent dinosaur discoveries on the Isle of Wight, and finally a pre-recorded talk about Lower Jurassic vampire squids by Malcolm Hart.

It quickly became a running gag amongst presenters to state whether or not their work had been supported by palaeontology conservator and preparator Nigel Larkin, due to his involvement in three of the projects. Altogether, he was acknowledged in six of the eight talks.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the conference dinner as I had to get the train home, but I did manage to catch several people in the pub before I left.

The 11th International Symposium on Cephalopods Past and Present – Monday 12th – Friday 16th September

After only a single day of recovery, I was back on the road again. This time down to London.

I was the first delegate to arrive at the Flett Lecture Theatre in the Natural History Museum London for the icebreaker and quickly attached my two ammonite cross stitches to a poster board. These were my entry into the cephalopod image competition.

I also become acquainted with Calamaria, the to-scale gigantic giant squid soft toy. Used frequently for school visits, Calamaria apparently cost £6,000 to wash! A price worth paying to keep such a fabulous girl looking her best and maintain safety for future events.

Love at first sight: Me and Calamaria at the ISCPP11 icebreaker. © Meghan Jenkinson.

During the icebreaker, myself, and master’s student Shane Wheatley (University of Lincoln) managed to slip away to catch up with a much older acquaintance. The nation’s favourite dinosaur, Dippy the Diplodocus, is back at the Natural History Museum on display in the Waterhouse Gallery as part of a temporary exhibition. Now if it was up to me, I would keep Dippy permanently in this new display. The dark lighting creates an emotional atmosphere, which is worlds apart from that of Dippy’s old Hintze Hall display, whilst an overwhelming sense of nostalgia seems to fill every soul in the room.

My arrival to the museum the next morning was immediately met with chaos, as both my cross stitches had fallen off the board overnight, and one of the glass frames had quite literally exploded. A very worried Zoë Hughes (Curator of Brachiopods and Fossil Cephalopods, and conference organiser) had done a fantastic job of salvaging my entries and thankfully the frames had only been cheap. My entries were re-hung, much more securely this time, and the talks of the day soon commenced.

The first session focused on nautiloids, whilst the second session explored cephalopods in museums.

During lunch I joined a tour of the Natural History Museum’s rare book collection. Deep in the belly of the museum’s publicly accessible library we got a rare glimpse of many treasures including an original painting of Mary Anning.

The afternoon session on geochemistry commenced with the first keynote speaker, Amane Tajika, who explored metabolic rates of externally shelled cephalopods. Alexander Pohle gave the second keynote talk on early cephalopod evolution in the final session of the day, focused on Palaeozoic cephalopods.

I ended the day by slinking off to find a McDonalds instead of attending the conference dinner.

Day three began by dragging Calamaria out onto the stairwell of the museum for the conference photograph, followed by a session on coleoids which included a reassessment of the controversial fossil Pohlsepia by keynote speaker Thomas Clements. Next up was morphology and exceptional preservation with keynote David Peterman investigating stability in ammonite conch morphologies.

I unfortunately missed the lunchtime activity to catch up with another delegate and discuss potential research avenues for my upcoming PhD project.

The afternoon sessions were on phylogenetics and structural morphology and featured keynote speakers Christopher Whalen on belemnoid and decabrachian interrelationships, and Robert Lemanis on septal morphology.

The day ended with the first of many trips to the nearby Eastside bar over the next week and a half. Following this, myself and delegates Shane Wheatley, Jessie McCraw (University of Alabama), and Thomas Clements (University of Birmingham), got separated from the rest of the group and had to make our own way to the next pub. On the way, we took a detour via one of South Kensington’s quaint mews, only to find two dead crabs in the middle of the road. That far from the Thames and too small to have been bought for eating, the origin of those crabs remains a mystery.  

The last day of talks consisted of two sessions on Cretaceous Ammonoidea, the first in honour of Dr Hugh Owen. These included Frank Owen’s memorial to his late father, plus keynote speakers Romain Jattiot on ammonoid biostratigraphy and James Witts on Late Cretaceous ammonoid evolutionary statis.

A very busy lunch hour consisted first of a tour of the conservation centre where preparators including Kieran Miles gave an exclusive look at some of the projects currently in progress at the museum. Following this I joined a tour of the spirit collection. The spirit collection contains some of the world’s most important wet specimens including many collected by the one and only Charles Darwin. Down in the spirit basement also lurks Archie, the 8.62 m long Architeuthis (giant squid).

However, my favourite specimen in the spirit collection was one I saw roughly eight years ago on a previous visit. I was lucky enough to convince our guide to pull it out this time. The specimen in question is a small shark, collected in the 1970s. The donor was on holiday in Iran and the only way he could transport it to the Natural History Museum was by folding it into his suitcase. As a consequence, the shark is now permanently folded into the shape of the suitcase.

Flat packed and jet lagged: The permanently folded shark in the spirit collection at the Natural History Museum. © Meghan Jenkinson.

A relaxed afternoon allowed delegates to explore the museum before the conference closed with a talk about the upcoming move of many fossil collections from South Kensington to a new purpose-built research site in the coming years.

Many delegates ended the conference in an Indian restaurant in South Kensington. It was a true show of diversity, with so many nationalities represented around the table.

For other delegates including myself, Friday would be the last day of the conference. We had booked onto the collection day, in which we were given permission to rummage through the cephalopod collection. Everybody had a specific age of interest, so we were spread across the large fossil store. That didn’t stop some traffic jams from happening though, as occasionally multiple people would want to look at specimens of the same age.

I targeted the ammonites of the Aptian, as these are the ones I became familiar with during my master’s degree. It was going swimmingly until I opened one particular draw. An audible “oh no” from me was heard at least two rows over. I had found a large collection of endemic ammonites, the exact species I described as part of an unfinished paper with the late Dr Luc Bulot, whom many other delegates had known fondly. It hasn’t been long since Luc passed so finding these yet to be published ammonites was an emotional shock and I spent at least an hour sat on the floor in a quiet office having a cry.

Feeling like royalty: The Royal Brachiopod in the collection of the Natural History Museum. © Meghan Jenkinson.

Once I was feeling a little better, I went back to the ammonites, and while I was working Zoë Hughes brought out a specimen known as the Royal Brachiopod. The story behind this is that when the museum used to have VIP guests, they would let them hold it. Originally collected by Charles Darwin, the last royal to hold it was Princess Diana.

Before long it was time to head off and catch the train up to York, where I was met by my partner and a Chinese takeaway.

Yorkshire Fossil Festival – Saturday 17th – Sunday 18th September

The morning kicked off in Scarborough Spa with a talk by Prof Christopher Jackson titled Can Geology Save The World? This explored how geological knowledge can be applied to solve our current global problems, and the way in which racism and discrimination is impeding progress. The conclusion: Yes, geology can save the world, but only by working together and including everyone. After lunch Dr Katie Strang gave a talk titled Jaws and Jobbies in the Age of Coal which delved into what can be learnt from Carboniferous coprolites about prehistoric sharks and their palaeoenvironments.

Meanwhile, a circus tent full of rocks and minerals occupied the Sun Court both days. This was the stall of the Rock Showman, who had brought one particularly unusual, banded square-shaped rock. Known as a Sunday Stone, this rock was no more than a few hundred years old and was formed by deposition within a mine drain. Water would run clear on days the mine was closed, subsequently bands of light and dark sediment were deposited at intervals.

The museums sector was well represented at this year’s festival, with exhibitions from Dinosaur Isle Museum, Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Rotunda Museum, Yorkshire Museum, Yorkshire Natural History Museum, and Whitby Museum. Each offered something unique.

A window into time: The Rock Showman’s banded Sunday stone at the Yorkshire Fossil Festival. © Meghan Jenkinson.

After the first day of festivities, my partner and I went to check into our hotel, which we hadn’t known until that precise moment was right on top of the hill by the castle. Following an exhaustive trek up the hill we found our designated room full of paint pots, ladders, and other decorating equipment.

Whilst we sipped on a free drink, the reception found us another room, which turned out to be the best room in the house. It had a panoramic view of the sea, private balcony, and seemed too good to be true. And as it turned out, it was. Five minutes later we received a knock at the door and the extremely apologetic receptionist moved us again. Third time lucky. Whilst not as splendorous as the previous room, we had a sea view, and the room was certainly worth more than what we paid.   

Our hotel was right next to the grave of Anne Brontë, so we paid her a visit before heading down to the seafront to enjoy the evening spoils of a proper English seaside town. Fish and chips by the sea was followed by big wins on the arcades: Two plush dinosaur keyrings and a Jurassic World Mosasaurus keyring. I certainly was the most fashionable person at the festival the next day. We finished the evening with ice cream and a stroll around the headland where I had a lucky escape from one particularly large wave which soaked the couple walking just a few feet ahead of me.

The second day started off with a free watercolour painting of a teleosauroid crocodile by artist James McKay before I joined Dr Fiona Gill (School of Earth and Environment) and Dr Sonja Andrew (School of Design) as a volunteer with the University of Leeds.

The stand involved running a block printing activity, in which children would choose a hand specimen from a selection of ammonites, crinoids, and plants and draw them into a sheet of foam. This was then inked up and printed onto a piece of paper.

One attendee at the table was a young girl named Abi, who at the age of eight is already more of a palaeontologist than me! We had a very long chat, and I tried my best not to be too star struck; Abi is one of my biggest inspirations.

Before I knew it, it was time to head over to the Rotunda Museum to assess the two fossil crocodile skulls which are on display. These two specimens are certainly significant, with one almost certainly an individual of the rarest species from Yorkshire. The other is quite possibly a specimen illustrated by William Buckland in 1836 and assigned as a paratype of Steneosaurus (Plagiophthalmosuchus) gracilirostris by Westphal 1962. More on this to come soon!

I didn’t realise the festival finished at 4pm not 5pm, so by the time I got back everybody was packing up to go home. I missed many activities over the weekend including the circus show, fossil walks, dinosaur encounters, and a talk by Sarah Caldwell Steele called Vampires, Mummies and Super Volcanoes. I’m told this was about the difficulties involved with assessing and differentiating jet collected in Spain from that of Whitby. I am gutted to have missed it!

Crystal Palace, SPPC, and SVPCA – Tuesday 20st – Friday 23rd September

After failing to secure a place to stay for the end-of-conference fieldtrip to Crystal Palace, I decided to go myself in the evening on Tuesday 20th. I had never been to Crystal Palace before and had a lovely walk around the whole park, taking many selfies with the crocodiles and ichthyosaurs. I never realised the park included mammal sculptures, so I had a very pleasant surprise as the sun set behind the Megatherium sculpture, casting its golden glow over the ancient giant.

Two sparkling oldies: The teleosauroid crocodiles, originally described as Teleosaurus chapmani, at Crystal Palace Park. © Meghan Jenkinson.

The following morning, I arrived bright and early at the Natural History Museum to discover I was an hour early and nobody else had arrived yet! Luckily it wasn’t too long before people started to arrive and soon the Symposium on Palaeontological Preparation and Conservation was in full swing.

Due to some unexplained confusion, I found myself without a name badge. Although I was lovingly provided with a handwritten name badge, I decided to adopt the badge of a certain Mr Ichthyosaurus due to his absence and became Nigel Larkin himself. Though the gig didn’t last long as I think a lack of beard gave the game away. 

The morning of talks began with Keyleigh Johnson who investigated the impact of using sodium bicarbonate to prepare fossil teeth. This was followed by the preparation story of a fossil fish by Richard Forrest, and then Dean Lomax discussed the rediscovery of two casts of the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton ‘Proteosaurus’.

A short coffee break was followed up by talks from Véronique Rouchon on consolidation methods of the Durfort mammoth, Martijn Guliker and Yasmin Grooters on Triceratops skeletons in the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, The Neatherland, and finally Katheryn Royce on treating pyrite decay in the Natural History Museum collection.

Unfortunately, the first session of talks as part of the Symposium on Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy overlapped with the SPPC collection tour and as one of my co-authors was giving a talk during this session, I had to miss out.

This session of talks focused on contributions of the British fossil record to palaeobiology, with speakers covering bone repair in Leedsichthys, early salamander evolution, Mesozoic tetrapods, Mesozoic mammals, Jurassic crocodylomorphs, and avian palaeontology. The session concluded with keynote speaker Prof Anjali Goswami on British and global trends in diversity through time. This covered not only palaeontological diversity trends, but also addressed diversity within the hierarchy of palaeontology as an academic science. This talk was clever, and Prof Anjali’s wit and delivery set it well above many other talks.

The night ended once again in the Eastside bar, where all the cool kids… sorry I mean delegates of SPPC were hanging out.

The bulk of the second day of SVPCA consisted predominantly of talks, with the morning sessions covering a range of topics within early tetrapods, marine reptiles, and locomotion. Meanwhile, the afternoon session focused on the terrestrial Mesozoic reptiles: the pterosaurs and dinosaurs. This was followed by a poster and pizza session, and then the final activity of the day. The auction.

Arriving at the pub early I was able to establish which lots I really wanted. I would like to formally apologise to all auction organisers for being under your feet whilst you were setting up. From the auction I managed to snatch almost every lot I wanted, including a jigsaw of prehistoric marine life which I had my eye on at last year’s auction. It was snapped up by Mark Evans who generously brought it back this year and re-donated it. Success!

Like a Cretaceous landscape, the entire morning of the final day was dominated by dinosaurs. These included a presentation by Mark Witton about the history and cultural value of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, and the work involved in preserving these unique statues.

Lunch was followed by an unusual mix of bird and synapsid talks, and then a session focused on mammals. Sadly, the previous two weeks finally caught up with me and I tapped out of the mammal talks to conserve some energy for a spectacular end to SVPCA.

When dinosaurs ruled the earth: Me and James Hogg at Jurassic World: The Exhibition after a day of dinosaur fun at SVPCA. © Meghan Jenkinson.

Instead of attending the conference dinner, I travelled to Isla Nublar with James Hogg (Yorkshire Natural History Museum) to visit Jurassic World: The Exhibition. Here we came face to face with real life (animatronic) dinosaurs! Say what you will about Hollywood creating new and unrealistic dinosaurs, the Indominus rex was the most technologically stunning animatronics I have ever experienced.

After two very long weeks, it was finally time to travel home. Equipped with a burger and all six of my bags, I took one of the last trains out of London and proceeded to sleep for a few days until…

Yorkshire Museum – Thursday 29th September

My final collections visit of the month was this time at the Yorkshire Museum in York. I love the Yorkshire Museum and Gardens a lot. Growing up in York I would visit often, but it wasn’t until I completed a research project on the museum’s Lower Jurassic marine reptiles in the third year of my undergraduate degree that I truly began to appreciate both collections and Liassic fossils.

It was this project that sparked my love for the Lower Jurassic and eventually led me to achieve my position as a postgraduate research student at the University of Leeds, researching Toarcian bivalves.

On this visit I was coming to assess even more fossil crocodiles. Some specimens I was already acquainted with, whilst others were completely new to me. The amazing and surprisingly huge collection in York contains numerous historic specimens set into plaster and wooden boxes which look stunning but are difficult to research on. Thanks Victorians.

Old friends, new memories: Catching up with the holotype of Temnodontosaurus crassimanus at the Yorkshire Museum and Gardens. © Meghan Jenkinson.

Thankfully, only a handful of specimens I needed were historic, and many had been prepared out of their matrix.

My museum visit was followed up by a quick meal with my parents before I was once again on my way home.

All good things must come to an end, and eventually September blew away on the wind like an autumn leaf. That very wind brought in a whole new beginning as October 1st marked the start date of my PhD.

My first day in Leeds was eventful, and involved me firstly buying the wrong train ticket, and then spilling my entire bowl of soup all over the common room kitchen. That would’ve been slightly less embarrassing if all the current PhD students weren’t already expecting my arrival. Never mind, at least I left an impression. My supervisors are fantastic, and I’ve hit the ground running already with specimens. I can’t wait to write an article or two for GCG over the next couple of years on my researc, there will certainly be lots to talk about.

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