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The Work of the Palaeontology Unit at the Natural History Museum

Lorraine Cornish

The Natural History Museum employs 350 scientists and within their department they have about 8.000.000 specimens. The unit has numerous responsibilities including, training, conservation, consultancy services and exhibitions.

Much of their material is sensitive to the environment, such as heat, cold, humidity, light, etc. Specimens are therefore monitored and this is known as remedial conservation. Samples are repaired and prevented from further decay, eg, pyrite oxidation to sulphuric acid. Damaged labels are also repaired.

Chemical preparation is done, an example of which is the removal of a skull from its matrix. A solution of 3-5% Acetic acid attacks the matrix x100 faster than it does the bone which can be protected by resin and we were shown part of the skull of a pterosaur treated in this way.

Replication. This is the process by which replicas are made, by casting the original in resin. Any future copies are made from this replica and there in no need to go back to the original again, hence preventing further damage.

Rapid prototyping. Here specimens are subjected to a CAT scan or MRI scan which produces a full 3D structure without the need to touch the specimen. This process was used to examine and prove that the inner ear of Neanderthals was different from that of modern man.

A further technique is Light Amplification by the Simulated Emission of Radiation cleaning (Laser) which takes about 5 seconds to complete.

Research into Anoxic Environments is also an important aspect and comprises three basic components, an O2 scavenger or a purging system to maintain the levels below 0.3% and a barrier film.

Conservation of non-fossils was done originally by the Blaschka brothers who started in 1857 to copy images into glass.

The speaker encouraged us to visit the King’s Library at the British Museum and also to see the touring Darwin exhibition which will be in London in November in 2008.

A new speciesof homo, found in Indonesia, has been dated at 15-90,000 years old and the argument continues as to whether it is actually a new species. It was not helped when someone tried to kidnap it in Indonesia. We were advised to look on Google for Hobbit Skeleton, Pleistocene humanity and Flores Man. These “Hobbit” skeletons found in Indonesia are currently believed to be between 12-95,000 years old. There are 15 individuals of Homo sapiens and are pygmy like, being a bit shorter than the African pygmy, Lucy, obtained from Ethiopian fossils.

This was another very interesting talk, slightly different from pure geology but nevertheless very interesting and presented enthusiastically and very clearly. A good index of the quality of a talk is usually the number of questions asked afterwards and Lorraine Cornish received a lot.

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