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A Story in Stone

26 September 2022

Visitors to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History rarely fail to be impressed by its iconic Gothic Revival architecture and intricate pre-Raphaelite decorations, not to mention the treasure trove of objects in its collections. However, many are unaware that the fabric of the building itself was designed to be both a celebration of geodiversity and a tool for teaching. From the Jurassic limestones that foot the front door to the alternating blue and green slates at the top of the swift tower, every stone was carefully chosen (if not always completed; much of the façade remains uncarved some 160 years later). Once inside, we’re treated to no less than 127 columns that are an unrivalled collection of decorative and building stones from the UK and Ireland, stretching from Land’s End to Aberdeen, County Cork to East Anglia, and the Dalradian to the Cretaceous.

Hand-picked by the Museum’s first Keeper, John Phillips, with contributions from the likes of Murchison, Lyell, and Sedgwick, the columns were always intended to be “for the purpose of adding to the illustrations of [geology]”. In A Story in Stone, Nina Morgan and Philip Powell very much keep the spirit of Phillips alive, not least in some choice quotes from his publications and correspondence with Henry Acland that are peppered throughout the book. Illustrated with stunning photographs, including close-ups that make you feel that you have your hand lens to the page, they describe each column and feature of the Museum, covering their geology, history, and wider significance with a refreshing clarity of voice. There are hidden gems (sometimes literally!) for both Museum regulars and first-time visitors alike.

Undoubtedly, the book is best enjoyed as a companion to a visit to the Museum itself, something that enhances the understanding and enjoyment of both, however it’s also ideal for any enthusiast of British and Irish geology, history of science, or 19th century art and architecture. Failing that, the photographs alone are worth the cover price.

Reviewed by Duncan Murdock



BY: Nina Morgan & Philip Powell (2022). Geologica Press. 160 pp. (pbk)

PRICE: £18.00 www.gravestonegeology.uk