Monthly Archives: July 2022

The classification of Glossopteris and the study of coal

By Mariana Ferrari Waligora, CONICET

The holotypes of the fern-like fossils of the genus Glossopteris can be found in the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, in Paris. They were classified in 1828 by the French physician and naturalist Adolphe-Théodore Brongniart (1801-1876). In addition, Brongniart’s personal archive, kept in the Bibliothèque Centrale of the museum, contains many of his correspondence. This shows information on his connections and global exchanges and offers more insights on the context of the identification of this important fossil genus, which became the main piece of evidence for the idea of the past existence of the paleocontinent of Gondwanaland, a concept developed by the end of the 19th century. The holotypes were collected from coal deposits in localities in India and Australia, and soon representants of this genus were identified in different coal fields of all the southern hemisphere continents. The history of this first identifications also helps to better understand the relationship of the Glossopteris studies and the exploitation of coal in the Global South.

For his classification, Brongniart compared these received fossils from India and Australia with already existing classified groups of fossil plants obtained from European coal deposits. He found similarities with the broader group of the fossil Filices (or ferns), classified already in 1804, by the German mineralogist Ernst Friedrich von Schlotheim (1764-1832) from the leaf impressions from coal deposits of the surroundings of Gotha, a city now in the province of Thüringen, Germany. During the second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, when Gotha was the ruling center of the duchy of the Sachsen-Gotha-Altenburg, it became a centralizing place for the natural sciences in Europe, where many later influent scientists studied. He compared these leaf impressions with living plants, and found that they were more similar to extant tree-ferns from India and America than to the European ferns. Schlotheim and Brongniart exchanged many letters and drawings of fossils found at these coal deposits, and their conclusions about their comparations of fossils from the coal of Europe and the tropics.

Holotypes of Glossopteris present in the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris. (A) G. browniana from the Buckland Collection. From the Hawkesbury-River coal mine, north of Port Jackson, New South Wales, Australia (MNHN.F.507); (B) G. indica from the Pentland Collection. From the Rana-Gunge coal mine, near Rajmahal, northern India (MNHN.F.506); (C) G. angustifolia from the Voysey Collection. From Rana-Gunge coal mine, near Rajmahal, India (MNHN.F.509).
One of Brongniart’s drawings of plant fossils found at coal deposits in Germany. Photo taken from Brongniart’s personal archive in the Bibliothèque Centrale of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. Folder Ms 657.

At the beginning of the 19th century, with the increase on fossil fuel dependence, especially coal, for the use in steam engine in industry and transportation, the studies of stratigraphy became ever more important. In these studies, terranes in different parts of the world were beginning to be subjected to comparative analysis, and many showed great similarities in their sequences of sediments. The fossil content of the sediments soon became key characteristics for the classification of the strata. Such is the case of the fossil plant of the genus Glossopteris, soon found in abundance in the coal-bearing strata (coal measures) of all of the southern hemisphere continents and India, which subsequently became the main piece of evidence for the idea of the past existence of the paleocontinent of Gondwanaland.  

The analysis of fossils and comparations of fossils obtained in different parts of the world led to speculations about the past configuration of the continents and oceans and about the climate and the atmosphere in the past, and with the increasing exchange of objects of nature among men of science more comprehensive pictures were being developed. These objects were obtained mainly in the colonies of the Global South, mainly by European and U.S. explorer travelers. Based fundamentally in the identification of a single paleoflora present in coal deposits of all of these continents, namely the Glossopteris flora (also known as Gondwanaflora), of which Glossopteris was the dominant genus, the Austrian geologist and politician Eduard Suess (1831-1914) presented his idea of Gondwanaland (in his series of books, Das Antlitz der Erde – ‘The Face of the Earth’, from 1885-1909). In his theory, this paleocontinent had been formed by ancient extensions of land connected by land-bridges during the Late Paleozoic (~360-250 My ago) between the southern hemisphere continents and India. The assumption that the continents were immutable in their positions in the globe was subsequently challenged by the publication of Alfred Lothar Wegener (1880-1930) in 1915 (in his book, Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane – ‘The Origin of Continents and Oceans’), which presented the continental drift theory, and renamed the ancient southern continent as only Gondwana. Today, the core Gondwana is believed to have included the modern continents of South America, Africa, and most of Antarctica and Australia, as well as New Zealand, Tasmania, Madagascar and the Indian subcontinent, and to have existed from the Late Neoproterozoic/Early Cambrian times (~540 My ago) to the Late Jurassic (~160 My ago).

Map of the configuration of the continents in the Early Permian period, based on Suess’ ideas. Extracted from Schuchert (1928).

Among the many theories about lost continents that emerged between the 18th and 19th centuries, Gondwanaland represented an important compendium of data collected from around the world, especially from the southern continents and India. On the elaboration of this concept, Suess compared the coal-bearing strata containing the Glossopteris flora, classified by the British geologists of the Geological Survey of India (GSI) in India as ‘Gondwana strata’, and subsequently found in other continents. The GSI was one of the many geological surveys created by Great Britain, beginning in the first half of the 19th century, for the evaluation of natural resources and mapping of its colonies’ territories, as part of their renewed economic expansion, following the Industrial Revolution.

In South America, Glossopteris fossils were found in the southern and southeastern regions of Brazil, in Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina, which led to paleobotanical studies in this region, especially since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even before the first discoveries of Glossopteris in Brazil, for example, Brongniart mentioned in 1828 that among the promising regions for obtaining fossils of the fern family would be South America, in this scenario he emphasizes Brazil (Brongniart, 1828, p. 159). This was because he already knew the great variety of living plant species in this region, which had been published by many explorer travelers who had previously been in that country and brought back a variety of collected plants, as well as drawings.

‘Gondwanaland’ was created in central Europe at the end of the 19th century, and is a paradigmatic case for understanding the forging of the cosmopolitan science of geology, involving the beginning of comparative stratigraphy, especially between the southern hemisphere continents and India.

Cited references:

Brongniart, A.T. (1828). Histoire des Végétaux Fossiles, ou Recherches Botaniques et Géologiques. Sur les Végétaux Renfermés dans les Diverses Couches du Globe. Paris.

Schlotheim, Ernst F. (1804). Beschreibung Merkwürdiger Kräuter – Abdrücke und Pflanzen – Versteinerungen: Ein Beitrag zur Flora der Vorwelt. Gotha: Beckerschen Buchhandlung.

Schuchert, C. (1928). Review of the Late Paleozoic Formations and Faunas, with Special Reference to the Ice-Age of Middle Permian Time. Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 39: 769-886.

Workshop SciCoMove: “Casts, bones and forgeries”

12 July 2022, 9:30 16:30 (GMT-3)

Auditorio de la Facultad de Ciencias Naturales y Museo, UNLP

Calles 122 y 60, s/n (1900) La Plata, Argentina

How to get there:

Follow the workshop on You Tube :

The demand for fossil bones and antiquities triggered new activities linked to their replication. Fakes, casts, and duplicates, or fanciful reproductions, circulated in parallel with their originals.

Fakes and forgeries While casts and duplicates originated mostly from the museum workshops, fakes invaded the market and were introduced into the collections. Today, those objects are kept in the museums, and there is a growing interest in analyzing and tracing the fakes kept all over the world.

Casts – The workshop will focus on the casts of prehistoric artefacts, anthropology and paleontology specimens, objects that were very popular in the trade of “natural objects”. Duplicates and “casts” of fruits may be also analyzed.

This workshop will also deal with the economic dimension of natural history and anthropological collections and the interrelationship between commercial and scientific value. In the case of antiquities and paleontology, we suggest to analyze how what was considered rubbish/garbage was transformed into something valuable for both scientists and the local people involved in collecting. The workshop will trace less known collections existing in provincial Europe and the agents involved in that trade on an interregional, European and transcontinental scale. It will focus on:

Fossil bones on the move: Fossil mammal collections from South America circulated in the 19th century as objects of commerce and evidence of the new theories on the history of life.

Trade in Antiquities: Mexican and Peruvian antiquities and prehistoric artefacts circulated in the 19th century and became new objects of commerce and collection, as well as archaeological evidence.

This workshop is part of the EU-funded project Scientific Collections on the Move: Provincial Museums, Archives, and Collecting Practices (1850–1950) 

9:30 Nathalie Richard (Le Mans Université, TEMOS CNRS UMR
9016) & Irina Podgorny (CONICET/Museo de La Plata).
Welcome and Introduction

9:45 Isabel Bonora Andújar (Musée d’Archéologie Nationale, Saint-
Germain-en-Laye, FR): “The unknown collections of the
National Archaeology Museum and the birth of archaeology in

10:45 Coffee break

11:00 Géraldine Delley (Laténium, Parc et musée d’archéologie,
Hauterive, Switzerland): “Circulating casts – some examples from
La Tène”

11:30 Olivier Vayron (Centre André Chastel, Sorbonne Université,
Paris, FR): “Artifacts or natural specimens? The animal life casts
of the Paris Muséum”

12:00 General comments, Q&A

12:30 Working lunch followed by…

13:00 Poster session – SciCoMove Training Session

14:45 Richard Fariña (Universidad de la República, Montevideo, UR):
“A collection with old marked bones: the debates on the
megafauna in the Arroyo del Vizcaíno site”

15:15 Marina Sardi (Museo de La Plata/CONICET, AR): “Faces on the
move: From Oceania, to display, to oblivion”

15:45 Ilja Nieuwland (Athena Institute, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam,
The Netherlands): “Iguanodon, Dippy and Cultural Diplomacy
through Cast Donations, 1882-1934”

Discussion and concluding remarks

Pesentación del libro “En el mar austral”

El miércoles 6 de julio a las 16:30

Auditorio del Museo de La Plata

Dra. Susana García, “En el mar austral. La historia natural y la explotación de la fauna marina en el Atlántico Sur”

El libro, de Prohistoria Ediciones, contiene capítulos escritos por Irina Podgorny, Marcelo Reguero, Alejandro Martínez, Sofia Haller, Cornelia Lüdecke y Susana García. Los autores reflexionan sobre esas geografías creadas por la explotación ballenera, sus rutas de navegación y de comercio, la ocupación territorial y su impacto sobre la distribución o extinción de algunas especies, así como también sobre las clasificaciones y las colecciones científicas originadas en esa actividad.

La presentación del libro contará con la presencia de la Dra. Irina Podgorny y el Dr. Hugo López como comentadores.

Actividad libre, gratuita y sin inscripción.

Prohistoria Ediciones: En el mar austral. La historia natural y la explotación de la fauna marina en el Atlántico Sur

Training Session “Natural history, collections, archives and museums in 19-20th centuries”

Venue: Aula Interactiva, Museo de La Plata, Paseo del Bosque s/n, La Plata (unless indicated otherwise)

Dates: 4–8 July 2022, 12 July 2022

Working language: English


4 July 2022

Welcome by Analía Lanteri, Director of Museo La Plata
Introduction by Irina Podgorny and Nathalie Richard: Presentation of the SciCoMove project and training session programme and objectives
Introduction by the participants

Unit 1: Introduction to the history of science, museum and collections

Lunch break

Visit of La Plata Museum.

Student workshop 1: Description of case studies to be worked on in small groups during the week

5 July

Unit 2: The emergence of public museums

Nathalie Richard: The French case

Unit 3: The practices of natural history: collections and museums.

Visit and presentation of La Plata Museum Archives

6 July

Unit 4: Collections: circulation & trade

Carla Jaimes Betancourt (guest speaker online): Case study “Lost collections and their archives. The case of Río Beni’s archaeological collections”

Student workshop 2: Work on case studies

Book Launch: Susana García (ed.): En el Mar Austral (Prohistoria ediciones, Collection Historia de la ciencia, 2021), Auditorio del Museo de La Plata, open to the public

7 July

Unit 5: Global Sciences, local practices
Case study: Fossils, sea mammals and antiquities.

Student workshop 3: Inna Pravdenko, Part 1 “How to communicate research with a poster”; Part 2 “Horizon Europe funding opportunities”

Public talk: Géraldine Delley, “The Laténium in Neuchâtel – histories of archaeological exhibitions”, Auditorio del Museo de La Plata, open to the public

8 July

The presentation of case studies work carried out by the participants during the week; discussion with the teaching team

Visits of Museum deposits in small groups and presentation of some collections: archaeology, entomology, anthropology

11 July

Work on posters

12 July (attendance recommended)

SciCoMove workshop “Casts, bones, and forgeries”, Auditorio de la Facultad de Ciencias Naturales, UNLP, open to the public

Lunch break: Poster session

SciCoMove Workshop “Casts, bones, and forgeries” (continuation)