In the latest Winnie the Witch picture book adventure, Winnie visits the museum and is transported back to the time of the dinosaurs. Oxford is home to Winnie the Witch, but did you know it is also home to one of the leading fossilists of the 19th century, William Buckland, whose birthday it is today?
Helen Mortimer, Senior Picture Books Commissioning Editor and editor of our Winnie the Witch books, explains Oxford’s connection to dinosaurs…
If you were to open a copy of Winnie’s Dinosaur Day, at the start of the story you would find Winnie and Wilbur queuing excitedly outside a grand museum.
Visually, it has all the hallmarks of Winnie-esque architecture: turrets and gables, mullioned windows, tile upon tile, and of course that classic grey-black brickwork that graces Winnie’s own home. But it is also based on a very real building. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History, just a ten minute walk from our offices.
Oxford’s Natural History Museum and the Megalosaurus
For the time being the museum is closed while major renovation work is carried out to the roof, but outside the huge reconstructed footprints marching across the lawn give a clue to the impressive dinosaur displays that can normally be found inside. These footprints were unearthed on the floor of an Oxfordshire quarry in 1997 and were left, around 168 million years ago, by a Megalosaurus.
And this dinosaur, the Megalosaurus or ‘great lizard’, was first described by William Buckland who was born on the 12th of March in 1784. Buckland was professor of geology at Oxford and in 1824 he gave a lecture that presented the very first scientific account of a Megalosaurus dinosaur, some 18 years before Richard Owen coined the word for this group of animals. The area that is now Oxfordshire was swampland fringing shallow-water lagoons and seas in prehistoric times and Buckland had dug up hundreds of fossils from around the county. According to one visitor his college rooms were crammed with ‘rocks, shells, and bones in dire confusion’.
But the particular bones that led to Buckland’s ground-breaking description of the Megalosaurus came from a small village about 15 miles northwest of Oxford (and just a foggy Sunday morning bike ride away from where I live).
Stonesfield slate was quarried here from the 17th century onwards and the slates were used to roof college buildings and churches in the city. The mined slate was kept damp until it could be split apart by being exposed to frost and the slate makers, finding fossils as they worked the blocks of rock, would put them aside for sale to visiting collectors.
The fossils that were acquired by Buckland from the Stonesfield quarrymen included part of the lower jaw with some teeth in place, fragments of backbone, and sections of the pelvic and thigh bones. Not much, but enough for him to make his startling discovery.
So, remembering him on his birthday, we have William Buckland to thank as one of the pioneering fossilists of the 19th century whose findings led to the discovery of the age of the dinosaurs – laying the foundations for the on-going study of these incredible animals, endlessly fascinating for children (and witches) everywhere!
During his time in Oxford, Buckland also took on the role of unofficial curator of the geological collection of the Ashmolean museum – at the time housed in a building in Broad Street. He added many, many specimens to the collection and it was moved to the present site when the ‘new’ Natural History building was completed in the 1860s.
So we also have him to thank for providing many of the exhibits in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Buckland was by all accounts a larger than life figure with a great sense of humour. He would probably have liked the idea of needing to repair the roof on the building housing his great fossil discoveries, the most important of which he came across thanks to quarrymen extracting slate for . . . repairing roofs!
Note: The Oxford University Museum of Natural History is due to reopen in early 2014. During 2013 you can still access the building to visit the Pitt Rivers museum. Visit the museum’s ‘Darkened not Dormant’ blog to stay up to date with all of the special activities taking place at the museum during the closure year.
Helen Mortimer is Senior Picture Books Commissioning Editor at OUP Children’s Books.
Winnie’s Dinosaur Day, by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul, is out now!
Find out more about Winnie the Witch at www.winnie-the-witch.com