The discovery of Charnia
Trevor Ford OBE
Members who saw one of the earlier Alan Titchmarsh television programmes (October 6th) on The Natural History of the British Isles may recall that the local section at the end covered the rocks of Charnwood Forest and its Precambrian fossils and an interview with Roger Mason was included. He was one of the three schoolboy climbers who found the original specimen in 1957. After the programme was broadcast, Roger Mason received a communication from Mrs Tina Negus of Grantham who had found the fossil impression at least a year earlier when she was a 15 year old schoolgirl from Lincolnshire picking bilberries with her parents. With Roger’s assistance, I have been able to contact Tina Negus and we had an interesting phone conversation. Apparently she made a drawing and showed it to her teachers, none of whom showed any interest: indeed she was told categorically that there were NO Precambrian fossils in Charnwood Forest or anywhere else. If only she had come to the University, she might have got a different answer and it might not have been named Charnia masoni. Later her teachers actively dissuaded her from taking up geology and she became a biologist.
It makes me wonder how many other people had seen the original Charnia and either failed to tell anyone or had their findings squashed. After all, the quarry had been worked at least a century earlier and was known to Victorian geologists as the “Ring Quarry” owing to what we now interpret as either jellyfish or holdfast impressions, but then regarded as inorganic “nodules”, so there had been ample time for others to see the impression.
Even I was sceptical when Roger first came into the Geology Laboratory to report the discovery, but then he produced a “brass-rubbing” of Charnia, and had it confirmed by his father whom I knew as a lecturer in the University. The three of us piled into the car and drove straight out to Woodhouse Eaves – and the rest is history!
A mystery remains – between my first and second visits, a week later, some person unknown had hammered the margins of the fossil, fortunately without doing too much damage. The marks can still be seen on the specimen in Leicester Museum. We have never found out who hammered it. The original was subsequently extracted with the aid of two quarrymen and a 4 cwt block was taken by lorry to the Museum. Later it was taken to a monument mason with a large rock saw for trimming gravestones. He brought the saw up to the block a bit too quickly and the saw blade shattered with bits going in all directions. The block also split luckily leaving Charnia on a much more manageable slab weighing about 60 lbs which can be seen in Leicester Museum today.
Tina Negus wrote a poem about her discovery, which she kindly agreed to be reproduced here.
Understanding geology as an orderly system, built
Up of alternating layers of clay and lime,
With gravelly sands and river silt,
The Charnwood volcanic hills
Exploded in my teenage brain,
Sweeping aside my hard-won knowledge
Of progressive deposition throughout time and space,
To be replaced with a new vocabulary;
Igneous dykes and sills; metamorphic; pyroclastic;
Magma, pumice, sedimentary ash; gabbro, granite, gneiss and schist;
The terms fell easily from the tongue
But left me unprepared
For the fantastic piles of these oldest blocks
Of hardened stone; the bedded sheets,
Once wind-blown dust, compressed, tilted, strong;
The rocks now used as a climber’s training wall.
The Blue Liassic clays at home were full of early forms of life;
Lampshells, bivalves, belemnites;
With several kinds of curling ammonites, backbone of my childish hoard.
Precambrian rocks contain no fossils, or so the library books insisted,
And my teachers echoed this belief, yet, on an annual trip
In search of bilberries for jam and pies,
I came across an outcrop, polished, smoothed,
Containing imprints of some ancient leaf,
Fern-like, with a central stalk.
The fossil could not be removed: proof lay in a pencil tracing
To be kept until an open mind
Could explain the relic I’d unearthed, identify this puzzling find.
On our return another year, the metre square of stone was gone,
The drilling holes alone remained;
Evidence that something had been here before despite the constant assertion:
There are no fossils from Precambrian times.
My fossil now has been described and named:
Not in fact, a plant, as I once thought,
But a sort of coral-life,
Colonial sea-pen, rooted in the sands of time,
Related to the jellyfish today.
The discoverer, said to be a boy, a youth,
Someone, no doubt, had listened and believed,
When he said he’d found
A fossil from the Precambrian age.
Members with access to the American journal Science may like to know that the issue dated August 24th 2004 contains a report on a newly discovered locality in Newfoundland with Charnia fronds in 3D preservation. The author, Guy Narbonne, expresses doubts about the sea-pen interpretation but does not offer anything more convincing.