Sir Hans Sloane (16 April 1660 -11 January 1753) ...

Sir Hans Sloane accumulated a large number of fossilised remains of animals and plants throughout his life. His collection, including a big variety of curiosities from around the known world, was acquired by the British Government in 1753 as part of his bequest to the nation. It formed the core of the fossil collection of the Department of Natural History in the British Museum and is today in the Department of Palaeontology of the Natural History Museum, London. The surviving fossil collection of Sir Hans Sloane: Estimating the original size of Sloane’s fossil collection is an arduous task. Indeed, in his time, the term fossil was often applied to any object found on or in the ground, while the origin and nature of fossils as we now know them was still being debated. As a result, the fossils in the Sloane Collection are found listed indiscriminately among other natural history specimens or minerals in most volumes of Sloane’s manuscript catalogues, encompassing ‘precious stones’, ‘vegetables’, ‘shells’ and more eclectic lists such as ‘Flint, fossils, &’. It has been estimated that the Sloane Collection contained at least 15,250 geological specimens, including 4,000 fossil vertebrates, invertebrates and plants. The acquisition of new collections by the British Museum led to the accumulation of duplicates, and the Museum disposed, through auction, of several thousands of geological specimens at the beginning of the 19th century, many of which belonged to the Sloane Collection. At the same time, a quantity of material judged to be of no scientific interest was thrown away. Disposal associated with the loss of provenance data for many specimens dramatically reduced the number of recognizable Sloane fossils. In July 1889, Charles Davies Sherborn compiled an inventory of the recognizable remnants of Sloane’s fossil collection, annotating Sloane’s original catalogue as he did so. He listed ‘two fossil vegetables, eighty-four invertebrate fossils and ten vertebrate remains’, figures which, to a certain extent, were repeated in the History of the Collections of the Natural History Department of the British Museum (1903). A recent survey has recognized approximately 150 specimens of fossils from the Sloane Collection, either in the Palaeontology or Mineralogy department at the Natural History Museum. Sloane and fossils: Throughout his life, Sloane communicated extensively with British and continental European naturalists, through letters and publications. As shown in several letters published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, famous naturalists such as Edward Lhuyd or the Reverend John Morton submitted to him some of their discoveries and interpretations of fossils. Some, especially Morton, donated large numbers of specimens to Sloane, contributing significantly to the expansion of his collection. As mentioned above, many of Sloane’s fossils, including some that survive, were figured in major published works. Sloane’s knowledge of the published literature on fossils was extensive, as shown by the innumerable references in his catalogues to figures, plates and descriptions from most of the major works on fossils. Sloane himself rarely published about his fossils, and never clearly stated his views concerning their nature or origins; he seems to have been more interested by the specimens themselves than the theories that might emerge from their interpretation. Nevertheless, it seems quite clear from the way he listed his fossils together with his other natural history specimens that he regarded most of his fossils as petrified remains of once living animals and plants. Exceptions include fossil sharks’ teeth and belemnites. The former were often referred to as ‘glossopetra’ (tongue stones) in Sloane’s catalogues, alluding to the belief that these fossils were interpreted as serpents’ tongues petrified by Saint Paul after his shipwreck on Malta. Sloane also followed the common belief of his time that belemnites, which we now know to be the fossilized internal shells of extinct squid-like animals, were inorganic minerals. One of the very few works to be published by Sloane on his fossils in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society gives us a very interesting insight into Sloane’s understanding of fossils. In 1695, he described and figured, the tooth of a fossil ray (Fig.1), found in Maryland and shown to him by Dr Tancred Robinson. Displaying a remarkable knowledge of comparative anatomy, he recognised in this small, unattractive specimen a portion of the dentition of a ray-shark very similar to those he had seen alive in Jamaica. In a very modern approach, he figured this tooth, alongside other similar fossils found in England and similar teeth of extant rays (Fig.2). Historical and scientific significance of the surviving Sloane Collection fossils Some specimens are of notable historical or scientific value. For example, a fossil sea urchin is said to have originated from the collection of Agostino Scilla. This Italian painter (10 August 1629 – 31 May 1700) was one of the first to have discussed and interpreted correctly the origin of fossils in his La vana speculazione disingannata dal senso ("Vain Speculation Undeceived by Sense", 1670). Another specimen, a large third molar of a Siberian mammoth, was bought by Sloane in 1737 from Johan van Segvelt. The catalogue of the auction mentions that this tooth came from the cabinet of curiosities of Dominic Witsen (1641-1717), a Dutch diplomat who developed significant trading relationships with Russia. This mammoth tooth, probably bought by Witsen himself or sent to him by Russian contacts, is therefore one of the very first Siberian mammoth teeth ever to have reached Europe. Interestingly, the tooth appears not to belong to the woolly mammoth species, Mammuthus primigenius, commonly found throughout Siberia, but rather to Mammuthus trongotherii, a slightly older species with a more localized distribution in Siberia. Knowing the exact provenance of this specimen would be of great interest palaeontologists studying the evolution and migration of mammoths during the Quaternary. Finally, two other specimens from the Sloane Collection, a tortoise shell from Turkey and a fragment of coral from Wiltshire, were subsequently chosen as the holotypes for two new species, respectively Testudo sloanei Lydekker, 1889 and Ebrayia dightonthomasi Roniewicz, 1970.

Cite this as

Consuelo Sendino (2018). Dataset: The Fossil Historical Collections. Resource: Sir Hans Sloane (16 April 1660 -11 January 1753) Collection of the NHM. Natural History Museum Data Portal (

Retrieved: 02:31 23 Feb 2019 (GMT)

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