Explore the Fascinating World of Prehistoric Poop
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The Discovery, Science, Art, and Industry of Coprolites in England
1824 to 1918
A fossil hunter and enthusiast named Mary Anning breaks apart rocks commonly referred to as “bezoar stones” or “fossil fir cones” near Lyme Regis. She discovered fossilized bones and scales inside the oval shaped stones. Anning discussed her finds with an English theologian, paleontologist, and geologist William Buckland. Together they determined the “bezoar stones” were actually pieces of fossilized feces from prehistoric ichthyosaurs.
On February 6, 1829 William Buckland published the first document on coprolites. "On the Discovery of Coprolites, or Fossil Faeces, in the Lias at Lyme Regis, and in Other Formations". Transactions of the Geological Society of London, Vol. III: 223-236.
English geologist Henry De la Beche produced the lithograph caricature A Coprolitic Vision. This amusing rendering shows William Buckland entering a cave to find all types of creatures pooping. Even Buckland has a pile between his legs.
English geologist Henry De la Beche used watercolors to paint “Duria Antiquior, a more ancient Dorset”. This artwork is considered the first artistic rendering of prehistoric times showing a variety of prehistoric creatures interacting with one another and their environment. This included showing the creatures pooping. De la Beche was inspired by fossils found by Mary Anning.
Henry De la Beche commissioned professional artist George Scharf to create lithographic prints of his water color Duria Antiquior. William Buckland and Henry De la Beche sold these prints at lectures and gave the proceeds to Mary Anning who had fallen on hard times. Other artists created their own versions of Duria Antiquior during the 19th century.
William Buckland published in-depth information on coprolites in “Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology” – Volume I and Volume II. The first scientific illustrations of coprolites are in Volume II.
Reverend John Stevens Henslow, discovered vast quantities of phosphate-rich coprolite nodules in the Red Crag at Felixstowe in Suffolk. He experimented pouring sulfuric acid onto coprolites which resulted in the formation of monocalcium phosphate or superphosphate. He determined this new product could potentially be used as fertilizer in agriculture. He did not seek fame or compensation from his discovery.
John Bennet Lawes, also discovered independently that pouring sulfuric acid on to phosphate rock and coprolites resulted in superphosphate. John patented this process and thus launched the artificial manure industry.
John Lawes set up Lawes’ Artificial Manure Company on the banks of the Thames River at Deptford. The company processed animal bones, guano from Peru, phosphate rock, and coprolites into superphosphate fertilizer. Lawes controlled the superphosphate market and received royalties from other companies using the sulphuric acid process. Most notably were James Fison and Company and Edward Packard and Company located in Ipswich.
Most of the coprolite mining occurred over the east of England, with mines in Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, and Suffolk. The coprolites were then transferred to Ipswich, Deptford, or Barking for processing.
Coprolite mining boomed. Workers could get paid nearly 4 times there average salary digging up fossilized feces rather than working farm jobs. The work was dangerous and most of the extraction was done using hand tools. Landowners profited from high-paying leases and local businesses flourished. Over 80 companies produced and exported superphosphates during this time.
William Colchester, a businessman, linguist, and geologist from Ipswich, gained control over much of the coprolite-rich lands in the Eastern Counties through leases with the landowners. He would sell his coprolites to fertilizer companies manufacturing superphosphates – including Lawes.
Scientists actively studied and experimented on coprolites. New coprolite-based discoveries could potentially be very profitable.
John Lawes sold Lawes Artificial Manure Company for £300,000 (roughly £9 million today) to a group of investors. The name of the company was changed to Lawes’ Chemical Manure Company LTD and Lawes stayed on as a consultant. Longtime competitor, William Colchester, was one of the investors and was selected as the Chairman of the company.
The coprolite industry went through a rapid decline due to an influx of cheaper superphosphates, mainly from the USA. Many superphosphate companies went out of business. Others changed their strategy to maintain a foothold in the market.
William Colchester, with the support of John Lawes, created a spinoff brand of superphosphate fertilizer derived from coprolites called “Pure Ichthemic Guano”. This fertilizer was marketed primarily to home gardeners.
World War 1 brought a short-lived revival to the coprolite industry. Phosphates derived from coprolites were needed for making explosives and fertilizer during WW1. When the German Navy threatened foreign phosphate supplies by attacking merchant fleets, the British Ministry of Munitions responded by setting up significant coprolite operations near Cambridge to ensure supplies were not interrupted.
The following images are scans from a collection of original prints from the Poozeum’s vast holdings. They were taken in December 1916 at the Trumpington coprolite operations outside of Cambridge. They are some of the most remarkable photos available showcasing the British coprolite industry and the people who worked in it.
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