Fossils and Geology: What Lies Beneath?

Our understanding of the earth changed radically in the early 1800s. The discovery of the true age of the planet and the remarkable species that had inhabited it before us astonished the world, challenging long-held beliefs.

By the 1850s, a curious public was attending lectures and viewing panoramic paintings of our world’s distant history. Enthusiasts pored over geological guides and popular science books and magazines. Scientists reconstructed the first models of dinosaurs, and natural history museums displayed fossil specimens.

Noted geologists and popular science writers crafted engaging narratives about our newly discovered past, sharing and debating controversial ideas like extinction and an earth once dominated by reptiles.

Portrait of Mary Anning, before 1842
Oil painting by unknown artist
Courtesy of The Trustees of the
Natural History Museum, London

As the new science of geology and the study of fossils evolved, so too did the imaginative possibilities. Writers like Jules Verne worked the new science into tales of adventure, recreating past worlds and imagining new ones.

In 1811, 12-year-old Mary Anning discovered the first complete fossil of an ichthyosaur, a long-extinct marine reptile, in the cliffs near the English seaside town of Lyme Regis. Selling her finds as curios to tourists and to scientists seeking specimens, she would become a significant contributor to paleontology in its early days.

Perhaps the first prehistoric scene ever made was this painting of the Lyme Regis region in the Jurassic era. It featured Mary Anning’s prize finds, a plesiosaur and an ichthyosaur, in a pitched battle. The artist, geologist and paleontologist Henry De la Beche, had it reproduced as a lithograph by artist George Scharf and sold the prints to help support Anning.

Duria Antiquior – A More Ancient Dorset, 1830
Watercolor by Henry De la Beche
Courtesy National Museum of Wales

The print of De la Beche’s Jurassic scene was shared among scientists, used in educational lectures, and it was often copied, with variations of the iconic scene appearing in other publications. It’s featured in the geology section of Johann Georg Heck’s Iconographic Encyclopaedia, a visual scientific and cultural compendium from the mid-19th century.

Though in reality a confrontation between an ichthyosaur and a plesiosaur would have been unlikely, the image persisted, as did the aggressive nature of the interaction, aided by popular works that characterized them as monstrous, like Thomas Hawkins' The Book of the Great Sea-Dragons, Ichthyosauri and Plesiosauri. Over thirty years after De la Beche's prehistoric scene, Jules Verne would describe a similar battle scene in his novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Genius and science have burst the limits of space, and few observations, explained by just reasoning, have unveiled the mechanism of the universe. Would it not also be glorious for man to burst the limits of time, and, by a few observations, to ascertain the history of this world, and the series of events which preceded the birth of the human race?

— Baron Georges Cuvier, Essay on the Theory of the Earth, 1813,
first English translation of his 'Preliminary Discourse'

Portrait of Georges Cuvier
Engraved by James Thomson
after an original drawing, ca. 1833
Gift of the Burndy Library

Discoveries and observations such as Anning’s built a body of evidence that inspired scientists to think in new ways about Earth’s history. French zoologist Georges Cuvier made careful observations of fossils, and drew important parallels between past and present life. He determined the fossil record provided proof of extinction, a startling new idea. He came to the conclusion that the earth was shaped in the past by violent, wide-scale events, a theory known as catastrophism. An engraving of a plesiosaur found by Mary Anning in 1823 illustrates this later revision of Cuvier’s important 1812 work, the 'Preliminary discourse' to his Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles des quadrupèdes [Research on the Fossil Bones of Quadrupeds].

Georges Cuvier
Discours sur les Révolutions de la Surface du Globe: et sur les Changements qu'elles ont Produits dans le Règne Animal
[Discourse on the Revolutions of the Surface of the Globe, and on the Changes They Produced in the Animal Kingdom]
Paris; Amsterdam, 1826

About twenty years later, in 1830, British geologist Charles Lyell argued in defense of uniformitarianism, the theory that the earth was shaped by gradual changes, like erosion, that still operate and are observable today. He was among the first to understand that the earth was many millions of years older than commonly thought. Lyell’s book Principles of Geology was a great influence on young Charles Darwin and paved the way for modern geological and evolutionary thought.

Charles Lyell
Principles of Geology: Being an Attempt to Explain the Former
Changes of the Earth's Surface, by Reference to Causes Now in Operation

London, 1830–1833
Gift of the Burndy Library

The publication of 'The Principles of Geology,' in 1830, constituted an epoch in geological science. But it also constituted an epoch in the modern history of the doctrines of evolution, by raising in the mind of every intelligent reader this question: If natural causation is competent to account for the not-living part of our globe, why should it not account for the living part?

—Thomas Henry Huxley, The Advance of Science in the Last Half-Century, 1889

The first exhibition of model dinosaurs opened to an eager public in 1854 at the Crystal Palace Park in London. Based on the evidence available at the time, the models remain there today: extinct creatures, dinosaurs among them, cast in cement on iron frames, set among man-made lakes.

The Palace and Park: Its Natural History, and Its Portrait Gallery,
Together with a Description of the Pompeian Court

London, 1854

To make his dinosaur models for Crystal Palace Park, natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins took advice from noted paleontologist Richard Owen, coiner of the term Dinosauria (“terrible lizards”).They offered a thrilling glimpse into a previously unknown past for the many visitors that flocked to the new Dinosaur Court.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins at work on dinosaur models
The Illustrated London News, December 31, 1853
Courtesy Princeton University Library

The colossal mastodon... twists and untwists his trunk, and brays and pounds with his huge tusks the fragments of rock that cover the shore; whilst the megatherium..., buttressed upon his enormous hinder paws, grubs in the soil, awaking the sonorous echoes of the granite rocks with his tremendous roarings. ... In the uppermost regions of the air immense birds, more powerful than the cassowary, and larger than the ostrich, spread their vast breadth of wings and strike with their heads the granite vault that bounds the sky.

–Prof. Lidenbrock's nephew Axel, in Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth (London, 1877)

While a number of authors were inspired to explore geological discoveries in fiction, Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, first published in Paris in 1864, was perhaps the most comprehensive. In his novel, the heroes journey underground through our geological past, confront long-extinct creatures come to life, raft on underground oceans, witness volcanic activity, and more. These scenarios allowed him to work geological, mineralogical and paleontological knowledge of the time into the fabric of his fantastic tale. Well-read on matters of science, Verne included a wealth of information he gathered from popular science books, news of recent discoveries, and travelogues.

Jules Verne
Voyage au Centre de la Terre [Journey to the Center of the Earth]
Paris, 1867
Courtesy of Jane and Howard Frank
Athanasius Kircher
Mundus Subterraneus ...
[The Subterranean World]
Amsterdam, 1664–1665

Verne explored current geological theories, including the possibility that volcanoes were openings to a network of interconnected passages, an idea espoused by French geologist Charles Joseph Sainte-Claire Deville, with whom he was acquainted. The theory wasn’t true, and it wasn’t new: scholar Athanasius Kircher, who'd had himself lowered into Vesuvius, had similar ideas in the 1660's. In Verne's story, Prof. Lidenbrock's decsent into the Earth through volcanic tunnels was inspired by his discovery of a 16th century savant's runic message hinting at the possibility.

Books about geological phenomena for a general audience, like this survey on volcanoes and earthquakes, were very popular. First published in Paris in 1866 as part of as series called Bibliothèque des Merveilles (Library of Wonders), Zurcher and Margollé’s little volume of geological marvels covered volcanoes from Etna and Vesuvius in Italy to those in the Americas and the Pacific and Indian Oceans – and even those on the moon. Geology and the earth's past had become a source of great fascination.

Frédéric Zurcher and Élie Margollé
Volcanoes and Earthquakes ... with Sixty-two Woodcuts by E. Riou
London, 1868

A travel account of Iceland written in 1857 by Charles Edmond (pen name for Polish writer Edmund Chojecki) was a likely influence on Verne's choice of setting, but Iceland's volcanic unrest was well-known. The Icelandic volcano Hekla erupted for seven months in 1845–1846, with ash falling as far as Scotland, and several smaller eruptions in neighboring volcanos had occurred since, including one that began in 1862. In Journey to the Center of the Earth, Verne chose an extinct Icelandic volcano as his heroes’ entrance into the earth, Snæfellsjökull. The explorers in Verne’s tale end their fictional trip propelled on a jet of lava out of Mt. Stromboli, an island volcano more than 2,000 miles away in southern Italy, known for its moderate, steady activity and stunning lava plumes.

Volcanoes and Earthquakes was illustrated by Edouard Riou, well known for his wood engravings in six of Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires novels, including Journey to the center of the earth. Riou also illustrated French scientist and popular science writer Louis Figuier’s La terre avant le deluge (The World Before the Deluge) in 1863, a widely-read work on the geological sciences. In the second edition in 1867, Riou’s depictions of the earth’s extinct inhabitants included our own ancestors, as scientists began uncovering evidence of the age of the human race in the 1860's. Figuier's book was a significant resource for Verne as he crafted his underground tale, and contains many scenes reminiscent of Verne's underground adventure, including the indelible, well-heeled scene of a battling plesiosaur and ichthyosaur.

Louis Figuier
La Terre Avant le Deluge [The World Before the Deluge]
Paris, 1874