November 17, 2008
At the beginning of the 19th century, paleontology was a new branch of science. People had been picking up fossils and trying to determine their significance for as long as anyone could recall, but the study of organic petrifactions was something new. Shells and teeth laid down in ancient marine environments were common, but so were strange spiral-shaped bodies. They were often referred to as “fossil fir cones,” as they looked like the cones that fell from pine trees, but geologist William Buckland came to a different conclusion. The fossil “cones” were really petrified dung, which he called “coprolites.”
Buckland was fascinated by the objects, as was one of his artistically-inclined colleagues, Henry de la Beche, who satirized Buckland in a drawing called “A Coprolitic Vision.” The viewer sees Buckland standing before the entrance of a cave, surrounded by prehistoric creatures simultaneously struck by diarrhea.
More famous was de la Beche’s vision of ancient Dorset, “Duria Antiquior.” (see above) Featuring ammonites, plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs, and crocodiles, it was one of the first ecological reconstructions of ancient life (albeit one in which nearly every creature was attempting to consume another). As a finishing touch, de la Beche had many of the creatures leaving a trail of fecal deposits that would, in the course of geologic time, become coprolites. (If you look carefully at the image above, you can see some of the droppings under the animals. This was de la Beche’s work as originally intended.)
This is not the version of the painting that most people have seen, however. Perhaps the defecating creatures proved to be distasteful to other Victorian scientists, so de la Beche made another version without the trail of dung, and that illustration appeared in books. The drawing without the fecal matter was sold to help support of one of the greatest fossil hunters ever, Mary Anning. She came from a poor family, and most of her rather meager income came from selling fossils. Buckland was one of her patrons. Even though she was not always given due credit for her discoveries at the time, the geologists she knew organized to financially assist her, and the sale of de la Beche’s painting was one such effort. Desire to help a friend was more important than potty humor.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.