Imperial ambitions and the Permian System

Roderick Murchison was 47 years old when, in 1839, he decided to make a bold career move. With the Silurian and Devonian systems reasonably well recognised and established in the British geological world (see p. 193), he wanted to see if they could also be recognised on a more international front. Perhaps they would prove to have a global significance, which really would be a 'feather in his cap'. He knew that the one relatively nearby region that had not been geologically surveyed in any detail was Czarist Russia. And he also knew, from what geological work had been done, that there seemed to be vast tracts of probable Silurian and Devonian strata there, especially in Baltic Russia.

Apart from questions of finance and energy, which were no problem to Murchison, the main problems were bureaucratic and logistical. Even European Russia was huge, excessively bureaucratic and suspicious of foreigners. It was also very backward in terms of communications. But this is where Murchison's years of soldiering came in very useful. He knew better than anyone else in the world of British geology that meticulous advance planning and organisation were the key to any successful campaign on such a grand scale. And he must have realised that he was better placed than anyone else to undertake such an ambitious survey, but that if he did not do it soon, one of his continental rivals might beat him to it.

Murchison also knew that he would need as much help as he could get from his well-placed connections in the scientific, diplomatic and political world.

He needed a team that he could work with and trust, preferably competent gentlemen scientists like himself but also people who would not try to steal the limelight. Murchison had already collaborated with the French palaeontologist Philippe Edouard Poulletier de Verneuil, so he knew he could trust his scientific judgement and got on well with him. Then, through the auspices of the well-known Berlin geologist Leopold von Buch, Murchison was introduced to the young Russian gentleman scientist Count Alexander Andreevich von Keyserling, and he knew that he had found just the right collaborators and travelling companions.

Philippe Edouard Poulletier de Verneuil, 1805-73, French lawyer turned palaeontologist who collaborated with Murchison, especially on the palaeontology of the Permian of the Urals and in 1846 visited North America to compare Transition Series strata. He was awarded the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London in 1853.

Murchison realised that accurate and speedy fossil identification was of the essence for the successful establishment of stratigraphic order, relative dating and correlation of sedimentary strata. The deal was that de Verneuil and von Keyserling would be co-authors (with Murchison first in the pecking order) on any joint publication arising from their work. It subsequently turned out that in the major two-volume work called The Geology of Russia, the second volume, devoted to the palaeontology, was in French and authored by de Verneuil.

The total membership of the expedition was of course much larger. Rural Russia could be a dangerous place and unprotected travellers were not only

Count Alexander Andreevich von Keyserling, 1815-91, Russian aristocrat, studied law in Berlin where he met Humboldt and became interested in geology. He was employed in the Russian Department of Mining (1842) and collaborated with Murchison on the geology of the Urals. Marriage in 1844 secured his financial independence.

frequently robbed but also sometimes murdered. For the ex-soldier and his military companions this was perhaps all part of the challenge. Nevertheless, they travelled with all manner of Cossack guards, drivers, servants and assistants, including the highly accomplished Nikolai Ivanovich Kokscharoff, a young army officer and mineralogist. In addition, Murchison also took enough creature comforts in the form of his favourite cigars and madeira wine to last the whole trip, along with a folding iron bed.

Major-General Nikolai Ivanovich Kokscharoff, 1819-93, Russian officer selected to accompany Murchison and his expedition to the Urals. He was also a mineralogist and became director of the Institute of Mines in St Petersburg and author of a multivolume work on the minerals of Russia.

A brilliant and indefatigable networker, Murchison used his social skills and contacts very effectively. The help of people like Count Brunow, the Russian ambassador in London, was invaluable. As a result of Brunow's highly placed connections at the court in St Petersburg, Murchison was offered not only diplomatic and logistical but also financial support. And they were invited to join a non-geological fact-finding expedition to Russia's northern territories from St Petersburg led by Baron Meyendorff.

However, there was a condition - that Murchison should return to Russia and extend his survey beyond the northern territories to the rest of the Empire. So the complete work would take two trips. He could not have asked for a better remit and Murchison's passport was endorsed by Czar Nicholas I himself. Nicholas tried to hold the reins of his vast Empire by being a workaholic bureaucrat and was personally briefed by Murchison at the beginning of the trip and received reports on its completion. Murchison seized on the chance to make a good impression on the imperial personage and it worked very well.

Murchison's preparation was meticulous. He searched out copies of all relevant previous publications and maps and he used his linguistic fluency to contact all the most eminent and useful European geologists for advice and information, and he got it. Despite the continuing and ever-changing European alliances and occasional wars, scientists were rarely prevented from travelling or communicating, even between otherwise warring nations. Murchison consulted Alexander von Humboldt, the well-known German traveller and naturalist, who had tutored von Keyserling, while Alexander Brongniart and Jean Baptiste Elie de Beaumont were two of the French scientists he knew well. But his network extended to North America, where he corresponded with Yale scientist Benjamin Silliman, George Featherstonhaugh, one of the first professional geologists in America, and William Logan, director of the Geological Survey of Canada.

Benjamin Silliman, 1779-1864, Yale-trained lawyer, admitted to the bar in 1802 but never practised, becoming instead professor of chemistry and natural history at Yale in 1804. He founded the American Journal of Science in 1819 and was a founder member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1863.

The 1840 expedition essentially tagged along with Meyendorff for some time through Baltic Russia, but it soon became clear that for Murchison's purpose it was not an ideal arrangement and that his team would be better off as masters of their own destinies. Soon, Murchison negotiated an amicable parting of the ways. This first season's field work did in general seem to support the identity of both the Silurian and Devonian as distinct and recognisable systems of strata and fossils, but there were still some boundary problems. The lower boundary

George William Featherstonhaugh, 1780-1866, Oxford-educated traveller who visited America in 1802, organized the first Board of Agriculture for New York State, obtained the first charter (1826) for a passenger railway and became the first federal government geologist in America in 1834 and surveyed the disputed boundary between Canada and Maine. Appointed British consul in Le Havre, France and effected the escape of Louis Philippe and his Queen from the revolutionaries.

Sir William Logan, 1798-1875, Canadian geologist who mapped part of the South Wales coalfield then returned to Canada to initiate and become the first director of the Geological Survey of Canada (1843-70), wrote a Geology of Canada (1836) and was knighted in 1856.

of the Silurian was crudely resolved by Murchison pushing it down as far as it would go, encompassing any fossiliferous strata on the way. Sedgwick's Cambrian was swept aside and obliterated by Murchison's geological empire building.

Murchison had a very personal proprietorial view of 'his' system, typically referring to the landscapes of 'my Silurian Region' or to fossils as 'my published Silurian types'. He developed the argument that 'the great mass of the rocks which Sedgwick had called Cambrian, but without defining their fossiliferous contents, were nothing but replications, in a more altered and slaty condition, of my Silurian types'. Murchison was wrong, Sedgwick's Cambrian strata do contain separate and distinct fossils, but Sedgwick was partly to blame because of his long delay in describing them.

Other palaeontologists, such as Salter, tried to fight Sedgwick's cause, but they had an uphill struggle because Murchison had 'outflanked' them by redefining 'his Silurian'. He claimed that the Silurian included the oldest fossils known, thus lowering its base to incorporate all more ancient fossiliferous strata. Murchison used the first Russian expedition to gather supporting data for this view but it was, of course, something of a 'self-fulfilling prophecy'. He summarized his views in The Geology of Russia as:

we have indicated the existence over large tracts in Scandinavia, the Baltic provinces and northern Russia, of those Lower Silurian strata, which by extensive examination of various countries, have been found to contain the earliest vestiges of animal life. This point has, indeed, been rendered singularly clear in Sweden, where Lower Silurian rocks, perfectly identified with those of their typical regions in the British Isles, rest at once on crystalline or azoic rocks of antecedent date, in which the remains of all organized beings, if such there ever were, have been entirely obliterated.

Representing as elsewhere the lowest recognizable stage charged with organic matter, the Lower Silurian rocks of Sweden and Russia teach us, that among the earliest animals known to us were crustacean, with eyes suited to the recesses of the seas in which they lived, and that these, with certain Mollusca, Zoophytes and Crinoidea, which have long since passed away, were associated with marine fucoids, the latter being, as far as we know, the only vegetables of which there is trace in this protozoic group.

In August 1840, Murchison finished his first round trip with a few days around St Petersburg and encountered reddish cornstones with 'an absolute identity of structure with our Herefordshire cornstones' and full of fish scales, teeth and a kind of brachiopod (spiriferid). He concluded:

QED - The mixture of Devonian shells of Devonshire with fishes of the Highlands of Scotland demonstrates that Sedgwick and myself were right to identify the Scottish Old Red with the Devonshire rocks, under the name of Devonian ... the Devonian, based on Silurian, and overlain by Carboniferous limestone, is now completely established.

Most importantly, Murchison managed to persuade some very influential geologists of the validity of this view of an enlarged Silurian System. Foremost among these was Sir Henry De la Beche (1796-1855), who in his capacity as the first Director of the British Geological Survey was particularly useful because he ensured that the Survey adopted Murchison's extended version of the Silurian System in all survey maps and publications. De la Beche's death in 1855 vacated an all-important post in the development of British geology and Murchison stepped into it and remained Director until his death in 1871. Unsurprisingly, the Survey persisted in the habit of ignoring the Cambrian and using an enlarged Silurian until the end of the century, even though most of the geological community had by then accepted Sedgwick's Cambrian as a valid system.

Murchison's position allowed his influence to extend into the far reaches of the Empire as well, especially through the auspices of directors of the various colonial geological surveys. His good friend the Canadian geologist Sir William

Logan, Director of the Geological Survey of Canada, was particularly influential in North America.

Towards the end of the 1840 expedition, Murchison and his party reached Archangel and began their long trek east and then southwards, following the course of the River Dvina. In places along the valley, they found cliffs with interstratified limestones, layers of white alabaster (the calcium sulphate mineral gypsum), along with red and green marls. At first they were puzzled and did not know whether they were part of the Carboniferous or Triassic. The few fossil clams they found were not diagnostic, but then they found fossils of a particular kind of lamp shell (productid brachiopods) in the limestones, which look very like those known from the Carboniferous and so opted for that designation. However, the occurrence of the gypsum plus the red and green marls, which was rather more typical of the younger Triassic strata, created something of a problem and they did not feel enormously confident about their diagnosis.

They subsequently found that the red deposits formed a vast basin and so were much more than just a local development. Their redness also suggested the possibility that they were older than the Carboniferous and perhaps some equivalent of the Old Red Sandstone, but they did not contain any fossils typical of these strata such as the characteristic jawless fish. The party decided to hedge their bets until the next year.

Murchison was supremely confident, writing:

I leave Russia with the desire of exploring the Eastern regions of the Empire, and of putting them into direct connection with those of the west. This is merely a work of detail. The great points are fixed, and if I could see the Ural, I should get them all in order.

As we shall see, the following year he did just that.

During that second expedition, Murchison and de Verneuil did indeed change their opinion, but not before they had indulged in a little socialising. Murchison attended a grand court ball held to mark the marriage of the Czar's eldest son and was presented to Czar Nicholas himself, who engaged him in conversation about the prospects for coalmining and other matters geological in Russia. Murchison was particularly concerned about the waste of money and

Palœoniscus comptus.

Fossil from the Permian.

Palœoniscus comptus.

Fossil from the Permian.

effort that was generally expended at this stage in the Industrial Revolution throughout Europe in fruitless searches for coal in unsuitable rocks. Murchison was mightily impressed by the Czar and noted:

when the Emperor is in full costume, it is impossible to behold a finer sample of human nature. The tight breeches are unusually well fitted, and especially on the upper part of the thigh, so as to delineate even the virile member with great precision. Your eye glances from these to his beautiful family, and the animated but épuisé Empress, and the history is told.

She had 15 pregnancies. Apparently, the Czar was also impressed, Murchison recording that Nicholas remarked that 'you must have good stout legs' whereupon he passed 'his hand ... to the side of my thigh, which he pinched'. Their mutual admiration continued through several subsequent meetings, but then, the marriage celebrations over, Murchison's expedition got down to the real work, although not before Murchison had 'agreed' to attend the Moscow continuation of the celebrations.

The first record of Murchison's change of heart and mind regarding the nature of the strata his party encountered above the Carboniferous is recorded in a letter he wrote to the German naturalist and director of the Natural History Museum in Moscow, Johann Fischer von Waldheim, in October 1841. In the letter Murchison says:

The Carboniferous System is surmounted, to the east of the Volga, by a vast series of beds of marls, schists, limestones, sandstones and conglomerates, to which I propose to give the name of 'Permian System'.

Johann Gotthelf Friedrich Fischer von Waldheim, 1771 -1853, German vertebrate palaeontologist and naturalist who coined the word 'palaeontology' in 1834 and became director of the Natural History Museum in Moscow.

The name was derived from the city of Perm, the regional capital of the Urals.

Murchison translated and published the letter because he wanted to make sure of his priority in naming the new system. In addition, he gave some important information about the fossil content of these strata:

of the fossils of this system, some undescribed species of producti might seem to connect the Permian with the Carboniferous aera; and other shells, together with fishes and Saurians, link it on more closely to the period of the Zechstein, whilst its peculiar plants appear to constitute a flora of a type intermediate between the epochs of the New Red sandstone or 'Trias' and the Coal Measures. Hence it is that I have ventured to consider this series as worthy of being regarded as a 'System'.

The presence of Saurians in such old strata was particularly interesting. Fossils of this kind were first discovered in the 1770s by Russian mining engineers working the belt of copper-rich sandstones that stretched for hundreds of kilometres along the western flank of the Ural Mountains. But it was not until 1838 that a Russian professor in St Petersburg, S. S. Kutorga, first described some of the fossil bones. He thought they were mammals, one of which he called Brithopus, as a relative of the sloths, and the other Syodon, a relative of the elephants.

This was an extraordinary claim, since the bones were much more ancient than any other then known mammal fossils. Kutorga had indeed spotted features of the bones that were mammal like. We now know that these creatures belong to an early group of extinct reptiles called the synapsids (technically they are dinocephalian therapsids), which were very important in the early evolution of the mammals, but it was many years before this was fully realised.

Independent of Kutorga's work, a German geologist and manager of copper mines in Ufa and Orenburg, Major Wangenheim von Qualen, had amassed one of the best collections of 'saurian' bones from these strata. With his German background, von Qualen was familar with the German Zechstein succession, especially the copper-rich (Kupferschiefer) strata that lies in the lower part of the Zechstein. Von Qualen published a number of reports about the bones in Russian journals and suggested that the Russian saurian-bearing strata could be matched with the German Kupferschiefer. His fossils were studied by Kutorga and two other German fossil experts living in Russia, J. G. F. Fischer von Waldheim, who named (in 1841) a new reptile with mammal-like features as Rhopalodon (now regarded as a dinocephalian), and E. I. von Eichwald, who in 1848 named another new reptile as Deuterosaurus and an amphibian as Zygosaurus.

In August 1841, Murchison called on von Qualen near Troitsk and the Kazakhstan boarder to quiz him about his local knowledge. Von Qualen obliged and gave Murchison the general order of these Russian Kupferschiefer-like strata that Murchison realised lay above the Rothliegende. He subsequently assigned both successions to his new Permian System, but not before getting some palaeontological checks made on the fossil saurians and plants that also occurred in the copper-rich strata. Murchison suspected that the saurian fossils could be very useful in helping to establish his new system.

Murchison passed the saurians on to Richard Owen in London. Owen was the up-and-coming star of the anatomical study of fossil vertebrates in Britain and was seen as the English Cuvier. As we have seen (p. 106), Owen secured his place in the international scientific hall of fame when, in 1842, he coined the new name 'Dinosauria', now known by practically every educated 7-year-old on Earth. Owen was aware of the published descriptions of the Russian fossils and identified Murchison's fossils as belonging to von Waldheim's new animal Rhopalodon, but thought that it was some kind of crocodile. As far as Murchison was concerned, the reptile was most like those previously found in the Triassic strata of England and Germany and radically different from any found in younger Jurassic strata or older Carboniferous strata, and it was one of the oldest saurians known from Europe.

As seen in their typical Russian formations, the Permian strata were a mixture of freshwater (especially the red beds) and marine deposits (especially the limestones), with an interplay between the two environments resulting in interfingering of intermediate deposits. This meant that matching deposits of similar type and age was going to be difficult, because the specific kinds of animals and plants that live under such conditions tend to be restricted to the region. At least there was a better chance of matching the marine deposits and Murchison went on to note that, in England, the well-developed strata, known as the Magnesian Limestone, occupied a similar position in relation to the Carboniferous. The Magnesian Limestone could thus be considered as being part of 'his' new Permian System, which was therefore developed over a very extensive area, although it remained to be seen whether it could be recognised worldwide.

International recognition was not as guaranteed as Murchison hoped it would be. German miners and mining geologists had recognised a distinctive metalliferous Zechstein group of strata for many centuries. Werner's Flotz formations included the ore-rich Zechstein (which means 'mine stone') and their structure and succession of strata had already been explored in considerable detail by the eighteenth-century German mineralogists Johann Gottlob Lehmann and Georg Christian Fuchsel. Their tabulation and illustrations presented the succession of strata from what they called the 'Red Underlyer' or basal series of conglomerates, shales and sandstones through to the uppermost limestones, dolomites and marls of the Zechstein, in other words what Murchison was calling the Permian. Lehmann's vertical section through the rocks, published in 1756, showed a very clear understanding of stratification and its continuation below ground. And Fuchsel's 1761 map of Thuringia presented a remarkable

Johann Gottlob Lehmann, 1719-67, teacher of mineralogy and mining in Berlin who wrote extensively on chemical, mineralogical and geological topics. He became professor of chemistry and director of the Imperial Museum in St Petersburg in 1761, but died in 1767 from injuries received from an exploding retort of arsenic.

Georg Christian Fuchsel, 1722-73, a German physician in Rudolstadt who wrote important works describing and illustrating the geology of Thuringia, which demonstrate a considerable sophistication in understanding of the structural geometry of strata as they affect topography and are arranged below ground.

oblique 'bird's eye' view of the strata in relation to both the surface topography and the underground 3D structure and succession - some 50 years before Smith or his French competitors, Cuvier and Brongniart, presented their 'pioneering' work.

The upper limit of the new system was defined by overlying cred deposits which occupy a great basin in the governments of Vologda and Nijni Novogorod', which Murchison was 'disposed to think they may at some future day be identified with a portion of the "Trias" of German geologists'. He was right.

Million Years Ago -,0

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