Thomas Bateman’s Ichthyosaurs

Written by Alistair McLean, Curator of Natural Science,  Sheffield Museums Trust.

2021 was the bicentenary of the birth of the Derbyshire antiquarian, Thomas Bateman (1821-1861). To commemorate the event, Sheffield Museums Trust developed an exhibition focusing on the Bateman collection, much of which is preserved in Sheffield. 

Figure 1. Thomas Bateman & Son

The collections of Thomas and his father William Bateman (1787-1835), are perhaps best known in archaeological circles. The pair were prominent barrow diggers, and spent much of their relatively short lives excavating burial mounds in the Peak District of Derbyshire and surrounding counties. The specimens they acquired were displayed in the family museum at Lomberdale Hall, Middleton-by-Youlgreave in Derbyshire.

The collection consisted of archaeology, world cultures and natural history (predominantly taxidermy, birds’ eggs, insects, mineralogy and palaeontology). A large part of it was initially loaned to and later sold to Sheffield Public Museum (now Weston Park Museum) in 1876 and 1893 respectively.

The importance of the Bateman family’s contribution to the study of natural science has historically been overshadowed by their notoriety as archaeologists. But their efficacy as general collectors plus the relative abundance of surviving contextual information, puts them into the top tier of contributors to Sheffield’s natural science collection.

The Bateman collection includes two largely complete Ichthyosaur fossils; SHEFM: H93.188 and SHEFM: H93.189. Sadly, neither specimen has retained any contextual information. Although it is certain that Bateman ran a stock book for the Lomberdale museum, the part that dealt with natural history was never passed to Weston Park Museum and is presumed lost. Fortunately, many of the Bateman specimens are individually labelled, but these two were not.

Figure 2. SHEFM: H93.188

Specimen 188 was originally identified as Ichthyosaurus communis (Conybeare, 1821) and was conserved (cleaned, cracks repaired and repainted) in 2005, prior to its permanent display in the natural history gallery of Weston Park Museum. It has since been re-determined by Dr Dean Lomax as Ichthyosaurus somersetensis (Lomax & Massare, 2017), and was considered likely to have originated in the West Country.

Specimen 189 was documented as Ichthyosaurus tenuirostris, Conybeare 1822.  It was also known to be suffering from pyrite disease, which in recent years had begun to spread. The bicentenary of Thomas Bateman presented an opportunity to rectify this.

Figure 3. SHEFM: H93.189 – Before

Thanks to generous grants from the Curry Fund of the Geologists’ Association, the Bill Pettit Memorial Award of NatSCA, and contributions from Sheffield Museums Trust, the specimen has been conserved to the highest professional standard by Nigel Larkin.

The conservation successfully treated the area affected by pyrite decay with ammonium gas, and the by-products of the treatment were excised and filled. The paint on the matrix and surrounding mortar had begun to flake; this was removed, as was the varnish and sediment which covered and obscured parts of the skeleton. The whole specimen was consolidated with 2% Paraloid B72 solution. Gaps between the matrix, surrounding mortar and the wooden frame were filled and painted to match the surrounding area. The frame, which is presumably an original feature, had many layers of paint. This was stripped back to reveal the original wood, which was then stained. The mortar surrounding the specimen was painted black, while the matrix was left ‘au naturale’ to match the second Bateman Ichthyosaur specimen.

Figure 4. SHEFM: H93.189 – After

The project has also provided opportunities to further review the archives of Thomas and William Bateman. A search of Thomas Bateman’s account books revealed that he purchased a complete Ichthyosaur in 1858, for £35, and its stated measurements matched perfectly with SHEFM: H93.188.  Crucially, the account also showed that that the specimen was excavated from Street in Somerset.

It is extremely fortunate that the purchase of the specimen was listed in such fine detail. Sadly, the same is not true for specimen 189; no reference to this has yet been found. Microfossils from the matrix, extracted during conservation are currently being analysed, and may yet reveal more data for the specimen in coming weeks. Preliminary results suggest an horizon between the late Hettangian to early Sinemurian. The specimen has been examined by Dr Dean Lomax, who has re-determined it as Leptonectes tenuirostris (Conybeare, 1822). 

The Bateman exhibition has been inevitably delayed by the pandemic, but is programmed to open at Weston Park Museum at the end of May 2022 until January 2023. Bateman’s newly conserved Ichthyosaur will form part of the display, highlighting the importance of his comparatively unstudied natural history collections. After the closure of the Bateman exhibition, it is hoped that this Ichthyosaur will re-join its fellow on permanent display in the natural history gallery.

Sheffield Museums Trust acknowledge the assistance of The Curry Fund of the Geologists’ Association,

Images courtesy of and © Nigel Larkin and Sheffield Museums Trust, 2021

2 thoughts on “Thomas Bateman’s Ichthyosaurs

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