William Smith's "Strata Identified by Organized Fossils"

Soon after the first issue of his great geological map of England (and Wales and part of Scotland) in 1815, William Smith published the Strata Identified by Organized Fossils. It was intended as a kind of geological users manual - the equivalent of the herbals of the day that provided the botanist or physician with illustrations to identify medicinal plants. But Smith’s work went beyond the mere illustration of fossils. Smith had deciphered the hieroglyphics of nature-the distinctive inscriptions borne by the different strata. With the Strata Identified . . . and its colored plates in hand, anyone would be able to compare the plates with fossils collected in the field and immediately identify the strata from which they came. The strata once identified, their place in the orderly succession of the strata-which lay above and which lay below, as Smith had determined it - was then known. All this, Smith wrote, "without the necessity of deep reading, or the previous acquirement of difficult arts."

Because of its rarity few geologists have ever seen it. Only 250 copies were printed and the National Union Catalog lists only ten copies in American libraries. There are two copies at the Burndy Library in Norwalk, one in Urbana, one each at the libraries of the American Philosophical Society and the Academy of Natural Science in Philadelphia, one at SMU, Berkeley, UVA, Florida State and the University of Chicago. The library of the US Geological Survey Bureau also has a copy making only 11 copies publically known in the United States. In order to make it accessible to students and friends of geology we are posting the whole of the Strata Identified. . . on this web site.

Originally issued in four parts (of a projected seven), each a sheet folded into quarters to make 8 text pages for a total of 32 in all; (Part 1 has two extra leaves for an engraved title page and an Introduction). Each page measured 31.6. x 25.0 cm and the four parts were accompanied by four (counting the frontispiece), five, five and five, or a total of 19 copperplate engravings. Each plate displayed the fossils characteristic of a stratum embedded in the rock matrix as they might appear in the field if they were exposed by careful scraping. The engravings were water-colored by hand, on colored papers, each color chosen as most representative of the natural colors of the particular stratum in the field. Smith had used the same color scheme on his map. The text accompanying the Strata Identified . . . went beyond a general account of the overall geology of England, Wales and southern Scotland, treating the strata in their order as determined by Smith, from the London Clay down to the Fuller’s Earth Rock.

Parts 5 through 7 if they had ever been completed would have continued to the Killas, resting on Granit, Syenit, and Gneifs sic). Each stratum and its position in the succession was described individually - the soils developed upon it, the sub-soil, its properties, hydrology and what we would now consider its petrography, its general geographic position and characteristic topographic expression, etc. The individual parts were published in June and October of 1816, September 1817, and June 1819 after which the project was abandoned. The plates were drawn and engraved on colored papers to match the colors of the strata in the field and then water-colored by hand. It was the same color scheme as that of Smith’s great map. Since colors of the same stratum and even the same specimen could be highly variable, Smith had a good deal of latitude. Looking at the finished map, it is hard to escape the conclusion that he was driven by a superb sense of color and design. The artist-naturalist James Sowerby (1757-1822) served as both engraver and Smith’s zoological authority. Sowerby used or had used at least some of the plates in his own publications.

William Smith (1769-1839) has been described as the "father of English Geology," and more accurately by his contemporaries as the "father of English Stratigraphy". Unlike other putative fathers of geology such as Abraham Werner and James Hutton, Smith offered no grand theories of the earth. He left a village grammar school at the age of 11, acquiring the skills that were to bring him international fame through a lifetime of field experience begun as assistant to a surveyor. Though he had no access to classical or continental literature, he apparently more than compensated by persistent and diligent study of works in English and by his assiduous cultivation of learned friends. Above all, his humble origins had taught him to appreciate the value of the observations of farmers, quarrymen, stonemasons and even laborers whose livelihoods might turn on their experience with the local geology. By the time of the map, Smith, who styled himself as "Engineer and Mineral Surveyor" had built canals and worked as engineer on roads, quarries and in coal mining. He was a land agent and proto-agronomist supervising land improvement, the clearing and drainage of water meadows and peat bogs etc. throughout the region. As a child he had collected fossils and as a surveyor-engineer working constantly with practical problems, he developed a keen appreciation of the properties and qualities of the different terrains of England, constantly making notes and sketches as he constructed his maps and plans, always collecting specimens and especially fossils; never to proud to learn from a quarrymen or canal navvy. For his purposes, the Latin identification of one of his fossils was a nice touch (for which he would have been indebted to one of his learned friends) but a laborer’s report that he had found a certain stratum a hundred miles away from Smith’s last observation could make for a major extension of his map.

Early on Smith made three original cf. below observations from which his life’s work and much of classical geology subsequently derived. The first was that strata appeared to be stacked "like so many slices of buttered bread"; second that they followed a definite order of succession and third, that a distinctive assemblage of fossils characterized distinct strata in the succession. In what seemed almost miraculous to those who consulted him, he could tell what strata would be encountered at sites he had not visited, or depths far below the surface. The recognition of a definite order of succession i.e. a Geologic Column, was the beginning of the recognition of a natural chronology as distinct from either a historical or a biblical chronology. It would lead to the concept of Geologic Time, and Smith’s work in showing how this was to be done was crucial in the development of this novel science. His work quickly won general acceptance, not least because of its firm empirical basis and relative innocence of formal theory. His great map constructed of 15 hand-colored copperplate engravings was more than 6 feet wide and nearly 9 feet high. Nothing like it had ever been seen. It was, John Phillips wrote of the first four sheets to be finished, "Perhaps the most varied and beautiful sheets that have ever appeared in geological colours."

Cecil J. Schneer Professor Emeritus of Geology and the History of Science
The University of New Hampshire

Postscipt and Acknowledgments

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