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My Favourite Fossil: Richard Fortey

Updated Tuesday, 15th July 2008

Richard Fortey, trilobite expert, tells the tale behind his favourite fossil.

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My name is Richard Fortey, and for many years I was the trilobite expert at the Natural History Museum in London and now I’m Emeritus but still have my office there. And I’m going to tell you about my favourite trilobite, which is this specimen in this little leather bag.

I was presented it, I was given it by Sir James Stubblefield who was Director of the British Geological Survey and in his day a famous trilobite man. He died aged about 100, and to my pleasure and surprise I received this trilobite in his will, together with the story accompanying the Trilobite. Because Stubblefield himself had been left it by a man called Hawkins, who was a renowned authority on sea urchins in his day and Hawkins had been in the First World War.

Accompanying the specimen was a letter, now a bit faded, from the then keeper - or head - of palaeontology in the Natural History Museum, to Hawkins, and Hawkins at the time was in the trenches in France in the First World War, and the letter went something as follows:

My dear Hawkins, I’m thinking of you now in a very vulnerable position and I wish I could present you with armour to keep you safe, which I cannot, but I can send you the carapace of my favourite trilobite, and that’s this one, Calymene Blumenbachii, in the hope that it will keep you safe.

And it did because Hawkins came back and became a renowned professor and expert on sea urchins. And in his time, due time, Hawkins passed the trilobite onto Sir James Stubblefield, and Stubblefield eventually passed it on to me. So it’s a very precious object.

And, well I hope that it has a little charm attached to it because a few years ago I wrote a book called Trilobite! (with an exclamation mark), all about trilobites and how they live, and I was lucky enough to be picked to go on Start the Week with Jeremy Paxman which, of course, always sets off a little flutter in your heart. And you get a few minutes’ warm-up time before the programme and I noticed that I was going to be with the famously acerbic novelist, Will Self, and I was getting a bit worried and nervous.

But I did have in my pocket my lucky charm, the trilobite, and just before going on to the programme I took it out and I showed it to Jeremy Paxman saying you probably haven’t seen a trilobite before, and he took some interest in it. And I noticed as we were walking in he took my book from the bottom of the pile and put it on the top of the pile, so maybe the trilobite charm had worked once again, a century after the First World War.





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