History / Library

Murchison’s Peacetime Map of Siluria

Murchison's Silurian Map

Murchison’s Silurian Map

Sir Roderick Impey Murchison spent much of the early 1830s stomping round Wales and the West Midlands immersed in an oceanic world of metre-long sea scorpions. A world which later gave rise to both leeches and creatures with backbones.  Above the waters, plants began to grow on Avalonia.  It was the dawn of the age of the spiders.  Siluria.

Eurypterus Tetragonophthalm. (A sea scorpion).

Eurypterus Tetragonophthalm. (A sea scorpion).

He brought together his findings on his Silurian fossils and formations in his 1839 work ‘The Silurian System’.  He dedicated it to Adam Sedgwick who was hard at work on the Cambrian system in North Wales, and up to his neck in trilobites.

With the text came a map (see above).  A large map, outlining the Silurian formations for the first time. The map also showed the division between what Murchison thought of as his bits of geological territory and those of Sedgwick (clearly marked ‘Cambrian‘).  It is an impressive object.  Hand-coloured and roughly five feet wide by three tall, it’s well designed and detailed.  Both a piece of scientific history as well as beautiful object in its own right.

Jumping forward to the present, many copies of Murchison’s text find themselves without the map.  Maps get torn, battered in the field, framed and put on walls and, of course, separated from their text by dealers to ensure a maximum return when sold.  Two copies of ‘The Silurian System’ have been auctioned at Christie’s in the part three years.  One copy lacked its map and sold for an impressive £875.  The other copy came complete with the map.  It made £3,250.  There are clearly many lonely copies of the text waiting to be reunited with their cartographic companion.

The copy of the map we have in the library has been dissected and mounted on linen and is now in three sections, but otherwise well preserved.  As we’ve had several requests to buy copies of it, we thought it was about time we got it scanned.  So, in conjunction with the Royal Geographical Society we’ve not only scanned it, but digitally re-stitched it together into one sheet and removed the linen creases from where it’s been folded.  The result is a superb image which we can now offer in print form at the reasonable rate of £25 + VAT and postage to Fellows of the Geological Society or £35 + VAT and postage to non-Fellows.  If you’d like to buy a copy but think 5ft x 3ft sounds a touch on the large size, we can print it at smaller sizes, just specify the length you’d like the longest side to be.  To order, contact me or visit our map print sale pages.

Sir Roderick Impey Murchison

Sir Roderick Impey Murchison

After the publication of this map, relations between Murchison and Sedgwick grew strained.  The boundary between what was Silurian and what was Cambrian became blurred when Silurian fossils started showing up in Cambrian areas.  Huge swathes of geological time (and Wales) were claimed and counter-claimed for Murchisonians and Sedgwickians as, not for the first time, the world of geology split into two camps and had a bit of a squabble.

The great Silurian-Cambrian war continued for four decades until 1879 when the no-man’s-land of the Ordovician was established between them by Lapworth.  It has separated them ever since.  Murchison’s map captures that brief moment of peace before scientific discovery turned into a dispute over intellectual territory and split the geological world in two.

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