Two hundred years ago …

Friday 18th February 2022

Here be hyenas

After a flurry of activity in the latter part of 1821, little seems to be happening in the Kirkdale Cave in the early months of 1822. Probably, the cave had by now been fully excavated – our own William Salmond paying for the hire of the labourers – leaving little for the gentlemanly fossil-hunter.  The Rev. William Eastmead, later recalled the 1821 ‘gold rush’, when “you might have beheld a rustic’s frock investing a man of letters … equipped with knee caps and trowsers, his head bound about with an handkerchief, his hands and face patched with mud, and nearly assimilated to the colour of the cave in which he had been immured”.  Mr Eastmead knew whereof he spoke, having himself joined the throng suitably clad in rustic’s frock, trowsers and handkerchief.  His own account of Kirkdale appeared two years later under the (much abbreviated) title of

Historia rievallensis: containing the history of Kirkby Moorside … to which is prefixed a dissertation on the animal remains, and other curious phenomena, in the recently discovered cave at Kirkdale.

By early 1822, then, most of the Kirkdale fossils had been extracted, and dispersed the length and breadth of the country, and beyond. This must have made life difficult for the Rev. William Buckland, who was trying to assemble information, illustrations, and bones for his forthcoming presentations to the Royal Society on Kirkdale and its significance

Buckland is crucial to the story of Kirkdale, therefore to the history of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society.  At this time he was Reader in Geology at Oxford (the first to hold this post), and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was also known as “the most lurid of the Oxford eccentrics” and as a charismatic and unorthodox lecturer. “He would keep his audience in roars of laughter, as he imitated what he thought to be the movements of the Iguanodon or Megatherium, or, seizing the ends of his long clerical coat-tails, would leap about to show how the Pterodactyl flew.” (This was probably more unconventional then than it would seem now.  Without comparing myself in any way with Buckland, I do remember, in my own lecturing career, impersonating a sea anemone to make some point or other…)

Throughout January 1822, however, William Buckland was not spending much of his time leaping around flapping his coat-tails: he was in fact working extremely hard trying to make sense of the Kirkdale fossils, and working out how they came to be in the cave.  A common view was that they must have been washed there in the course of Noah’s Flood.  Buckland’s analysis led him to suggest that the cave had been a hyena’s den, and that the remains had been brought there by the occupants.   Looking for evidence to support this conjecture, Buckland wrote to anyone who might have first-hand knowledge of the habits of hyenas, in India and in Africa.  The cave contained deposits of a whitish mineral known as album graecum (‘Greek white’).  A sample of this was shown to the proprietor of the Exeter ‘Change, a London menagerie; where it was “immediately recognised … as the residuary matter of hyenas” – that is, fossil hyena dung (the whiteness coming from the remains of crunched up bones). Always thorough, Buckland arranged for a young hyena, known as Billy, to be brought to England for his dietary and excretory habits to be studied.  (Billy was then intended to be converted into anatomical specimens, but his keeper was so overcome by his charms that he pleaded for a reprieve: and after some negotiations Billy was indeed reprieved, and lived in comfort to a ripe old age.)

Peter Hogarth

To be continued … or read more in our February newsletter, just published.  Members should by now have received their copy either by post or email; non-members can find it here.

And apologies to anyone who tried to call at the Lodge on Tuesday 15th February and found it closed.  The Clerk in the Country was stuck there with two punctured tyres.