Geologist Philip Powell has worked on the geological collections at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH) since 1963.
Philip says he discovered geology as a teenager growing up in east Cheshire, adjacent to the Peak District along with its fossils and minerals and caves and crags.
Following National Service in the army, he studied Geology at Oriel College from 1958 until 1961. During one long summer vacation he worked on the geological collections at OUMNH. And this experience shaped his future career.
After graduating from Oriel, Philip worked at a museum in Lincolnshire before soon returning to Oxford as the assistant curator of the geological collections at OUMNH, then called the University Museum.
He began his career cataloguing research collections and searching through old boxes and cabinets, looking for “lost” specimens of taxonomic importance which were figured and described in the old literature.
But over time he took on other curational work, such as planning exhibitions, arranging loans, liaising with specialists and researchers and answering miscellaneous enquires.
Enquiries included queries from members of the public about specimens they had found, such as local rocks and fossils.
He also dealt with some farcical hoaxes, including a set of alleged “stone-age dentures” made from pink plasticine set with small flakes of gravel.
For over 30 years Philip led the Oxford Geology Group, arranging talks and outings. He jokes that excursions tested his ingenuity in finding interesting geological locations with nearby hostelries serving “acceptable ales”.
Philip has enjoyed opportunities to join geological trips to Zambia, Brazil and Canada but says that he was always just as happy working out in the field in Oxfordshire.
On one of his solo outings Philip visited the gravel pits at Yarnton, arriving just in time to rescue an almost complete skeleton of a five-metre-long, 160 million-year-old “sea dragon” or pliosaur.
Complete skeletons are very rare. A new species, the specimen also made necessary a restructuring of the classification of the entire genus to which it belongs.
Today, the skeleton greets visitors to OUMNH, forming one half of the museum’s Out of the Deep exhibition.
Philip says another memorable period of fieldwork was recording 167-million-year-old dinosaur footprints at a quarry in North Oxfordshire.
Pothole-sized footprints of herbivorous animals extended across hundreds of metres, and bird-like footprints caught an eight-metre-long carnivore breaking into a run.
Philip made concrete casts of a few of the footprints and used them to recreate a part of the scene across the lawn of the OUMNH building.
When he retired in 2003, Philip became an Honorary Associate of OUMNH. He says geology remains one of his great interests and continues to work on various projects from his desk overlooking the main museum building.
He also helps to extend OUMNH’s outreach programme, working with Dr Nina Morgan, also an Honorary Associate.
Over recent years, Nina and Philip have co-authored two books. The first explains the geology of gravestones in and around Oxford. The second covers the hundred or so different stones that compose and adorn the OUMNH building.
Both Nina and Philip offer guided gravestone geology walks around cemeteries in Oxfordshire.