While I tend to teach historic-period archaeology, as an academic who occasionally has to teach human evolution, I cannot understand or respect how creationists in today’s world can either deny the fossil record of natural history or attempt to shoehorn the biblical creation story into the complex billions of years of the Earth’s past as revealed by geological research. I possess even less sympathy for attempts to explain away human evolution and the complex human story of the last 4 million years, as revealed by fossils and material culture.
Everyone’s entitled to research these topics for themselves and come to their own conclusions, but as an academic, I have no obligation to listen to their crap. For while I can indulge varying debates on details of how human societies were composed, interacted with their environment, and changed in the past – including my areas of mortuary interest and expertise regarding past deathways and memorial practices – I have zero tolerance to creationists’ attempts to co-opt geology and archaeology into a Christian narrative that denies and/or misrepresents the antiquity of the Earth. Sadly, this is not about countering ‘old-fashioned’ ideas because, on the contrary, creationism is a vigorous form of pseudoarchaeology linked to insidious agendas in the Global West. Bogus narratives of the human past created by flat-earthers, creationists and others (including believers in ancient aliens) are indoctrinating vast swathes of the public, particularly via the world wide web. They draw on appealing fantasies and regularly deploy misrepresentations of academic inferences on archaeological and geological data. To me, these diverse and multi-strand growing movements are to be robustly challenged and to be indulged by researchers no more than white supremacist appropriations of early Germanic and Viking symbols on their marches. Indeed, these creationist narratives are, like both hyper-immobilist and hyper-diffusionist narratives of the human past, predicated on problematic racist frameworks and narratives.
One dimension of this movement is the growth of creationist museums and zoological gardens. For context, watch this YouTube video about the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Sadly, there are British equivalents too: the Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm in Somerset and the Genesis Expo in Portsmouth. At the latter, there is a mock grave to Darwinism, which is a ridiculous dimension for Archaeodeath discussion at a future date.
Imagine, therefore, my fascination and horror to encounter the splendid 19th-century Geological Gallery at Biddulph Grange Gardens, a National Trust property in east Cheshire. See this fabulous blog post for a full review of the gardens, including the Geological Gallery.
What is this unique gallery? As the original entrance to the gardens created by James Bateman (who took over Biddulph Grange in 1843), it attempted to conflate the emerging evidence of geological finds into the seven days of Christian creation found in Genesis. This is therefore a proto-museum revealing the complex and confused attempts to reconcile science and religion in the mid-Victorian era in response to geological discoveries and emerging theories of evolution.
The gallery was created from 1858 and opened in 1862 (i.e. it was coterminous with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species). It is inspired by the work of geologist and theologian Hugh Miller, in turn taking from the work of William Buckland who’d proposed the Earth was older than the Biblical Flood by a considerable degree. Miller, however, had attempted to specifically tie the geological record to each ‘day’ of creation outlined in the Bible, which each ‘day’ comprising an epoch.
The gallery fell into disarray in the early 20th century when it became a workshop for the Orthopaedic Hospital at the Grange. It is now in an advance state of restoration by the National Trust who have worked hard to reconstruct the kinds of fossils that were thought to have been in place. See the National Trust video here. Almost all on display today is made up of replicas.
One side of the gallery has, inset into its walls, a range of fossil replicas afforded a crude timeline with plaques above noting each ‘Day’ they were created on, starting with Cambrian, Ordovican and Silurian fossils. Most fossils are lost, although ten survived at Keele University and have been replicated to re-join the gallery. As restoration work is ongoing, there remain many empty spaces where lost fossils once were: including trees, footprints and a mammoth tusk. Indeed, the palaeontologist has to do his own ‘archaeology’ of the vertical space to record clues in the mortar of the original settings what types of fossils might once have been present.
Along the centre of the gallery are the rocks of the local area that denote the different strata being uncovered, angled to afford a sense of the rocks emerging on the surface of the Earth. On the wall opposite, there are geological maps of the British Isles.
Most striking of all is the juxtaposition of an ape and hominin skull (presumably modern replicas) at the very end of the display in ‘Day 6’. It is unclear whether these were original elements of the gallery and which hominin was unknown by 1862 to be afforded this position. I suspect this is an anachronistic back-projection, replacing a modern human skull of archaeological or medical origin. I’d like to know more of this.
Of course the gallery cannot be detached from the ‘world garden’ Bateman created around his house. Here, one can encounter the world in not only botanical forms but through material cultures from the ancient world, notably from Egypt.
The gallery remains in restoration involving a palaeontologist and as a part of ongoing research fossils continue to augment the empty spaces.
In terms of its heritage interpretation, we are invited to appreciate this unique gallery in its historical context and as a ‘fossil’ in its own right: a relic of a former time and one attempt to reconcile early geological science and religion in the mid-19th century. The display board is sympathetic to Bateman, posing the question: ‘How would you feel if all you believed to be true was being questioned?’
However, it remains the case that nowhere is there an attempt to afford visitors with a sense of what we do know about natural history and the human past. In times when creationism remains a vibrant anti-scientific dimension of the Global West, can we present this Victorian gallery without a more robust critique of its confused thinking?