Bringing fossils into the digital age | Digital Collections

What do an Iguanodon’s thumb spike, an ichthyosaur paddle and a shark fin spine all have in common? Well these are just some of the specimens we’ve digitised as part of the museum’s eMesozoic project, headed by Fossil Mammal Curator Dr Pip Brewer.

Hypsilophodon foxii,
An Early Cretaceous dinosaur Hypsilophodon foxii, from Brightstone Bay Isle of Wight, one of the images taken as part of the eMesozoic project.

For the past eight months myself and two other eMesozoic digitisers, Lyndsey Douglas and David Godfrey, have been busy in the palaeontology department mass imaging British Mesozoic vertebrates for the first time.

The aim of the project is to add these images to the museum’s specimen database, which will be made available online for researchers and the public to search. Digitising collections now plays a vital role in the work of museums, as an online image database can allow researchers to quickly and easily search collections remotely, from anywhere in the world. It is also important for conservation purposes, as we can assess the condition of a specimen in our collection over time, and compare it to our image records.

Imaging a small specimen from our Plesiosaur collection
Here I am using a lightbox to image a small specimen from our Plesiosaur collection

The aim of the eMesozoic project is to test different methods of digitising to explore how best we can image the rest of the palaeontology collections in the future. In six months we have imaged over 14,000 specimens from our Ichthyosaur, Dinosaur, Fish and Marine Reptile collections, and we are well on track to reach our target of 20,000. Specimens have ranged in size from the huge to the tiny and these vast differences have meant we have had to image them in different ways. Currently we have three different methods for small, medium and large specimens. For small specimens we use a lightbox for imaging; for medium specimens that do not fit under one of these we use a copy stand with lighting attached; and for the really big stuff we either photograph these in situ (some of our dinosaur specimens are quite literally huge lumps of solid rock !) or move them carefully on to height adjustable trolleys which we then place under lights.

Imaging a specimen from the Plesiosaur collection
Fellow digitiser Lyndsey Douglas using our medium setup to image a specimen from our Plesiosaur collection.

This has made the project a team effort, with many curators, staff and volunteers donating their time to helping us move and prepare specimens for imaging in addition to adding information about them to the museum’s specimen database. It has been great to work with staff from across the department, and likewise we think they’ve enjoyed getting involved in the project and having a peek at collections they otherwise might not get a chance to !

Iguanodon thumb-spike
Thumbs up – Mineralogy curator Robin Hansen likes this Iguanodon thumb-spike

One of my favourite collections to work on so far has been fossil fish.

Fossil Fish curator Emma Bernard and Assistant Fossil Mammal curator Roula Pappa
Team effort – Fossil Fish curator Emma Bernard and Assistant Fossil Mammal curator Roula Pappa helping us to digitise larger dinosaur specimens

Aside from the thousands of teeth and scales we have imaged, some of my favourite specimens have been these fin spines from an extinct genus of shark, Hybodus which lived in seas around the world from around 300 to 60 million years ago.


A fin spine from Hybodus
My favourite fins – a fin spine from Hybodus, an extinct genus of shark

These spines would have sat at front of their dorsal fins, however, their purpose is still debated with some suggesting it helped sharks move more effectively through the water and others that they may have been used for defence. The golden shine that you can see is iron pyrite, otherwise known as fool’s gold, which replaced the bone material as a result of the fossilisation process.

An Ichthyosaurus communis skull from Lyme Regis
An Ichthyosaurus communis skull from Lyme Regis.

Some other favourites of mine have been these beautiful examples of an Ichthyosaur paddle and skull.

An Ichthyosaurus communis paddle from Lyme Regis
An Ichthyosaurus communis paddle from Lyme Regis.

These marine reptiles existed at roughly the same time as the dinosaurs from around 250 to 90 million years ago and much like dinosaurs came in a variety of species and a range of sizes. I still find it incredible how an object so old can still look so life like millions of years later !

It was in the Ichthyosaur collection that we first began digitising for the eMesozoic project and so during this time we made many changes to the way we image specimens. This was where we first created our three workflows, and begun getting used to imaging specimens using a range of different camera settings and lighting. It has been really interesting to see how our imaging processes, and our efficiency, has improved along the way due to our experimenting with different methods and workflows. Often these have had to be adapted to the collection we are working on – we have learned that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to digitisation ! Hopefully as we progress through the collections we can continue to hone our digitisation processes which will lead to better methods when tackling the rest of our collections in the future.

You can see more images taken during eMesozoic when the database is made available online later in the year…

Francesca Taylor
Digital Collections Programme



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