BARTON-ON-SEA
and
KARL MAYER-EYMAR

 Their Contribution to the Sciences of Geology and Palaeontology 

The cliffs at Barton-on-Sea have long been a source of beautifully preserved fossils and, due to the erosion of the cliffs, new finds are continually being exposed without the need for much excavation. The fossils found there are relatively recent in their geological origin and due to the extensive coastal exposure of the fine-grained clayey sands of which the cliffs are primarily formed they weather out easily and naturally.

Barton Cliffs looking east from Chewton Bunny

More than 500 species have been recorded including corals, fishes, mammals and reptiles with sharks teeth and plant fossils being very common. In 1840 a crocodile fossil was discovered in nearby Hordle Cliffs by the Marchioness of Hastings, a renowned collector of the time.

For these reason many collectors, both expert and amateur have been attracted to Barton since at least the 18th century. The first collector of note was Gustavus Brander who, in 1766 published the first catalogue of Barton fossils which was also the first such catalogue to be issued by the British Museum and included many fine illustrations.

In the years since, many collectors who came to Barton became experts in their field and contributed to the transformation of the pastime of fossil collecting to the scientific and academic profession that it is today. One such was Sir Charles Lyell who lived in nearby Cadnam. However, there was one expert who never visited England but had a deep interest in the geology of the Barton Cliffs or the Barton Beds as it is commonly known.

That man was Karl Mayer-Eymar, a Swiss geologist with a particular interest in and knowledge of stratigraphy which is the science of defining and categorising the earth’s geological strata. He first subdivided the Tertiary period, the former term for the geologic period from 65 million to 2.6 million years ago, into twelve stages. He identified the localities in Northern Europe where the geology was similar and named each stage after one of those locations. To those with geology similar to the Barton Cliffs he gave the name Bartonian. Today Bartonian is defined as the period between 41.3 and 38.0 million years ago, being the time during which the material that constitutes the Barton cliffs was laid down.

Karl Mayer-Eymar was born in Marseille on 29th July 1826. His parents were Carl Friederich Mayer, a Swiss merchant and Elisabeth Maria Fraziska Kunkler. He was baptised Karl David Mayer on 5th August 1826 but chose to change his name to Mayer-Eymar later in life.

The register of Karl Mayer’s birth in his father’s home town
of St Gallen in Switzerland

Karl Mayer-Eymar before his name change (age unknown)

While he was still young, the family moved to Cohigná (now called Cohignac), which is a suburb of Guignen near Rennes where he received his early schooling. It was while here, on 10th November 1840, that his father died and he went to live with his uncle in his father’s home town of St Gallen in Switzerland. The only record of his time in St Gallen shows that he was confirmed at the Linsebühl Church on 20th March 1842 and attended the protestant grammar school between 1843 and 1844. His school reports were, not surprisingly, excellent.

In 1846 Mayer, as he was still known, enrolled at the prestigious Zurich Polytechnic (now known as ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) which was attended by many notable scientists including Albert Einstein who attended between 1896 and 1900. Mayer’s chosen subjects were medicine and natural history but he turned to geology probably as a result of his school day passion for collecting fossils.

Whilst at the Zurich Polytechnic he studied geology, the science of the rocks and substances that make up the earth’s surface, and palaeontology, the science of the history of life on Earth through the fossil remains of living organisms. After graduating he worked in Paris from 1851 to 1854 principally at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle. It was whilst working in Paris and influenced by his peers that he developed the concept of the subdivision of beds and courses into stages.

It was at the Zurich Polytechnic, however, that Mayer-Eymar spent most of his career and where in 1858 he was appointed assistant in the geology faculty. Shortly afterwards, he became lecturer and curator of the collections, a position which he held until his death. Zurich State archives show that Mayer-Eymar moved to Zurich on 31st January 1873 but his place of residence is not documented. In 1875 he was appointed professor of stratigraphy and palaeontology at the University of Zurich. Records show that later, on 2nd 1896 he moved to Limmaplatz 34 where he spent his remaining years. The archives show a list of tenants at the time. One was a Swiss Federal Railway conductor and another silk dyer. It appears the Mayer-Eymar seems to have lived a rather modest lifestyle for a University Professor.

 

Karl Mayer’s entry in the Zurich Address Book of non-residents

Limmaplatz square was significantly changed in 1898 when the tram line was built across it and it was further developed in 1930. In spite of these changes the building still stands but it has been renovated and the main entrance moved to the back of the building. The address is now Fierzgasse 30.

Plan of Limmaplatz around 1900
34 Limmaplatz is in the bottom left hand corner

 

View looking south toward 34 Limmaplatz as it is today

Karl Mayer-Eymar travelled widely in Western Europe and Mediterranean countries and brought extensive collections back to Zurich. The entire collection comprises about 350,000 artefacts and is owned by ETH Zurich but it is on permanent loan to the Basel Museum of Natural History. He published voluminous lists and descriptions of these materials and of others sent to him from abroad. Some of his accounts included new species and genera, but most of them were without illustrations. This omission lessened the usefulness of many of his publications which were considerable. The obituary in the Verhandlungen der Schweizerischen Naturforschenden Gesellschaft (Discussions of the Swiss Society of Natural Sciences) lists a total of ninety one scientific papers published during his life. Obituaries were also published by Eclogae Geologicae Helvetiae (Short Notes on Swiss Geology) and the Journal de Conchyliologie (Journal of Conchology) in which it runs to nineteen pages.

The obituaries suggest that Mayer-Eymar’s standing amongst his peers must have been considerable as, in 1894 he was awarded the Prix Savigny by the French Academie de Sciences for his conchological research in Egypt. This work also merited an earlier award in 1892 of £21 0s. 0d. from the Barlow-Jameson Fund by the Geological Society of London. The award was accepted on his behalf by a Dr. Blandford as Mayer-Eymar was still in Egypt. In making the donation the President of the Society said “I hope that you will convey to him an expression of the interest we take in the work which he is now carrying on so vigorously in Egypt, and of our desire to aid him in it.” In his reply Dr Blandford said “The money will be devoted to one of the most important objects for which these funds were originally founded – the payment of the travelling expenses of a geologist who is engaged in investigating the structure of a distant country.”

It was Mayer-Eymar’s stratigraphical works however, that were of greatest importance and these have been of influence until the present. In 1857 he published his paper entitled “Versuch einer neuen Klassifikation der TertiärGebilde Europa’s”. (An Attempt at a New Classification of the Tertiary Formations of Europe) in which he details his first division of the Tertiary period into stages These are summarised in the following table:-

Stage No. Mayer-Eymar
Stage Name
Primary Location Modern Geological
Name
I Soissonische Stufe Soisson, France
II Londonische Stufe London, England
III Parisische Stufe Paris, France
IV Bartonische Stufe Barton-on-Sea, England Bartonian
V Ligurische Stufe Liguria, Italy
VI Tongrische Stufe Tongria, Belgium
VI Aquitanische Stufe Aquitaine, France Aquitanian
VIII Mainzische Stufe Mainz, Germany
IX Helvetische Stufe Switzerland
X Tortonische Stufe Tortona, Italy Tortonian
XI Piacenzische Stufe Piacenza, Italy Piacenzian
XII Astische Stufe Asti, Italy Astian

 

Mayer-Eymar modified and improved his original classification many times during his life and these have been further revised as subsequent research has lead to the development and refinement of geological timelines. Some of the names Mayer-Eymar introduced were never adopted or were in use for only a short time. Others however, including Bartonian, are still employed, although with somewhat modified definitions.

At the time Mayer-Eymar was conducting his research, the basic model of stratigraphy was known, having been developed earlier by the geologist William Smith from 1795. He deduced that the strata in locations with similar geology and containing similar fossils had been laid down during the same historical period. With this knowledge and his large collection of fossils from his excavations around Europe, Mayer-Eymar had much of the necessary data to produce his 1857 paper. However, as he never visited England he would have had no personal knowledge of Barton geology but it was a locality so famous throughout Europe that it could not be ignored.

Mayer-Eymar had access to the academic papers of his peers through the professional bodies of the time as the British and French Geological Societies were both well established by then and there is evidence that he procured fossils from dealers.

The Mayer-Eymar collection in the Basel Natural History Museum contains many fossils from the Bartonian Stage, most of which originated in France, Austria and other countries. However, there are around forty fossils from Barton accompanied by documents which indicate they were procured from Alexandre Stuer, a Paris fossil dealer. It is not known how these fossils reached Paris but there was a large trade in fossils sustained by many dealers. There is evidence that Mayer-Eymar was in communication with the Weymouth dealer Robert Damon and the renowned James Gregory, one of the principal London mineral dealers of the last half of the 19th century whose company is still in business today albeit under the name of Gregory, Bottley & Lloyd.

Basel Natural History Museum label showing the supplier
of fossils to Karl Mayer’s collection

Basel Natural History Museum fossil label
in Karl Mayer’s handwriting

It was not until 1881 that Karl Mayer changed his name to Mayer-Eymar. The minutes of the Administrative Board of the city of St Gallen show that on 25th January of that year he was granted permission to add the suffix Eymar to his family name. It is assumed that he did this as Mayer was a very common Swiss name, especially in his father’s home town of St Gallen.  Indeed, although there are two strong candidates, there are so many Mayer families in St Gallen at the time that the City records cannot identify his uncle with any certainty and hence who he went to live with following his father’s death. However, with his growing standing in the scientific community, he could now ensure he was given the recognition for his geological findings and papers. How or why he chose Eymar is not known but interestingly it cannot be a coincidence that it is an anagram of Mayer.

 

St Gallen Council Minutes confirming Karl Mayer’s change of name

Karl Mayer-Eymar was known amongst his  contemporaries as “Tertiary Mayer” such was his interest and expertise in the Tertiary period. He was also described as an original and sometimes picturesque character.  This portrayal is reflected in the photo which was taken before his name change.

Karl Mayer-Eymar late in life (age unknown)

Karl Mayer-Eymar never married. His death certificate states that he died in Zurich on 25th February 1907 at 7 pm at Kantonsspital (now University Hospital) from arteriosclerosis, hardening of the arteries, a typical disease of old age. He was buried at the Sihlfeld cemetary, plot C 2358. In Zurich, after 20 to 25 years, the plants and the paths between the graves are cleared and turfed. It is not known what happened to the gravestone as it is offered to relatives or disposed of by the cemetery. However, the grave is not disturbed and so Karl Mayer-Eymar’s remains still rest at the same spot.

Plan of Sihlfeld Cemetery and how it is today 


The location of Karl Mayer-Eymar’s grave as it is today

Mayer-Eymar’s death certificate states that he appointed Albert Heim, also a noted Swiss geologist, to be executor of his will. Albert Heim also studied at Zurich Polytechnic from 1867 to 1869 and became a professor there in 1872. It must have been a lifelong friendship for him to name Heim as his executor. Regrettably Mayer-Eymar’s will did not survive. It would normally have been deposited at the state archives of Zurich Canton but there is no record of it there.

Karl Mayer-Eymar’s Death Certificate.

Barton fossils are considered of such importance that they have found their way into many collections both nationally and internationally. Most museum’s collections were built up in the late 19th and early 20th century when Barton was one of the “classic” localities. Fossils were either donated or purchased, presumably from the many collectors who then began to appreciate their importance and value. Today there are Barton fossils in some collections that have not yet been catalogued and these may well contain rare or scientifically important material waiting to be identified.

Another notable scientist, whose theory of evolution may well owe its development to the fossils of Barton Cliffs, is Charles Darwin. He took Volume 1 of Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology with him on his five year voyage on Beagle. Lyell spent his childhood not far from Barton in nearby Cadnam and is known to have collected and studied Barton fossils. On his return to England Darwin sought out Lyell to make his acquaintance and they subsequently became lifelong friends. Charles Darwin dedicated his own first book, Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the countries visited during the voyage of HMS Beagle round the World, to Lyell. The dedication taken from a later revised edition reads:

 

To Charles Lyell, Esq. F.R.S.

This second edition is dedicated with grateful pleasure, as an
acknowledgement that the chief part of whatever scientific merit
this journal and the other works of the author may possess, has
been derived from studying the well-known admirable

PRINCIPLES OF GEOLOGY

The Barton Cliffs are not part of the Jurassic Coast as recognised by UNESCO which extends eastward from Exmouth where the geology is 250 million years old to Swanage which is 75 million years old. However, moving further east the age of the coastal cliffs continues to get gradually younger until at Barton the age is 40 million years. Hence, in the geological timescale, Barton is a natural extension of the Jurassic Coast.

Barton continues to be a hunting ground for collectors and its fossils can be found in many prestigious museums (see Appendix). The Barton Beds are also incorporated in the school curriculum in the United Kingdom at Key Stage 4 and 5 and so are visited by many students as part of their field studies.

Today, the cliffs at Barton-on-Sea are recognised by the International Commission on Stratigraphy as the world type locality for the Barton Beds. The Commission produces, maintains and updates the International Chronostratigraphic Chart which is the acknowledged standard geological timeline.

The national and international importance of the Barton Cliffs was recognised by their designation in 1981 as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The Barton Beds yield the most diverse and best preserved fauna of the British Tertiary and are well known for their reptile remains, which include turtles, snakes and lizards. There is also a section which contains a unique fish fauna.

The SSSI Citation describes the Barton Cliffs as “One of Britain’s most important stratigraphic and paleontological sites.”

 

APPENDIX

The importance of Barton fossils is such that they can be found in many local, national and international collections including:-

Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Cambridge University
Natural History Museum, London
Basel Natural History Museum, Switzerland
Great North Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne
Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, Bath
Dorset County Museum, Dorchester
Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, Netherlands
Gallery Oldham, Oldham, Lancashire
Bournemouth Natural Sciences Society, Bournemouth
St Barbe Museum, Lymington, Hampshire
National Museum of Ireland, Dublin
The Hunterian, University of Glasgow
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, New Haven, Connecticut USA
Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, Illinois USA
Hampshire Cultural Trust, Winchester
National Museum of Wales, Cardiff
Oxford University Natural History Museum
Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand (Provenance unconfirmed)
Museum of Natural History & Planetarium, Providence, Rhode Island USA
Vienna Natural History Museum, Austria

ACKNOWLEGEMENTS

Professor Hugh Torrens, Keele University.
Dr. Wolf Seelentag, St Gallen Genealogical Society.
Dr. Walter Etter, Basel Natural History Museum.
Christine Appia, Societe Geologique de France Library.
Christian Huber, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Library.
Heike Hartmann, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Library.
Dr. Marcel Mayer, St Gallen Town Archives.
Philip Messner, Zurich University Archive.
Caroline Senn Scientific Assistant, Zurich City Archives.
Beatrix Gfeller, Sihlfeld Cemetery Archive, Zurich.
Caroline Lam, The Geological Society, London.
Isabelle Maurin-Joffre, Academies de Sciences, Paris.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bartley Lodge and Sir Charles Lyell: The Geologist’s New Forest Boyhood, Paul S Clasby, The Hatcher Review, 1997

 

© David E W Hall 2018

David would like to hear from anybody with further information about any of the topics in this paper or any curators with fossils of Barton provenance in their collection.

David can be contacted at mail@davidewhall.plus.com