The National Museums of Scotland (NMS) report about the survey of the Birk Knowes fossil bed is 44 pages in length, but the written part including the summary takes up a mere 4 pages. The rest of the report contains references, data, maps, and photographs. For those wishing to read the full report, it can be downloaded here: NMS-report.pdf
The report is, unfortunately, not clearly written. It appears largely like a collection of field notes that have not been worked out. As the report also contains geological jargon, we will do our best to make it understandable to the reader.
This is the most critical section of chapter 2 and requires a fairly lengthy explanation. Therefore, this page is broken into sections for easier reading.
We will first look at SNH’s claims about the NMS report, try to match these claims with the NMS report itself, and then look at several other noteworthy aspects of the NMS survey. The most important conclusions about the NMS report are at the bottom of this page.
Part 1: SNH’s claims about the NMS report
Before dealing with the NMS report, we need to know what exactly SNH says is contained within it. SNH made the following three claims about the NMS report to justify the closure of Birk Knowes beyond the year 2000:
SNH’s 1st claim about the NMS report:
This statement is clear about what the NMS survey concluded about the condition of the resource; ‘almost totally removed‘.
SNH’s second claim about the NMS report:
According to this statement, specially commissioned research (=the NMS survey) concluded that the fossil bed probably only occurs within the SSSI boundary. What is the SSSI boundary? It is the area around Birk Knowes that is fenced off, as seen below:
SNH’s 3rd claim about the NMS report:
To put this into more managable terms, what SNH means here is: the NMS report concluded that the fossil bed is limited in extent. SNH does not elaborate where and to what degree it is limited. However, as SNH claims to cite the NMS report, that is where we will look for the answer.
Can these three claims be substantiated? Let’s take a closer look at the NMS report.
Part 2: Goals and fieldwork of the NMS survey
To better understand what the NMS report is about, we need to first look at what the purpose of the site survey was, and what kind of fieldwork was carried out by the museum staff.
The main purpose of the survey is highlighted below:
The NMS wanted to assess the extent of the fossil bed (=see how far it travels). This is where we already run into a significant problem. The fieldwork they carried is shown below:
1. A 4km² area to the south of Birk Knowes was surveyed to find and log exposures of rock (logging = mapping the vertical sequence of the bed).
2. Exposures of the Jamoytius Horizon at Birk Knowes were sampled for fossils and logged. The angle and direction of dip of the beds was also measured.
3. Scree (loose rock) was checked for fossils.
The problem here is that none of the above activities were related to assessing the extent of the fossil bed at Birk Knowes. Only point 1 seems to have something to do with surveying, but that is about the 4km² to the south of the site. As can be read later, this area has nothing to do with Birk Knowes.
Based on the activities they carried out, the NMS could not have known how far the Jamoytius Horizon continues around Birk Knowes. This is concerning because the NMS report has been used by SNH to close Birk Knowes on the grounds of the fossil bed having a limited extent (=small fossil bed that does not travel far). The lack of any activity that could have ascertained this means that neither the NMS nor SNH could ever have known how far the fossil bed travels.
What NMS staff should have done was use the excavator that was already at the site for the purpose of clearing scree, and dig a number of narrow exploratory trenches to find out how the Jamoytius Horizon travels along the surface to the east and west of existing exposures. Alternatively, they could have used a drilling rig to obtain cores from areas where the fossil bed can be expected to continue. These activities would have revealed how far the Jamoytius Horizon continues around Birk Knowes.
What this means is that the NMS survey did not carry out its main stated goal. Aside from this, the NMS also did not assess the amount of damage caused by the German collectors, nor did they attempt to ascertain how much fossil bed is remaining. Therefore, none of the activities carried out by the NMS museum staff surveying the site could support any of SNH’s three claims about the condition of the fossil bed.
This leaves only two possibilities:
1) The NMS report is somehow still usable to support SNH’s narrative.
2) SNH was dishonest about the condition of the fossil site.
Before jumping to conclusions, let’s see if the NMS report nonetheless contains information to support SNH’s claims.
(On a side note, it is surprising that the SNH geologist responsible for the survey allowed the NMS to deliver a report even though its main stated goal was not carried out. It was, after all, SNH who commissioned the survey.)
Part 3: Main conclusion of the NMS report
We are now going to look at the NMS report’s findings to see if SNH’s claims about the condition of the site are written in the report.
The above abstract (=summary) of the report contains only one conclusion. The relevant part of this conclusion has been highlighted.
To translate it into more managable terms:
“Jamoytius Horizon exposures could only be found within the Birk Knowes SSSI”
As this is the report’s most important conclusion, might this be where SNH’s second or third claims about the NMS report come from, namely that the fossil bed is ‘probably contained entirely within the SSSI boundary’, or that the resource is ‘limited in extent’? Not at all. Consider the following two points:
1. This conclusion refers strictly to the exposures that are “restricted in extent”, not the fossil bed itself. The exposures are the exposed sections of rock, which is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Most of the fossil bed in the area is located beneath grass and trees. Therefore, this statement has no bearing on the scale or extent of the fossil bed.
2. This statement is in reference to the earlier-mentioned 4km² to the south of Birk Knowes that was surveyed and which did not reveal the Jamoytius Horizon. Could this be of any significance? Consider the following two points:
a) It was the wrong area to survey. The bedding plane of the Jamoytius Horizon travels across the surface in a roughly east-west direction from Birk Knowes, not south. The area to the south of Birk Knowes is the flank of Nutberry Hill. The fossil bed already dips into the hill at Birk Knowes. So it was no surprise that the Jamoytius Horizon was not found in the surveyed area. As the NMS team measured the angle and direction of dip of the beds at Birk Knowes, it is remarkable that they should choose the wrong area to survey.
b) This approach was like looking for a needle in a hay stack. As around 99.9% of the landscape is covered in grass and trees, this area is poorly exposed. Even if the NMS had surveyed the right area, the odds of finding another exposure of the Jamoytius Horizon would have been remote.
What this tells us is that the report’s most important finding was gained through surveying the wrong area, through a method unlikely to produce results, and that this statement has no bearing on the fossil bed at Birk Knowes. As a consequence it is not possible to close Birk Knowes on the basis of this conclusion. Because this statement is strictly in reference to the exposures, it does not concur with any of SNH’s claims. We must therefore look further to try to find a match.
Part 4: Other passages about limited in extent, restricted, etc.
We are now going to look elsewhere in the NMS report to see where SNH may have found the necessary justification to close Birk Knowes. What follows are highlighted sections from the report whenever it mentions that something is limited, restricted, or otherwise notable concerning SNH’s claims. Four instances could be found:
What is meant here with “discontinuous lateral extent of the units” is uncertain as the report does not elaborate where this occurs. From the logs contained at the end of the NMS report we believe the NMS staff may refer to the faulting that occurs at the south exposure. However, even when faulted, fossil bed occurs on both sides of the fault. This indicates that the fossil bed is thicker than the exposures would otherwise lead us to believe. It is therefore unlikely that this sentence could have been used to close Birk Knowes.
To translate this into more understandable terms:
“The entire fossil bed at Birk Knowes is exposed in a discrete horizon that is both vertically and laterally restricted“.
Could SNH have closed Birk Knowes on the basis of this sentence? Consider the following:
1) Strictly speaking, every fossil bed in existence is both vertically and laterally restricted.
2) The statement is unclear. No explanation is given as to where and to which degree the fossil bed is vertically and laterally restricted, or how they arrived at it.
3) This does not match SNH’s first claim, that the fossil bed has been “almost totally removed“.
4) This does not match SNH’s second claim, as it does not state that the fossil bed is “so small that it is probably contained entirely within the SSSI boundary“.
5) This somewhat concurs with SNH’s third claim; that the fossil bed is “limited in extent“. However, as it does not clarify the area which the fossil bed is restricted to, SNH cannot have used this sentence to close Birk Knowes.
6) If this sentence was in any way relevant to the size or extent of the fossil bed at Birk Knowes, then why was it not clearly defined? Why was it not mentioned in the summary?
7) Perhaps most importantly, as the NMS did not dig exploratory trenches or drill cores to see how far the fossil bed continues, they had no means to verify that the fossil bed discontinues at any particular point.
These points make this sentence unusable for closing Birk Knowes.
The highlighted part seems to suggest that because NMS staff found no quality material, the resource has deteriorated. Unfortunately, they give themselves too much credit. The NMS staff involved in the survey were by no means real field workers. While the exposures may be large, it is still no easy task to find fossils at this site, as remarked by J. R. S. Hunter, a 19th century fossil hunter; “No one need dream of going fossil-collecting on the banks of the Logan Water in the same manner as would be done amongst the Carboniferous rocks. It requires hard, hard work…“. NMS staff were most likely unaware of the great amount of work necessary to find fossils at Birk Knowes. They only sampled the rocks with a small hammer. As they were not raking in an amount of fossils which they thought they would, they blamed the fossil bed instead of themselves.
This is the last sentence of the written part of the report.
To make it more managable to comprehend:
“It appears that exposures of the Jamoytius Horizon are extremely limited in the area”.
This looks a lot like the main conclusion given in the summary that has been handled in Part 2. The area they refer to would most likely be the 4km² to the south of Birk Knowes that was surveyed, as there is no other surveyed area mentioned in the report.
Unfortunately, it is not elaborated here how they arrived at “extremely limited“. The exposures are indeed limited in distribution compared to the 4km² area that was surveyed, which is a large area (and the wrong area). But, why say “extremely limited“? Two of the exposures are around 25-30 meters wide each, and they are the best part of 10 meters high.
At any rate, like the main conclusion, this statement is also unrelated to the amount or extent of the fossil bed at Birk Knowes. It too cannot have been used to justify the closure of this fossil site.
This means that, of the above four points, none of them support any of SNH’s three claims. Therefore, there is nothing contained within the NMS report which could have justified the closure of Birk Knowes.
Before we summarise the conclusions there is some more information of interest. If the above does not elicit considerable doubts concerning the integrity of SNH and the NMS, then what is mentioned next almost certainly will…
Part 5: BBC report about the NMS survey results
The BBC Radio did a story in the year 2002 about the fossil theft and the results of the NMS survey. It can be found here.
The section at the end of the news item is worth a closer look. Suzanne Miller, who is lead author of the NMS report about Birk Knowes, says then following:
A few passages from this news item are incredible:
She has just completed an assessment of the damage caused by collectors at Birk Knowes and her verdict is bleak.
This sentence suggests that the purpose of the NMS survey was to assess the damage caused by collectors at Birk Knowes. However, while it seems sensible to do this following the plunder of this site, the NMS never assessed the damage caused by the German collectors and what impact it had on the site. This is therefore nonsense.
Furthermore, as the amount of fossil bed at Birk Knowes was never investigated, it is surprising that Suzanne Miller makes these extraordinary claims:
“There are no fossils remaining”
“It’s a tiny pocket of some rocks that are over four hundred million years old, and everything has gone.”
This is obviously untrue as nowhere in the NMS report is this mentioned. In fact, the NMS report states that fossils were found during the survey. If what she was saying were true, SNH would not be keeping us out of the site and it would no longer have a SSSI designation. Furthermore, Suzanne Miller’s statement is even contradicted by what is said earlier in the same BBC report, as seen below:
This suggests that a 10-metre high cliff that produces fossils still exists.
This raises the question: why would the lead author of the NMS report not tell the truth about the fossil bed? In light of the fact that the NMS survey did not carry out its main goal, Suzanne Miller’s dishonest statements during her BBC interview raises doubts about the sincerity of the NMS survey. If we also consider that SNH allowed the NMS to deliver what is essentially a bogus report, it raises another question:
Is it possible that SNH and the NMS colluded to keep the site out of reach from others?
This is difficult to determine with certainty. But what we can say is that whatever was discussed between SNH and the NMS does not look above-board.
On a related note, it appears that Suzanne Miller’s carelessness with the truth caught up with her recently. She became a professor and chief executive of the Queensland Museum in Australia and she has been charged with numerous counts of fraud, as seen in the links below:
Part 6: The NMS report and evidence supporting a vast fossil bed
There is a final piece of evidence that must be taken into consideration; the NMS report’s evidence supporting a large fossil bed. Even though the NMS report did not ascertain the amount or extent of the fossil bed at Birk Knowes, it does contain data from which certain conclusions about this can be drawn. There are four points supporting a particularly sizable fossil bed:
1. Vertical thickness of the fossil bed.
The fossil bed is 10 meters thick according to the above sentence. However, NMS staff had been careless by pulling this statistic from old literature. As mentioned before, the ’10 meters total and middle 7 meters being better preserved/more abundant’ is taken from Alex Ritchie’s 1968 paper on Jamoytius, as seen below:
If you convert the feet to meters, you get almost the exact same figures. Alex Ritchie seems to have assumed that the north cliff face and south exposure represent the same bedding planes. They do not. Evidence of this can be seen in the NMS report itself. They mapped the vertical sequence of both exposures, which can be found at the end of the NMS report. This shows that the north cliff face and south exposure are not the same vertical section of fossil bed. If you add the numbers of the vertical sections of fossil bed at the north cliff face and south exposure, it totals approximately 24.5 meters.
2. Distance between exposures.
In the above map contained in the NMS report the three fossil-bearing exposures of the Jamoytius Horizon as mentioned by Ritchie (1968) are shown as black bars labelled 1, 2, and 14. If you compare this to the measure tool in Google Earth it shows the furthest horizontal separation of the fossil-bearing exposures to be around 110 metres.
3. Size of the exposures themselves.
The above are some of the photographs contained within the NMS report. They make it possible to gain an idea of the scale of the exposures. The north cliff face is depicted with an excavator for a size comparison. These are not exactly small exposures that are almost gone, as two exposures are 25-30 meters wide and nearly 10 meters high.
4. Large-scale excavation
Here the NMS report even says that a large scale excavation could be undertaken at the site. What is important here is that it does not mention that such an excavation would deplete the fossil bed. Therefore, this contradicts SNH’s claim of a fossil bed that has been “almost totally removed“.
On their own, any of the above four points indicate that the fossil bed is anything but small. However, taken together it should leave no doubt that we are dealing with a sizable fossil bed.
What we find particularly remarkable about the above data is that the authors of the NMS report did not use it to say more about the scale of the fossil bed. After all, why else call it a ‘resource assessment‘? The report evades making a direct statement about the scale of the fossil bed as though there is an elephant in the room. As shown in chapter 2.2, the scale of the fossil bed is not something that is easily overlooked.
Part 7: Conclusions about SNH’s interpretations of the NMS report
After reviewing the NMS report we will now look at the three claims by SNH about this report.
SNH’s 1st claim:
“…a National Museums of Scotland Fossil Resource Assessment has concluded that the fossil-bearing resource has been almost totally removed by unauthorised collectors.“
This statement, or anything remotely similar, cannot be found in the report. This is therefore a falsification.
SNH’s second claim:
“Specially commissioned research found that the fossil-bearing rock sequence was so small that it was probably contained entirely within the SSSI boundary.“
This is not contained within the NMS report. This statement is also a falsification.
SNH’s third claim:
“The conclusion of the NMS assessment, regarding the limited extent of the strata bearing the unique biofacies,…”
The closest thing to this mentioned by the NMS report is given in Part 4 Instance 2: “the horizon is both vertically and laterally restricted“. However, as no mention is made where the fossil bed is restricted to, and the NMS did not investigate the extent of the fossil bed, this sentence is unusable to keep Birk Knowes closed. In this instance SNH misrepresented the NMS report. (Spoiler alert: In 2018 SNH confirmed that they kept Birk Knowes closed on the basis of this sentence, which can be read later.)
If SNH had a desire for Birk Knowes to be accessible to researchers, they should not have resorted to falsifying and misrepresenting the NMS report’s conclusions. They should also not have accepted a bogus report from the NMS. Instead, they should have looked at the data contained elsewhere in the report which indicates that the fossil bed at Birk Knowes is anything but “almost totally removed”.
In sum, Birk Knowes has been wrongfully closed since the year 2000 on the basis of falsifying and misrepresenting the NMS report’s conclusions.
On the next page we are going to find out who at SNH is responsible for this.