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.
TLDR: 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 by unauthorised collectors‘.
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 now.
Part 2: Goal of NMS survey and the fieldwork
To better understand what the NMS report is about, we need to first look at the purpose of the site survey and what kind of fieldwork was carried.
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 two possible options to explain this descrepancy:
1) The NMS report is somehow still usable to support SNH’s narrative.
2) SNH was wrong 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
We are now going to take a closer 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 in the area 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 where rocky outcrops were surveyed which did not contain the Jamoytius Horizon. Could this be of 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 east into the hill at Birk Knowes. Therefore, it was no surprise that the Jamoytius Horizon was not found in the surveyed area to the south, which is younger in age. 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 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 if 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. They are discussed here:
It is uncertain what is meant precisely here with “discontinuous lateral extent of the units” as the report does not elaborate this. However, it is evident that it refers to “units” (=sections of bed) and does not specifically refer to the fossil bed. Considering that this is imprecise and it does not match SNH’s statements about the extent of the fossil bed, this is not the statement we are looking for.
To translate this into more understandable terms:
“The entire fossil bed at Birk Knowes is exposed in a distinct horizon that is both vertically and laterally restricted“.
This statement is vague but it somewhat concurs with SNH’s third claim; that the fossil bed is “limited in extent” (if you change the word restricted to limited and if you disregard the mentioning of the exposure (crops out; outcropping)). Could SNH have justified the closure of Birk Knowes on the basis of this sentence? Consider the following:
- This statement is ambiguous. Every exposure and fossil bed in existence is both vertically and laterally restricted. Is it restricted to 10 meters around the exposures? 100m? 1km? 10km?
- It’s a standalone sentence. Nothing said before or after clarifies its meaning. Surely, a world-class fossil site would not be closed indefinitely based on one ambiguous sentence?
- The NMS survey did not dig exploratory trenches or drill cores to see how far the fossil bed continues. They therefore did not have the means to conclude that the fossil bed discontinues at any particular point.
This is not the statement we are looking for.
The highlighted part seems to suggest that because NMS staff found no quality material during their survey, that the resource has deteriorated. Unfortunately, they give themselves a little 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. This refers to the exposures rather than the fossil bed itself. 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 densely vegetated area that also happens to be 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 not what we are looking for. This means that, of the above four points, none of SNH’s three claims about the condition of the site are substantiated by the report.
Something is very wrong here. Before proceeding further 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:
Let’s look at the individual passages:
She has just completed an assessment of the damage caused by collectors at Birk Knowes and her verdict is bleak.
This 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, the NMS never assessed the damage caused by the German collectors. 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?
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. She became a professor and chief executive of the Queensland Museum in Australia and received that is well over a hundred thousand pounds a year. Despite this, she has been charged with numerous counts of fraud, as seen in the links below:
Update (May 2020): She was convincted and went to jail:
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. So far we have looked for information to support SNH’s notion that the fossil bed is almost gone. But what about the other part of the story? Is there evidence to support a large fossil bed, like we claim? The NMS report did not ascertain the extent of the fossil bed at Birk Knowes, but it does contain data with which certain conclusions about 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. This statement was pulled 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. However, this is not the case. According to the NMS report’s logs of the laminated sections, these exposures represent separate sections of fossil bed. Taking the logs of the north and south exposures into account it is possible calculate the total thickness of the logged fossil bed: 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 meters.
3. Size of the exposures themselves.
The above are some of the photographs contained within the NMS report. Using these photographs it is 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. As these photographs are similar to what we provided earlier, it is remarkable that the fossil bearing resource is regarded as “almost totally removed“.
4. Large-scale excavation
Here the NMS report even says that a large scale excavation could be undertaken at the site and that it is “most likely to yield significant fossil material“. What is also important here is that it does not mention that such an excavation would deplete the fossil bed, which would have been necessary to support SNH’s claim that the fossil bed that has been “almost totally removed“.
On their own, any of the above four points indicate contradict SNH’s claims about the scale of the fossil bed bed. However, taken together it should leave no doubt that we are dealing with a considerable resource.
We find it remarkable that the NMS staff did not use this data 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 statement about the scale of the fossil bed as though there is an elephant in the room. For this we have two possible explanations:
- The data they mention is self-explanatory. You do not need to be a trained geologist to know that it hints at a considerable resource.
- They could not be bothered to elaborate this. This would be supported by the field-note quality of the report.
Part 7: Conclusions about SNH’s interpretation of 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 we will get to later.)
If SNH had a desire for Birk Knowes to be accessible to researchers, they have a funny way of showing it. Apart from falsifying and misrepresenting the NMS report’s conclusions, they accepted a bogus report from the NMS that did not carry out its main stated goal. SNH could have looked at the data contained in the report which indicates that the fossil bed at Birk Knowes is anything but “almost totally removed”, yet this was ignored.
In sum, Birk Knowes has been wrongfully closed since the year 2000.
Considering that our photographs of the site had caused the SNH CEO to launch an investigation into the closure of Birk Knowes, it became prudent to know who falsified the NMS report’s conclusions. We will look into this next.