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Chronology of events

The first finds

A fairly detailed chronology of the discovery of the bones of Thecodontosaurus can be reconstructed from a copy of a letter written by Samuel Stutchbury to an unknown recipient (Letter 4) on 26th March, 1836, perhaps partly to explain his role, and that of his rival, the Rev. David Williams.

Bones were found in the first week of September, 1834, and delivered to the Bristol Institution while the curator, Samuel Stutchbury was away at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Edinburgh. Since Stutchbury was away, the quarryman took them to Dr Henry Riley.

The first fossils were 'one or two fragments of bone', including a nearly complete fibula that was figured in the memoir (presumably Riley and Stutchbury, 1840, pl. 30). When Stutchbury returned to Bristol at the beginning of October, several more bones were brought in, and he encouraged the quarrymen to collect as many as they could. By this means a 'considerable number of fragments' was brought together in the Bristol Institution, where they were shown to several notable visitors 'at the same time' (?October, 1834): Professor Louis Agassiz (1807-1873), the Swiss expert on fossil fishes from Neuchâtel, then touring Britain to collect information for his ongoing 'Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles' (Agassiz, 1833-44), the Revd. William D. Conybeare, rector of Sully (Glamorgan), later vicar of Axminster (Devon) and Dean of Llandaff Cathedral, and a noted geologist and palaeontologist, and the Rev. David Williams.

Williams visited the Durdham Down site at the same time, just after his visit to the Bristol Institution, to judge from comments in Letter 3. Williams had been to the Edinburgh meeting of the British Association also, and he spent several weeks studying geology in Scotland and in northern England. In his notebooks (SOMCM; Williams field notebook No. 6, 'Augt. 1834 to Decr. 1834'), he records some general information about the geology of the Bristol Downs and Avon Gorge, and mentions a visit to Mr Grainger's Quarry on Durdham Down. He notes 'Bones in Magn. Conglomerate', but says no more, and goes on to describe the nearby strata on Durdham Down, at St Vincent's Rocks, and in the Avon Gorge.

The first public announcements

The first public announcement of the specimens seems to have been in a lecture delivered by Riley to the Bristol Literary and Philosophical Society on 13th November, 1834. Riley's lecture had been trailed the previous week (8th November, 1834) in the Bristol Mercury (Anonymous, 1834a), and this probably represents the first published mention of the new Bristol dinosaur: 'We have observed with particular interest a notice in the Vestibule, announcing the discovery of some remarkable fossil bones in our immediate neighbourhood, and that, at a public meeting of the Philosophical and Literary Society, to be held on the evening of Wednesday next, Dr. Riley is to bring before the members and their friends some observations on these singular remains.'

Riley's lecture was entitled 'Observations on some fossil bones recently discovered in the Magnesian Conglomerate in the vicinity of Bristol' (Annual Report of the Bristol Institution for 1834). Conybeare gave a lecture on geological principles a week later, on 20th November, and in it he referred to 'the lizard of the last lecture' (Felix Farley's Bristol Journal, 20th December, 1834, p. 4), and 'the inferences which Dr Riley has been enabled to draw, from even the few and mutilated bones as yet discovered, are striking proof of the beauty of the laws discovered by Baron Cuvier', presumably Cuvier's 'laws' of comparative anatomy, concerning the correlation of parts and the subordination of characters, which enabled the French anatomist famously to speculate on diet and function of ancient animals based even on very limited remains. This geological lecture was published in January, 1835 (Conybeare, 1835).

At this time, a brief notice appeared in the Philosophical Magazine (and identically in at least four other venues at the same time; Anonymous, 1834b), which mentions Riley and Conybeare. The remains are described as 'some Saurian vertebrae, ribs, femora, and phalanges, together with claws, the latter of considerable proportional size: a coracoid bone has also been found, approaching very nearly to that of the Megalosaurus [sic]'. It is interesting that Stutchbury indicates that Conybeare 'sent a short notice to the Philos. Mag. for Decr. 1834', presumably indicating that he was the author of Anonymous (1834b).

There is no mention of the names to be given to the specimens, but Conybeare was a noted classicist and philologist, and he had coined some of the most euphonious names for fossil reptiles in the 1820s and 1830s: Mosasaurus, Plesiosaurus, Megalosaurus, and Iguanodon (Colbert, 1968; Buffetaut, 1987). Perhaps he suggested the names Thecodontosaurus and Palaeosaurus for the Bristol fossils?

At the same time, Williams's short paper was read to the Geological Society of London, on 17th December, 1834, presumably by himself. In the published version, Williams (1835) notes the discovery of the bones 'which Dr Riley and Mr Stutchbury have ascertained to belong to Saurians', and he goes on to give further details of 'a fragment of a small jaw found by himself' which has characters suggesting that the animal 'may have formed a link between the crocodiles and the lizards proper'. In making this statement, Williams may have been referring to comments made in the short notes just then appearing in print (Anonymous, 1834b), reporting comments by Riley, Stutchbury, and Conybeare.

The second published notice of the new finds appeared in January, 1835 in the West of England Journal of Science and Literature, effectively the organ of the Bristol Institution. In a news report (Anonymous, 1835), the bones are referred to two unnamed species, a larger and a smaller. At that point, Riley and Stutchbury clearly thought that the dentary bone with teeth was too small to belong with the postcranial elements, including vertebrae, ribs, coracoids, humerus, ulna, radius, femur, tibia, fibula, metacarpals, metatarsals, phalanges, and claws. It is clearly stated that Riley and Stutchbury are preparing a memoir for the Geological Society of London. Conybeare (1835, p. 99) noted the 'saurian bones' in the published version of his November, 1834 lecture, in the second part of the printed version, which was published in April, 1835.

Controversy: Williams vs. Stutchbury and Riley

The first of the Bristol letters (Letter 1) is a defence by the Rev. David Williams of his actions, written on 14th January, 1835. Williams had visited the Bristol Institution in October, 1834, as noted above, and had heard a rumour subsequently that he had been accused of improper behaviour in inspecting some of the reptile bones that Stutchbury intended to study and in obtaining information about the quarry. He denies any impropriety, but notes that he has already sent a 'short and hasty memoir' to the Geological Society of London. The timing of the letter from Williams, his haste in sending off a description of his specimens, and the apparent urgency of the news reports placed by Riley and Stutchbury (Anonymous, 1834b, 1835) suggests that all participants were aware of these competing efforts to publish accounts of the new specimens, and that they variously wished to establish priority in publication.

Draft of the letter from Samuel Stutchbury to 'Revd. D. Williams, Bleaden [sic], Somerset', dated 16th January, 1835, highlighting the reasons for his disagreement and unhappiness with Williams's behaviour (letter no. 2; BRO Ref. No. 32079/43/3). Transcribed here. Reproduced by kind permission of Bristol Records Office.

In his reply, dated 16th January, 1835 (Letter 2), Samuel Stutchbury expresses surprise at the rumour, but also indicates that he is unhappy about the fact that Williams has poached on his territory and has sent off a paper for publication, since Stutchbury fully intends to do the same. Stutchbury indicates that he had given Williams all the details of the discovery, except for the precise locality, when Williams inspected the collections of the Bristol Institution. He even proposed to take Williams to the site, but also suspected that his enthusiasm to know the site pointed to a desire to deprive the Bristol Institution of the 'opportunity of securing the remains yet entombed'. Stutchbury is particularly upset because he states that he had told Williams of 'our intention of working out a memoir for the Geological Society', the 'our' indicating Riley and himself. This fact was also stated in the published accounts (Anonymous, 1834b, 1835).

The reply from Williams (Letter 3) is unrepentant. He recalls that Stutchbury would not reveal the location, a circumstance which he 'could only regard as selfishness in some one'. However, as a working quarry, it was not hard for him to find, and he saw 'the bones were being halled [sic] away daily for building or other purposes'. On the subject of publications, Williams clearly intends to proceed with his paper to the Geological Society of London, which he suggests will not compromise the plans Riley and Stutchbury might have, since their collections are larger and since Dr Henry Riley is clearly recognized as a professional anatomist who will describe the bones in full: '...all you communicated to me was that an account wd. appear in the Phill. Magazine - it was from the Bl. Inst. only I learned that Dr. Riley was preparing a Paper for the Geol. Transactions. My short and hasty memoir will not much frustrate his more scientific assessment for you are possessed of more ample details and opportunities than I had.' The 'account in the Phill. Magazine' is clearly Anonymous (1834b). Williams refers to his 'fragment of a small jaw which by a lovely fracture explained the dentition, from which I inferred the genus, of the animal', and he offered the specimen on loan to Riley and Stutchbury. Indeed, they refer to this specimen in their memoir (Riley and Stutchbury, 1840, p. 351, pl. 29, fig. 3), but presumably returned it to Williams, and its present location is unknown.

Williams did not proceed with his paper which had been read to the Geological Society of London on 17th December, 1834 (Williams, 1835; Thackray, 2003, p. 62). At that time, brief abstracts of papers read to the Society were reported soon after in the Proceedings. Some of these papers might not go further, while others were developed into longer memoirs that would appear later in the Transactions. However, such a fuller account required additional effort from the author, and was costly and time-consuming if plates had to be engraved. Williams did not proceed to a fuller account.

Copy of the letter from Samuel Stutchbury to an unknown recipient, dated 26th March, 1836, giving an account of the first discoveries of the Bristol Thecodontosaurus materials (letter no. 4; BRO Ref. No. 32079/43/5). Transcribed here. Reproduced by kind permission of Bristol Records Office.

In his summary of events (Letter 4), Stutchbury refers to Williams’s brief paper somewhat contemptuously: '...in fact he had no materials for such a notice (independent of the small portion of jaw) except what he saw during several visits to the Instn.' This may be true, since there is no record in Williams’s papers (SOMCM) of any further materials; indeed he makes no further mention of the Durdham Down site anywhere in his extensive series of papers and notebooks, except for the brief notebook entry noted above.

Publication of the descriptions of the fourth dinosaur in the world

After the urgency of the proceedings from October, 1834 to March, 1835, it seems remarkable that the much-promised paper by Riley and Stutchbury to the Geological Society of London was not read until March, 1836, and that the memoir was not completed until late 1838, and published in 1840. Perhaps it was clear to all that Williams had withdrawn decisively from the fray: after all he was launching into a much bigger dispute, with Murchison and others, on the nature of the Devonian system, and he gave his first paper on that subject at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Dublin in August, 1835 (Rudwick, 1985). The Devonian dispute rumbled on from 1835 to 1841, and Williams carried out constant fieldwork, writing, and trips to London to present his papers.

Riley and Stutchbury's account of the Durdham Down specimens was read at the Geological Society of London on March 23rd, 1836, but they were not present at the reading of their paper (Letter 4), which was communicated by Charles Lyell (1797-1875). The published version (Riley and Stutchbury, 1836), an abstract, is unillustrated, but it gives a full page of description of the new taxon Thecodontosaurus, and indicates the repository of the jaw bone and other elements, and can hence be regarded as an adequate characterization of the genus. The name Thecodontosaurus ('sheath-toothed reptile') refers to the fact that, although superficially lizard-like, the teeth are set in distinct sockets, clearly not a lizard character. Riley and Stutchbury (1836) also announce their new genus Palaeosaurus, and the two species P. cylindricum [sic] and P. Platyodon [sic], but here the characterization of the genus is minimal, and of the species, non-existent.

A further account was presented to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which met in Bristol in August, 1836 (Riley and Stutchbury, 1837). This second paper concentrates on the geology of the bone-bearing sediments, and adds nothing to the characterization of the taxa. A detailed argument is presented that the vertebrae from Durdham Down are crocodilian in nature, and the jaws and teeth rather lizard-like. The genus Palaeosaurus is referred to in a footnote (p. 91), together with its two species P. cylindrodon and P. platyodon [both now spelled correctly], but the genus name is spelled Paleosaurus in a table on p. 94.

The Bristol Mercury of Saturday 27th August, 1836 provides a brief report of the reading of this paper at the British Association meeting on the preceding Wednesday, together with a verbatim summary of the discussion (Anonymous, 1836a, p. 3):

'Mr Conybeare said he had listened with great pleasure to this interesting paper, as he had always been a lizard fancier... Dr Buckland said, he knew the partiality for the lizard tribe, and it was not to be wondered at that his long and lanky friend (a laugh) should be so disposed. The doctor then expressed his admiration of the paper just read, which treated of a most interesting subject, and proceeded to remark on Saurian remains, of which there was a beautiful collection on the table, from the museum of the Institution.' The report continues with further light-hearted remarks by Buckland about Gideon Mantell's saurian remains (Iguanodon), 'which must have been of such gigantic size that, compared with them, the elephant was a mere shrimp (hear, hear). Many who had travelled to Brighton were not perhaps aware, that they were crushing beneath their chariot-wheels the remains of tens of thousands of animals which, had the travellers lived a hundred thousand years ago, would have turned the tables upon them; there was at this time, in the College of Surgeons, in London, the remains of an animal, whose tail was more than a yard in circumference, as was proved by the existing vertebrae.'
It is interesting that Buckland at this point linked the Bristol animal directly with his and Mantell's earlier reports of Megalosaurus and Iguanodon respectively, and yet Owen (1842) failed to include Thecodontosaurus in his newly invented Dinosauria. A further verbatim report was offered by The Athenaeum on 3rd September, 1836 (Anonymous, 1836b, p. 525), focusing more on the paper itself, and omitting the humorous tone of the discussion. This report notes that Buckland made comparisons between the Bristol fossils, and those then recently reported by Hermann von Meyer from the German Keuper (Upper Triassic).
One of the two original plates from Riley and Stutchbury's (1840) description of Thecodontosaurus, showing the type lower jaw (top left), teeth (top right), a partial ilium (lower left), vertebrae (lower right), and a rib (bottom).

The full descriptive memoir (Riley and Stutchbury, 1840) was published three years later. Proofs were ready in October, 1838 (Letter 5), and William Lonsdale (1794-1871), a noted geologist and palaeontologist, and then curator and librarian of the Geological Society of London, noted some editorial work he had done and some changes to the plates which were evidently engraved in London at the behest of the Society. The memoir confirms the indication in the 1836 paper that Thecodontosaurus was founded upon a right dentary with 21 teeth, while the two species of Paleosaurus [note spelling], P. cylindrodon and P. platyodon, are described and illustrated adequately, each on the basis of a single tooth (Riley and Stutchbury, 1840, pl. 29, figs. 4, 5). These authors also describe a range of postcranial remains which are not clearly assigned to either of these taxa. The postcranial remains are generally compared with those of modern crocodiles, and the vertebrae are said to share similarities with Megalosaurus, but the jaws and teeth are no longer said to be particularly lizard-like. Riley and Stutchbury (1836, 1837, 1840) named only the genus Thecodontosaurus; the specific name antiquus was added by Morris (1843, p. 211) in his Catalogue of British Fossils. The intricacies of the taxonomy of these taxa and changes in the assignment of material to the genera Thecodontosaurus and Palaeosaurus (usually spelled Palaeosaurus after 1840) are discussed in Benton et al. (2000).

In their various papers, Riley, the anatomist trained by Cuvier, presumably wrote the portions on the postulated affinities of the Bristol bones and teeth. In the reports that appeared from 1834-1837, there was much reference to the hybrid nature of the Bristol animal, which sported lizard-like jaws and teeth combined with crocodilian vertebrae. These comments may have been made in the context of the Great Chain of Being, the view that living organisms were arranged in a divinely ordained sequence from simplest to most complex, and the search for now extinct intermediates between living forms. This was a debate that also coloured contemporary interpretations of the cartilaginous fish Squaloraja, as well as the ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs (Taylor and Torrens, 1987; Taylor, 1994). However, there is little mention of these ideas in the final paper (Riley and Stutchbury, 1840), even though Owen retained such allusions in his later reports.

Richard Owen (1804-1892) visited Bristol in August, 1839 (Crane, 1983), and presumably arranged then that the Thecodontosaurus collection should be sent to London. In November, 1840, Stutchbury wrote to Benjamin Silliman (1779-1864), the noted North American geologist at Yale University, regretting that he could not send any specimens of Thecodontosaurus, since the whole collection had been sent to London (Letter 6). Owen had been commissioned by the British Association for the Advancement of Science to review the fossil reptiles of Britain, and in his second report (Owen, 1842, pp. 153-155), he gave a detailed commentary on Thecodontosaurus and Palaeosaurus, both of which he assigned to his new group, the thecodonts, primitive reptiles with their teeth in sockets, and sharing the characters of modern lizards and crocodiles. These comments were repeated in Owen's Odontography, then in process of publication (Owen, 1845, pp. 266-267). Owen did not refer Thecodontosaurus to his new group Dinosauria, named in the same report (Owen, 1842, p. 103), and the Bristol animal was recognised as dinosaurian only by Huxley (1870).

The collection of specimens sent to London for Owen's perusal was then presumably returned soon after (although there is no record of this) because Huxley reported seeing a large collection in Bristol in the 1860s (see below), and the small collection of Durdham Down specimens in the Natural History Museum includes few of good quality and few that were ever illustrated (Benton et al., 2000).

  • Agassiz, L., 1833-44. Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles. Neuchâtel and Soleure, 4 volumes.
  • Anonymous, 1834a. Bristol Institution. Bristol Mercury, 8th November, 1834, p. 4.
  • Anonymous, 1834b. Discovery of saurian bones in the Magnesian Conglomerate near Bristol. London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine, Series 3, 5, 463. [Also, Arcana of Science and Art 8, 274; The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal 18, 362-363; American Journal of Science 28, 389.]
  • Anonymous, 1835. Saurian remains in the Magnesian Conglomerate of Bristol. West of England Journal of Science and Literature 1, 84-85.
  • Anonymous, 1836a. British Association for the Advancement of Science. Bristol Mercury, 27th August, 1836, pp. 1-4. [Also: Bristol Gazette and Public Advertiser, 1st September, 1836, p. 4.]
  • Anonymous, 1836b. British Association for the Advancement of Science, Section C.-Geology and Geography. Athenaeum 462, 624-625 (3rd September, 1836).
  • Benton, M.J., Juul, L., Storrs, G.W., Galton, P.M., 2000. Anatomy and systematics of the prosauropod dinosaur Thecodontosaurus antiquus from the Upper Triassic of southwest England. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 20, 77-108.
  • Buffetaut, E., 1987. A Short History of Vertebrate Palaeontology. Croom Helm, London, 223 pp.
  • Colbert, E.H., 1968. Men and Dinosaurs: the Search in Field and Laboratory. Dutton, New York, 283 pp.
  • Conybeare, W.D., 1835. Essay introductory to geology. West of England Journal of Science and Literature 1, 7-19, 89-100.
  • Knell, S.J., 2000. The Culture of English Geology 1815-1851. Ashgate, Aldershot, 377 pp.
  • Morris, J., 1843. A Catalogue of British Fossils. British Museum, London, 222 pp.
  • Owen, R., 1842. Report on British fossil reptiles. Part II. Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science 1842, 1841, 60-204.
  • Owen, R., 1845. Odontography, or a Treatise on the Comparative Anatomy of the Teeth. Hippolyte Ballière, London, 655 pp.
  • Riley, H., Stutchbury, S., 1836. A description of various fossil remains of three distinct saurian animals discovered in the autumn of 1834, in the Magnesian Conglomerate on Durdham Down, near Bristol. Proceedings of the Geological Society of London 2, 397-399.
  • Riley, H., Stutchbury, S., 1837. On an additional species of the newly-discovered saurian animals in the Magnesian Conglomerate of Durdham Down, near Bristol. Annual Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Transactions of the Sections 1836, 90-94.
  • Riley, H., Stutchbury, S., 1840. A description of various fossil remains of three distinct saurian animals, recently discovered in the Magnesian Conglomerate near Bristol. Transactions of the Geological Society of London, Series 2 5, 349-357.
  • Rudwick, M.J.S., 1985. The Great Devonian Controversy. Chicago University Press, Chicago, 494 pp.
  • Taylor, M.A., 1994. The plesiosaur's birthplace: the Bristol Institution and its contribution to vertebrate palaeontology. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 112, 179-196.
  • Taylor, M.A., Torrens, H.S., 1987. Saleswoman to a new science: Mary Anning and the fossil fish Squaloraja from the Lias of Lyme Regis. Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society 108, 135-148.
  • Thackray, J.C., 2003. To See the Fellows Fight. Eye Witness Accounts of Meetings of the Geological Society of London and its Club, 1822-1868. British Society for the History of Science, London, 243 pp.
  • Williams, D., 1835. On the bones of certain animals which have been recently discovered, in the calcareo-magnesian conglomerate on Durdham Down, near Bristol. Proceedings of the Geological Society of London 2, 112 [also London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine, Series 3, 6, 149].

The paper

Benton, M.J. 2012. Naming the Bristol dinosaur, Thecodontosaurus: politics and science in the 1830s. Proceedings of the Geologists' Association 123, 766-778. Download pdf of the paper.


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