The Bearsden Shark bites back: with his own Website!

Last January I wrote about the cairn and information board erected to mark the area around the Manse Burn in Baljaffray where the Bearsden Shark was found in 1982. A year on and Akmonistion Zangerli, aka The Bearsden Shark, now has his own website! We visited Baljaffray again today and, to celebrate our oldest resident’s newfound internet presence, I thought it would be appropriate to put the post up again.

“Hunting the Shark”: or Bearsden’s oldest Resident!

Walking alongside the Manse Burn as it flows through Baljaffray to the north of Bearsden, it’s hard to imagine that 330 million years ago the land here not only lay close to the Equator, but was covered in tropical lagoons and teeming with marine life!  But thanks to Bearsden’s oldest known resident – the Bearsden Shark – it’s possible to know what kind of creatures lived here and what sort of environment they lived in.

The first indication that the Manse Burn was a rich source of fossils came in 1981 when a young boy found something that he couldn’t identify and took it to Stan Wood, a local fossil expert.

Not long after, the Hunterian Museum of Glasgow University organised an excavation and began to unearth an abundance of fossils which eventually included the most complete and best preserved fossil shark of its kind in the whole world!  In fact the area along the Manse Burn turned out to be so rich in fossils that it was declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is one of the best Carboniferous fish sites anywhere.

From the reconstruction it’s easy to see that it was a strange looking beast and scientists have discovered that not only did it have teeth in its mouth, but also along the top of its head and around its distinctive dorsal fin!!  A formidable foe indeed!

Dr Neil Clark’s reconstruction of the Bearsden Shark

It was identified as a male shark belonging to the group known as Stethacanthidae: and not only was the Bearsden Shark fossil complete – or as ‘complete’ as a fossil can be – but it was so well preserved that it was possible to identify muscles, blood vessels and even his last meal!   However, even though unearthed more than thirty years ago, it took nearly twenty years to finally decide that it was indeed a new species and in 2001 it was given the name of ‘akmonistion zangerli’: though most people (understandably) still refer to it simply as the Bearsden Shark!

The ‘Bearsden Shark’ fence across the Manse Burn

Such is his fame that he has had a poem composed about his life (The Bearsden Shark by Edwin Morgan), as well as a number of PhDs written in his honour and now has a cairn and information board beside the Manse Burn in Baljaffray to mark his importance in our understanding of life all those millions of years ago. The new board and cairn were unveiled by Dr Neil Clark, curator of Palaeontology at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, whose reconstruction of the Bearsden Shark is shown above.

The cairn and information board beside the Manse Burn

A cold-blooded killer from the Carboniferous Era, our shark, like millions of other creatures “softly and suddenly vanished away”*: so suddenly in this case that he didn’t have enough time to fully digest his final fish supper: made up of shrimps! But nonetheless he did leave a lasting legacy from 330 million years ago.  Not bad for a Bearsden Boy!

The Bearsden Shark by Edwin Morgan

The Bearsden Shark Website

*From The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll

“Hunting the Shark”: or Bearsden’s oldest resident!

The Bearsden Shark

The Bearsden Shark

New Year’s Day 2016 and we were walking alongside the Manse Burn as it flows through Baljaffray to the north of Bearsden. Sunny and bright, but very cold, it was hard to imagine that 330 million years ago the land here not only lay close to the Equator, but was covered in tropical lagoons and teeming with marine life!  But thanks to Bearsden’s oldest known resident – the Bearsden Shark – it’s possible to know what kind of creatures lived here and what sort of environment they lived in.

The first indication that the Manse Burn was a rich source of fossils came in 1981 when a young boy found something that he couldn’t identify and took it to Stan Wood, a local fossil expert.

The Bearsden Shark fossil can be seen at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow

The Bearsden Shark fossil can be seen at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow

Not long after, the Hunterian Museum of Glasgow University organised an excavation and began to unearth an abundance of fossils which eventually included the most complete and best preserved fossil shark of its kind in the whole world!  In fact the area along the Manse Burn turned out to be so rich in fossils that it was declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is one of the best Carboniferous fish sites anywhere.

Dr Neil Clark's reconstruction of the Bearsden Shark

Dr Neil Clark’s reconstruction of the Bearsden Shark

From the reconstruction it’s easy to see that it was a strange looking beast and scientists have discovered that not only did it have teeth in its mouth, but also along the top of its head and around its distinctive dorsal fin!!  A formidable foe indeed!

It was identified as a male shark belonging to the group known as Stethacanthidae: and not only was the Bearsden Shark fossil complete – or as ‘complete’ as a fossil can be – but it was so well preserved that it was possible to identify muscles, blood vessels and even his last meal!   However, even though unearthed more than thirty years ago, it took nearly twenty years to finally decide that it was indeed a new species and in 2001 it was given the name of ‘akmonistion zangerli’: though most people (understandably) still refer to it simply as the Bearsden Shark!

The new 'Bearsden Shark' fencing across the Manse Burn

The new ‘Bearsden Shark’ fencing across the Manse Burn in Baljaffray

Such is his fame that he has had a poem composed about his life (The Bearsden Shark by Edwin Morgan), as well as a number of PhDs written in his honour and now has a cairn and information board beside the Manse Burn in Baljaffray to mark his importance in our understanding of life all those millions of years ago. The new board and cairn were unveiled by Dr Neil Clark, curator of Palaeontology at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, whose reconstruction of the Bearsden Shark is shown above.

The cairn and information board beside the Manse Burn

The cairn and information board beside the Manse Burn

A cold-blooded killer from the Carboniferous Era, our shark, like millions of other creatures “softly and suddenly vanished away”: so suddenly in this case that he didn’t have enough time to fully digest his final fish supper – made up of shrimps! – but nonetheless he did leave a lasting legacy from 330 million years ago.  Not bad for a Bearsden Boy!

The Bearsden Shark by Edwin Morgan

“Cradle of Scotland” – a colourful history of Forteviot

The Forteviot Arch

The Forteviot Arch

There’s a lovely Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin asks his father why old photos are always in black and white, and didn’t they have colour film back then?  His father answers by telling him that old photos were in colour, but that the world was black and white and didn’t turn into colour until the 1930s!  While he’s just teasing his son, sometimes, looking at the remains of ancient buildings today, it can seem that the past really was only in black and white!

"Cradle of Scotland" exhibition at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow

“Cradle of Scotland” exhibition at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow

Perhaps that’s why it was such a pleasure to see the digital re-colouring of the Forteviot Arch at the wonderful Cradle of Scotland exhibition currently on at the Hunterian Museum: a major exhibition that, through the archaeology of this ancient landscape, “explores the evolution of society from the loosely connected communities of early farmers in prehistory to the centralised kingdom of Alba (Gaelic for Scotland).”

And it’s quite a journey! From Neolithic Forteviot of 3000 BC with its burials, cremations and huge palisaded enclosure; through the Bronze Age and the forging of the striking Forteviot Dagger; to Iron Age hill-forts and the arrival of the Romans, which in turn saw the Caledonians becoming the Picts thanks to the Romans describing the people of this area as ‘Picti‘ – the ‘painted people’.

The richly decorated Bronze Age Forteviot Dagger

But what really intrigued me is the particularly interesting change in the course of the 9th century, when the kingdom that called itself Pictland eventually came to call itself the Kingdom of Alba.  What brought Kenneth mac Alpin eastwards from his western stronghold and how did the Kingdom of Scotland really come about?

Not so long ago I read an interesting account of this period which suggested that there wasn’t a swift and brutal take-over of Pictland by Kenneth and his Gaels, rather that there had long been much coming and going between the Gaels and the Picts.  But then growing pressure from Viking attacks from the 830s onwards created a Scotland full of turmoil and uncertainty, and it was this turmoil that may have prompted many Gaels to move eastwards.

3D illustration of the Dupplin Cross, also known as Constantine’s Cross with King Constantine mac Fergus mounted on his steed

Forteviot, long a spiritual, political and cultural centre of the southern Picts, as well as a fertile and wealthy part of the country, would have been an obvious place to head for.  The arrival of this new political elite may have slowly altered the balance of power, with the language and culture of the Gaels eventually superseding that of their cousins, the Picts.  In all events, Kenneth mac Alpin became the first king of this new Scottish dynasty with Forteviot at its centre.

It’s a fascinating exhibition and shows just how much archaeology continues to tell us about the past.  With 3D illustrations and magnificent contemporary exhibits, it’s definitely not a dull black and white past that unfolds, but one full of colour and vibrancy, depicting lives lived amidst both the mundane and the sacred.  Just watch the Forteviot Arch as the colour appears and the figures stand out in new depth and detail, almost cartoon-like in their appearance, but it will make you see our ancestors in a whole new light!

Links:

The Cradle of Scotland exhibition runs until 3rd January 2016

SERF : Strathearn Environs and Royal Forteviot