Russell Coope: climate history in holes

Russell Coope tells stories of collecting fossil beetles from gravel pits and motorway cuttings in the 1950s and 1960s.

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One of the important things is that gravel extraction increased enormously with the need of gravel for concrete making and so on. So very very extensive gravel pits developed all along the rivers and into any area where there were repositories of gravel and things like this. And this again gave an opportunity of looking at the sections through the sediments and collecting the organic sediments in which our fossil story resided. So this was a huge opportunity as a result of development. The difficulty with all of that is that as gravel pits work they destroy the evidence that we are in fact wanting to investigate, and if you see something you have to be very very quick on the uptake because when people were – when gravel was at a high premium they worked at an extraordinary rate. I remember one occasion when collecting samples, this is in a road cutting because again motorways cut great swathes through the country. I started in the morning, in the bottom of a hole and finished up in the afternoon on a plinth, them having removed all the sediments from around me except the bit that I was sitting on [laughs]. So you have to be very very quick indeed to be in, to collect, to assess, to make a record of things before the developers who’d revealed the stuff in the first place destroyed it in the second. 

And how did developers feel when you arrive, or how did they respond to you when you arrived to collect? 

Well, it always surprises me as they were as tolerant as they were. Because we were trying to hold them up and say, ‘Don’t do this,’ the very thing that they were doing was in fact making a profit. And the very thing that they were doing was the thing that revealed the information in the first place so we had a lot of trouble from the point of view of people saying, ‘Yes, but you’ve got twenty-four hours to do the job,’ or imposing time limits which are unrealistic. But then we found that the workmen on the site were enthusiastic in the extreme and it was just – I mean if you’re digging gravel all day then to find somebody coming along and say, ‘Yes, but look how exciting it is,’ then you add a certain piquance to life. And it was interesting that – I remember back to Upton Warren again, the competition started to develop between the actual works on the site, I’m not talking about management but the workers on the site who were digging things up with their excavators, competed with one another to bring me the most exciting fossils. And then started to pilfer these fossils from one another little catches, so that competition got to a rather fierce extent so that I was taken on one side by the quarry manager, saying, ‘You must not let the workers compete like this, it’s undermining our productivity.’ [both laugh] So yes, different responses, different levels of management, most – most of them were extraordinarily tolerant of us, especially as when you kept thinking that – you know, think that in fact we are inhibiting their activities.

  • Interviewee Russell Coope
  • Duration 00:03:09
  • Copyright British Library Board
  • Interviewer Paul Merchant
  • Date of interview 11/25/2011
  • Shelfmark C1379/63
  • Keywords

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