Back to life in the Jurassic

Peterborough's geology gallery showcases its great marine reptiles

Peterborough’s geology gallery showcases its great marine reptiles

‘Where you’re standing was once over 50 metres underwater.’ So begins the story of prehistoric Peterborough told through the museum’s incredible collection of fossilised marine reptiles, fish and invertebrates.

I was appointed as text-writer for three of the galleries that have just been redeveloped by the Vivacity team in Peterborough, and exhibition designers Haley Sharpe. The geology gallery showcases the museum’s fossil masterpieces – from the big-eyed ophthalmosaur to the most complete cryptoclidus skeleton anywhere in the world. My aim in the text, developed with the museum’s Glenys Wass, was to help visitors understand Peterborough’s prehistoric claim to fame – which is that it’s one of the best places to learn about life in the Jurassic, when both animal and plant populations grew explosively.

There were lots of great stories to tell, and mental pictures to paint, that I hope will help visitors make sense of the wealth of specimens:

  • it was warm and watery in Jurassic Peterborough, but through continental drift, Peterborough has since travelled 600 miles north, moving at the speed our fingernails grow
  • Jurassic oceans were positively writhing with invertebrates (snails, ammonites, squiddy things) all squirting and rippling their way around
  • Bony eye-ring of the ophthalmosaur

    Bony eye-ring of the ophthalmosaur

    Ophthalmosaurs had huge eyes to see deep underwater, requiring strong muscles to focus, so their eyesockets were protected by bony rings

  • the biggest fish ever known, 16-metre-long Leedsichthys, was discovered in Peterborough
  • Pachycostasaurus, another local find, means ‘thick-ribbed lizard’ – its heavy bones acting as ballast so it could sink to feed
  • the occasional dinosaur died near Peterborough’s sea and was washed into the soft, muddy seabed to be fossilised. That’s why we find the odd toe bone or tail spine.

Evidence for all these facts is on display in the object-rich gallery with its evocative views and sounds. Next door is the Ice Age gallery, with remains of the Deeping Elephant, which died 120,000 years ago in a muddy corner of the modern village of Deeping St James. Further on is the Natural Peterborough gallery, looking at the creatures that live in local grasslands, gardens, wetlands and woodlands.

A trail of fascinating facts about Peterborough's museum building

A trail of fascinating facts about Peterborough’s museum building

Other galleries have also been redeveloped, including the Changing Lives gallery and the museum’s operating theatre, which is the only late Victorian example today in Britain. The text-writing in these areas was done by Chas Walton of Text Wizard Copywriting, who has also imaginatively brought the building itself to life with intriguing facts. Who knew, for example, that the second floor of the museum was once occupied by a potato merchant? Or that early medical X-rays were taken in a cupboard under the stairs? This text, with its whimiscal stories and discussion questions, makes you look properly at what surrounds you – and often smile.

If you’re going to Peterborough, do take time to explore the museum’s many experiences, before having a lovely slice of cake in Bailey’s coffee house on-site. But try to get to Flag Fen too – an impressive 20-acre site nearby, with reconstructed Bronze-Age homes, a preserved stretch of a wooden causeway over 3,000 years old, and a lovely Roman garden.

Flag Fen's 3,000-year-old wooden walkway (left ) and reconstructed Bronze-Age home

Flag Fen’s 3,000-year-old wooden walkway (left) and reconstructed Bronze-Age home