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The King of Siluria's journey

Nature volume 430, pages 728729 (12 August 2004) | Download Citation

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Murchison's Wanderings in Russia

Edited by Michael Collie & John Diemer

British Geological Survey: 2004. 474 pp. £40 http://www.bgs.ac.uk/bookshop

Geologist Roderick Murchison studied the gorge of the River Chusovaya on his travels through Russia.

If you had been rowing across the Volga near Kazan, western Russia, in May 1841, you might have been startled by the sound of raucous singing:

Ah, the red sandstone! How bored am I! I'd very well pay a thousand louis Never again in my life to see The new red sandstone of Tartary!

The singer (and composer) was Roderick Murchison, the greatest practical geologist of his day and a key player in Queen Victoria's empire. In their search for mineral resources, Britons of the time were organizing and stamping their authority on landscapes past and present, naming periods such as the Cambrian, Silurian and Devonian after British localities and peoples. Strata had become the central concern of geology, not so much for telling the story of life — though this was a good way of selling books — as for mapping the positions of rocks and correlating them across the globe.

Murchison had become famous in the 1830s as the man who made sense of the earliest Palaeozoic strata in the Welsh borders. He now meant to give his ‘Silurian system’ a global reach. In 1840 and 1841, Murchison and three colleagues sped across the Russian plains, covering thousands of miles and adding new territories both to his geological empire and to the Tsar's coal reserves. Such an exhausting and exhaustive campaign naturally had its dull moments, hence the song quoted above.

His findings were written up in the hefty Geology of Russia (1845), and the honours he had craved since he abandoned his military career at last poured in — he was hailed as the ‘King of Siluria’ and as the Copernicus of the age. But intellectual ossification was quick to follow: from this point on he knew he was right, and cultivated the impenetrable formality of the retired general.

Murchison also wrote up his travels in a less formal manner. His journal, Wanderings in Russia, provides a continuous narrative of his 1840 and 1841 expeditions, and is here published for the first time. This handsomely produced book should be welcomed by historians and geologists alike. It is full of fascinating anecdotes about local customs, manners and rocks from St Petersburg to the Urals. Social commentary was not Murchison's forte, but in his clipped way he provides a rich mine of specific information about the land through which he was travelling.

As a travel writer, Murchison cannot compare with his fellow geologist and Scotsman, Hugh Miller, whose marvellous Hebridean travelogue The Cruise of the Betsey (1845–49) has also recently been reprinted (see Nature 426, 19; 200310.1038/426019b). Where Miller has the novelist's gift for character and incident, Murchison just rambles on. But once you get used to the amoebic shape of the narrative and its periodic outbursts of self-congratulation, Wanderings in Russia is an enjoyable read, full of humour as well as picturesque description. If is, of course, highly revealing of Murchison's own attitudes, including his affection for the Russians at a time when British ‘Russophobia’ was on the rise.

Michael Collie and John Diemer have done a splendid job of editing this massive text, helpfully splitting it into short sections and inserting a running commentary, with detailed maps and notes. The full-size colour reproduction of the Geology of Russia's enormous geological map, tucked conveniently into a pocket at the back, deserves special praise. My only reservations concern the rather short introduction, which, despite many useful insights, is too involved in minutiae to give the general reader much of a foothold. Too much time is spent worrying about Murchison's political incorrectness, and the editors refuse point-blank to discuss his “supposed imperialism” (as if that were ever in doubt), although this aspect of his career has recently excited more interest than any other.

The bibliography has some striking omissions, in particular James A. Secord's ground-breaking article “King of Siluria” in Victorian Studies 25 (1981–82) and his subsequent book Controversy in Victorian Geology (Princeton University Press, 1986), and Robert Stafford's book Scientist of Empire (Cambridge University Press, 1990). Along with the work of Martin Rudwick, these studies provide the historical context lacking in Collie and Diemer's introduction.

But it is by the text itself that such a book stands or falls. For making this important narrative available in such an attractive and (for its quality) inexpensive format, the editors are to be congratulated.

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  1. Ralph O'Connor is a fellow of St John's College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 1TP, UK. He is writing The Greatest Show on Earth: Staging Prehistoric Worlds for the British Public, 1802–1856.

    • Ralph O'Connor

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https://doi.org/10.1038/430728a

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