The Land of Britain

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Architect: H.T. Cadbury Brown ◦ Theme Convener: Kenneth Chapman
Display Designer: V. Rotter

The land is the beginning of the story, and it is the land that gives the story its continuity.

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Britain was a ready-made island when our forebears stepped ashore. They were practical men with their feet on the ground, but they were also pioneers, men with feet sensitive to the nature of the ground – feet that soon grew so familiar with it that they came to act as roots, exploring it downward and bringing up from it the nourishment and profit that lies beneath. They were pioneers; but they were also craftsmen, and a craftsman’s mind follows his hands and feet. So the stones thrown up by the pioneers from their deep workings have been cracked open and studied like pages torn from a buried book, until now we know the birth pains and the growth of this motherland of ours, and how much wealth lies latent in her still.

Millions of years in the making

This growth has been a gradual and continuous process, in which our present is only an instant. There is continuity in the formation and destruction of land, no less than in the evolution of the life that lives upon it. This is the kind of reality that can best be translated into images by a painter; Graham Sutherland’s mural, then, sets the mood for this Pavilion.

All climates beneath our feet

Britain is not a country of extreme climates, yet buried in the island are evidences of all extremes. Twenty thousand years ago, it was an arctic land, glaciers ground their way down the valleys of the Lake District. Fifty million years ago, the region of the Scottish Islands was burned by volcanoes, which poured lava and scattered ash over the surrounding land and sea. Before that, the region where Birmingham now stands was an inferno of blown desert sand. Earlier still, tropical jungle made Britain look like a South Sea island.

The land in labour

Here in this island is a greater variety and wealth of rocks than can be found in any other area so small. This, too, is the result of a slow, imperceptible continuity of change, of deep troughs formed in past ocean beds being filled to colossal depths by wastage from the land which have then been spewed up as new mountain ranges, piled high above the surface of the earth. These, in their turn, have been eroded away, leaving only their tortured stumps.

Had some magic cine-camera, using time-lapse photography, recorded events during, say, the last five hundred million years, it would seem to repeat itself several times. One such cycle, therefore, can illustrate the labour pains in the building of the British Isles; and a special film has, in fact, been made to illustrate them.

The rocks that were used thus by the vast forces in the earth are now the very wealth of the land.

The rocks are our riches

Our story starts a thousand million years ago when the rocks of north-west Scotland and the Outer Isles were formed. Four hundred and fifty million years ago, west Britain was a seabed blanketed with river mud. From those ancient muds our fine Welsh slates are split.

Later, warm seas stretched out across the northern latitudes, swarming with living things. These, through the ages, crusted the sea floor with their limestone skeletons and now the cliffs of the Avon Gorge, for example, reveal this useful stone.

Two hundred and twenty million years ago, Britain was coated with jungle-swamps, whose giant plants for generations drank in the light, died, decomposed and were covered by mud and sands. They were raised again above the sea – dead forests entombed by rocks. From their rich black coals we unlock to-day the power of the primeval sun.

Later still, there were stagnant seas over north-east England, the salt of which was thickened by hot suns. To-day, these salts are mined from deep down under Middlesbrough and used for table, factory and to fertilise the fields. One hundred and thirty million years ago, the iron ore of Northamptonshire was laid down in a shallow sea.

During the last seventy million years the geography of Britain has changed continually. The land has been dipped like a cloth in the ocean, soaked, rinsed and folded up to dry. For most of the time it was part of Europe. Then, about five hundred thousand years ago, glaciers and ice shrouded the land. To this freezing world came early man. When the ice caps had melted Britain emerged an island.

This is the story of the origins of the land, seen through the eyes of British geologists who introduced a new science to the world. For the British people this land still offers materials ready to hand to challenge their skill; still offers a coastline for seamen, a climate for farmers and a landscape of extraordinary variety.

The Earth

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Theme Convener: Sonia Withers ◦ Display Designer: Robert Gutmann

The ways in which we satisfy this desire of ours to discover and explore vary with the times. It has never been far from the surface, and about a hundred and thirty years ago, for example. it began to assert itself with remarkable persistence. Clapperton was in the West African jungle, Oxley had started on the first great adventure into the heart of Australia. Franklin was discovering new lands in remote Canada and Ross and Parry were searching for the Northwest Passage. At the same time, a very different kind of exploration was beginning in our own countryside – exploration downwards to discover the nature and structures of the rocks that lie deep down beneath our feet. The pioneer was William Smith.

Exploration downwards

The exploratory work of Smith and others that joined him did not demand great courage or physical endurance, it called for patient observation, honest piecing together of clues and an outstanding scientific imagination that enabled them to visualise underground structures from the piecemeal evidence the rocks gave when they came to the surface. Vital, too, was their realisation that the relative ages of rocks could be read from the fossil remains they contained. How this is done is shown by the displays in this section. The “Land of Britain” also shows how animal life has changed throughout the ages.

Smith made the first geological map of Britain. In doing so, he used a method of recording observations and the probability of underground structures which is now indispensable to all of mans workings in the outer crust of the Earth.

The importance of this new science, founded by Smith, Hutton, Lyell and others, was soon recognised officially. Britain created the first Geological Survey, and showed the world how valuable this science can be when it is organised for the service and development of whole countries. Without it, recovery of the Earths hidden riches – coal, oil, minerals and the rest – would still be a very haphazard affair.

Recent years have brought us new tools with which we can explore even deeper. Modern borings can now recover cores from depths nearly twice the height of Ben Nevis; physicists have not only wrested new knowledge from the study of earthquake waves but have created devices for studying the depths of the crust by waves they create themselves. Much of this work has been stimulated by the increasing need to discover new oil fields.

The earth within

Gradually, then, the secrets of the Earth within are being revealed. Its age is about 3,400 million years. The crust upon which we live, mountains and all, is no more than the skin is to an apple. We know that under this crust the Earth is not quiescent, it has a liquid layer, alive with eddies and currents. It is this liquid rock, thrust up when the thin crust turns, as it were, in its uneasy sleep, that eventually gives rise to the pockets and veins of minerals and metallic ores on which our way of life depends.

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Mineral wealth

These minerals and ores are part of the well-founded riches of the Commonwealth countries. Some of them we have here at home, some we have had but they are now worked out, and the experience we gained in mining them or extracting them from their ores has been passed out overseas. There are few of these resources that the Commonwealth cannot now provide: gold, silver, nickel, tin, copper, lead and zinc are a few of the metals, diamonds for industry as well as for jewellery, asbestos and mica with their multitude of uses. Many of these are displayed in this section of the Exhibition.

Archæology

The story of this field of exploration, as we tell it here, returns to the surface, then, with the extruded molten rock and the mineral wealth it holds, yet there is still a part of it to tell – the chapters revealed by those who explore the latest shelves in this library of the past, the archæologists. It is they who have pieced together the histories and ways of life of past civilisations, some so ancient that they have not even left records incised on bricks or stone.

The great citadel of Mohenjo-daro overlooking the Indus, the great Ziggurat on the plain at Ur, the gorgeous palace of King Minos in Crete – these are just three of the lost achievements of the past that the method and imagination of British archælogists have brought to light again to aid us when we pause to think about the progress of mankind.