A History Of Warrington In 10 1/2 Objects: Chirotherium Footprint
Collections Officer Craig Sherwood presents the first episode in a new series of podcasts, looking at 10 (and a half) objects from Warrington Museum’s Collection that tell the history of the town.
Listen using the player below, or scroll down to read the full transcript.
Hello and welcome to the first episode of the podcast “A History of Warrington in 10 and a Half objects” – I’m Craig Sherwood, the Collections Officer for Warrington Museum & Art Gallery.
I’m going to begin this podcast with a question. What do you think about when you hear the term “museum”? To a lot of us museums are huge civic buildings, repositories of objects of either historic or artistic interest or both. To others a museum might seem to be an extension of the classroom, a place to hold exhibitions and events or even simply somewhere to while away a few hours whilst gazing at objects in glass cases. I think all these statements are true to a lesser or greater extent, but to me and on an admittedly extremely basic level I like to think of a museum as a collection of things. Stuff if you like. Please stop me if I am getting too technical.
The curator of a national museum once told me that to run a museum, you need three ingredients – firstly you need a collection of objects, secondly you need people to care for the objects and thirdly you need people to engage with them. If you are missing out one of these factors you might have an impressive building, a private collection, or an exhibition space but what you will not have is a museum.
I think that it is particularly important for us to take some time out during the current pandemic and decide what our museums mean to us. We are all struggling to connect with our Culture and Heritage because as humans are essentially social creatures and forced separation is hard on us, but I would argue that separation from the material culture which defines us is equally damaging. This podcast attempts, in its own little way, to bridge that gap and to tell a simple and very brief history of the town of Warrington using a selection of objects which I’ve chosen from the museum collection.
So why only 10 and a half objects? Firstly, I was massively inspired by the British Museum’s History of the World in 100 objects and I thought if the British Museum can cover the history of a planet in 100 objects, we can probably manage a medium sized town in 10 and a half. Secondly, I was inspired by one of my favourite books ‘A History of the World in 10 and A Half Chapters’ by the author Julian Barnes, I think that 10 and a half is a nice number as it’s more fulsome than 10, and yet somehow much less oppressive than a dozen.
Thirdly, and from my point of view rather tragically, I simply really, really like lists.
Something I should point out immediately is that this is a history of the town, and not the history of the town. Anyone attempting to tell the definitive history of a town and the people who live within it is either supremely confident, misguided or both. My selection of objects is massively subjective. For instance, my first choice is not a piece of history or even prehistory although it’s massively important to the history of the museum itself. It is also the reason why you can often find me in the museum galleries waving my hands about and crossing them in front of me in a fashion not dissimilar to the 1980s dance craze ‘Voguing’. More on that later.
So, imagine you have suddenly been transported around 240 million years in the past and you’re standing in a vast and dry red desert surrounding a great brackish lake. Suddenly a large 3-metre-long reptile clambers over a rocky outcrop nearby and shuffles over to you, leaving a series of five-toed footprints in the hot red dust.
Object 1: Chirotherium Footprint, Tarporley Siltstone, over 240 million years old, found in Lymm near Warrington.
If you ever visited Warrington Museum as a small child, or even as a parent or grandparent with a child in tow, you know the first question our visitor service assistants will ask when you arrive. In many ways it is the most fundamental question in the museum, namely ‘do you want to start with the dinosaur or mummy’. I will not be covering the mummy or mummy case in this podcast although they have rich and interesting stories of their own, but if you answer that you want to start with the dinosaur you’re directed into the geology on the left where you will come face to face with a scale model of a large reptile flanked by display cases containing our evidence of its existence – its footprints. It is one of these footprints that we are looking at in this podcast.
I’m standing in front of the footprints now and they are surprisingly delicate impressions of five-toed feet, a kind of evidence known as a trace fossil which are often difficult to discern without a raking light. The slabs that bear them are anything but fragile, these are large heavy slabs of Tarporley Siltstone, a kind of rock named after a Cheshire village which is commonly found in the hills surrounding Runcorn and Warrington. The geological process that produced Tarporley Siltstone which began in the Triassic periods, around 240 million years ago which is why they bear the footprints of the creatures that walked the earth during that time.
Because it’s difficult to imagine what a creature looked like based on its footprints, we’ve provided a model of the footprint maker in the gallery. It is a large headed reptile with a long tail which is labelled as Warrington’s Dinosaur, although the name is intentionally placed in quotes because, I am sorry to inform you, the creature it is not really a dinosaur and arguably it is not even from Warrington.
Footprints resembling those were first found in Scotland in the 1820s and caused the amateur geologists of the time much confusion. Plaster casts of the footprints were later sent to other experts including the Reverend William Buckland who tried to recreate the prints by persuading various live reptiles to walk across pastry. Buckland eventually concluded that the footprints had been made by some form of giant tortoise, but meanwhile similar footprints had been found in sandstone in Germany in 1834. Because these footprints were the only evidence of the creature that made them and they strongly resembled human hands, geologists named the creature that made them Chirotherium which literally means ‘Hand Beast’.
The first examples of Chirotherium footprints to be found in England were discovered in sandstone in Storeton Quarry in Birkenhead in 1838 but they attracted the interest of the newly formed Warrington Natural History Society based a mere 30 miles or so down the road. The hunt was on for a more local example of these fossil footprints and 3 years later several further examples were discovered at the stone quarries in of Lymm, 4 miles east of Warrington. Luckily by this point the Warrington Natural History society had established its own museum, the forerunner of the Warrington Museum where I work today, and the society added the newly discovered star exhibits to its displays.
Because these footprints were discovered before anyone had even coined the term ‘dinosaur’ the initial theory was that Chirotherium was a type of mammal, perhaps an ape, bear or even a form of kangeroo. Scientists theorised that the Chirotherium walked with their feet crossed – the only way that geologists of the time could explain the fact that the hand-shaped footprints seemed to have a thumb on the outside. It is explaining this 180-year-old theory that often has me trying to cross my hands while waving them in the air in order to demonstrate how the creature walked in the gallery in a manner which, to the casual observer, looks like I’m trying to resurrect a 1980s dance craze.
In 1842 the palaeontologist Richard Owen, who had coined the term ‘dinosaur’ the previous year, suggested that the Chirotherium tracks were actually made by an extinct form of giant amphibian. This is obviously closer to the truth than the cross-legged ape theory but ultimately a case of close but no cigar. Over the following years further discoveries of reptile fossils indicated that the Chirotherium tracks were in fact the product of a large reptile and the “thumb” was an external toe, a common feature amongst prehistoric reptiles. Chirotherium was therefore reclassified as an archosaur – a reptile which actually predates the giant terrestrial dinosaurs by several million years. Furthermore, unlike the true dinosaurs whose closest living relative today are birds, Chirotherium is a pseudosuchian, placing it in a similar group to the crocodiles which are its own nearest living descendants.
By measuring the size, shape and distance between the foot-prints palaeontologists we have been able to determine that Chirotherium was probably around 2.5 metres long and walked at a speed of 4 kilometres an hour or 7 if it was running. It had short forelegs and more powerful rear legs upon which it would have placed most of its weight. As a result, it would have needed a long tail as a counterbalance and because no drag marks have been found along with the footprints, we can conclude it would have held this tail up in the air.
All of this is, of course, informed speculation but in 1965 palaeontologists in Switzerland discovered the fossil skeleton of a creature that might give us our best picture of what Chirotherium actually looked like.
Because the skeleton was found near the Ticino River the creature was named Ticinosuchus, meaning “Ticino River Crocodile”. The creature would have been about 3 metres long and covered with horny plates known as scutes. With its legs placed under the body and a specialised heel and ankle structure it was built for running and the remains of scales found in its stomach indicate that it would have probably eaten fish. We’re still not 100% certain that Ticinosuchus and Chirotherium are one on the same creature – Tichinosuchus only has an external toe on its hind foot and some existing Chirotherium footprints seem to have the toes on both – but it remains our best evidence as to what the creature that made our footprints looks like.
And so, as you can see despite being Warrington’s earliest identified reptile, we cannot really call Tichinosuchus or Chirotherium ‘Warrington’s Dinosaur’ but rather a Pseudosuchian Archosaur. As for the Warrington part we have had numerous visitors pointing out that the footprints were found in Lymm quarry and that Tichinosuchus lived over 230 million years ago whereas the village of Lymm has only part of Warrington since 1974. Whilst I could point out that Lymm, Warrington and in fact the continent Europe did not exist at this point and were all simply part of a huge supercontinent what I actually do is nod sagely and go and have a little cry in my office.
While the Chirotherium did not outlive the Triassic period, the sandstone that dates from this period did and is a common building stone in the Warrington area today, found in such important local buildings Sankey Viaduct, in Holy Trinity Church in Warrington Town Centre as well as the famous Lymm Cross. You could make a case for the argument that Warrington and indeed a great deal of Cheshire are built from Triassic landscape which was Chirotherium’s home.
As for the preserved footprints themselves they were first proudly placed on public display as one of the most important exhibits in Warrington Natural History Society’s museum in 1842. These pieces of evidence of the elusive hand beast became one of the most popular exhibits in the new museum that attracted almost 8,000 visitors in the first two months of opening. It was this popularity that ensured that when the lease on the museum building ran out in 1847 the newly formed local council stepped in and took it over. Thus, Warrington Museum was born at least in part from the interest in the Chirotherium’s footprints and unlike the Chirotherium itself it is still going strong 173 years later.
For our object next month, we’re going to fast forward just a little, almost 240 million years to be … somewhat less than precise. Like the Chirotherium footprints the next object is made of stone, but this time it is stone that has been formed by human hands rather than reptile feet. It’s one of the oldest tools found in Warrington and evidence of the first human inhabitants in the area. It’s a polished stone axe.
The music in this podcast is ‘Alone in the Museum’ by Edwin Montgomery used here under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives (aka Music Sharing) 3.0 International License.
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