A Gemstone Lover’s Tour of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

I was delighted this past summer to be able to visit Oxford, England, a city of beautiful golden limestone, set in a region of limestone. As a result, it’s a place where you can see some fantastic stone carving on old buildings; the cobbled streets provide a tripping hazard as you walk around gazing up at the variety of stone work. I’ll only share a few with you before we cut to the lapidary and gemstones stuff.

Stone Carvings in Oxford

elephant carving at Oxford Museum of National History

The first carving I saw surprised me. I expected lots of lions, of course, as it’s a symbol of Great Britain. But the elephant was a delightful discovery.

stone carvings Oxford University Museum of Natural History

The next two made me laugh. I found these in the quad at Balliol College. I was tickled by the stern—and disapproving?–matron gazing across the window at the giddy maiden.

I went looking for the Pitt Rivers Museum of anthropology and ethnography and discovered something even better: the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I love natural history museums with their seeming hodgepodge of fossils and insects, plant samples and, of course, rocks, minerals and gems. But the Oxford Museum of Natural History is a treat from start to finish.

A carved pillar of Devonian limestone, one of many stone pillars on the mezzanine of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. gemstones stone carving

A carved pillar of Devonian limestone, one of many stone pillars on the mezzanine of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Attending the Oxford Museum of Natural History

Like most natural history museums (and science museums for that matter), the large open hall was packed with families, excited kids all talking at once, cases covered with fingerprints and nose prints. I was very lucky to find a young woman working there who gave me a bunch of background on the museum.

As a side note: Always ask questions of the volunteers and the staff stationed around museums. They do an often thankless task: trying to look alert, approachable and ready to talk, when most people are afraid to ask them anything. They are friendly, and believe me, they know a lot and they are bursting to share it with you! I had a wonderful talk with this young woman and learned a lot.

For example: The OUMNH looks like a Victorian “folly”—all cast iron pillars and stone and glass—that has been repurposed into a museum. It certainly looks incongruous with all the exhibits of dinosaur skeletons. However, the museum was actually built in 1860 as a place where all branches of the natural sciences could come together and learn from each other, and knowledge be improved by the cross-fertilization of ideas. It’s something that we often take for granted now, but it was apparently a radical idea for the time. It was, in fact, the place where the Great Debate where the Bishop of Oxford and Thomas Huxley clashed over Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History gemstones collection is small, but well laid out. Specimens in the displays, such as this one of opals, include gems in matrix as well as cut stones. The collection provides a very accessible introduction to gemstones. Collection Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History gem collection is small, but well laid out. Specimens in the displays, such as this one of opals, include gems in matrix as well as cut stones. The collection provides a very accessible introduction to gemstones. Collection Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Museum of Natural History Architecture

Even the building structure was new for the time. The hall’s glass roof is supported by cast iron pillars with wrought iron decoration. Apparently the pillars were originally intended to be made of wrought iron alone, but the iron was not strong enough to support the weight and the first building collapsed.

The roof over the hall is made up of rippled glass tiles which are original to the building. Somehow the tiles interlock and hold themselves up there. The construction technique is different than that used in the construction of the Crystal Palace built in London in 1851 and which burned down in 1936. The young woman who told me this also told me the glass roof was only recently cleaned—it was installed in 1860, remember. With the light pouring into the hall, it was impossible to imagine how dark it must have been with a century and a half of grime on the glass.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History

The first floor is a maze of cases and dino bones. But around the second story mezzanine—about 20 feet up—are dozens of pillars, each made from a different type of stone from Great Britain. Lapidaries will have a field day. All the stone is beautifully cut and polished, and the pillars are labeled—from the mezzanine side as you walk around—with the type of stone and its source. At the base of each pillar are carved leaves and flowers from plants which also hail from the same area as the stone. The botanical specimens were all copied from life—also a new concept–from specimens in the nearby, newly established Botanical Garden.

I mention the height of the mezzanine, because the museum was intended as an active study archive for students and an exam space. Students were tested on their knowledge of geology by standing in the hall downstairs and identifying the type of stone in the pillars on the mezzanine. Not a task I envy them. I sincerely hope they were not required to identify the plant carvings from that distance as well.

A display of quartz gemstones shows an excellent range of colors and varieties, including rock crystal with lepidocrocite inclusions. Collection Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

A display of quartz shows an excellent range of colors and varieties, including rock crystal with lepidocrocite inclusions. Collection Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Gemstones at the Museum of Natural History

Finally, I found the corner I was looking for. A small but very nice collection of gem materials. Each gemstone represented included a sample of the crystal or material in matrix as well as a very representative sampling of nice quality, well-cut gems. There is a section of synthetic materials as well, both cut and in boule/crystal form. The quartz selection was very nice, including all colors of quartz from transparent through smoky and citrine to amethyst. There were also cut stones of rutilated quartz, tourmalinated quartz, and rock crystal with lepidocrocite inclusions which I’d never seen before. It would make a lovely gemstone for a ring!

Some of the decorative ways that agates have been used over time. Collection Oxford University Museum of Natural History. gemstones stone vessels

Some of the decorative ways that agates have been used over time. Collection Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

The collection will certainly never give the Smithsonian’s curators cause for a sleepless night, but I found it thorough and well laid out for anyone getting their first taste of what the gem world can provide, and the skills of lapidaries. And for true “rockhounds,” who love all the stoney things of the Earth, the pillars surrounding the mezzanine are worth the walk.

Oxford Museum of Natural History

Windows at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History are not all evenly decorated with stone carving due to a financial shortfall.

More Stone Carvings

Before we leave, I want to go back to the stone carving on buildings in Oxford. I noticed that the windows at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History were all surrounded by carvings, though it appeared that not all of the friezes had been completed (above). The young woman I talked to told me why.

It turns out that the group that was organizing the building of the museum ran out of money before it was done. As a result, they weren’t paying the largely Irish stonemasons. The Irish carvers continued their work even though they weren’t getting their wages. They were, however, not doing it out of altruism.

Unpaid Irish stonemasons took their revenge on British politicians by carving their heads on the grotesque animals around the window casements at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Unpaid Irish stonemasons took their revenge on British politicians by carving their heads on the grotesque animals around the window casements at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

The British were not popular in Ireland during the mid-1800s—it was the time of the potato famine, and the founding of the IRA. Since they weren’t getting paid, the stonemasons got revenge—by carving the heads of politicians on the animals around the window frames. (If you look closely, you can see this.) When it was discovered, the whole group of stonemasons was sacked and the window carvings never finished.

The young woman giving me my history lesson told me that museum staff call it the “cat” window.

If you visit Oxford for more than one day, and you like natural history museums, stop by the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and look around. It’s not large so won’t take long. Buttonhole a staff member and ask questions about the displays, the history. It makes a very enjoyable hour or so.

Learn more about the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.


Sharon Elaine Thompson is a GG and FGA who has been writing about gemstones and jewelry for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 1987. She also writes a line of birthstone romance novels under the name Liz Hartley.


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