Sand dunes and sharks’ teeth

October 21, 2009

Forest of Galtres Society members were joined by Royal Geographical Society members last Thursday for a fascinating evening learning about the Sahara Desert, from Sam Watson, Head of Science at Terrington School and the regional RGS Secretary.

Sam Watson had spent some time living in Cairo and in Marrakech, and this had enabled him to visit the desert and explore it. As he came to understand the many different sorts of desert, their landforms, their beauty, their dangers, their wildlife, their peoples, their opportunities, he also appreciated all that deserts have to show to westerners used to comfort and prolific supplies of water.

Water, and wind. These two have influenced the shape of deserts and their appearance. Sand dunes; these are the mobile element of the natural geology, and the wind shapes them and erodes them. Clearly, a suitable off-road vehicle is necessary for deserts, and Sam’s was there too, for us to see. He had brought his navigational equipment, a sun compass, maps of part of the Sahara where even now it says ‘not surveyed’. Sam and his oil exploration colleague would spent weekends in the desert, camping, sleeping in the open under a sky so full of stars as to be nearly beyond belief. The tiny footprints alongside them in the morning told them which desert animals had hopped close to sniff at them as they slept, and hopped off too.

Sand dunes can create an almost impenetrable barrier, but they provide a fine vantage point to photograph the surroundings as Sam has done, and show oases, green in their verdant, sometimes inhabited, places. Water is wealth in the desert, and water from wells is usually free to passers’ by. Water from wells is being drawn from deep, fossil, water stored in aquifers below deserts. By exploiting this scarce commodity on a massive scale, some governments are actually taking from their neighbours. The water finds its own level, and does not stay under a careful country but moves to favour the country drawing more water from deep bores holes to spray over circular farmland patches and grow crops. This exploitation will cause some countries great damage as their wells dry up and the nomadic tribes can no longer find water and food for their goats to eat. There is also the serious risk that this will lead to conflict.

The River Nile is a source of water which has long been exploited to enable local agriculture to flourish. The Fayoum Basin, shown to us in an aerial photograph, is supplied by a canal from the Nile, and this canal was built by the Romans. Around one side of the Fayoum Basin there is an escarpment with three distinct stone outcrops. Sam Watson had enjoyed the journey by Landrover down these three levels, and the scouting on foot necessary to ensure the route ahead was passable all the way down. He explored the nearby fossil bearing strata. Bones from aeons ago lying in the sun with maybe just a rope to keep people from trampling it. The marine fossil animals come from one stratigraphic level, and the hills protruding present land animal fossils as that land lay above water when the animals were breathing.

Sharks’ teeth. These are genuine teeth from sharks and they are the only part of a shark to survive, as the animal is otherwise made of soft tissue. Sharks’ teeth are now a true curiosity, but they had been so different to anything known about in previous historic eras, that they were favoured and acquired by potentates to put in their Cabinets de Curiositées. Sharks’ teeth had great esoteric value in Baroque decoration and were placed alongside gems of real value as decorations for fabulously exuberant creations from goldsmiths’ workshops. Think of the Green Vaults in Dresden and the wonderful pieces created and collected by the Habsburg Princes.

Sam’s talk held our attention and many questions were asked afterwards. It was also the first occasion for using our brand-new Awards For All equipment at lectures.

Funded by the National Lottery through Awards for All