Chunk of rock with an intriguing story


Written by Jeannie Swales

It never ceases to amaze me how the most unpromising of objects can lead to the most intriguing of stories (and sometimes, vice versa!)

Take this chunk of rock, for instance. It’s a pretty thing: white quartz, veined with a lovely jade green colour; 
other than that, apparently unremarkable. But that label is the interesting thing. We can’t quite make out the 
title, although the last word is almost certainly ‘Labrador’ – the place in Canada where, presumably, it was found.

But the comment below is clearly and disarmingly written: “Quartz tinged green by Chlorite according to Count Bournon. I rather think by nothing but Copper.”

We don’t know who the writer was, but he or she is gently challenging the opinion of the great French mineralogist, Jacques Louis, Comte de Bournon (Fellow of the Royal Society, Fellow of the Geological Society – he was a founding member of the latter in 1807).

Born in 1751, the young de Bournon was fascinated by his father’s mineral collection, and began to study crystallography. He became a soldier, but was forced into exile in England after the French Revolution and became a leading figure in London’s scientific circles. He returned to France when the Bourbon monarchy was restored in 1814, dying at Versailles in 1825.

In 1801 he began to study meteorites, and was an early challenger to the theory prevalent at the time that they came from the moon, positing (quite correctly) that they were of extra-terrestrial origin. He even had a mineral named after him - bournonite.

Clearly an authoritative figure – so who is the label writer who has the audacity to challenge his opinion? And did the great Comte himself actually assess this very piece of quartz; or was that his opinion on this type of mineral generally?

The Scarborough Philosophical Society, which built the Rotunda Museum in the 1820s, was a hotbed of scientific discussion and discovery, with many great scientists in its inner circle – the most 
famous, of course, being William ‘Strata’ Smith (1769-1839), known as the ‘father of English geology’.

It’s plausible that Smith and de Bournon knew each other, although unlikely that Smith was a great fan of the Geological Society during De Bournon’s lifetime. Although it later paid tribute to Smith by awarding him, in 1831, its highest honour, the Wollaston Medal, in its very early days, the Society contributed to his bankruptcy and incarceration in a debtors’ prison by plagiarising his famous map and selling it cheaper than he could.

The quartz is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects that have been acquired by the borough over the years, now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust.

For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on or (01723) 384510.