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The Harkerama - Part 1

The Teaching Excellence Academy support the Student/Staff Partnership Scheme at the University and its yearly activity and array of fabulous projects. This series of blogs stem from a 2023 Student/Staff Partnership (SSP) project led by Louis Chambers and Bryony Caswell, respectively student and lecturer in geology. Their project “aimed to highlight role models, historical and recent, and resources in geology to empower and inspire today’s students”. 
Enjoy reading the whole series! Part 2 and Part 3. Any queries should be directed to SSP.

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John Neale’s lecture slides, rock hammer, and a photo of staff and final students in 1970

Student Archives and the Harkerama

Over the next few months, and after some 35 years, the Harkerama (the University geological society's newsletter) returns briefly whilst we will follow in the footsteps of the intrepid pioneers of geology, finding out what happened to Hull graduates of old and, in addition, reflect upon the history of geology, geologists, staff and students at the University of Hull connecting the past to the present, we consider how student society, university life and the role of geology in today’s world has changed. We hope to bring some of these animated characters back to life as inspiration for current and future students.

Various volumes of the original Harkeramas from the 1980s

Last November, as the new president of the student geological society at Hull, I inherited the society's archives, which we affectionately refer to as "the Harkives". This collection of dusty sepia-toned photos, letters, journals, and long-forgotten artefacts holds historical and cultural significance. I began to research the history of geology at Hull using the Harkives. We shared some photos on the society's Instagram account, and my lecturer expressed interest in their content. Although they were haphazardly piled in a corner, after some discussion, we decided they deserved better and that we would formally archive the materials to preserve them and, at the same time, work on a student-staff project to learn more about our predecessors.

I approached our technician Mark, seeking permission to move the Harkives to a storage room in the north wing of the building. He was kind enough to grant me access, and I set about ferrying the archives to their new home. Upon arrival, I was greeted with a room full of stacked drawers, cabinets, and dusty boxes containing notebooks, bronze lab equipment, geological instruments and large drill cores.

Although I had been warned that the room was a bit of a "dumping ground," I wondered if there were hidden treasures waiting to be discovered. So, with that in mind, I began my search, carefully sifting through the various items in the room. Among the many exciting finds were UV lights (last used in 1996), lab equipment, calendars, old work notes, and letters from international scientists.

Letters from former students to the geology department in the 1980s

However, the most exciting discovery was four books labelled 1982/3, -83, -85, and -87, along with the owner's rusty rock hammer still encrusted with mud. These were some of Professor John Neal's personal academic notebooks, letters and photographs. I felt honoured to have stumbled upon them! I carefully catalogued and sealed these remarkable discoveries in the storage room, ensuring their preservation. Through these materials, I went on to document some of the history of the department and society.

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John Neal’s journals document everything from what he had for breakfast daily to highly evolved Tibetan blue granite
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New meets old; the class of 2023 photographed in Carboneras, Spain...
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... and class of 1957 photographed in Ludlow, Shropshire.

The Department and the Harker Society

Many universities that offer geology degree programmes also have student societies running in parallel. At Hull, the Harker Society was established roughly the same as the geology degree to balance academic and social life. The University, then called Hull College, began offering geology courses in 1843, taught by John Phillips, who was famous for his work on geological time and was the nephew of William Smith, the "father of English Geology".

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William Smith’s 1815 geological map of the UK

However, it wasn't until the 1920s and 30s that the college started running a geology degree programme led by Geoffrey Bond, who at that time had only three students, two, Ojal and Othenio, from Eastern Africa and one from London, Derek Ried. All three became very successful following their studies. But, the course did not achieve significant status until 1954 after an outing to Shropshire led by the new course leader Lewis Penny.

Penny was soon joined by John Neale as a PhD student and associate lecturer in 1949. With Neale at his side, Penny ran a department of 18 students in a wooden hut whose doors still read “Guard Room”. Over the next decade or so, the department was built up and, in the 1960s, could compete with other large, regional universities. Many successful students moved on to careers in industry and further academia, as did the staff. For instance, in the 1980s, Jonathan Sykes achieved an MSc at Newcastle. He became a Rock Mechanic and Geoengineer in various gold mines in South Africa. Pete Scott, a lecturer, moved to Cornwall and became a leading professor at the Camborne School of Mines.

The student geological society was founded six years after John Neale’s arrival. Lewis Penny named it in honour of Alfred Harker, a pioneering geologist from the Hull area. Harker, who trained in geology at Cambridge University, was well-known for being one of the most accomplished petrologists of his time. He published numerous papers and maps on the magmas and lavas in the Inner Hebrides and the west coast of Northern England.

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A microscope slide or thin section of gabbro magma. This is used in petrology, which is the study of rock creation and behaviour

The society’s story is told through the Harkerama and the ‘Harkives’. These archives tell the story of students at Hull, punctuated with snapshots from the '40s to the ’80s. Unfortunately, the society became inactive when the Geology programme was discontinued in the 1980s. However, it was revived in 2015 when the course was reinstated. Sadly, most of the original staff had left by then, along with the Lost Fossils, which is another story.

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Drawers containing some of the reclaimed Lost Fossils

Pioneers and Peers

The geology we study today is built on a foundation of centuries of earlier work; geological societies, in fact, have a long tradition of bringing together like-minded professional and amateur geologists who visit rock outcrops, discussing and musing over possible interpretations of Earth's history. The establishment of some key geological theories are surprisingly recent. For instance, the theory of Plate tectonics was only published in the 1960s. The initial ideas of Alfred Wegner from 1912 and Abraham Ortelius from even earlier in 1596 were based on the shape of the major continents (e.g. of South America and Africa), which looked like puzzle pieces that once fitted together. Discoveries of identical rocks and fossils on either continent showed how they had once been part of a larger continent named “Gondwana”, leading to the idea of “continental drift”. This idea was gradually built upon until its final acceptance by the scientific community in the 1960s. The most seismic discovery that led to the approval of this theory was that of Marie Tharp, who, in the days before computers and in a world recovering from the aftermath of WWII, mapped the ocean floor, combed and processed heaps of data by hand, and drew the Mid-Atlantic Ridge to prove the existence of continental drift and plate tectonics.

Throughout this project, we seek to bring historic geological characters and recent alumni “to life". We start with the society’s founder and president, Professor John Neal who, as a part-time PhD student and lecturer, became a leading micropalaeontologist focusing on the ostracods, microscopic floating bean-like sea creatures…

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