Sir Charles Lyell

Sir Charles Lyell

The 'Temple of Serapis'

Born in Kinnordy, Angus in 1797, Sir Charles Lyell, 1st Baronet, Kt FRS, is considered the leading geologist of his generation. He is best known as the author of Principles of Geology, which popularised James Hutton's concepts of uniformitarianism – the idea that the earth was shaped by the same processes still in operation today.

Lyell was a close and influential friend of Charles Darwin and Lyell was one of the first scientists to support On the Origin of Species. His wife, Mary Horner was daughter of Leonard Horner (1785–1864), the founder of Heriot-Watt University in 1821.

Lyell’s studies of the Roman Macellum or “Temple of Serapis” in Pozzuoli, near Naples in 1828 provide a perfect illustration of how his understanding of the impact and significance of modern marine and geological processes.

Whilst sitting contemplating the site, he observed a line marked by marine Lithophaga bivalve molluscs high up on three columns and realised that this represented a former shoreline. He correctly deduced from this that the site had been submerged for a long period after Roman times and then uplifted again such that the former shoreline was now c.2.74m above the present one. In an instant he saw that whatever the geological cause – which we now know to be underground ballooning and deflation of a magma chamber - it had been on a relatively rapid (2000 years) time scale. The present elevation of the palaeoshoreline on the columns shows that they have risen a further 3.15m since Lyell’s day.

In an instant, Lyell appreciated that the linkage between marine and earth processes were not always gradual as many including he had previously presumed and came an to understand the time scales on which some geological processes could operate.

The deduction caused him to revise his final edition of “Principles” and it is this legacy of being strong and intellectually flexible to change his mind when presented with more data and evidence, that is aspirational and inspirational to us all and are the fundamentals on which the new Charles Lyell Centre shall thrive.

Frontispiece from Lyell's Principles of Geology – the figure crouched contemplating the columns is Lyell himself
The site in Pozzuoli as it looks today.