NAME: Dr. Ruth Siddall
CURRENT TITLE: University College London (UCL) Student Mediator (and geologist!). It’s complicated …
AREA OF EXPERTISE: The geology of the built environment and geomateriality.
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 25
EDUCATION: BSc (Hons) Geology, University of Birmingham 1986-1989; PhD Geotectonics & Thermochronology University College London 1989-1994
What’s your job like?
My real day job involves trying to fix things when they go wrong for students at UCL. This is hard and sometimes challenging work, so it is good to go out and look at rocks and stones to clear my head and help me remember the reason why I got into academia in the first place! Therefore, I do some consultancy and lots of outreach work with various groups, ranging from pensioners with a commitment to life-long learning as well as architects, museum curators, civil engineers and town planners.
I got into the geology of building materials through working for the American School of Classical Studies in Athens after my PhD, and so in my research, I became a ‘geoarchaeologist’ with an interest in how people have used stone and its derivatives, pottery, cements, plasters and pigments in their daily lives. As a consequence, I have been privileged to work at some amazing archaeological sites and places of cultural heritage, including Corinth in Greece, Pompeii in Italy and at London’s Westminister Abbey.
Recently, after 20 years of lecturing, I took a career change to work with student experience at UCL. I am still able to continue with some research and consultancy but also spend weekends as an ‘urban geologist’, learning and teaching about building stones used in London and other cities.
What’s a typical day like?
A typical urban geology day for me may start with going to Westminster to meet with my colleagues on the London Geodiversity Partnership. Here we discuss issues that affect London’s geological framework and lobby to have these kept on London’s government agenda. These include taking measures to conserve and preserve important areas of geological outcrop in the city’s environment and publishing detailed reports on these locations. My remit is mainly with London’s building stones, and I try to keep on top of new building developments to find out which stones are being used and keeping records of this.
Following this, I may spend lunchtime researching new and old building stones in the city. This is just like traditional geological fieldwork, except that I cannot use a hammer or take samples. But I walk around making field notes on what I observe, ensuring I can accurately locate myself on the map, take photographs and do as much as I can to identify the stones used. I then use this information, along with research on architectural history and building records, to construct the data for my geological walking tours and guides. I also use these data to construct an archive record of the stones used in London over the centuries.
In the afternoon, I might go and visit a museum or historic property to identify stones used in sculptures, fireplaces and the like. This is always an interesting experience as it invariably involves drawing unwanted attention to myself by being up a ladder, in the middle of a busy museum, brushing away cobwebs to try to identify the marble used on a piece of Rococo sculpture, or finding myself lying on a church floor during the middle of a service … The information acquired is of course essential as part of the accurate description of a works of art or architectural fittings for museum catalogues, but can also inform art historians about materials available to artists and craftspeople in different regions. Of course such knowledge can also help in the identification of fakes. To do this, it is necessary to memorise the characteristics of a great number of stones, but I also use well-documented reference collections for identification, such as our decorative stone collection at UCL’s Museums, Collections & Cultural Heritage Department.
In the evening, I may go and meet a group to take them on a tour of the building stones used on London’s streets. These normally last about 2 hours, and we look at the architecture and history of the buildings as well as the compositions and origins of the stones used.
Being an Urban Geologist is great fun. It is like having the same field area which keeps changing at a pace much faster that geological time. The average lifetime of a non-historic city building is 40 years, so things change all the time, and there is always a new ‘outcrop’ to see. It is also a great privilege to work close up with archaeological finds and museum objects or fixtures and fittings in historic buildings. Pretty much every kind of mineral, rock or fossil can be seen on city streets, so they are great learning resources for expanding geological knowledge cheaply, safely and at low cost. I have seen evidence of meteorite impacts, the effects of Proterozoic collision tectonics of Brazilian orogens and found dinosaur bones in London’s building stones.
Despite the fact that the great majority of geologists live or work day-to-day in cities, sadly the geology of cities is often dismissed as unimportant or simply a side show. It can be difficult to highlight the importance of urban geology in traditional Earth Sciences departments. I am lucky that we have a long tradition of urban geological studies at UCL, but it is still considered far from core research or teaching. I find that there is much more interest in pursuing this type of research in schools of architecture and art or archaeology, and indeed my current grants are with UCL Slade School of Fine Art. However, because urban geology is not formally taught anywhere, you have to do a lot of self teaching to learn your craft! This involves reading and researching about global quarries and geologies, spending a lot of time looking at collections, and hours trying to extract information out of architects and building contractors.
“I can probably recognize and identify around a thousand different building stones, but there are always new ones to learn.”
What’s your advice to students?
If you’re interested in learning more about the geology of the built environment, start with a geology degree and try to meet up with someone like me (there’s quite a few of us about!) in your city who does geological walks and try to learn from them. Go and visit building and decorative stone collections in Natural History Museums and start reading up on the quarrying industry. You’re going to have to be prepared to put in some work, but it is rewarding. Don’t be frightened of talking to architects, artists and archaeologists to see where you can collaborate. Someone interested in, say, decorative marbles in the Roman World, would be better off pursuing research in such studies in an archaeology or classics department rather than in an Earth Sciences one.
A lot of what I do is small-scale consultancy and outreach activities, but if you want to make a career in this field, don’t disregard jobs out there in the building stone industry. Many firms are desperate to recruit geologists, yet their businesses are often poorly marketed in the graduate job sector. Contact stone industry organisations like the Marble Institute of America or the Stone Federation of Great Britain for training and career opportunities. It is also a good idea to visit building stone trade fairs and hand out your curriculum vitae (CV) to quarry firms and stone contractors.