THIS week Gallery Oldham share the history of Oldham's Fossil Forest.

In 1879 a remarkable fossil forest was uncovered in a sandstone quarry on Oldham Edge.

James Nield, who ran a printing business in the town, realised the huge scientific importance of this find.

The image shown above is from a lantern slide in the Gallery Oldham collection and shows James Nield sitting at the base of one of the fossil trunks.

Sitting around the quarry, the workmen and their picks and shovels can be clearly seen.

In total the find consisted of twelve standing fossil trees, giving the find the name “Fossil Forest”.

Nield encouraged all manner of experts to come to Oldham to examine them. At the time they were termed ‘The Wonder of Europe’.

These fossils formed about 300 million years ago in the Carboniferous geological period. At the time the area where Oldham is now was covered in a vast tropical wetland. Here a forest with a rich understory of ferns and horsetails and huge trees grew. Over many millions of years the plants decayed in the swamps and this was the start of a process that would finally form seams of coal. At the same time river sediments and deltas formed sandstones. Eventually the climate changed, becoming cooler and drier causing the extinction of most of these plant species now only found as fossils.

Once the large fossils were exposed to the elements, and to the visiting public, they started to become damaged. So James Nield had them moved to the grounds of Bluecoat School. There they were placed in the garden of the rectory where they were a curiosity for many years.

The Fossil Forest was such a notable find that smaller specimens collected at the time are now in the collections of Manchester and Salford Museums. Although coal and sandstones of this period stretch across much of Lancashire only Oldham can lay fame to such a remarkable find as depicted in this image.

The columns in Parliament Square in Oldham (the ones with the owls on top) are all inspired by the fossil forest and are moulded with a design of these ancient fossilised plants.