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Carboniferous Landscapes

The Carboniferous Era (299-359 million years ago) is one the most important periods in the history of Earth and strongly influenced human history as well. During the Carboniferous Era evolution of life led to some dramatic changes. Land plants colonised the continents. It was a strange world, dominated by giant ferns, arborescent horsetails, lycopods and primitive pine trees, but no flowers yet. The expansion of forests absorbed atmospheric carbon dioxide and forever raised the oxygen content of the air, thereby providing animals with more energy for muscular power and growth of brains. Large animals, from flying insects to mammals and ultimately man owe their existence to the Carboniferous forests.

Prior to ‘continental drift’, what is now western Europe once had an equatorial position and -maintained a tropical lowland forest -ecosystem for 10 million years. The collision of continents to form Pangaea created a suture underneath this forest, which resulted in its exceptional accumulation of coal. It takes a 10 m depth of accumulated vegetal matter to compress into a 1m depth of (mineable) coal, and 100,000 years to accumulate this quantity by continuous growth of a coal swamp (Elliot 1985). The geologically brief episode of reliance on fossil fuel, from the 19th century to the present, contributed to a giant technological leap forward and led to the predominance of coal-rich Western Europe and North America throughout the age of industrial modernity. The Carboniferous Era supplied the mineral resources that powered the Industrial Revolution, which enriched the Kingdom of Belgium in particular during the 19th century and which still shapes the geopolitical landscape today, even after the demise of the European coal industry toward the end of the 20th century.

The main way to identify the coal layers encountered in an underground mine in the early 20th century was by studying the fossils that defined the original profile of the ancient ecosystem. Mining directors were naturally interested in the stratigraphy of the coal measures in their mines, and thus in the description, identification and interpretation of fossils, mostly of plants. Collections of fossils allowed scholars at institutes closely linked to the mining industry to reconstruct entire plants and their biotopes, and the mining engineers to recognize plant assemblages typical of the different coal beds.

Different trends in landscape reconstruction can be discerned irrespective of scientific accuracy or aesthetic quality: the landscape as a theatre for animal evolution and/or behaviour, the coal swamp depicting the major taxons of the Carboniferous forest, and the paleogeographic maps derived from ecosystem distribution. The first group is mostly encountered in natural history museums, the second also in mining museums (or originally in institutes devoted to coal research), the last in scientific publications but rarely of artistic interest.

Artistic rendering of Carboniferous landscapes required accurate information on the fossils and their ecosystems. Such works were always commissioned by museums or mining companies and resulted from close collaboration between the scientist and the artist. Most paintings represent a botanical vision of the Carboniferous landscape, based on numerous discoveries of fossil plants from the coal mines. Only in rare cases was the artist allowed to create a romantic landscape, such as the Carboniferous forest painting commissioned by the Waterschei colliery and completed by Jan Habex. In this case the artist dominated the scientist and rendered a mysterious landscape of a pristine forest untouched by man, veiled in an unfathomable mist. Nevertheless, all the leading arborescent plant groups and climatic conditions typical for the Carboniferous era are still represented. MD