How not to curate a fossil properly

Going though various collections around the world you do find odds and ends that really are not quite what you had hoped to find. Of course going back through the years palaeontologisats were using primitive methods and did not realise that they were perhaps damaging the fossils long term, and of course information was not traded with anything like the frequency meaning many institutions made the same mistakes as each other. Some were actually necessary – the Tendaguru dinosaurs would never have made it back to Europe if the bones had not been deliberately broken into small enough packages to be carried out of the African bush. Even now, some small provincial places have only basic tools, or commercially available glue to fix their mistakes and lack the resources or knowledge to improve the situation. While of course you can excuse all kinds of what we might now term bad practice there are some real shockers out there and it is worth pointing out a few of them – you never know who might be reading, and in a way it’s fun. The battle scars of the professional palaeontologist are measured in holotypes broken, disaster discovered in drawers and fieldwork tales of woe. Here then are a few of the fallen that one can uncover in the world’s fossil collections:

1. Specimens with no labels. Nothing. No name. No number. No identity. No record or who found it where, when, how old it is, or how it got to the museum.

2. Alternatively you can change the specimen number, swap it with another specimens, leave the field number on there instead of the museum number.

3. Missing pieces. The description or museum label lists 4 bones, you only have 2. No one knows where the other are. Counterplates go missing with monotonous regularity (coming soon in fact, ‘the missing counterplate of Germanodactylus‘).

4. If anything breaks off, just throw it away, you don’t need it. Alternatively replace it with bits from another specimen, but don’t record it so no-one realises they are working on something that isn’t original.

5. Feel free to send specimens out on loan or to another museum or mount them in an exhibition without recording what you sent, to whom, when, for how long, in what condition, or even which company did the transport work.

6. If you are going to do some extra preparation work, make sure you have no photos or casts should you make any mistakes or made major changes. If you want to prepare the underside of a slab don’t both the reinforce the matrix so the whole thing becomes really delicate and can’t be turned over, moved or cast.

7. Plaster stuck to the bones because whoever put the jacket on in the filed didn’t cover the bones properly before adding the plaster which of course then welded itself to the damn specimen.

8. In it’s already in a poor condition, cover the specimen in tons of glue. For preference use something like superglue that does not come off easily, or some old style resin that turns opaque. For best effect use several kinds of glue so that they either react together to do horrible things to your specimen and can’t be removed easily and the solvent that might dissolve one glue might react with the other one or the actual rock of the fossil.

9. Alternatively if it’s in quite good condition but there is lots missing, reconstruct the missing bits with plaster. Make sure this is securely attached by covering as much of the original bones as possible and ensure the plaster is nice and thick and hard to get off. You can also pain over the bones and joints to cover up where the plaster has been added ensuring that only do you mess up the bones, but you can’t even see what is bone and what is faked.

10. If you are going to mount the specimen, drill into the bones to make sure you have a secure place to attach your framework. Ensure significant part of the specimen are inaccessible to scientists by covering them, or making the frame as a solid piece that can’t be dismantled. Feel free to bolt small pieces like ankle bones permanently in the wrong position so they can’t be examined or changed.

I have witnessed every single thing on this list, often multiples of them on the same specimen and including ones you would never expect to find it (Berlin Archaeopteryx anyone?) . It is amazing just how often good, even great specimens have some really big problems with them and again much can be forgiven for past problems when no-one knew any better, and yes we all make mistakes and bad things happen, but really some of the disasters you witness are just frightening. I rather suspect that while this list was supposed to be fairly comprehensive it may only scratch the surface and those with more experience than me can add quite a few things to the list. There are always more ways to frustrate a palaeontologist than you think. One I left off the list is the ‘perfect exhibition’ situation – a perfect specimen, perfectly prepared, perfectly treated, no problems anywhere, nothing you could possibly complain about, but mounted in a glass case that the museum can’t or won’t open, so you can only see it from several feet away, though glass and with all that lovely flare from the spotlights in the room. Arrrgh!

Right, I’m off to lie down in a dark room and to try and forget about Dendrorhyncoides for a bit.

15 Responses to “How not to curate a fossil properly”

  1. 1 Allen Hazen 22/10/2008 at 2:31 pm

    And some famous people are apparently famously ham-handed: I’ve read in a couple of places that “RCA-ed” was the slang for “broken” at one stage in the American Museum of Natural History’s paleo department.

  2. 2 Christopher Collinson 23/10/2008 at 5:34 am

    “Right, I’m off to lie down in a dark room and to try and forget about Dendrorhyncoides for a bit.”

    Oh no… what did you do?

  3. 3 David Hone 23/10/2008 at 9:03 am

    Nothing (for once) it just has some interesting issues with it’s preservation and accessability which is causing me great difficulty at the moment.

  4. 4 Christopher Collinson 23/10/2008 at 12:18 pm

    Yeah, like the fake tail…:x

  5. 5 Andy 23/10/2008 at 2:23 pm

    The renovation of the AMNH dinosaur halls was the biggest loss of dinosaur specimens to science since the bombing of the German museums during WWII, as I’ve often said. Talk about cases that are completely inaccessible!

  6. 6 David Hone 23/10/2008 at 2:52 pm

    Christopher: ah well, that’s part of the point! Which is incredibly cryptic, so I will say that yes, certainly part of the tail has been faked, but there is also more to it than that, and you’ll have to wait for ohh, about 20 months to get the rest of that explanation, sorry. Or sooner if they open the damned case it’s stuck in and let me, you know, actually *see* it.

  7. 7 Nathan Myers 23/10/2008 at 5:00 pm

    Let us have a observe of silence for A. fragillimus.

  8. 8 Nathan Myers 23/10/2008 at 5:01 pm

    (Grr.) Let us observe a moment of silence for A. fragillimus.

  9. 9 Manabu Sakamoto 24/10/2008 at 5:38 pm

    It is especially annoying when you’ve spent like 900 GBP to get to a collection, fully expecting the bones to be individually stored in prisstine condition, like they were figured in the original description, only to find them mounted awkwardly so that you can’t see anything except the lateral surfaces, but also with lots of paint so you can’t distinguish the difference between the real bones and the fake ones…that was money well spent…

  10. 10 Roger 27/03/2009 at 3:05 pm

    What’s the issue with the Berlin Archaeopteryx? Is it just the fact that it can’t be examined with a microscope because the mount is stuck in place?

  11. 11 David Hone 27/03/2009 at 3:48 pm

    No my beef with the Berlin Archaeo was the over-prep job that was doen meanign that the leg feathers were lost (the subject of a different post on here) bones in the lgs were brokena nd the slab was prepped so thin in paces a slight knock could break it. Check out Helmut Tischlinger’s photos where he shone a light from behind the plate, you can see through the rock it’s so thin in a halo around the bones – it’s less than a mm thick in places. One day it will be dropped or hit and we are going to lose a big chunk of it and in the meantime we can’t cast it for the same reason, and even mosing it to a scanner say to make a good permament record would be dodogy.

  12. 12 Suz Winspear 28/03/2009 at 2:11 am

    In the small English provincial museum in which I work, we have a very nice near-complete Ichthyosaur, given to us in the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, some well-meaning person in the 1960s or 70s decided it didn’t look sufficiently striking as an exhibit, and got to work with a paintbrush. After painting the original Victorian mahogany frame white, then painting-in the ‘missing bits’ of the skeleton in brown, he or she emphasised the shape of the fossil by smothering the whole matrix in a thick layer of lurid turquoise house-paint! So far we haven’t been able to find a way of removing all that gunk without either a)damaging the fossil further or b)spending the whole of our minimal Natural Sciences budget on the restoration. So the Ichthyosaur is still on display in its turquoise matrix, looking slightly embarrassed at the hideous colour that surrounds it.

  13. 13 David Hone 28/03/2009 at 9:23 am

    Wow, that is quite a special effort. My advice would eb to contact a coupel of preparators at good museums who might be abel to help. Depending on the matrix the speciemn is in, there should be a few solvents avialble which will tkae off the paint without harming the specimen. Sounds like a tricky job though and another one to add to the list of busted speciemns by well meaning / untrained curators.

  1. 1 A palaeontologist’s work is never done « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 15/11/2008 at 4:58 pm
  2. 2 Sinraptor « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 27/03/2009 at 8:48 am

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