A palaeontologist’s work is never done

A few weeks ago I did some basic cleaning on a specimen I am working on. It’s an old one, and as I commented on recently, not all specimens are in the pristine condition that if often seen in museums on display or in the pages of journals. While there are reasons that this happens (mostly age when people simply didn’t know how to handle material) this one is quite exceptional. On a single vertebra (and I have about 25 to clean, plus parts of several limbs and a pelvis) I found, wait for it, ten different resins, glues or other things attached to my specimen.

no-restYes, presumably several different people at several different times had used a total of nine different things to mark, repair or alter this one bone. There is a basic coating of consolidant glue to help support the bone (fair enough) and some form of superglue to fix a few breaks (less good, that stuff is hard to remove), then there is plaster to complete the missing parts (annoying, but this used to be on display) and paint to cover the plaster that got on the bone. So far, no great surprises, but that is still only four. Then we have both red and black paint on top of the original brown (six – and actually some white with the specimen number, but I’m not actually counting that, it’s essential and normal practice) some resin and rubber cement also used to fix breaks (there are awful glues – eight – and actually a possible ninth). Finally nine and ten are two kinds of plasticine lingering on that I assume once held then bones in place while people worked on them – again quite normal, but not only was it not removed, it was often painted over.

So there you have it, ten types of paint, glue, gum, plaster and more used on a single vertebra, and one that is actually largely complete bar a bit of wear and missing zygopophyses. Not only is this a nightmare to clean off, but parts of it obscure what I want to see and of course with so many things on the bone there is a worry that whatever solvent I use to clean most of them off with, might react with one of the others and make things worse. Happy days.

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