Not a fossil

One occupational hazard of being a palaeontologist is that it’s quite a rare field to be in and yet fossils animals and especially dinosaurs are familiar to the public. Thus odd rocks and cattle bones can, to the untrained eye, look very exciting. With a regular feed on media stories along the lines of “Sam Smith found an odd bone on the beach and it turned out to be a new dinosaur” it’s no great surprise that people are eager to push these to the nearest palaeontologist or geologist, no matter how far fetched the idea or unlikely the interpretation. Pseudofossils cause particular problems, but any old chunk of rock or bone can be prized as a shell, dinosaur bone, mammoth tusk or usual shell.

It’s a common enough problem that people in the past have had to take action. I got hold of this recently from one of the curators at the Natural History Museum in London. It’s rather old (the fact that it has a telegram address is rather a give away, as is the style of the phone number) and shows that even what was (I’d guess) 70 years ago or more, that it was considered an important time saver to have these printed up with the most obvious candidates prelisted and ready to be checked off.

This is true of other fields as well. Archaeology perhaps unsurprisingly suffers from a near identical syndrome (prompting this piece of humour) but others get it too. I recall in Simon Singh’s superb book on Fermat’s Last Theorum that so many mad and bad attempted proofs of the theorum were sent to a university professor who was supposed to assess them that he had thousands of cards printed similar to that above that ran along the lines of “Dear…., the first error in your proof is on page….. line….., thus the proof is flawed”. It’s an ongoing struggle and one we cannot win. But in the meantime it can at least be fun.

12 Responses to “Not a fossil”

  1. 1 Allen Hazen 28/02/2012 at 12:16 am

    There’s a younger generation out there who would have to have the concept of “cable address” explained to them!

    I think it was some time after 1980 that Western Union ceased offering telegram service. … The University of Melbourne’s cable address was UNIMELB, and when I started teaching there in 1983 it was still printed on our stationery. In what I think was a nice gesture to history, the U of M decided to use the old cable address as its WWWeb address: homepage is

  2. 2 Tracie Bennitt 28/02/2012 at 4:34 pm

    Stephanie Evans’ article was hilarious! I can’t tell you how many time we get folks here at the Dinosaur Resource Center with the latest paleontological find and then have to tell them that it’s just a “concretion.” They want to know what kind of dinosaur that is. LOL We’ve even locked the back door to the lab for days concerned about who may be coming through it with a gun to shoot those stupid paleontologists!!! Love the idea of a card. Think I’ll make something similar….

    • 3 David Hone 28/02/2012 at 4:42 pm

      Thinking about it, it really could help. If people see it’s that common they might have a bit more sympathy for you and feel less bad about making the mistake (hey, hundreds of other guys must have done it too if they makes these up in bulk).

      • 4 Dave Godfrey 08/03/2012 at 3:35 pm

        The guys in the enquiries section still have much the same thing- factsheets on flint, things commonly mistaken for meteorites, concretions, etc, that they can give out to people.

  3. 5 Greg Leitich Smith 28/02/2012 at 10:45 pm

    Ha! Robert Heinlein had something similar:

    btw, I’ve enormously enjoyed your blog for a while now.



  4. 7 Ilja Nieuwland 29/02/2012 at 7:12 pm

    Hi Dave, I found a bunch of these while trundling through the NHM’s archives from around 1905, so they’re quite old – and, apparently, they sent out quite a lot of them.

  5. 8 littlewonder2 06/03/2012 at 2:53 am

    I read something recently in the National Geographic Magazine like this. Only it wasn’t a fossil, but a portrait.

    Apparently, in 1998 there was an auction in New York where the portrait, ‘La Bella Principessa’ was done in chalk and ink on vellum. It was thought to be 19th Century German with borrowed Renaissance style, and was bought for $21, 850.

    It was kept for ten years until a collector bought it. The collector thought it might be from the Renaissance, and that Leonardo Da Vinci, instead of being an influence on the artist, was the artist himself.

    He sent it in to an expert, who regularly gets calls from the sort of people you mentioned, and who he calls “Leonardo loonies”. But this one was real.

    I think that’s the kind of thing that inspires people, that makes them desperate to be that next story, one of the miraculously lucky ones. They don’t mean to be loonies; they mean to be discoverers. They just have bad luck, that’s all.

  6. 9 Ellen B 07/03/2012 at 7:15 pm

    Oh, NOW you tell me!

    My mother once discovered me and a playmate (ages 5 and 4) with a spread of large, impressive-looking bones on the kitchen floor. We had at least laid down some newspapers first. Following proper procedure, we were sorting and cleaning them in preparation for wiring them together. To my mother’s queries, I explained that we were going to start a museum with our amazing find of dinosaur bones!

    The skulls were in fragments, and had no horns, or I might perhaps have figured out we had two partial specimens of Bos primigenius. (Found in a moldy woods in Pennsylvania, not conducive to Georgia O’Keefe bone preservation.) When my mother firmly insisted that we could not keep two cows’ worth of smelly bones in the house, and limited me t two bones, I cannily selected the jawbone as one of my two prize specimens, since it came with lots of teeth.

    This was about the same age that I exclaimed at a museum display of dinosaur bones, an artfully posed T Rex and prey diorama: “Will you look at that! They were fighting, and all of a sudden they became extinct!” (I feel vaguely vindicated by the Fighting Dinosaur fossil.)

    Sorry for nattering, but your post might have saved my mother some time in explaining.

  7. 10 John McKay 12/03/2012 at 6:11 am

    So many academics have collected files of this sort in astronomy, archaeology, anthropology, paleontology, physics, mathematics, and history. I think going through these files–the ones that have survived–would make a wonderful social history. I’ve long believed that “wrong” ideas are as important as “right” ideas in constructing a full bodied understanding of the intellectual life of a society. My love of these ideas indirectly led me to the topic of my book (mammoths). In their way, UFOs, the Illuminati, my disproof of relativity, and the big bone in my neighbor’s garden are just as relevant as socially acceptable religion and political ideology.

  8. 11 bronironi 12/03/2012 at 6:54 am

    I was just telling someone about the ‘it fits well in my hand’ syndrome a few hours ago. Thanks for the link, that McSweeney’s is great!

  1. 1 drip | david’s really interesting pages… Trackback on 27/02/2012 at 8:58 am
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