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A Trip Back in Time from the Rare Book Room
By Margi Dykens, Research Librarian
Walking through FOSSIL MYSTERIES at the San Diego Natural History Museum, we may take for granted that the interpretation of fossils acts as a window, enabling us to imagine scenes that might have occurred millions of years ago.
A stroll through the Eocene diorama, with its plethora of models of animals and plants—in the trees, on the ground, and in the water—transports us to a time long before any humans existed to witness the landscape. To visualize what extinct organisms looked like, we must rely on creative reconstruction, informed by the scientific context of the fossils themselves. There is no other way to glimpse back into the mysterious history of our planet.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, early in the development of geology as a science, naturalists we re busy discovering, studying, and illustrating fossils. Beautifully hand-colored illustrations of fossils made during this time, such as those accompanying this article, are still considered to be among the most masterful and detailed images of fossils ever created.
But what about the first scenes that attempted to recreate the prehistoric environment that existed when these organisms were still alive? For an example of this, we turn to one of the first definitive works on fossils in English, James Parkinson’s Organic Remains of a Former World (1804), found in the Museum’s Rare Book Room. Parkinson was a London physician, best known today for his description of Parkinson’s Disease as published in his Essay on the Shaking Palsy (1817). He also happened to be an avid fossil collector.
The frontispiece of Parkinson’s three-volume work reflects the Biblical context in which fossils were regarded at the time. The scene depicts the world as the floods are subsiding from the Great Deluge, with ammonites and other shells left on the beach to become fossils. A tiny image of the Ark is represented at rainbow’s end in the distance. Organic Remains of a Former World shows the difficulty people had in conceiving a world that existed before humankind.
However, naturalists and scientists such as Georges Cuvier, through the study of comparative anatomy, made a cognitive leap when they examined the fossil evidence combined with knowledge about living relatives and conjectured how extinct animals might have looked. For example, reconstruction of a complete fossil skeleton and comparative anatomical study allowed Cuvier in 1812 to hypothesize musculature and body outline for certain extinct mammals, which was the necessary first step to recreating complete prehistoric scenes.
In 1830, Henry de la Beche, an English geologist who was familiar with the many fossils being discovered at Lyme Regis in Dorset, created an image called “A More Ancient Dorset.” In this remarkable illustration, ichthyosaurs bite plesiosaurs, pterodactyls fly, squid-like belemnites are being swallowed by ichthyosaurs—all manners of organisms are seen in full activity. De la Beche was an amateur artist as well as a geologist, and this was the first conception of a complete prehistoric landscape, based on scientific examination of the fossil remains.
Although the creation of the Eocene diorama in FOSSIL MYSTERIES was built upon a much larger and more rigorously tested body of scientific facts, the debt we owe to early scientists and artists, who dared to visually create a new view of prehistoric life, is clear. Their work paved the way for viewing the study of fossils as a kind of time machine—a vehicle that allows us to step back into deep time.
Illustrations are from Knorr’s De Natuurlyke Historie der Versteeningen, published in Amsterdam, 1768–1773.
SAN DIEGO NATURAL HISTORY: FIELD NOTES, November 2006