Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Romance of Labeling

The American Museum of Natural History makes it clear, in no uncertain terms:

The importance of having a catalog number on the specimen cannot be stressed enough. If a specimen becomes detached from its number, it has lost most of its scientific significance.

Others have said a label is the difference between a fossil and a pretty rock. It’s understood that the identity of a fossil is inherent in where it was found and the be-all and end-all is the permanent label ensuring that the fossil never loses that identity. Severing a fossil from its identity is as simple as separating it from its catalog number, or, indeed, never giving it a number in the first place.

The experts tell me that India ink is the marking ink of choice. India ink . . . the name exudes history, though, as any student of history knows, things are seldom as they seem. India ink is a carbon-based permanent ink that actually originated in China, only later coming to Europe by way of India. The French call it Chinese ink, how perverse. Special pens are recommended. India ink and special pens – thrilling. These are items that require a visit to an art store.

I love art stores. As long as I don’t open my mouth, I delude myself into believing that everyone in the store will take me for an artist as I cast what I hope passes for a knowing eye on the tubes of oil paint or the sketch pads. I get the same rush walking into a store that sells musical instruments, particularly electric guitars and drum sets and the like. Yes, I really do know that I’m easily labeled a poseur just from my body language and absence of body art.

Several purchases and some experimenting later, I have grown frustrated by the volatility of India ink. It seems to spread faster when spilled than any ink I’ve ever seen. The finicky nature of the pen doesn’t help. I want this process to work, so, I have done some more reading on the process and monitored some online discussions. Done right, this is more complicated than it seemed at first. Since my collection is primarily shark teeth, I turned to one of the bibles on shark teeth collecting in the mid-Atlantic area (my home terrain) – Bretton W. Kent’s Fossil Sharks of the Chesapeake Bay Region (1994):

Specimens can be labelled in several ways. For shark fossils the easiest method is to simply write the catalog number on the specimen with permanent black ink. The number should be placed on a smooth, inconspicuous area of the specimen. The crown is an ideal place on teeth, because the smooth, nonporous surface allows the number to be small in size, but still readily legible. However, the enameloid is so smooth that an inked number, even when dry, can still be easily worn off by handling. To prevent this, cover the dried ink with a rectangular patch of clear enamel . . . that is only slightly larger than the number. (p. 126)

It’s beginning to seem like real work. My usual solution in such a situation is to search for a different opinion, one more to my liking. Jasper Burns, author of Fossil Collecting in the Mid-Atlantic States (1991), comes through for me, sort of:

But what about sharks’ teeth, whose back sides look as good as their fronts, or tiny fossils? If you decide to keep each specimen in a small, separate tray, there is no problem: number the tray or label it with all collecting information. This is the customary way to store and display fossils. I prefer to arrange the specimens together on a felt surface, segregated by locality . . . – and hope I don’t spill the drawer. (p.37)

No writing on teeth. I like that. But, hope I don’t spill the drawer?

As much as it pains me to forego the India ink, at this stage I will keep on with my old system for my teeth which offers somewhat more assurance that specimens wont lose their identity in my hands. All of my finds or acquisitions are associated with a location and a date. I catalog only the best of the lot in an electronic catalog (backed up on a separate hard disk and periodically printed out). Each cataloged specimen has a number affixed to it with a little white sticky (no, I know it’s not permanent) and is housed, typically, in its own small hard plastic box with a lid that snaps shut. Each is resting on a small piece of foam rubber in the box. A paper label printed from my electronic catalog is stored inside box, giving the catalog number, genus and species, and location where found. As a result, if the sticky number comes off while the specimen is in its box, no problem. Spills aren’t an issue either. Sure, care has to be taken if more than one of these specimens is outside of its box. Oh, there’s further protection, nearly every cataloged specimen is photographed, labial and lingual side shots with a catalog number in the picture.

For the myriad other teeth that I have yet to catalog or which are sufficiently redundant as to not merit cataloging, ziplock plastic baggies in various sizes come to the rescue. Labels are affixed to the baggies with the date and location of discovery. Trying to remove sloppy labels from the plastic bags has shown that these are unlikely to come off inadvertently (they hardly come off deliberately). But, even if they do, the beta nature of these specimens leads to a shrug of the shoulders.

Okay, that’s the teeth. Looking back over what I’ve written, I recognize there’s a lot of work just in my half-baked process. And, what about the rest of the small but growing number of non-tooth specimens now resting in drawers and boxes? Sigh, maybe, just maybe, I’ll try India ink again.

In the final analysis, why am I in search of permanent identification? My small collection holds the key to nothing. Who am I kidding as I envision my specimens with small, elegant, perfectly legible black alphanumerics inconspicuously inked on them?

Here's why. Beyond the intellectual satisfaction of doing science, even if in my fumbling, amateurish fashion, there’s the emotional satisfaction, a succumbing to the romance of the hand-inked identification numbers and letters gracing specimens. They are a vicarious tie to history and the great naturalists whose collections of fossils and everything else (including finches, mockingbirds, and, even, pigeons) helped establish so much that is important in science. They wrote on their specimens, wrote identifying information such as that on these bones of a red runt pigeon. The writer in this instance . . . Charles Darwin.

Portion of photograph by Robert Clark accompanying the article “Was Darwin Wrong?”, National Geographic, November, 2004

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