Sunday, November 8, 2009

Ichnofossils and Old Home Movies

An ichnofossil I found this past week brought to mind old home movies. Ichnofossils or trace fossils are the fossilized evidence of activities of ancient organisms, coming in such forms as tracks, burrows, or borings. Old home movies are . . . , well, what I really have in mind are those short movies shot on 16 mm film (introduced in the 1920s) or 8 mm film (introduced in the 1930s).

I’ll start with the home movies. In fact, I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about a specific home movie from the 1920s and a batch filmed in the 1950s.

Home Movie, 1920s

A very committed substrata of the baseball fan community is wielding impressive analytical tools in an attempt to decipher a home movie discovered by someone in his grandfather’s collection of movies. The movie offers a very brief, blurry glimpse of a major league baseball game. This is a long look back because the game appears to have been played at some point in the 1920s at Yankee Stadium. A tantalizing pan across centerfield shows a tall pole standing in the field (good Lord, actually in the field of play – “I’ve got it, I've got it.” Bonk!), ads for shaving gear adorning the outfield walls, and a blimp floating beyond the stadium. What has the fanatics in a lather is the presence of a large, broad shouldered, slim-hipped player in this film clip – we see him striking out and apparently also playing right field during the game. The operating consensus is that it’s one of the baseball immortals, Babe Ruth. And that’s what makes the effort to identify the specific game a mission from God, particularly because there is no film of the Babe playing in the outfield during a regular game in Major League Baseball’s film archives. Baseball, for better or worse, is in love with its history. (Babe Ruth Like You've Never Seen Him Before, by John Branch, The New York Times, October 8, 2009 – link here to article; link here to Branch’s NYT blog posting; link here to followup piece by Branch)

So, here we have film of an event whose every important action is presumably recorded in a score sheet somewhere and described in newspaper articles. But, beyond the general agreement that this film shows the Babe in Yankee Stadium, perhaps shows him playing right field in a regular game, and certainly appears to show him striking out, we are left with myriad uncertainties. Most importantly, we cannot say with confidence when this game was played. 1928? September 9? Against the Philadelphia Athletics? Still, despite the debate over when the event took place, I believe we’re seeing Ruth in action, something I always find surprising – whoa, the man was real, not just a myth.

Home Movies, 1950s

My wife’s grandfather shot many (oh, so many) home movies during the 1950s, never quite understanding that a three minute still life film (of, say, an azalea bush) left something to be desired. (Andy Warhol stole the idea and turned it into art.) He, my wife’s grandfather, not Warhol, also had little appreciation for the panning shot. Even those that he managed to take came right to the verge of capturing essential images and stopped. One of the most frustrating thing about home movies, particularly these, are the missing details; often the truly interesting people or objects are just off camera or hopelessly out of focus in the background. It doesn’t necessarily help to be watching them with some of those who had starring roles in the films. Yes, that’s Cousin Joey on Grandad’s tractor. No, wait, that’s his brother. Isn’t it? Seeing one’s wife at age six – yes, there’s something disquieting about that. But, wait, who is that really?

Got to love those grandfathers with home movie cameras. Despite the grainy, herky-jerky images and crude filming techniques, these movies offer very interesting views of the recent past that can be as intriguing in what they reveal as they are frustrating in what they suggest. The Babe Ruth film and the 1950s family films are records of events, they capture action (what there is of it) and can be paused and parsed. Yet, just a few generations have passed and we are unable to recreate these events with precision.

Ichnofossil, 2009 (and Over 65 Million Years Ago)

Recently, while rooting through the spoils piles of material dredged in the building and maintenance of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, I came across a small fossilized shell, a single valve from a pelecypod known as Exogyra – a mollusk. This particular specimen, 2 cm or a bit more than 3/4ths inch in length, lived in the Cretaceous period. As I turned it over, I realized that I could tell, with some certainty, how this specific organism had died. There, up toward the beak (the point at which initial growth of the shell begins), was a dark hole that something cut through the shell millions of years ago; the hungry perpetrator (a gastropod is the likely suspect) then digested its prey. As stark as a bullet hole in a skull. (Oh, sure, I do know about that because I watch Bones and all of TV shows with forensic scientists, medical examiners, and pathologists.)

This find is a two-in-one. The hole is itself a trace fossil. It is likely that this hole is the ichnofossil known as Oichnus Bromley 1981 (this is the name of the trace fossil, not of the organism that made it). Here’s Richard Bromley’s cautionary note about what we may not actually know from this ichnofossil:
Oichnus is produced by a wide range of trace-making organisms. As the trace fossils contain few fingerprints to indicate the taxonomic position of the trace-maker, confident identification of the borer is not common. Small (millimetric) round drill-holes are dominantly produced today by predatory gastropods of the Naticidae and Muricacea, both arising in the Cretaceous . . . . (A Stratigraphy of Marine Bioerosion, a chapter by Richard G. Bromley in The Application of Ichnology to Palaeoenvironmental and Stratigraphic Analysis, edited by D. McILroy, 2004, p. 467 – link here

“Few fingerprints” – ah, crime scene language. The perp left few fingerprints and we’re not sure who did the foul deed, but, we know from that hole generally what happened.

Ichnofossils and home movies – simultaneously useful and frustrating, and on occasion very startling.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Nature Blog Network