Sunday, May 9, 2010

Partners in the Hunt? ~ Fossil Collectors and Significant Others

I’ve been exploring some of the literature on hearing in cetaceans – whales, dolphins, and porpoises. The impetus for this vexing exploration through the primary literature is a couple of finds last month. The irritating nature of the effort arises because there’s not much in the secondary works providing a useful guide for the layperson to the topic, particularly, if part of your mission is identifying fossil cetacean ear bones. (So, be advised, this posting really isn't about cetacean hearing, it's about couples. More on that in a moment.)

Here are the fossil finds behind this interest in cetacean hearing – on the left is a badly damaged tympanic bulla (3.2 cm or about 1.3 inches) which housed the middle ear of the cetacean (in this case, given the size of the fossil, I assume it’s from a dolphin), on the right is a periotic bone (2.8 cm or about 1.1 inches) which contained the cetacean’s inner ear (again, likely to be a dolphin).

Both finds are from the Calvert Formation along the Calvert Cliffs on the Chesapeake Bay, making these Miocene fossils, roughly 20 million years old. The Calvert Cliffs have proven to be wonderfully rich in cetacean fossils for many years. On those days when the fossil gods have hidden away the big shark teeth, cetacean fossils offer me some solace.

One collector of cetacean fossils from the Calvert Cliffs is particularly relevant given the actual topic of this posting. William Palmer (1856-1921) was seemingly a jack-of-all-trades at the Smithsonian Institution, beginning his long career there as a taxidermist and modeler, creating and installing many exhibits for the museum, including some at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Palmer’s career segued naturally into working in the field in search of specimens, and he spent time in exotic places around the world. Over time, he also became a recognized ornithologist, particularly of birds local to the Washington, D.C. area. Then he was infected with the paleontology virus which manifested itself in a consuming interest in cetacean fossils from the Calvert Cliffs.

But, it’s not William Palmer who really intrigues me, it’s his wife, Arminia. Palmer married Arminia Knowles in 1885 when he was 29 and she was all of 19.

Even before I encountered William Palmer and “Mrs. Palmer,” as she was typically referred to, I’d been thinking about fossil collectors and their significant others. Does the couple constitute an enthusiastic unit, both members embracing the pursuit? Or does the significant other say, “That’s Jane’s [or Jim’s] thing. I don’t see the point”? There are some partners, I’ve observed, who will accompany the collector to some fossil-related events, but maintain a distance. There’s, for example, the couple at the fossil club meeting – the active member trades war stories about a productive outing, while the significant other sits contentedly in the shadows, reading a book.

Into the field to experience the sun, rain, heat, cold, bugs, reptiles, tedium, dirt . . . ? Not likely for the less than committed partner. Except, perhaps, for Mrs. Palmer.

The article memorializing William Palmer that ran in the July, 1922, issue of the ornithology journal The Auk had this to say about Arminia.

In the autumn of 1885 Palmer married Miss Arminia Knowles, of Washington, who proved a faithful and devoted wife. Although sharing in no way her husband’s interests in natural history, Mrs. Palmer always yielded to his plans when proposed expeditions threatened to upset their home life for extended periods. (p. 307, emphasis added)

Well, the Palmers apparently were not one of those teams with merged natural history interests. Now, I don’t know what it means that she “yielded” when William Palmer planned some lengthy trip into the field. Did she go with him despite her disinterest in his mission? Or, did she say, “I love you and I’ll keep the home fires burning, Billy dear”? I don’t find much evidence either way for long trips.

What about the short forays into the local area in pursuit of birds or whale fossils? Well, the evidence is wonderfully mixed.

Mrs. Palmer was certainly not with Mr. Palmer, in 1917, when he was climbing on, or digging in (probably both), the Calvert Cliffs near Plum Point, Maryland. A chunk of the cliffside fell on him, causing serious injury. His only companion was Doll, a friend’s dog. Palmer struggled to free his hands and then found paper and pencil in a pocket. He wrote a note describing what had happened. Getting Doll to play the role of Lassie took some doing, though. Palmer managed to coax the dog to him and then tied the message to dog’s neck using his necktie. Some well-thrown clumps of dirt convinced the dog it was time to go home. Help came soon enough after that. (“What, girl? Timmy down a well?”)

Two things about this story struck me – Mrs. Palmer wasn’t with him and Mr. Palmer was wearing a necktie as he climbed cliffs and mucked around in the clayey dirt. Clearly, that’s what the proper gentleman wore then while engaged in a paleontological pursuit.

Okay, that’s evidence that Arminia left William to his own devices on fossil hunts.

But, there’s photographic evidence that suggests this spouse, who was so uninterested in her husband’s natural history passions that a memorial article on him would state that very baldly, could sometimes get her hands dirty (or, at least, her feet wet) following him to the Calvert Cliffs. The picture below shows Mrs. Palmer on June 1, 1908, collecting fossils along the Calvert Cliffs. She’s wearing what presumably every proper gentlewoman hunting fossils would wear at the time – long skirt, blouse with long sleeves, and a hat, seemingly pinned up in back. Is the hat an Australian bush hat being worn somewhat akimbo? Is that a flower decoration at the top? Simply lovely.

Lest you think, based on this picture, she went out alone, I am certain the other members of her party were just around the bend. Another picture of William Palmer and a party in search of fossils from the area, dated several weeks later, clearly shows Mrs. Palmer pulling up the rear, her hat is unmistakable. So, she accompanied her husband but kept a bit of distance. I cannot tell if she is reading a book as she walked along.


Charles W. Richmond, In Memoriam: William Palmer, The Auk: A Quarterly Journal of Ornithology, Volume 39, Number 3, July, 1922.

David W. Johnston, The History of Ornithologyin Virginia, 2003, p. 73.

Wallace L. Ashby, Fossils of Calvert Cliffs, Calvert Marine Museum, 1986.

Patricia Greene, Hodge Family Tree website, includes the document Descendants of William Palmer.


The photo above of Mrs. Palmer is a portion of one from the Smithsonian Institution's collection and reproduced from the booklet Fossils of Calvert Cliffs (full citation given above) which was prepared with a grant from the National Science Foundation.


  1. Loved your comment, "On those days when the fossil gods have hidden away the big shark teeth, cetacean fossils offer me some solace." We were lucky enough, today (12/31/11) to find a periotic, exactly like your right picture. Thanks so much for this image and posting!

  2. Aren't those fossils just amazing things? Congratulations on the find and thanks for the comment about the posting.


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