Sunday, July 30, 2017

Buying a Fossil for its Label

There are myriad reasons for acquiring a fossil from a dealer, but it was a new one for me when the impulse to buy a small gastropod fossil came not from the specimen itself but, rather, from the typewritten paper label that was nestled in the box with the fossil.

The label is 6.3 cm long.

I should make clear that my use of the term “label” in this post is not, I suspect, strictly paleontologically kosher.  For example, the American Museum of Natural History, in its Collections Management site on its Paleontology Portal, defines a label as the numbering that is applied to a fossil specimen itself, not the separate cataloguing record, which is much closer to what in this post I am referring to as a “label.”  That said, the two – numbering on the specimen and the catalogue record – are inextricably (we hope) linked.

Labels (as I am defining them here) are the lifeblood of a fossil collection, accomplishing the essential task of linking specimens to the specific places they were found.  Two pieces of information in the label accomplish that:  description of the location and a specimen number.  Yes, more information can be, and usually is, assigned to a specimen through a label, including, among other data, the scientific name of the fossil (the organism from which it came), the name of collector, date of collection, formation where collected, and age of the specimen.  Though in many ways the label shown above is a prime example of a useful label, it has some limitations.

The location description leaves a bit to be desired.  I suspect that this label’s identification of place – “E. of Labelle, Hendry Co., Florida” – meant a very specific location to the collector R.J. Bland, Jr.  Nevertheless, as it comes to me, this probably would not be sufficient for me to find and explore the spot where the fossil was found.

And, of course, absent the same specimen number written on both the fossil and the label, I cannot be absolutely certain that this label was prepared for this specific fossil, but the likelihood is, I think, overwhelming.

Here then is the specimen to which this label was associated – a fairly well preserved example of a fossil Apple Murex which is 4.9 cm long.

Things have changed since this fossil was found and its label prepared.  For instance, Chicoreus pomum is now known as Phyllonotus pomum.  The formation (as written on the label, ‘“Glades” (Unit A)’) is currently designated the Bermont Formation and its age is considered to be Middle Pleistocene, some 1.1 to 1.8 million years ago.  (Primary sources for this information are the World Register of Marine Species (entry for Phyllonotus pomum), and Molluscs:  Bermont Formation (Middle Pleistocene) by Roger W. Portell and B. Alex Kittle, Part 13 of Florida Fossil Invertebrates, a publication of the Florida Paleontological Society, December 2010.)

What hasn’t changed is the name of the collector R. J.  Bland, Jr.  And therein lies one of the most attractive aspects for me of many fossil labels – the link between specimen and collector.  I have, for example, seen labels for specimens in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History where the collector is identified as John Bell Hatcher, one of my paleontology heroes (see post).  When someone of Hatcher’s stature is directly connected to the specimen before me the feeling is electric.  Though it wasn’t quite the same experience when I spotted the name of the collector of the Apple Murex, there was a spark.  It was a name I knew.

In a post a couple of years ago on state geological surveys and the rocks and minerals (and sometimes fossils) that they put up for sale to the general public, I described the rocks and minerals that the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy (the state’s geological survey) sent me. They were small samples affixed to the inside of a box.  The label described these samples as coming “from the collection of Rudolph J. Bland, Jr.”  No further identification of Bland was provided and I could uncover little additional information on the web.  Yet, through some good fortune, today here in my hands is a gastropod fossil collected in Florida by R.J. Bland, Jr., who, I feel, has to be the same Rudolph J. Bland, Jr., whose rock and mineral collection the Virginia state geological survey is busy dispersing, small specimen by small specimen.  (How the state geological survey came to be doing that is yet another tale waiting to be told.)

Finally, how this fossil shell found its way into the dealer’s collection of wares that he had on sale at a particular gem and mineral show that I attended is a story with a touch of serendipity.  This dealer had very, very few shells for sale amid the myriad fossilized remains of dinosaurs, sharks, marine reptiles, and the like.  Indeed, he admitted that shells are of little interest to him because he felt they’re of little interest to collectors.  This specific specimen with its label came into his possession because of some horse trading he had entered into several years ago with a woman who was trying to clear her basement of an unwanted fossil collection.  He offered her a price for the good stuff (that is, the teeth and bones) and she countered by asking that he name a price that would cover the entire collection, shells included.  He goosed his offer a small bit and both went away happy.

There’s a moral in here somewhere about the fate of collections and collectors, and I wonder if that moral might be stronger if I knew how the woman came in possession of this Apple Murex with its little label in the first place.

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