Fossils are the traces and remains of formerly living things. Preparing fossils for research and for display can be an avocation or an occupation, and requires experience, patience, skill and artistic creativity as well as a thorough education in the biological and geological sciences.
Many of the same skills are involved in the preparation of ancient human fossils, in which case, backgrounds and education in human anatomy, anthropology and archaeology are also valuable.
Preservation, restoration, and display of fossils is rewarding work. Opportunities are worldwide. Learn some of the basic concepts, tools, and techniques employed in the art and science of fossil preparation. Explore the various scientific disciplines needed by an aspiring fossil preparer.
- Skill level:
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Things you need
- Magnifying glass and/or dissecting microscope
- Hammers (assorted sizes from sledgehammer to tack hammer)
- Chisels and sharpened screwdrivers (assorted sizes from tiny to huge)
- Awls and picks (assorted sizes)
- Old dental tools (if available)
- Sewing needles, pins, and probes (assorted sizes)
- Tweezers and tongs (assorted sizes)
- Paintbrushes (assorted sizes from fine to massive)
- Toothbrushes (some hard- and some soft-bristled)
- Scrubbing brushes (assorted sizes and hardness)
- Sieves and screens (assorted sizes)
- Rotary power tool (and assorted attachments)
- Tile-cutting saw (diamond wheel wet saw)
- Glue gun and glue sticks
- Rubber bands (assorted sizes)
- Toothpicks and matchsticks
- Wooden clothespins
- Cotton swabs
- Small jars, boxes and sample bags (assorted sizes)
- Jars of rock dust (saved from cutting and grinding various rocks)
- Liquid dish soap
- Spray polyurethane
- Plaster of Paris
- Clear nail polish
- White craft glue
- Epoxy glue (2-part)
Organise your tool kit. Every fossil preparer has a personal set of tools customised for the type of fossil preparation he does. See the "Things You'll Need" list below. As you gain experience, your tool kit will evolve to reflect your needs, your style, your preferences and your innovations.
Collect and prepare fossils, bones, skulls and skeletons. Take advantage of every opportunity you have to collect these items and organise them into your own personal museum of specimens. As your skill and experience level advance, the quality of your specimen collection will improve. In time, you will be preparing and displaying museum-quality specimens organised and arranged according to your scientific and artistic preferences.
Think like an artist. Learn and practice your methods and skills. As with any other endeavour, the more you do something, the better you will be at it. Fossil preparation involves a combination of art, creativity, education and science. Just as a painter or sculptor learns technical and creative skills and nuances, which improve her art, so you will learn the skills and secrets of your trade by observation, practice and discovery. Think creatively about new and better ways to prepare and display fossils.
Think like a scientist. Ask lots of questions and actively seek out the answers. Keep a professional notebook or journal at all times. Write everything down, including questions, ideas, observations, formulas, names, methods, references and plans. Take photographs. Attend classes, courses, seminars and conventions on palaeontology and fossil preparation. Read and absorb everything you can find on the subjects of fossil preparation, biology, palaeontology, archaeology and geology.
Study the biosciences, including courses in biology, zoology, botany and human anatomy. Fossil preparation incorporates bits and pieces from a number of scientific disciplines, including biology, geology, anthropology, chemistry and physics. A degree in biology will serve you well, not only for the knowledge you will gain and use, but for the credentials you will need for employment.
Study the geosciences, including courses in geology, sedimentology, historical geology and palaeontology. Each fossil is a unique combination of both biology and geology rolled neatly into the subject of palaeontology. Your understanding of rocks, minerals, fossils, the deposition of sediments and the reconstruction of paleo-environments will all serve you as a fossil preparer.
Study physical anthropology and archaeology. Scientists find the fossilised remains of ancient human beings and our prehuman ancestors all over the world. These rare fossils need to be preserved, replicated and displayed in much the same ways as non-human fossils. The field methods at human versus prehuman dig sites are the same, and so are the methods of fossil preparation. The more experience you have and the more you know about physical anthropology and archaeology, the more versatile and in-demand you will be as a fossil preparer.
Get your college degree. Preferably, get two. Plan on going to graduate school as well. No matter how good you are at fossil preparation, your future employer will want you to have one or more college degrees in the natural sciences with minors and concentrations in the related disciplines.
Take every opportunity you have to visit fossil collections and fossil displays at museums, colleges and universities. Study the work of other fossil preparers. Take notes and photographs. Write down how you think fossils you see were prepared. Jot down ways you might have done things differently or even better. Organise your photographic files by institution and by specimen types. Watch for patterns and variations in preparation methods and displays.
Meet other fossil preparers and ask questions. Try to find out their methods and techniques. Some will guard their secrets carefully; others will share them willingly. Keep your eyes and ears open wide and you will learn things that other fossil preparers did not intend for you to learn. Good manners and enthusiasm will open doors.
Go on digs and field trips. Almost every country and state has active and ongoing paleontological sites and archaeological research projects in progress. Find out where these sites are and who is in charge. Volunteer at first. Do whatever you can to be useful and cooperative. You will then be considered for paying positions at future digs when funds are available. Again, take notes and photographs.
Let project leaders and other site workers know of your interests and skills. They may have opportunities for you in their laboratories and at other sites. Take every opportunity available to learn new things and to meet new people.
Write about and publish your innovations, ideas and photographs of your work. Create a blog or website sharing examples of your best work, observations, experiences and ideas. Write essays and reports on your experiences, your findings, and your finished fossil preparations. Begin to develop a resume and a curriculum vitae before you even attend or graduate from college.
Do some fossil preparation work every day. You might not be ready to assemble a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in your basement just yet, but you can work on cleaning up marine invertebrate fossils from a local limestone quarry. You can boil the bones clean from your Thanksgiving turkey; sketch a few of the bones; and practice putting a turkey skeleton back together. You have homework to do, and a lot of it, if you plan to be a fossil preparer.
Tips and warnings
- Use inexpensive or old broken screwdrivers that you have sharpened as small chisels to carefully cut away excess rock matrix from fossils. When you need smaller chisels, use assorted sizes of pins and sewing needles to pick away excess rock matrix.
- The rotary power tool and attachment is one of the best things to happen to fossil "prep" in many years. Use the mini-carbide wheel to cut away excess rock from fossils. Use the fine tool attachments to clean rock matrix slowly and carefully.
- Use the tile cutting saw to cut flat slabs of sedimentary rock containing fossils into more manageable pieces. Rub liquid dish soap onto the surfaces of smooth fossils to bring out lustre, shine and fine details.
- Use a bath of vinegar to clean away lime smudge from fossils. Vinegar also frees limestone matrix from silicate fossils. But remember that vinegar can also dissolve limestone (calcite) fossils.
- Save small jars of the fine rock dust you accumulate when you saw and drill rocks. This powder, when mixed with white craft glue, makes a natural cement and filler for repairing damaged rocks and fossils and for reconstructing missing or broken parts that are identical to the original rock in colour and texture. Use mixtures of rock powder, plaster and glue to fix and fill broken rocks, fossils, bones and skeletons.
- Begin your practice on low-value fossils.
- If a fossil can break, it will. Fossils can jump 20 feet when you hit a rock near them with a hammer. You find the best fossils near rattlesnakes and poison ivy patches.
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