Monday, August 31, 2009

From the Mountains of Madness: Part Five

The "From the Mountains of Madness" project has been underway since the start of this blog, and odds are that it will never really be finished. Every couple of weeks I think of some new item to include or a minor refinement to the existing presentation, so it steadily keeps getting bigger and better over time. Much of what you'll find here, from the patches and pins to the faux photographs, is a direct result of that process of continual improvement.

This installment is different from all the prior ones in that most of it was written by Robbert Folmer, a fan of both H. P. Lovecraft and fossils that was kind enough to offer his expertise. He's made a huge contribution with his advice on making the fossil samples that are part of the project consistent with both science and the text of "At the Mountains of Madness". Everything that follows was pieced together from our email exchange on the subject and Mr. Folmer deserves all the credit for making it available.

The other day, while I was reading that day’s post, I noticed that the fossil casts in the pictures were not entirely consistent with the original story. In it are described Cambrian and Precambrian fossils, which would place them at about 600 million to a billion years ago, while the trilobite and ammonite you have on display are respectively approximately 400 million and 100 million years of age, which are no minor differences, if you’ll notice. It’s pretty inconsequential, and it’s not a nit I’d normally pick (even gently), but hey, we’re all weird hobbyists here, right? Right?

While there isn’t that much on offer from the Cambrian period, as the late Precambrian and early Cambrian are really the periods when hard-shelled life got started, there are still a few pretty nice specimens for decent prices out there. If you’re looking for trilobites, here’s a good place to find them:

The specimens there are from the Wheeler Shale, a locality in Utah bursting with Cambrian fossils. The top category, labeled Elrathia, is really the poster child of the Wheeler Shale; it’s a pretty trilobite, albeit a bit small (I have one that’s 2 inches and that’s a whopper), but available and affordable. If you have any rock/gem stores in your neighbourhood, you should definitely pay them a visit, because if they do have a shelf of fossils in a dusty corner, odds are they’ll have a little pile of these trilobites, often for something around $5 a piece. Of course, the bigger, the more expensive.

As for the crinoids... the earliest known specimens actually date from the Ordovician, which is the time period that follows directly after the Cambrian, about 480 to 440 million years ago. They were probably around before then, but you won’t find any fossils of that, I’m afraid. What you can do, as it would indeed be nice to have something like in the footage, is go to and simply find yourself a nice specimen anyway. There’s a great variety in prices, starting at $10 and going up to well over $2000.

If I recall, the story also mentions ferns... which would also be impossible, as the only plants in the early Cambrian were simple, single-celled algae called stromatolites. But if you’re willing to make the concession and buy some slightly younger fossils, I recommend Carboniferous ferns go for cheap, and if you’re willing to spend $30, you’ll have a truly beautiful piece of rock.

The only Cambrian fossils that you'll find for sale consistently are those from the Wheeler Shale. Every once in a while there will be a fossil for sale from a site called the Burgess Shale, but it's a rarity and the prices are high. Cambrian fossils have actually been found on Antarctica, but they’re all currently in the possession of scientific institutions.

Other than the above, there are all sorts of sources to buy these fossils. If you Google "Elrathia kingi" you’ll find myriad sites selling them for as little as $5; same goes for crinoids, ferns, sea-urchins, ammonites, and all that once crawled and crawls no more. If you’re feeling confident you can give eBay a spin. Forgeries do abound there, but it’s mostly limited to the more spectacular species, such as Moroccan trilobites (like the one you have) and amber with insects in it, and things like these Cambrian trilobites are a pretty safe bet.


Dissimulato Nomine said...

All those who like Lovecraft should read up on the Burgess Shale, there were all manner of very peculier creatures in the oceans at that time. The book 'Wonderful Life' by Steven Jay Gould gives a marvellous account of the discovery and study of these critters and features some splendid illustrations too.

You've got to love a fossil deposit that yields an animal named Hallucigenia. Wiwaxia, Anomalocaris and Opabinia are also fairly well known and rightly so.

Daniel said...

It looks fantastic!