It may sound like the tag line for a not very engaging fantasy film, but read on. Some years ago I journeyed from New York to Ohio, by road, with my great friend Allan Lang, a noted paleontologist, meteorite collector and founder of the Langheinrich Fossil Preserve. Our destination was a private, working quarry in Sylvania, Ohio.
During the Middle Devonian age (that’s about 390 million years ago to you Creationists) the area around present-day Toledo was underwater. The remains of untold billions of tiny sea creatures today form a silica-rich shale that preserves, in incredible detail, the fossilized hard parts of long-vanished aquatic creatures. The Sylvania quarries are famous for their trilobite fossils, in particular the spectacular jointed marine arthropod Phacops rana. Something about the silica preserves the trilobites’ exoskeletons in exquisite microscopic detail—a rich and shiny brown/black pasted against the dusty gray shale matrix. Trilobites did not have soft lenses for eyes, as we do. Their eyes were made of calcite, and they are the only creatures in the history of life as we know it, to have gazed upon their own world through crystalline lenses.
Dr. Richard Fortey, author of Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution explains:
“Look into a crystal of Iceland spar and you can see the secret of the trilobite’s vision. For trilobites used clear calcite crystals to make lenses in their eyes; in this they were unique . . . trilobites alone have used the transparency of calcite as a means of transmitting light. The trilobite eye is in continuity with the rest of its shelly armour. It sites on top of the cheek of the animal, an en suite eyeglass, tough as clamshell.”
Quarrying is big business in Sylvania, but fossils are not officially part of the local commerce. Unfortunately for people like me, the quarries are primarily interested in producing thousands of tons of aggregates for road building. Giant cranes and tractors munch up the layers of rock, along with all those beautifully preserved trilobites. For various reasons including safety, insurance, and the demands of heavy duty industrial production, the quarries are off-limits to fossil enthusiasts. You can’t really blame the owners. If a star-struck fossil fanatic falls from the top of a hundred-foot knife-sharp shale ridge, it kinda puts a damper on the work flow.
Despite numerous obstacles, and after some years of sustained effort, Allan managed to get a special dispensation that allowed a small band of us hardcore fossil nuts access to the undisturbed quarry face. What a spectacular treat it was! Only a handful of people have ever been able to walk up to that wall of fossil-rich rock and dig through it for mementos of an ancient sea.
During our first two days in the field it rained continuously. On the third the sun came out and—with rays reflecting endlessly from the light colored rock at the bottom of an open pit—it became unbearably hot. I was doing pick axe duty, smashing up big blocks of shale looking for trilobites, or “bugs” as the pros call them. I got a little grumpy. I hit one oversize block a little too hard, at a weird angle, and it shattered. To my horror, the broken faces exposed a superb and brilliantly preserved trilobite, its head dismembered by my axe. Part of it was on this block of stone, part of it on that one, and . . . so on.
Leon Theissen, one of the world top fossil preparators (a specialist who cleans fossils, removes extraneous rock, and sometimes carries out repairs) happened to be on the team. “Don’t worry Geoff,” he said with a confident and reassuring smile. “I can probably put it back together for you.”
To my considerable amazement, he did. Leon, Allan, and Zarko Ljuboja—another highly talented prep artist—had combined forces, repaired this marvelous fossil, and presented it to my on my birthday. I call it “Frankenstein’s trilobite” and it is indeed a prized possession. A reminder both that even the most horribly damaged things can sometimes be fixed, and that it’s okay to take it easy with the pick axe. Even when grumpy.
All photographs by Geoffrey Notkin © Geoffrey Notkin. All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.