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Directions for collecting vertebrate fossils.


Charles H. Sternberg

Kansas City Review of Science and Industry

Vol. VIII, No. 4, pp. 219-221, August, 1884


Copyright 2003-2010 by Mike Everhart

ePage created 05/27/2003; Last updated 12/22/2010

Wherein, Charles Sternberg discusses the equipment necessary to be a well-prepared fossil collector (in the 1880s, at least). He also mentions, for the first time as far as I can discover, the use of plaster of Paris for protecting delicate fossils.

See more about Charles H. Sternberg here.




     The proper outfit for a collecting expedition consists of a good team of ponies or small mules, a light lumber wagon, cover, wall-tent, camp-stove or "Dutch oven," knives and forks, tin plates and cups, and other cooking-utensils. Each member of the party should be provided with a rubber blanket and coat, and a couple of pairs of woolen blankets; besides these but little extra baggage should be taken; a good pair of woolen shirts are valuable. The tools should consist of several small hand-picks, miner's-picks, with one point made into a duck-bill with sharp edge; butcher-knives, shovels and collecting-bags --- made after the pattern of mail-carrier's bags, of heavy ducking, with two apartments - one for cotton, paper and string, and the other for fossils. There should always be kept on hand a supply of burlap sacks, old newspapers, cotton, manila paper and hop-needles; boxes and barrels for shipping.

     A good saddle-pony is a valuable addition, as one can ride on ahead and choose a good camp or discover localities. When a camping-ground is chosen (which should of course, when possible, have wood, water and grass near at hand,) the first thing to be done is to pitch the tent, this is done by stretching it

220                            KANSAS CITY REVIEW OF SCIENCE

out on the ground and staking down one side, the front flaps are then brought together and a stake driven in them, the other side and back are pinned down when the ridge-pole and uprights are put in, and the tent raised. Then the stakes for the walls are driven and the tent stretched by means of guy-ropes, when all is ready for the receptio11 of the baggage. On making a bed a rubber blanket is first laid on the ground-rubber down-one pair of blankets are doubled length-ways and laid down and the other pair is used to cover the occupant. I find it valuable to have a narrow mattress of "excelsior," as it makes a most comfortable bed and adds but little to the weight on the road; mattress and blankets are rolled up and securely strapped.

     On going into the field the collector takes a pick, butcher-knife and collecting -bag, with plenty of paper, string and cotton. When a specimen is discovered the first thing to be done is to collect all the fragments and dig up the debris for others which should all be carefully preserved. The rock above the specimen is then removed to within a short distance of the bones, and they are traced out by means of a butcher-knife. The bones should never be fully exposed, as the field is not the place to study anatomy. The idea of exposing a small portion of the bones is to show one where he can cut out his slabs. This is done by digging a trench the width of the pick three or four inches in depth, the slab is then loosened by striking carefully all around the specimen.

      In packing, cover the exposed bones with cotton, the slab with dry grass and bind strongly with twine. Cover with burlap and sew securely. For packing in boxes put in plenty of dry grass in the bottom and put in the slabs on edge, tamp down grass between them and the edges of the box with a mallet and wooden spatula, have plenty of grass next the cover and bind the box with strap-iron.

     When the bones are in loose sand great care should be exercised in laying bare the bones, not to remove any until all the limbs are uncovered, then make a sketch on strong paper, marking each bone and the corresponding one on the sketch. If the bones are broken in places mark a cross with colored crayon and make a sketch showing the breaks numbering all the sections which should be taken out separately and wrapped, the wrapper bearing a corresponding number.

      Never attempt to take out a wet or damp specimen, as it will surely fall to pieces. All specimens should be allowed to lay exposed to the sun and wind as long as possible. Pack each limb (properly marked to correspond with sketch,) by itself. The skull should be wrapped in cotton and strong paper, and then carefully bound with strong twine. A burlap sack is then ripped open and plenty of dry grass laid over it, the skull is put in and the ends brought together and carefully sewed. The greatest care should be used in marking, each specimen should bear a tag with number, date, locality, formation and collection, and if it is necessary to use more than one sack have a similar label on each, be sure to wrap all fragments broken off with the bone to which they belong.

     Fishes are among the most difficult specimens to preserve, the bones are very frail and splinter so badly that it is almost impossible to restore them. Where the upper surface is laid bare the bones should be carefully brushed off,


and one layer after another of strong paper pasted on until the necessary strength is given, then if the bones are loose turn them over and repeat the process-make a mucilage of gum Tragacanth [similar to gum Arabic].

     Another good way, is to cover the specimen with two or three inches of plaster of Paris and allow it to set, this gives a fine protection to delicate bones. Never be in a hurry in collecting or searching for fossils. Go over the ground several times and remember that the less the specimen is exposed the more valuable will it be. In the Niobrara beds in summer go into the beds early and work until ten o'clock, and in the afternoon leave camp at half past two and work as long as you can see. You will find a pair of smoked glasses of value in collecting in hot weather.

      In packing the specimens into boxes use great care. Never pack heavy and light specimens together. Mark each box with marking ink and number each. Under the cover put a card with description of contents, date, formation and collector. Always keep a note-book and record each day's work with description of specimens collected and notes on the stratigraphy of each formation with as many sections as possible.

     The mode of mending specimens to prepare them for study is as follows: The matrix is first carefully removed, and the edges to be joined made perfectly clean. A cement made of glue, to which, when dissolved, plaster of Paris is added until it is of the consistency of thick cream is at hand, and when the pieces to be united are ready their edges are given a thin coat of cement with a brush, they are then pressed closely together and held a short time until the cement is hard when another piece is added, and so on until the bone is mended. Each specimen is labeled and a record kept.