Faking it? An unusual trilobite at Wolverhampton Art Gallery

A look through the Dr Fraser Collection reveals an unusual trilobite specimen – it is not quite like anything illustrated in any of the textbooks. Could it be a new species, lain undiscovered and undescribed for a century or more? Sadly not, but the real story behind the specimen is every bit as interesting.

We don’t know where this specimen was found, but given the history of the collection it is likely to have come from the Dudley area. During the nineteenth century limestone was extensively quarried in the area – it could be burnt to make mortar for building, or to purify molten iron in the furnace. The rock would have been extracted by hand; the quarrymen would often find “curiosities” such as this fossil and put them to one side.

At the same time, science was beginning to lend an understanding to the true nature of fossils, that they were the remains of animals that lived millions of years ago. Collectors would tour the country to examine mines and quarries such as those in the Dudley area, and would often purchase specimens from the men working there. Whilst they may not have fully understood the true nature of the fossils they found, the quarrymen would probably have known only too well that a complete specimen was worth more to the collectors.

“But I will be unable, I find, to add materially to my collection here. It is rare to find a well-preserved trilobite, so rare that the fossil-dealers charge for them from ten shillings to five pounds, and I cannot afford to collect specimens at such a price.”

“The life and letters of Hugh Miller”, Volume 2; Dudley, October 16th 1845

A price of £5 for a specimen in 1845 would equate to something like £250 today, which would have been a significant sum of money to a quarryman and his family.

This trilobite may have been victim to an unlucky blow of the hammer, or parts of the shell were washed away before fossilisation, but either way, someone has sought to “improve” or “restore” the specimen! Using crude tools, a quarryman has carved the missing parts of the body out of the surrounding rock. Without access to the education and reference facilities that we often take for granted today, his only reference would have been his memory of the last complete specimen seen, which probably accounts for the appearance of this fossil.

“Restoring” fossils was not at all an uncommon practice – the locals of Whitby would often carve heads onto the common Dactylioceras ammonites to reinforce the suggestion that they were in fact “snakestones”, and Somerset collector Thomas Hawkins was well known for his habit of “improving” specimens of his sea dragons (Ichthyosaurs and Plesiosaurs) which led to a scandal involving the British Museum and a Parliamentary inquiry!

What of this specimen in the museum today? Should we return it to it’s original condition? Attempt a better restoration? Well, we have much more complete examples of this trilobite, Calymene blumenbachii, available for study, so it makes most sense to leave this example as it is, as a record of the human history behind our collections.

You can see many more examples of fossils collected from the limestone quarries around Dudley in the collections of Dudley Museum and Art Gallery.

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