By Sonoe Nakasone, Field Book Project
If you’ve been reading our blog and viewing our Flickr sets, there should be no doubt in your mind the important role photographs have played in the field.
My most recent example of photographs documenting field research is found in the Charles Lewis Gazin Papers (Smithsonian Institution Archives Record Unit 7314). The “field books” (the textual records that we most often think of as field notes) corresponding to these photos are currently housed in the Department of Paleobiology, National Museum of Natural History.
There is something to learn from each captivating image in Gazin’s collection. Both the mysterious nature of some of these photos and the difficulty of providing an accurate description prompted me to ask first myself, and later staff from the Department of Paleobiology, questions about what these images depicted. I share these photos, questions, and answers with you below.
Wide angle photographs like those above are common in many of the field note collections the Field Book Project has catalog from various fields of biology. I wondered, however, if these images had particular significance for paleobiologists; could information about a location’s geology be ascertained from a photograph, for example? As Department of Paleobiology Fossil Preparator Steve Jabo told me, these beautiful images do serve a practical purpose. As with similar images in field notes for other disciplines, these images contain geographic data. “Besides the “wow” factor of seeing your campsite / locality in the context of the regional geology,” Steve says, “these photos are handy for re-finding your locality,” especially years later. Steve explains, “even though you put a dot on a topographic map, it’s not always easy to find the exact spot again.”
Finding fossils in the field
The question when I saw this image was simple: “What’s going on?” My initial guess was that the person in this photograph was cleaning the dirt off of the specimen, but as I learned from Steve, the fragile fossil was actually being protected. The substance in the jar was painted onto the bones. When the substance dried, it kept the fossil and surrounding rock intact as they were excavated.
Not your 5th grader’s paper maché
Some of my favorite images from this collection are above. I assumed that the people depicted in these photographs were creating molds of the fossils, and was amused to see that the process looked similar to the paper maché many of us made as kids. The idea of molds inspired more questions. Why make molds in the field? What was the purpose? Rather than continue this guesswork, I emailed FossiLab Manager Abby Telfer and learned that these were not molds at all, but field jackets. Because fossils are fragile they are often encapsulated in “jackets” typically made from plaster and burlap. Abby also noted that during the time of these photos, it was not unusual for paleontologists to use bandages instead of burlap. An image of an opened field jacket can be seen in Abby’s article Fossil Hunting under the Watchful Eyes of Lions on the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History blog.
As someone from a library and archival background, I found that cataloging these particular photos provided an unexpected yet fascinating way to gain a deeper understanding of field work and techniques used by paleontologists. Thanks to help from Steve and Abby, Gazin’s images have now lost their air of mystery to me, but they will always remain spectacular examples of visual field notes of events and the places they occurred.