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Save the fossils

Nield_resized.jpgTo whom do fossils ‘belong’? Measures aimed at protecting them can easily achieve the complete opposite, says Ted Nield.

Geoscientist 21.10 November 2011

The value of a natural object was something I first confronted face to face in the 1970s, while trying to export palaeontological specimens from my field area in Sweden to the UK. I had been working on Gotland, even then a protected site where only authorised collection was allowed. A colleague had already been confronted at outcrop by a local journalist, demanding to know by what right he, a foreigner, was removing the nation’s blessed patrimony.

Later we faced a slightly different problem, shipping our (legitimately obtained) samples home - when we were asked by an official what they were “worth”. As the official pen hovered over an empty box on the form, we looked blankly at one another. In one sense, they could be said to be worth all the expense of getting ourselves there and back; of the tuition and maintenance of two PhD students; of having obtained the necessary previous qualifications... where did it end?

No. Why not define value by what someone would pay for them? That seemed a good idea until we realised that as roadstone they were effectively worthless. We had no knowledge of the commercial fossil market. “So” said the helpful official – “what are they worth to you?” That was easy. “Priceless” we said. It didn’t help. So I asked: “What figure would give rise to as little curiosity as possible?” He suggested a few hundred Kronor. “Fine” I said.

Concepts of value invoke those of property; but to whom do fossils ‘belong’? Ultimately, you night say, the question is meaningless; but then ultimately most questions are. In the here and now, with competing claims of landowners, finders, nations jealous of their heritage and so on, we must contend with a welter of competing interests - and false analogies. As Dave Martill points out in this month’s feature, notions adapted from biology and aimed at protecting living things, cannot sensibly be transferred to things that are not only dead, but probably extinct already.

At the end of September consultation closed on the Review of the West Dorset Coast fossil collecting code of conduct and recording scheme. Such codes have, in the UK, for the most party been a model of balance and pragmatism, recognising that collecting bans only make rare fossils even rarer, and may lead to irrevocable loss, denying equally the right of local people to make livings, and of scientists from all over the world to study what, in the end, is the property of everyone.