This is an article from the fall 2019 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
Originally containing dynamite or other explosives, this box from the Cleveland-based Austin Powder Co. held fossils from a dig that occurred sometime in the 1930s or 1940s. Photos courtesy of Anna Minnebo
Picture it — Illinois in the mid-1950s.
Professor Chester A. Arnold is standing on a steep slope, staring at a pile of fossils at his feet. He takes off his black-framed glasses and wipes the sweat off his brow. It’s a hot summer afternoon, but the hard labor of hunting samples at this mine has been worth it.
Arnold was collecting coal balls — concretions found in veins of coal that often contain very well-preserved plant fossils. These particular plants are from the Carboniferous Period of about 300 million years ago, when this area of the country was a thick, tropical swamp, teeming with life. Arnold collects his specimens and now needs to ensure they all make it back to the University of Michigan, where he is one of the Museum of Paleontology’s curators and a botany professor.
But how to get the fossils home?
That’s when Arnold sees it: a discarded nail keg. The barrel’s body consists of wooden slats bound together with thick wire. Its bottom is canvas. It’s perfect.
Arnold tosses the fossils into the barrel and slaps on a label with his name and address at U-M. He’ll ship the barrel east, and, eventually, it will arrive at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology. After the fossils are studied, there the barrel will stay for over 60 years — its contents safely tucked inside when they’re not being studied.*
Fast forward to 2015. Anna Minnebo (A.B. ’19) is a first-year student in LSA working to help with the U-M Museum of Paleontology’s big move from the Alexander Ruthven Museums Building to its new homes at the Research Museums Center and the Biological Sciences Building. Like any move, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done down in the basement. And that’s when Minnebo first sees the kegs. There are about 15 of them, looking very much like they did the day they rolled off the train in Ann Arbor from Illinois.
Surprisingly, the barrels aren’t the only unique fossil containers in the Museum of Paleontology’s collection. There are old cigar boxes, grenade fuse boxes, candy boxes, newspaper bundles and twine, and much more, each of them a throwback to a bygone era when paleontologists used everyday objects to collect and ship samples.
(LEFT) Willson’s Gummed Paper Letters and Figures Box (~1920-1930): Originally used to hold printing letters—in this case the letter “D”— this box long held small bone fragments and teeth; (MIDDLE) Christmas Card Box (~1950-1960): A box of “Sixteen Distinctive Christmas Cards” from Slater’s Book Shop, which existed at 336 S. State Street in Ann Arbor until 1971; (RIGHT) Hershey’s Almond Milk Chocolate Box (~1940): A display box that once held candy bars that cost a nickel, this container has been retired from its fossil-keeping duties.
In 2015, most of the containers were still full of fossils — from small bone and teeth fragments to larger fossils, pieces of sediment, and “matrix,” which is the rock around the fossilized remains.
These packages and containers were never meant to house anything as historically significant as dinosaur bones. Without their precious cargo, the containers most likely would have been discarded long ago. But because of where they ended up, they’ve endured.
“These containers aren’t meant to be preserved, but they just happen to be preserved because they’re in the same environment as the fossils,” Minnebo says.
Minnebo’s job was to remove the fossils from the old containers and re-house them in industry-standard cradles so they could be transported safely to the new Research Museums Center. In the process, Minnebo documented the variety of containers in the museum’s basement as part of coursework for her Museums 301 class. Her work shines a light on just how much fossil collection practices have changed over time and how paleontologists’ research interests have evolved. It also provides insight into what a research museum chooses to exhibit (or not).
Cataloging the Past
Most of the containers that Minnebo worked with came from the 1930s and ’40s. In many ways, they illustrate the resourcefulness of scientists from this era, using “found” objects that were cheap and efficient to procure to store and ship their finds. Once the specimens were transported back to Ann Arbor, the researchers would sort the material into whatever they had on hand — like a candy or cigar box — instead of buying costly new containers.
But by 2015, some of the containers were physically breaking down, potentially causing damage to the contents inside. In fact, some specimens had already been damaged in storage conditions that were less than ideal.
Minnebo’s recovery work was conducted under the supervision of Adam Rountrey (Ph.D. ’09), a collection manager at the U-M Museum of Paleontology, and was critical to ensuring the long-term safety and protection of the fossils.
Along the way, Minnebo fell in love with the historic containers. “I love mid-twentieth-century history, and I was always amazed at the quality of the containers,” she says.
(LEFT) Herman Cortez Cigars Box (~1920): One of many long-surviving containers from the museum’s archives, this Cortez box is still serving as a container for fossil vials today.; (MIDDLE) Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Candy Box (~1931): Ripley’s Believe It or Not! began as a syndicated newspaper panel in 1918, eventually branching out into radio shows, television programs, museums, and — apparently — candy. Questionable marketing tie-in or not, this box became a makeshift fossil container in 1931; (RIGHT) Newspaper-Wrapped Bone Fragments (~1939): A page of ads from a 1939 newspaper has been wrapped around fragments of an Edaphosaurus, a four-legged dinosaur with a tall spine along its back.
When her Museums 301 class was tasked with creating a digital exhibit, Minnebo knew she wanted to create one around the old boxes and barrels and bundles of paper in the Museum of Paleontology’s basement. She photographed the containers and wrote display text for them. She even went a step further and created a catalog of the exhibit that could be shared beyond the class. “I’ve learned so much from these collections and objects, and I want to share that with others,” she says.
The work unpacking the containers, some of which eventually made the move out of Ruthven with the fossils, literally took years. Minnebo explains that the number of items she sorted through wasn’t a result of neglect, but rather because the needs of the field have changed over time. “Some of the specimens are more helpful to researchers than others,” Minnebo says. “The interests of scientists change. So something that might have been important to a paleontologist in the 1940s can become less important later on.”**
What’s more, only a fraction of any museum’s collection is ever on display at any given time, so it’s normal to have numerous objects stored for teaching and research — just maybe not in such unusual containers.
Minnebo graduated in 2019 with a double major in anthropology and American culture and a minor in museum studies. This fall, she’ll head to graduate school to pursue a master’s degree in museum studies, with a focus on education.
“I love working with objects, but I need to have that space where I can talk to others and share with others,” she says. “I hope that I can find a way to blend the two.”
* That’s how we think it happened, anyway. Context clues from the barrel and Arnold’s areas of research suggest that the details here are correct, but it’s impossible to know for sure with the evidence that we’ve got.
** Those materials sometimes become less interesting, Rountrey says, but they are the basis of paleontological science and often become interesting again, noting that the collection recently had a request for samples of coal ball material.