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Dead Sea


One of my favourite activities in the world is scuba diving. It’s wonderful even when there’s nothing to see – night diving can be like being lost in a gravity-free space of pure colour. But flying through to a coral garden teeming with life is like entering another dimension of reality, a dream world.

One of the most awe-inspiring aspects of it is how completely superfluous I myself become. I’m clearly an alien interloper in this realm. I can barely survive, and it has absolutely no need of me. It goes about its own business whether I’m there or not. In fact, it’s still there right now going about its business, while I sit here perched in my Tower high above sea level. And it’s been doing it for millions of years.

Fossil sea bed

Here’s some old rock. It looks like a lump of pebbly concrete at first, but then you realize you’re looking at the bodies of hundreds of creatures. Shells, sponges, corals and trilobites all jumbled up in a heap. This is a small piece of the sea floor from 430 million years ago. It’s just some of what happened to sink to the bottom near a coral reef and was hard enough to leave an impression.

Imagine the colour and movement of the sea above it. Imagine the purposeful lives full of desire, fear, hunger, pleasure. Many of us thought the human skull I first showed deserved reverence and ceremony. We were less sure about the hyaena skull. I guess the skeletons here then are just dirt and sand? Is that arrogant speciesism, science, or common sense?

Fossil sea bed - close up

The oldest and largest living creature on planet earth lives in the ocean off north-eastern Australia. Or perhaps it’s a city rather than a creature. Or a nation. For the last 25 million years tiny coral polyps have been building it grain by grain. It has fallen and risen again many times as seas and continents have shifted around it. And all sorts of peoples of many species have been drawn to it from land, sea and air. It would be the first living thing seen by any visiting alien flying in from outer space.

For the last 40,000 years of its life this nation has co-existed with the oldest human civilization on the planet, the Aboriginal Australians. But suddenly, in just the last couple of hundred years, it is facing an unprecedented challenge as it is choked by the runoff from human farmlands, bleached by warming seas, and de-stabilized by over-fishing.

Seems to me a little hypocritical that we should devote so much time, space and money to an old fossil, put armed guards and proximity sensors and great citadels of learning around it, and yet stand by and watch while the Great Barrier Reef, a living, feeling ecosystem, dies at our feet.

Which one do you care about?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. David Gelsthorpe permalink*
    14/07/2009 9:40 am

    I’d like to say how incredible this fossil is. It is a snap shot of the teeming life 430 million years ago. Not only is the abundance of life amazing, but also that it is from Dudley in the West Midlands, right in our back yard.

    We regularly use this fossil for public handling sessions and when we have A-level geology workshops at the museum.

    David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Palaeontology, The Manchester Museum

  2. Nina from Brittany permalink
    14/07/2009 2:24 pm

    I suppose this just repeats what David said, but aren’t trilobites fine examples of evolution, and a very good argument in the evolution vs creation debate?

    Then again, there would be no need to preserve that particular fossil if we preserved the very real, living corral, right? So I say destroy the fossil and save the living stuff, just as valuable if not more.

  3. David Gelsthorpe permalink*
    14/07/2009 2:48 pm

    Dear Nina,

    We can only fully understand our present and what might happen in the future, if we understand what went on in the past.

    I understand your point about resources being directed at things in danger of extinction at the moment, but I think it is very dangerous if we ignore the past.


  4. 14/07/2009 11:03 pm

    I can think of many reasons why this object deserves to be kept, most importantly its sheer age. 430 million years – when and where else do we have the opportunity to see, and even touch, something that mind-bogglingly old? To me, the rock’s age alone directly communicates the pressing need to protect the world’s coral reefs – structures that have been around for such an incredibly long time. Another thing that amazes me is the contrast between creatures as fragile and tiny as corals, seashells and trilobites, and this massive, compact, heavy piece of rock – and it equally, very directly and emphatically, tells me of the necessity to protect these delicate structures ‘in real life’.

    Generally, I belive that setting up such a clear-cut opposition between exhibiting a dead museum object and preserving a living ecosystem might be a bit too easy.

    Don’t research and conservation play just as important a part in the museum as collecting, classifying and displaying? And isn’t it through museum objects that we learn about, and appreciate the world around us – start caring about it more and more? There might be some truth to the saying that we only protect what we love and only love what we understand.

    And even if one takes away all of the history and contextualisation, the object still manages to trigger memories and emotions – in your case the scuba diving, and in mine and the other museum-goers’ and readers’ something equally important and valuable.

    • 15/07/2009 2:51 pm

      Thanks for your comments Marion. You’re right, it would be a bit too easy to set up such a clear-cut opposition. I wonder how better to expose the suicidal schizophrenia of a species which simultaneously eulogizes, fetishizes and murders. Any ideas?

      Actually we do have the opportunity to touch something that mind bogglingly old every day. Every rock, every breath. The information in this fossil just happens to be quickly and easily accessible, slightly easing the effort of imagination, that’s the difference.

      I’m not sure that it is primarily through museum objects that we learn about and appreciate the world around us and start caring about it. Love, protection and understanding are very closely connected, I agree. But are those qualities primarily fostered through museums? When were museums invented? What did we do before we had them? I know many people around the world who have never been to a museum in their lives. Do they just hate, ignore and destroy?

      I agree this is a particularly evocative object, triggering all kinds of associations. That’s why I’ve chosen it. But any object triggers memories and emotions, even the most mundane.
      Setting up a clear-cut opposition would be easy. What I am trying to do is set up a very complex problem.

      My question primarily is not whether an object deserves to be kept or not, but how you are going to participate in it’s value. None of us is going round destroying things are we? So how is it happening?

  5. 15/07/2009 7:01 pm

    Dear hermit,

    I agree, there are many people who have never been to a museum, just as, at the other end of the scale, there are people who have never seen a living coral in its natural habitat. I didn’t mean to suggest that going to a museum is the only way of engaging with the world – you are actually, through your work, very usefully raising awareness of spiritual routes such as meditation. And there are many many more ways.

    But I think we do need the museum and its objects precisely because they enable and facilitate the kind of discourse and exchange we are having here (and you are having with the other members of the public every day).

    I’m not sure if ANY object triggers memories and emotions; everything means something different to everybody, doesn’t it, depending on one’s personality, background, education, personal history, etc., and some things just don’t ‘speak’ to us. Caring about, or having some kind of opinion about or feeling towards, EVERY object would probably require too much of our energy.

    This piece of fossilised sea bed happens to mean a lot to me, and I could list more personal reasons than those I gave above, starting with the beautiful coral-shaped tea-light my fiancé gave me for Christmas (knowing of my fascination with coral) and ending with a life-long dream to go snorkeling, initiated probably by watching Jacques-Yves Cousteau and David Attenborough documentaries over and over again.

    Does this add to the object’s value? I’m not sure. But I’m pretty sure thinking and talking about it does. For, as much as it is vital to take action to protect biodiversity and the world’s ecosystems (and there ARE things each one of us can do), I also strongly believe in the importance of discourse and communication. And: passion.

  6. 15/07/2009 8:21 pm

    I’m much more interested in the personal reasons, Marion. Those are the ones that make things happen in the world. I think a big factor in the mess the world is currently in is a disregard for the person who thinks and feels and acts. So tell me why you’re so interested in coral.

    Having some kind of feeling about EVERY object would not actually take too much energy. It is the suppression of those feelings which takes energy. Because everything in the universe is connected, everything that touches your consciousness will give rise to resonances – thoughts, feelings, images – and these will be completely unique for every person because of precisely the reasons you give. If we were to allow ourselves to feel all those resonances life would be immeasurably rich. Every object would be a treasure. In fact we use a lot of energy numbing ourselves and needing stronger and stronger hits to feel ANYTHING.

    It is a fallacy to think it takes energy to love. On the contrary love gives you energy. Imagine feeling connected and open towards every object. There would be no lack of discourse and passion. And we would not need to designate special areas for sacred objects Who needs a stuffed bird in a box when you can be bathed in a forest full of song?

    This is not an argument for throwing away the coral. It is an argument for valuing everything equally. Real wisdom looks on every phenomenon with equanimity.

  7. 15/07/2009 9:41 pm

    Beautiful words, dear hermit, and I strongly agree that love and passion for everything, animate or inanimate, is what we should strive for – but I also think that it is in our nature to never fully be able to reach this goal.

  8. trine permalink
    17/07/2009 11:46 am

    and now, dead seas, ive never scuba dived,but that feeling of space and spacelessness,of being.

    and superfluity,one of my favourite hobbies is skip hunting,its a sort of archeology,for surplus,and the interesting bit is creating after wards, contructing with found materials,which arent fully predetermined,like ipods,but which but have in some way, had uses> whether or not we can identify what use at the time, the rubbish has identity,and belonging,if we can open to associate>That was what was to shiveringly scarey about the stone i found in the river bed,it had been fabricated,and yet it was alive with belonging,and over all that time!

    its difficult to ignore the presence of oceans,but all too easy to forget,especailly in trafford centres,whats really dead to seeing and senseless?

  9. beckyg permalink
    17/07/2009 5:33 pm

    I have seen this it is delightful it carries so much detail and its cute viewing through a lens!!

  10. Catherine permalink
    20/07/2009 4:04 pm

    … that’s “my” rock! Which is to say, it’s the one I use on Monday afternoons for the handling table. In other words, it’s not mine at all, I just happen to sort of love it.

    I love being able to point out the little seashells in it to people, how much they’re the same as ones you’d pick up on a beach, and finding the little pieces of trilobites embedded in there (I think there’s one in the lower right-hand corner of your photograph, but at the angle it’s taken from I’m not quite sure), and the seaweed and fragments of sponges and coral. And telling them that it comes from Dudley, and how old it is. I think I’d be sad to see it go.

    (I’ve never scuba-dived, but I love the sea too, and the life in it, and I’d love to do so one day.)

    Though I think I’m a bit late here anyway, and maybe the fossil is already gone (… actually, perhaps that’s why it wasn’t there today). My apologies; I only just found this blog.

  11. David Gelsthorpe permalink*
    22/09/2009 3:06 pm

    Here are the comments about this object from the Museum’s Collections Development Panel:

    On the blog a volunteer expressed an attachment to this specimen as `her’ rock, used in handling sessions. The documentation for the specimen could be amended to include this connection to an individual.

    David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Palaeontology

  12. Catherine permalink
    23/09/2009 2:03 am

    Hi David,

    That was me. 🙂 I haven’t been able to come in and speak to anyone directly about it as I’ve been ill these past few weeks – but just so people know, I’d still be happy to give the rock a home if it needs one, or just continue to keep it in the handling-table collection. (I’d bring it in for handling either way.)

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