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  • Becoming Stone:On the Coming-into-Being of Fossils in the American West
  • Elana Shever

Construction workers were digging the foundation for yet another housing development in the booming Denver suburbs in 2003 when they hit a massive stone. They soon learned they had stumbled upon a 67-million-year-old Triceratops skull. After months of excavation, preparation and repair, the fossil was placed on display in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (hereafter the Denver Museum). It is not one of the museum's most spectacular dinosaur specimens as it has a rutted surface with obvious cracks in numerous places (see Figure 1). To paleontologists, the fissures tell the story of a 67-million year journey from living creature to rock. To most museum-goers, the skull appears to be a static stone, an ahistorical trace of a prehistoric animal. The preception that its materiality was fixed millions of years ago is supported by a European-American tradition that uses stones as icons of solidity and durability and as emblems of timeless permanence. Dinosaurs, moreover, are deployed as symbols of things that do not change with the times. Yet fossilized bone is, in fact, quite fragile and unstable. The Triceratops skull on display at the Denver Museum was not discovered; it was made.

This article examines a few crucial moments in the making of Triceratops skull fossils that expose the more-than-human process through which stones come into being. I have participated in two aspects of this process: [End Page 461] I helped excavate Triceratops skulls as a volunteer at a quarry in the Dakota Badlands, and I witnessed the cleaning and repair of another Triceratops skull in the Denver Museum's fossil preparation laboratory.1 This anthropological/paleontological fieldwork revealed that fossil stones emerge through a complex and unpredictable process that involves much more than human acts of discovering and reconstructing prehistoric nature, or ascribing meaning and value to inert matter.2 Fossil-making involves acts of creation that are thoroughly physical and conceptual, human and nonhuman. Fossils come into being through the mixing of biological and geological forces, tools and glues, and people's somatic and intellectual labors. This article fuses insights from the anthropology of resource extraction and a post-humanist analytic of material vibrancy in order to rethink making in "more-than-human" (Whatmore 2003) terms. I reveal the neglected political economy of more-than-human making by demonstrating both the asymmetric collaborations among the human and nonhuman forces, and the importance of upper-class philanthropists' capital and middle-class volunteers' labor, in the coming-into-being of fossils.

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Figure 1.

This 67-million-year-old Triceratops horridus skull sits on display in the exhibit Prehistoric Journey at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Its numerous fissures indicate to experts its arduous journey to becoming stone, yet to most viewers it seems a static remnant of prehistory.

[End Page 462]

The Dynamism of Rock in Anthropology

Anthropology's long-standing division between the science of The West and the magic of The Rest has led to the neglect of vibrant stones in European and Euro-American contexts, and their misreading elsewhere. Until recently, anthropologists portrayed people who have relationships with animate stones as holding a primitive epistemology or mistaken belief in juxtaposition to scientific reason (Bird-David 1999:68, see also de la Cadena 2015:25–26, Povinelli 2016:27).3 Through de la Cadena's (2015) struggle to understand Ausangate as both a mountain and an earthbeing and Povinelli's (2016) quest to articulate durlg as other than totems, we have begun to recognize multiple overlapping epistemologies and to acknowledge their unequal power in the state, market, and public debate. I join de la Cadena and Povinelli in contemplating lithic liveness as a largely unrecognized facet of capitalism and—I highlight—science. While they explore alternatives to the hegemonic ontology of the earth's rocky crust, I examine evidence of lithic liveness within the belly of the beast: paleontology, the most popular of the natural sciences.

The anthropology of natural resources has thoroughly depicted "resource making as a human endeavor" (Richardson and Weszkalnys 2014...


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