'From the Past' by Selina Groh


I am a fossil.

I am old, so old that it’s difficult to imagine because the earth would have been a totally alien world to you all, millions of years ago. The millenia have flowed through me as I turned from bone to stone, from living flesh to dead rock. I used to breathe the air and felt it fill my every pore; but then the air was taken from me as I sank to the bottom of a swamp, covered over time in sand and mud and fine silts. With no air and no predators time is the only thing gnawing away at me, turning me into stone. It’s like sleep, really – dozing away through the ages of the earth, the soft pull and push as the ground changes around me, sometimes dragging me down deeper, sometimes bringing me closer to the surface.

This, perhaps, is the closest I will ever be to infinity – the river of time gently carrying me away, whispering of everything that is happening while I sleep. However, no sleep last forever and there comes the day when I wake up.

Waking up is no sudden affair, but one that happens slowly. A scratch here, a whisper there. They come first, echoes of people digging and tapping on the rock that is encasing me. Excited shouts when they spot the first bit of me – and oh, how wonderful it is to taste the air again, even when it’s so different from what it used to be.

They are endlessly gentle when excavating me and I know that I’m lucky – many of my fellow fossils, be it bones or shells, are destroyed by careless people or, at times, simply the forces of nature. I, on the contrary, get freed bit by bit, until they can tell who I am (or, more accurately, who I used to be).

They don’t just pick me up and take me home. The earth and rock I am encased in have protected me for millions of years (that’s hundreds of times as long as humans have been around on earth – so very, very long) and I have grown fragile in their constant embrace. The stonen fossil I am now will fall apart if handled too harshly or if my support was taken away entirely (much like many humans would). Instead of simply ripping me away from the earth that has been my home for many millions of years they take it all with them. Encased in plaster, I get lifted out, still safely cradled by the earth that has protected me for so long. From outside it must look like a giant white treasure chest filled with riches from the past, a big undefined shape that holds forms of delicate beauty inside.

From here on, I get transported to wherever the people who found me want me to be. I hate long journeys and would prefer to stay in the country that I was found in – it doesn’t seem right for strangers to carry me away from the places and people I belong to and under whose feet I’ve been sleeping for so many years. However, it is not up to me to decide where I go.

I wonder how long I will stay in my secure shell made from plaster, rock and earth that has become a second home. I know that some of my siblings have remained in their plaster homes for years, even decades, so long that it has become more of a prison than a home; there are only so many people who can safely free them and these are far fewer than our numbers.

However, I am lucky and get taken out soon. Museum air is unique and filled with a special kind of magic – much like the air in old bookshops, it’s like breathing history. There is nothing quite like the smell of cabinets filled with old bones, shells and other artefacts of life’s history on this planet. It feels like stepping into another world, one that is out of time from ours, where history suddenly comes alive and fills you down to the last pore. The people of this museum are careful with their preparation, making sure that every single one of my bones remains intact and will remain so for many, many years to come. After all, museum collections are meant to last far longer than a normal human lifetime.

Only very, very few of us actually get shown to the public. For every fossil you can find in an exhibition somewhere there are hundreds of us stored in shelves away from public visitors. All of us are labelled and have our own numbers so if scientists want to find and look up a certain one, they can. I get my own number and label fairly quickly – it contains my name (in Latin!), where and when I was found and who it was that found me.

Now, you are probably wondering why so few us ever see the light of day and get confined in dark and cold basements instead. “Aren’t museum there to show us things?” you might ask. And you are right – museums are there to show you just how wonderful and rich our world is and used to be and to teach everything you want to know about the past, present and sometimes the future. But they are also there for so much more.

I get my first taste of this when someone opens the drawer I have been put in and takes me out to a table to the side. We spend an entire day together – the woman is a scientist, a palaeontologist as the people who work with fossils are known, and she photographs me from all sides and takes lots and lots of notes on her laptop. She’s writing down every single feature of mine so she can publish it in an article for all the other palaeontologists to read. After all – what good is knowledge if it isn’t being shared?

She’s only the first one in a long row of visitors – and each and every one wants to know different things about me and all my relatives who sleep in the cabinets and shelves around me. Some of them want to know how we used to live, how warm it was and what kind of nature grew around us. I wish I could just tell them, let them know about trees with wide trunks stretching into the sky and branches like thin fingers, ferns with leaves so big animals could sleep beneath and the air filled with the strange sounds of animals that haven’t walked the surface of this earth in a long time. But I can’t and so they have to look at my bones and the shape of my teeth to see how I lived and what I ate (my sharp and thin teeth, for example, show my onetime preference for meat).

Yet others are here to find out how I am related to the other fossils stored around me and in other museums. They do this by comparing the shape of my bones to that of the others – the more similar we look, the more closely we are related (just like you will probably look more like any biological siblings or parents you have than your best friend). There is so much that goes on behind the scenes of your favourite museums – and if you visit one, they are usually more than happy to tell you all about it.

This is my own story of how, over millions of years, I turned from a living organism into stone, slept away the ages of time in the bowels of the earth until I was woken up again and brought back onto the surface to help people understand what life used to be like. Fascinating, no? Maybe, one day you will be the one looking at me, trying to decipher the mysteries of the past.

I look forward to meeting you.