Epigraphs of taphonomy (or prolegomenon to a future book)

Roy Plotnick
fossilized tree, Petrified Forest National Park

When I first thought of writing a popular science book, one option I considered was an overview of taphonomy, the science of the formation (or lack of formation) of fossils. I even had a cute working title: Rotten Science. This project has now been superseded by my current book project (Explorers of Deep Time: Paleontologists and the History of Life on Earth), but I did go so far as coming up with potential sections. And I decided, as many authors do, to begin each chapter with an appropriate epigraph. I may still write that book, but meanwhile I thought I would share some of quotes that I thought of using.

For the Introduction, of course, one starts with Darwin and Shakespeare:

During each of these years, over the whole world, the land and the water has been peopled by hosts of living forms. What an infinite number of generations, which the mind cannot grasp, must have succeeded each other in the long roll of years! Now turn to our richest geological museums, and what a paltry display we behold! — Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species.

Woe, destruction, ruin, and decay; the worst is death and death will have his day. ― William Shakespeare, Richard II

The first section would deal with necrology, the study of death processes:

Oysters open completely when the moon is full; and when the crab sees one it throws a piece of stone or seaweed into it and the oyster cannot close again so that it serves the crab for meat. Such is the fate of him who opens his mouth too much and thereby puts himself at the mercy of the listener. — Leonardo da Vinci

…then darkness came on once more and ashes began to fall again, this time in heavy showers. We rose from time to time and shook them off, otherwise we should have been buried and crushed beneath their weight. I could boast that not a groan or cry of fear escaped me in these perils, but I admit that I derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it. Pliny the Younger, describing the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that destroyed Pompey, 79 AD.

Rain it was a-falling

thunder began to roll

Lightning flashed like hellfire

The wind began to blow

Death, the cruel master

When the wind began to blow

Rode in on a team of horses

I cried, “Death, won’t you let me go”

Wasn’t That a Mighty Storm, attributed to “Sin-Killer” Griffin

Falling isn’t so bad, you know. It’s only the landing that hurts. Terry Pratchett, The Color of Magic

To die, to sleep-
No more-and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to-’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet

If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself. Mae West

Section two would cover biostratinomy, the decay, disintegration, and disarticulation processes following death and before burial:

He looked like a vulture dissatisfied with its breakfast corpse. P.G. Wodehouse, Plum Pie

No! no! My engagement is with no bride — the worms! the worms expect me! I am a dead man — I have been slain by robbers — my body lies at Wurtzburg — at midnight I am to be buried — the grave is waiting for me — I must keep my appointment!”
― Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories

Ooooh that smell

Can’t you smell that smell

Ooooh that smell

The smell of death surrounds you

Lynyrd Skynyrd — That Smell (Songwriters: Allen Collins, Ronnie Van Zant)

The third section would discuss diagenesis, burial and its aftermath:

Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel? William Shakespeare, Hamlet

From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity. ~Edvard Munch

Time may change me

But you can’t trace time

Strange fascination, fascinating me

Changes are taking the pace I’m going thru


Changes- David Bowie

Water dissolving…and water removing.

Talking Heads — Once in a Lifetime.

Gabrielle Maple: Petrified forest is a lot of dead trees in the desert that have turned to stone. Here’s a good specimen.

Alan Squier: So that was once a tree? Hmmm. Petrified forest, eh? Suitable haven for me. Well, perhaps that’s what I’m destined to become, an interesting fossil for future study. — The Petrified Forest, screenplay by Charles Kenyon, Delmer Daves, and Robert E. Sherwood

And the final section would deal with how understanding taphonomy helps in reconstructing the once living organism:

Well I guess everything dies baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
— Bruce Springsteen — Atlantic City

Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

Maybe one day I will use these, until then, please share your favorite quotes on this rotten topic!

Roy Plotnick

Written by

Paleontologist, geologist, ecologist, educator. Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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