The amazing history of life on this planet can be a wonder to behold. People have been intrigued at the curiosities found in the mountains, hills, and beaches that hint at a bygone age when the planet was different than it is now. Some objects reveal unusual creatures unlike anything in the modern world.
How can we encounter these awesome creatures of the past? Ancient life has been captured as fossils in layers of sediment and rocks all over the world. Looking into these layers is like looking at the pages of an ancient history book of life. Rarely, ancient types of organisms that have lived through the ages are captured in the stone. We call them “Fossils.” Fossils are evidence of ancient life and like old shells, bones, or teeth. They can be aesthetically beautiful. The natural beauty of fossils is revealed in captivating patterns such as in limestone and marble, and also as stand-alone items like large spiral-shelled ammonites or dinosaur footprints.
Fossils have a myriad of meanings to many people. There are at least three main types of people that glean meanings from fossils- scientists, enthusiasts, and mystics.
Fossils that scientists study allow them to learn what life was like in the past. These fossils aren’t necessarily pretty. Scientists love fossils for what they tell us about ancient life- from how the environment may be different than today, to the types of life that lived in this unique environment, and even the behavior of such ancient organisms.
Enthusiasts are those who love fossils for the beauty and wonder that these objects portray. Fossils can be beautiful objects, from opalized coral to the amazing horned skull of a Triceratops. Enthusiasts often decorate their homes with their wondrous collections.
Mystics are those who see fossils as full of symbolism and power- symbols of ancient life, symbols of creation, and simple symbols of pure nature captured in a rare ancient moment frozen in time. This group may also view fossils as energy objects, as one may utilize rock crystal for spiritual purposes. However, fossils are restricted in this capacity, because fossils have limited crystalline makeup. On the other hand, their natural color can be quite varied, also from which energy can be derived.
What are fossils made of? The basic meaning of the term “fossil” is something that has “turned to stone.” So the original object has been replaced with sediment, crystal, or stone in some manner.
The common ways an object becomes a fossil is:
- Directly, as in a hard shell or bone, hard enough to be buried for thousands or millions of years and still retain its composition. This may be all that is left of the original organism. Teeth are a good example of this. However, these original objects may be discolored due to the type of sediment they are buried in. Shark teeth are often discolored due to iron or other elements seeping into the cracks in the enamel.
- If this seeping is combined with heat, the entire object may be completely or partially replaced with the minerals seeping in. This is the case with petrified wood or bone. The original wood has been completely replaced with hard silica or agate!
- Impressions of the object can also be considered fossils, even though the actual object has completely disappeared. This occurs where the sediment is unconducive to fossilization. This happens if the sediment is particularly acidic. In this case, the original object was buried, compacted, but eventually completely dissolved, and only the mold of the object remains.
Fossils can consist of a variety of materials. The four main types of materials or crystals the fossils are made up of are Silica, Calcite, Aragonite, and Opal.
Silica (quartz) in the form of agate, jasper, or chert infills many fossils. Petrified wood from Arizona, which is often multi-colored, is a good example of this. Dinosaur bones, due to their age, are often transformed into jasper or chert. Sometimes, with certain large dinosaur bones, a geode is formed with Amethyst crystals inside. That is a beautiful combination of fossil and pure crystal.
Calcite often is what many ancient shells are originally made of. For example, clamshells and other types of mussel shells are made of calcite. Another form of calcite, called Aragonite, is also found on the surface of seashells, and it is the type of material that makes a mother of pearl. Mother of Pearl often dissolves on fossil shells because it is less stable than Calcite. However, in some Cretaceous shell material from Madagascar, the iridescent Mother of Pearl is still intact, and the shining effect is entrancing.
Opal is another beautiful mineral that forms fossils. Opal is a type of silica with water in its matrix. It is much lighter in weight than Quartz. Precious Opal has a beautiful crystal structure that shines very brilliantly with iridescent colors. Opal found in central Australia often seeps down into cavities and molds created from ancient Jurassic sea creatures. The shell material and bone are replaced with precious opal. Creatures like crinoids that have a beautiful intricate skeletal structure can be replaced with a gemstone. Can you imagine a dinosaur skeleton made of opal? There has been a recent discovery of just that!
Common types of fossils used in decor
A quite beautiful type of fossil used for decor is petrified wood. Most often, petrified wood is wood that has been replaced by silica in the form of agate, quartz, or opal. Its color can vary wildly. Colors of petrified wood range from bright hues of green, red, and yellow, to looking exactly like modern wood. Petrified wood is, however, millions of years old and extremely hard. Petrified wood can scratch glass tabletops, so care must be taken.
Petrified wood can be found all over the world. Common sources for decor are Arizona and New Mexico. The most highly colored varieties come from the Chinle Formation, which is the same area as what is commonly called the “Painted Desert.” The now dry area was once a series of lakes and swamps 220 million years ago, during the Triassic age. Sometimes a dinosaur bone is found between the ancient logs!
Ammonites: Unusual prehistoric fossils from extinct sea creatures are called Ammonites. Ammonites are an amazing type of cephalopod like an octopus, but they had a shell. They are unique fossils from the Mesozoic era, which is the time of the dinosaurs. The most common Ammonites are from 200 to about 60 million years old. Ammonites are extinct, meaning they cannot be found in today’s oceans. One species of cephalopod is distantly related, which is called the Chambered Nautilus. The Chambered Nautilus can be considered a living fossil because its form hasn’t changed since before the dinosaurs!
Ammonites have a beautiful coiled shape that often reminds people of the symbol called “the spiral of life.” This particular shape has great meaning to spirit-minded people from all walks of life and is a universal symbol. Large Ammonites are displayed as centerpieces of home decor, and small ones are often worn emphasizing one’s unity with the “spiral of life” iconography.
Fossils of Ammonites can be composed of calcite, aragonite, or quartz. Some Ammonites from Madagascar are beautiful, maintaining the mother-of-pearl shiny luster even after millions of years. Another type of Ammonite from Canada has such beautiful shell material that even tiny pieces of it are prized as fine jewelry.
Another type of shelled fossil used in decor is even older than the Ammonites, and is called “Orthoceras.” It is also a type of cephalopod, similar to the octopus or squid, but in this case, its shell is has a straight-chambered form. The most common type of Orthoceras used in decor is found in Morocco.
The fossil shells are white against a dark grey limestone matrix, which is considered a type of marble. The trouble is that through millions of years, the marble crystallized right through the shell material, so it is almost impossible to get individual shells of Orthoceras out of the rock. Stone artisans came up with a unique solution to this problem. Instead of trying to dig the shells out of the matrix, they take a slab of marble that is full of beautiful Orthoceras shells, and cut and polish right through the fossils. This technique creates a grey and white patterned surface that display the fossils in cross-section, still dynamically frozen in the living rock.
Trilobites: Trilobites are an ancient type of arthropod that is distantly related to horseshoe crabs of today. They are unusual creatures that look like strange insects or bugs from an ancient primordial sea. Trilobites are completely extinct. These creatures are considered strange because there’s nothing like them alive today. 500 million years ago, Trilobites were as common as minnows. Most were small, one to two inches long, but some were huge.
Trilobites from Spain and Morocco make great display pieces for decor because they are large- up to a foot long. They are encased in soft but durable sandstone. They are often found with both the cast and mold preserved, so the positive and the negative sides can be shown together, making beautiful display pieces.
The bones of vertebrates are rare, and skeletons of some types make great display pieces.
Fossil fish often make beautiful types of wall decor when they are on a large plate of sandstone or shale. Fossil fish are very common from the Green River Formation in Wyoming. The smooth shale from the Green River Formation is very fine-grained and produces beautiful large slabs of fossiliferous rock. Some slabs may contain up to 20 complete fish skeletons!
The thin-bedded shale that was created in the Green River Formation comes from an ancient lake that was brackish, meaning there is a mix of salt- and fresh-water in the lake (e.g. Lake Ponchetrain in Louisiana or Lake Okeechobee in Florida). This brackish water was very calm, so the fine clay layers are perfect for preserving beautiful fish, from small minnows to large fish, and even some exotic species are discovered. Paddlefish, small alligators, and even small birds have all been found in the Green River Formation. Plants are also found in this formation. Palm fronds and other types of plants and leaves make beautiful dynamic fossil display pieces.The skeletons of ancient animals larger than fish are often coveted by collectors because they are very rare. One dinosaur bone alone can be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars. Skeletons can be found from about 300 million years ago to the present. Dinosaurs and their relatives range from 200 million to about 65 million years old. Ancient mammals like mastodons and mammoths are in the thousands of years old. Some skeletons used for decor are ancient species of crocodilians from the Mesozoic (dinosaur age).
Dinosaur tracks and footprints can create beautiful display pieces as well. Sandstone from Arizona that is used for building material comes from ancient desert dunes. Sometimes ancient trackways of creatures are preserved, which make stunning rustic natural art.
In summary, fossils can be informative, beautiful and appreciated for the stories of ancient life that they represent. It’s a rare occurrence when a beautiful fossil is created, and those fossils that make it to the status of being used as home Decor are truly prized objects.
My brilliant friend Ron Schmidtling, a published paleontologist and geologist, authored this Fossils page.
Visit him on Instagram @rexyrocksron or on Facebook at facebook.com/ron.schmidtling