Picturing the Past Through Scientific Illustration
The man pictured here is Bill Turnbull, who spent most of his career as the curator of fossil mammals here at The Field Museum. In 1956, he started collecting fossils in the Washakie Basin of southern Wyoming. These summer field seasons yielded hundreds of vertebrate fossils that date back to the middle Eocene Epoch, roughly 47 million years ago. I started my illustration by looking at old photos of Bill working in the field. In the photo, Bill (who always had a smile on his face!) is seen using a screen to sift for small fossils. I used the sediment falling through the screen as a transition to a reconstruction of the lush Eocene landscape below, portrayed in vivid color.
Many of the specimens Bill Turnbull collected were prepared, cataloged, and integrated into the collections—all necessary steps in making them available for research. Collecting fossils is hard work, but once they are brought back to the museum, more work goes into unpacking, cleaning, repairing, identifying, and cataloging specimens. This means that some fossils can remain unstudied for long periods of time, creating a backlog of unprocessed materials.
While it’s not uncommon among museum collections to have this backlog, we wanted to get to the bottom of it. Understanding the potential wealth of information in the fossils Bill Turnbull collected, Bill Simpson, McCarter Collections Manager of Fossil Vertebrates, and Ken Angielczyk, Associate Curator of fossil mammals, received a grant that would allow the fossils to be processed. I joined the Museum as a collections assistant, helping to identify and catalog the fossils still packed in their field wrappings.
The fossil record allows us to see what life on Earth was like millions of years ago, but only a fraction of this life is ever preserved. Sometimes paleontologists find perfectly preserved complete skeletons but often only isolated bones, teeth or footprints remain. When scientists describe a new species, they use measurements and scale photographs of the fossil elements to aid their descriptions, but scientific illustrators can take a step further in bringing these animals back to life.