Exclusive interview: Fossil preparation

Every serious collector of fossils will at some point have found herself either trying to remove a fossil from its matrix, repair a broken fossil, stabilize, restore, or polish a specimen to improve its appearance.

What did it take to prepare this beauty?

What did it take to prepare this beauty?

When getting help from one of the very most expert fossil preparator labs on the planet – White River Preparium – to prepare a gorgeous 3.5 inch Tyrannosaurus Rex tooth, The Fossil Collector was extremely lucky to also have gleaned a rare glimpse into the workings of the fossil preparator trade. Thank you so very much Sandy and Ed for your generosity in granting us this exclusive interview!

Softening the matrix

1. Softening the matrix

Sandy, how did your passion for fossils start?

It all started in Scenic, South Dakota at age 10, on a picnic with my parents. My mother and I were cooling our feet in the creek, I looked down and saw my first Oreodont molar.






Scraping off the matrix and glue

2. Scraping off the matrix and glue

Can you describing how fossil preparing trade came to be?

I’m not sure about when the trade started or why? Guessing, they needed to hold fossils together. Collecting them, they had no choice but to figure out what worked in preserving them. The techniques for preservation have evolved through the years, for the better. As the industry also evolved, many techniques were tried. Some worked while others failed. Now there are glues made specially for the trade, that seem to be able to hold up through time.

3. Air braiding with bicrab and final cleaning

What’s the fossil preparator ‘industry’ landscape like?

There are many well-qualified and professional preparators out there. Most prepare for themselves, some will do outside preparation work for others. They may work on one type of species or like myself, work on many different species. It depends on the individual.


How did you come into this profession?

I owe a lot to my husband, Ed. I had filled out an application for a job at the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, South Dakota, (where there) never seemed to be an opening. It wasn’t until my husband started working on the roof at BHI, I would stop by after work and wait for Ed to finish his work day. One day, I asked if there was something they would allow me to work on? They handed me an ice cream bucket three-quarter full of Oreodont single teeth, they taught me how to use an air scribe to clean the harder matrix from the teeth, air braiding to clean the rest of the residue. After cleaning, I was asked to separate them by species.


4. Crack-filling

As days, weeks, months went by waiting for Ed, I started to learn the differences of the Oligocene mammals. I also found I so enjoyed working with Oligocene material. A job opening came 1986, starting from the bottom. Not long after, they offered me (an opportunity) to work on lower-end items, such as partial Oligocene mammal skulls, single side lowers, items worth between US$1.00 up to US$30.00. I figured I must have done well enough, since they soon started me on nicer skulls and turtles. I worked at BHI for four and half years, until I had an opportunity to work with someone else in the business. I owe everything to Pete Larson, Bob Farrar, Neal Larson, and several other employs at The Black Hills Institute. I wouldn’t have had a fossil preparation business if not for them.

Also I owe a lot to Leon Thesien, owner of Custom Paleo. I worked with him and his wife at the time, Diana. Leon taught me just as much as the Larsons had, so much so, it gave me the confidence to strike out on my own after two years. However, to do that, I needed to know I’d have enough work to get started. Enter Allen Graffham, owner of Geological Enterprises, known as the Grandfather of Commercial Fossils, though he wasn’t the first in that business. He had boxes and plaster jackets that needed to be prepped. Now I had the work, but needed tools and a place. My parents offered to loan us US$10,000.00 to build a 400 square foot addition on to the back of our house and enough left over to purchase the tools needed.

Sanding restoration

5. Sanding restoration

Thus, I started my business, White River Preparium in 1993. The only material I had was Oligocene to work on. Allen Graffham and Leon Thesien kept me busy for a few years, after the Oligocene (jobs) started to dwindle down, the years were tough here and there. When people would call with other items to have prepared, such as dinosaur teeth, bones, trilobites, ammonites, scaphites, if I hadn’t worked on them before, I’d tell them such, but would love to try? Besides I wanted to branch out and I’m glad I did.

My husband, Ed was still working at BHI for another seven years after my starting the business, as their carpenter, photographer, and all-around handyman. After 12 years at BHI, Ed decided to work from home in 2000. Business was moving along, our name was getting known. It took several years to build the business, it didn’t happen overnight. In this business, there aren’t too many female-owned fossil preparator businesses. That I know of! I know many talented men and women in the industry, not too many females that own their business. As the years came and went, we have been getting busier then ever. I have been working on fossils for 30 years and in business for 23 years….still going strong.

Restored and ready for painting

6. Restored and ready for painting

Would you encourage others to enter this profession?

If you have the patience and talent, just about anyone can learn to prepare fossils. It is however better to learn the right way to prepare, than the wrong. Some learn the wrong way, it can be very hard to un-teach them. If you can, find the best teacher out there!


What’s the fossil preparation process like?

First stage is to glue any cracks, specially enamel on teeth. Most soft matrix can be scraped off by knifing. Next is to air-brade, with the chosen abrasive used, helps to get in the smallest of areas and gives a clean surface. Once clean, epoxying the cracks and using epoxy for the smaller restoration, which is what was used on the Rex tooth tip I restored for you. Making of the shape and serrations is done while the epoxy is still curing and soft. After epoxy is hard, some sanding may be required to smooth the edges where the enamel and epoxy meet. It helps to smooth all the restoration. At this point it’s ready for painting, I use acrylic latex craft paint. And many different colors! When the painting is complete, I apply a thin layer of wax over the enamel part of the rex tooth.

Close up before painting

7. Close up before painting

Are there any handling instructions for prepped fossils?

Although it is fragile, it can be handled…but carefully. Paint and wax will be seen if scratched.



Can you recommend any resources that are useful to help achieve morphological accuracy?

I do use copies of hand-drawn illustrations of all the Oligocene fossils found in South Dakota. They were a gift from Leon Thesien and BHI when I started the business. However, after doing as many Oreodonts, turtles, and other more common skulls as we have, you just know what they look like after preparing hundreds of them. I do refer to the drawings for the less commonly-found specimens. Most dinosaur teeth and other fossils, you can look at the piece, it will show you what is needed, how to shape it, bevel the edges. It does help to have an eye for what it should or will look like when finished. We also seek help from BHI when we’re stumped on something. Or I might Google a picture if we have a question on where a bone should be positioned. Other than that, it does help to know ahead of time where the cheeks, teeth, and other fragile bones on the skull are, before beginning the cleaning of it. Of course, not all fossils are articulated, things can be shifted or not where they should be. It can be a lot of work to assemble a disarticulated skull. Like a puzzle at times, but I am one who has loved puzzles since a child. I’m in heaven placing pieces together, creating a finished specimen the client would be proud to show. Or, having an Oligocene block here with a skull and skeleton. Air-brading to expose the bones is still a thrill. You never know what might be discovered, such as rodent bite marks or injuries. I have seen many of both through the years, and find it fascinating every single time.

Painting the restoration

8. Painting the restoration

What should clients look for when deciding to work with a fossil preparator?

Best to ask other fossil friends that may have had work done before. The fossil world is small, most everyone knows one another or has heard about them. If working with someone new you haven’t yet heard of, ask for pictures of their work? If they’re proud of their work, they will be more than happy to show it! All preparator’s have different techniques and styles. Some good, some not so good. See if their work is what you find pleasing to the eye. I’ve had quite a few pieces in the lab, work done by someone else, here to be redone. At times it’s harder to undo others work, than starting from scratch. I’ve never advertised, it’s all been by word-of-mouth.

In your experience how does the value of different fossils change after preparation, and in what situations?

There are many that sell unprepared fossils, giving someone else a chance to try their hand at it or perhaps make a little money. Not all fossils are worth a great deal of time, if any. However, you might get one of those special fossils worth spending the time to have prepared. Like a nice sabertooth cat! They are highly sought after, depending on how easy it is to clean. What we call a free-mount (free of all matrix) is worth spending time. It depends on so many factors; are the teeth in good condition, how much is missing? The amount missing will mean more restoration and more cost to restore. You might purchase a cat for hundreds, that once prepared and prepared well, may bring thousands. However, you might have to invest a US$1,000.00 to US$1,500.00 in prep. Including the purchase of the unprepared skull, one can easily sell it for double, if not triple the costs you have in it. Some are worth the cost to have prepped and others just aren’t. If collectors or buyers are having their pieces prepared, the preparator should suggest options, how much work should be done. It’s best to work with someone in the business, with a few years under their belt who can better advise you.

Finished tooth!

9. Finished tooth!

Do you collect fossils yourselves and what is your collecting philosophy? What are some of your most prized specimens?

Ed and I did have a place to collect Oligocene material. We collected for four years, but after the business bloomed, we found we hadn’t the time. Ed once found a really nice complete Dinictis sabertooth cat skull, although the majority of our finds ended up being low-end pieces. I believe if no one is there to collect the fossils, they will fly away with the wind and the rains, never to be seen again. If it’s found and someone can make a little pocket change… I see nothing wrong in that at all. As long as it’s collected legally.

What advice do you have for anyone keen to learn how to restore fossils, either for their own collection or as a trade?

A tough question to answer, it depends whether they have had any experience in preparing? If you can find someone to teach you the trade, make sure it’s a preparator that knows what they’re doing and knows the correct way. It does help to have artistic skills, I have found artistic people learn quicker. If you feel confident, give it try! If not, please leave it to the professionals.

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The Fossil Collector in Chicago Booth Magazine

We were delighted to have been featured in the Chicago Booth Magazine this month. Thank you Eric Gwinn for the wonderful article!



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Television interview with Singapore Fossil Collectors

The Fossil Collector was recently interviewed on TV about their collections and forming the interest group Singapore Fossil Collectors. Thank you Mediacorp Channel 8 for the shout-out!


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Jurassic Jamboree 2015

Earlier this year, Harbourfront Centre was invaded by a Mesozoic menagerie at the Jurassic Jamboree. Welcoming the crowds was a life-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex, as well as a range of dinosaur merchandise.


The Fossil Collector was delighted to partner with production company Mr Bottle’s Kids Party to loan authentic fossil specimens to the event. These included a complete, two-foot long dromaeosaur raptor, various dinosaur eggs, an allosaurus jaw, claw, and footprint, as well as various other dinosaur bones, teeth, and horns.


IMG_8950 IMG_8949 IMG_8948

This was followed by Fossil Collectors Calvin and Han giving a talk and letting the kids handle actual many fossils up close. The children had a wonderful time learning about prehistoric life, and especially enjoyed donning paleontologist vests and had fun digging fossils out of a huge sandpit.

IMG_9027 IMG_9051

“Calvin is really THE expert in dinosaurs. It was a privilege to witness his knowledge, professionalism and passion about dinosaurs,” said Mr Wee Kien Meng, Fun Director, Mr Bottle’s Kids Party.

“My team and I have learnt so much in our interaction with him during the six-day event, Jurassic Jamboree at Harbourfront Centre,” he said.

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Straits Times article feature: Collecting Fossils as a Hobby

Singapore Fossil Collectors was thrilled to have been recently featured in The Straits Times. Check out this article for tips on how to get started on fossil collecting!


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How one Singapore scientist can slow down global warming

Mammoth hair sample

Mammoth hair sample

In 1980, Russian geophysician Sergey Zimov moved to the Republic of Sakha in the northern Siberian region of Yakutia, to study causes of Pleistocene extinctions and atmospheric changes in greenhouse gases at one of the largest research stations in the artic, the North-East Scientific Station.

Sergey learnt that the permafrost has been locking in 500 gigatons (billion tonnes) of organic carbon over millions of square kilometers. This is equivalent to 2.5 times of all present rainforests combined. This carbon is sequestered by the frozen soils that presently measure about -3 degrees Celsius, yet is warming up at about one degree each decade. This means that by the year 2045, all of that carbon could be released to the atmosphere.

Thankfully, Sergey has a plan to prevent this from happening. He has shown that the temperatures are 10 – 15 degrees Celsius lower in regions where there are animals, and postulates that animals trampling on snow will expose the ground to colder temperatures that prevent the ice from melting. The presence of grazing animals will also lead to grasses replacing the mosses that will stabilize the soil, while the lighter colours of grass will further reflect more sunlight.

In 1988, Sergey initiated a side project ‘Pleistocene Park’, to restore the republic’s former biodiversity in a 160 square kilometer of pilot lowland comprising meadow, forest, and willow shrubland that is accessible only by helicopter. His team has gradually re-introduced extant animals that had survived the Pleistocene (or their closest descendants), including under a hundred animals from six large animal groups: bison, moose , musk oxen, reindeer, Wapiti, and Yakutian horses. He has plans to eventually acclimatize carnivores such as the Siberian tiger and the Asiatic lion, but can greatly speed up his objective of recreating the Ice Age ecosystem if the wooly Mammoth were revived.

This is where the recent work of a Singapore-US team, comprising researchers from NTU, The University of Chicago, and Penn State University, comes in. Scientists from The Mammoth Museum of the Institute of Applied Ecology at the North-Eastern Federal University (with some 2,000 specimens including the world’s best preserved specimen “Yuka”), Korean biotech firm Sooam, and the Beijing Genomics Institute have been searching for mammoth DNA, while but the Singapore team has produced and released a high resolution genome or genetic blueprint that identifies 1.4 million genetic variants unique to the mammoth.

Professor Stephan Christoph Shuster, research director at NTU’s Singapore Centre on Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE) and former co-lead of the Mammoth Genome Project at Pennsylvania State University (where his work was recognized as one of the “Top 10 Scientific Discoveries” of 2008 by Time magazine and earned him a place in Time’s “100 Most Influential People” list in 2009!), explained to the Straits Times that his team has identified and replicated the gene that affects temperature sensation and hair growth from mammoth hair samples, and believes that there clearly will come a time when there will eventually be a resurrected mammoth either by swopping a viable mammoth nucleus into an Asian elephant (the mammoth’s closest relative) egg or re-engineering the Asian elephant’s genome to build a mammoth-elephant hybrid.

We’re so amazed that the first steps of recreating this Ice Age creature is happening right here in sunny Singapore, and certainly looking forward to witnessing the mammoth’s revival in our lifetime!

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Is that fossil real?

One of the most popular questions we’re asked is how to tell if a fossil is fake. Especially to urbanites in a young country with few historical relics, it seems almost mindboggling to be actually holding a specimen that’s millions of years old. This apprehension can be a barrier to starting a collection, and is therefore important to address even though we’ve written about this before.


We will start by reviewing the ‘Eight Levels of Fossil Fakery’:

Many fossils coming out of the ground are actually cracked and crumbly, and fossil preparators use Paleobond (basically superglue with different viscocities) to stabilize the specimens. These field repairs are very normal and expected.

In the preparation process, certain parts of the fossil may be missing and preparators may perform restorations, such as carving out and attaching attachments on a spiny trilobite, or filling out a crack in a bone with glue, epoxy, or wax. It is important that an ethical dealer states the percentage of the specimen that is restored, as it significantly affects the price.

Enhancements are often done to an actual specimen, such as painting or polishing the specimen. Although they are still original fossils, such treatments reduce their scientific value considerably but may still  be of appeal – not least due to their improved aesthetic value – to some collectors.

Some preparators and collectors may also assemble parts of the same species from different animals (e.g. the digits of a dinosaur finger or claw). Such composite fossils are common and often found in museums, but should not be presented by commercial dealers as 100% complete fossils (e.g. ‘associated’ digits) even though the parts are original.

Large specimens such as dinosaurs are often found disarticulated such as in an ancient riverbed. These original but incomplete specimens may have the missing parts (e.g. a section of the vertebrae or a femur) entirely fabricated in resin or crushed fossil bone, and are known as reconstructions. Similarly, missing Keichosaurus limbs or fish fins are sometimes simply painted in.

At the moment we do not have any qualified paleontologists in Singapore to identify specimens, and in any case sometimes even famous paleontologists make mistakes. It is therefore important to develop your own intuition and expertise and trust your judgement over time. A perfectly-authentic fossil can be mis-identified as another species. This may be an honest mistake or a deliberate way to sell a specimen at a higher price. For example, juvenile Spinosaurus teeth are similar in form to crocodile teeth (only slightly longer) and may be unknowingly misidentified. Raptor or even Tyrannosaurid teeth (sometimes even Carcharondontosaurus teeth) posing as the teeth of T-Rex get higher valuations due to its ‘celebrity’ status. On the other hand, a crocodile skull was recently labelled as a Plesiosaur skull, which is pretty much an outright deception. Rounded rocks with cracks are sometimes unwittingly marketed (and sadly, sold) as dinosaur eggs. Authentic specimens may even be sourced to a plausible yet unfamiliar geological formation or country, just to pique the scientific interests of the paleontology community.

There is also a healthy market of fossil casts. These are spectacular yet affordable items for everyone to collect, and may often be cast directly from a museum specimen (a first or early generation cast). Paleontologists often encourage people to purchase casts, as they generate revenues for museums without depriving the public or researchers access to rare or scientifically-important specimens. It is important that casts be identified as such.

And then there are outright fakes: Fossil specimens fabricated to masquerade actual specimens and sold as such to defraud and profiteer from. These can be fabricated with resin, carved into limestone or even real fossilized bone, or simply painted onto rock matrix or another partial fossilized species. Collectors need to handle as many authentic specimens as possible to acquire an intuition about real or fake, as there isn’t an easy answer to this question.


There exist more robust but expensive techniques such as CT scans, X-Rays, acid tests, radiometric dating using mass spectrometers and fluorine chemical analyses that institutions use to authenticate fossils. However, here are a few general tips for novice collectors to get started:

  1. Provenance. The information that a specimen comes with is sometimes more important than the specimen itself. It guides prospectors to a locale where more of such specimens may be found, provide useful knowledge to collectors, and perhaps most importantly help to verify the specimen’s authenticity. For instance, is that locality of the right geological age for that species? Does the seller have actual access to the quarry and to his own preparatory lab? Does he have a long and perfect track record (feedback rating) of selling fossils of that category, or have doubts ever been cast on his reputation? Trilobites, Mosasaur jaws, and crocodile skulls from Morocco;  Keichosaurus, feathered dinosaurs, and dinosaur eggs from China; as well as ambers with interesting inclusions (e.g. ‘mammoth hair’, lizards, feathers, flowers) are most often faked and worth careful scrutiny.
  2. Price. On occasion, we see a specimen that may be statistically rarer to find offered for a very low price, such as a feathered dinosaur going for a couple of thousand dollars, or a spiny trilobite (which takes days to prepare) priced at a few hundred dollars. This mismatch of the market value can be a warning sign; when something looks too good a
    (LEFT) Tail of a dinosaur that's too perfect to be true vs. (RIGHT) Actual museum-grade preservation level of a similarly sized dinosaur tail

    (LEFT) Tail of a dinosaur that’s too perfect to be true vs. (RIGHT) Actual museum-grade preservation level of a similarly sized dinosaur tail

    deal to be true it usually isn’t. Collectors should steer away from a seemingly good deal on eBay, if no one else seems to be bidding on that rare item. This is of course only a guide, as you can always still find sellers putting a very high reserve price of many thousands of dollars on a pebble pretending to be a dinosaur egg. Knowing market price is also helpful as fossils that occur abundantly in nature (e.g. small Orthoceras or Ammonite shells, or even Green River fish) only cost a few dollars anywhere, and is rarely worth the effort to fake.

  3. Context. We occasionally come across outright rock carvings of animals such as full-bodied snakes with their scales intact, animal “brains”, fruit, phalluses, or gods that may have auspicious value. Collectors with any rudimentary knowledge of taphonomy will know that soft tissue will rarely be preserved intact, yet casual tourists may still purchase these unwittingly. Purchasing from a supplier who has dozens of identical specimens is certainly a sign of fabrication, as every fossil is unique. Mortality plates where multiple fossil specimens or specimens from different geological eras (e.g. Cambrian next to Devonian trilobite species) are assembled together on the same matrix – sometimes in aesthetic circular or auspicious shapes – should certainly be suspect. Animals that are strangely larger in size (or have disproportionate body parts) than the norm should be re-looked at carefully; this is where an experienced eye would be helpful.

    FAKE Trilobite mortality plate, carved in China

    FAKE Trilobite mortality plate, carved in China

  4. Morphology. Anatomical accuracy is a sure sign, and knowledge of this can only be gleaned with experience and study. Does the animal have symmetry in its body? How do the proportions of its features compare with documented examples? Does it have a missing or extra skull opening? The overall shape, size, and flatness (due to fossilization) of a dinosaur egg can inform if a specimen is truly an egg or simply loose pieces of shell glued onto a base.
    (LEFT) Entirely wrong head shape of a 'Psittacosaur' carving vs. (RIGHT) Actual juvenile Psittacosaur fossil specimen of comparible size

    (LEFT) Entirely wrong head shape of a ‘Psittacosaur’ carving vs. (RIGHT) Actual juvenile Psittacosaur fossil specimen of comparible size

    Fine details are hard to fake. These include the serrations on dinosaur or Megalodon teeth, growth rings and blood grooves on bone, sutures in a skull, tiny ‘goosebumps’ on a lobster or crab shell, as well as the even and fine spines and schizochroal (compound) eyes on Phacopina trilobites. (Entire industries have been set up in Morocco and China

    Fine pores in the honeycomb bone structure of a T-Rex can be hard to fake

    Fine pores in the honeycomb bone structure of a T-Rex can be hard to fake

    to fake fossils, and this article offers an excellent exposé on some of the detailed faking techniques for trilobites) Raptor eggs have a ‘leathery’ texture with ridges, and should not be smooth to the touch. Fossilized animal bones and exoskeletons often have spongy parts with fine and deep pores. There is a ‘Lick test’ where unlike rock or fossilized wood, fossil bone is supposed to stick to your tongue (although some of us personally may not enjoy how rocks taste). The positive and negative slabs of a fossil should match perfectly.

  5. Physical properties. Study surface details carefully, such as changes in material, texture, grain, airscribe markings, or bone pores. Authentic fossils are composed of heavy, compressed rock, and sometimes feature micro-crystals under a magnifying glass or loop. Modern animal bones are sometimes painted, aged, or even attached to rock matrix to look like fossils, but bones are much less dense than fossils (which are essentially rock), and can be discerned by the lower weight and hollow sound made when tapped with your fingernail. The colour on the fossil should be reasonably uniform; teeth that remain light-coloured without veining in the enamel, or darker colours found in areas of greater bone porosity, indicate that the specimen may have been from a modern animal dyed to resemble a fossil. Skull deformation is a sign that the specimen may not be modern. Casts are also much lighter than the solid rock composition of real fossils, although forgers have learnt to attach casts to real rock. Differences in matrix colour may be indicative that a resin cast ha
    Plastic bag wrinkles below a rock matrix?

    Plastic bag wrinkles below a rock matrix?

    s been attached to a real rock base. Look out for air bubbles, which form in plaster or resin casts but will not be found in actual fossils. A fake may also have a thin, tell-tale seam running along its sides because the mold needs to be opened to remove casts, although skilled forgers may know to sand these down. We have also come across a matrix base which was betrayed by wrinkles left from the plastic bag that the concrete mix was poured into.

  6. Damages. Many times fossil prospectors use destructive methods to identify rocks with fossils in them; basically using field hammers to smash the rock. As a result, many fossils – Devonian Moroccan trilobites in particular due to the hardness of the limestone they are found in – often have a repaired hairline crack running across the fossil. This is a good sign that the specimen may be real, but of course no guarantee that it is. Dinosaur eggs always come with shell cracks and indentations as they need to have been buried under considerable mud or sand in the fossilization process; I have never come across authentic dinosaur eggs with smooth shells in some 30 years of fossil collecting.
  7. Tests. These may be non-intrusive or intrusive. Fossils restored with resin, epoxy, or plastics will glow under a UV lamp, although this may be masked with paint. Composite bone fragments from different sources may show slightly different colour tones under black light. Resin and plastic is also softer than rock, which might be detected with the sensitive nerves of your teeth if you give it a small bite. A drop of acetone can remove paint (useful for modern mammal bones masquerading as fossils) and you just need to look if the colour comes off on the cotton swab, although this would already be considered an intrusive test. Real Mosasaur teeth are often glued into fake roots or jaws (made of crushed matrix) to increase their value, and rubbing with a wet cloth can dissolve this. Taken to an extreme, connoisseurs have used diamond saws to cut a specimen in half to reveal plaster compositions within!Amber is another type of fossil that is often faked, sometimes with plastic, sometimes by inserting inclusions (insects) between actual reattached amber slices, and when confused with copal or immature amber that is only a few hundred or thousand years old.  Only amber is warm to the touch and rubbing amber with soft cloth gives off a fragrance and charges it with static, but could start melting copal. Amber will float in seawater or brine (This is how they are washed up in the Baltic Sea) but copals and plastics would sink. Amber is hard and fractures if cut, but plastics can be easily shaved by a penknife. A drop of alcohol, acetone, or nail polish remover will start to dissolve copal, but does nothing to amber. A hot needle easily pierces through copal and gives off a fragrant smell, creates a black spot and smelly fumes with plastic, and does not as easily penetrate amber and produces whitish fumes.

The commercial fossil industry is growing and those manufacturing fake fossils are constantly improving their techniques, so it is best to avoid acquisitions that are at all doubtful even if the price is attractive and to only work with trusted, reputable sources. Beginners should start with affordable specimens to limit their risk, consult the opinion of more experienced eyes, and the very best approach is gain hands-on experience over time by handling wide a range of specimens as possible.

What other useful approaches do fellow collectors use to tell real from fake?

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Exclusive interview: Artistic Director of the Dinosaur Zoo


Erth Artistic Director Scott Wright with some local fans

Founded in 1990 in Ballarat Victoria, Erth has been creating art for the public domain and is internationally recognized as an innovator of physical and visual theater, with its truly fantastic aesthetic with performances that include large-scale puppets, stilt-walkers, inflatable environments, aerial  and flying creatures.  Erth’s Dinosaur Zoo is one of their most amazing shows, where audiences can come in close contact with prehistoric insects, mammals and dinosaurs. The show came to Singapore in February 2015, and Singapore Fossil Collectors had the honour of sitting down with their Artistic Director Scott Wright for an exclusive interview.

What’s the genesis of Erth?

It came about because we were doing a lot of shows on the street 15 years ago, and we made a conscious decision that we were interested in going into museums, because there were all this information and these things that few people got to see. It was only by coincidence that the Director of the Melbourne Museum asked me if we’d ever thought of making dinosaurs, and I kinda lied and said “yes”.

Three weeks later we had money and were making dinosaurs. Even from the beginning we made only Australian dinosaurs, and they were a big success. Other museums started hearing about it, and we were making museums for Los Angeles, Auckland, and the Australian Museum.

It took a while for us to realise that other people were achieving some success out of what we made, so then we realized that we should actually just make them for ourselves.

How do you get inspired creatively?

When we work for the museums, we’d always work with the paleontologists. Out of that would always come some really good relationships. I really like Luis Chiappe, he’s the feathered dinosaur expert at the LA Natural History Museum. In Australia there’s Scott Hocknull, who was recognized as Young Australian of the Year. They’re the kind of people that are accessible. I can talk to them about stuff, and in so doing we learn about the dinosaurs.

It then goes to our in-house designers. They collect as much information as they can such as from online sources, and they start drawing and making models. It’s exactly what we all dream about, isn’t it? Making them come alive is the big thing. There’s this conflict of anatomy because they’re puppets – the human body doesn’t belong inside a dinosaur – and people point out that their legs are sticking out. But it really doesn’t matter. It’s the awe and that visceral experience. The fact that we work really hard on behavior. We don’t dumb things down. We look at chickens, cassowaries, emu, dogs. I would take the puppeteers to spend days at the zoo.

The puppeteers will pass the performance art down to newer puppeteers. The way it works in the company is that people inherit behaviors. The way that people learn the show is based on how croissants or sour dough is made; we take a little bit of the original and we put it in with the new ones. It’s really nice.

It takes two weeks to learn how to move properly, and averages a month before they’re instinctive. Different people have different traits. Sometimes it’s a bit schizophrenic in that some people who are very gentle and quiet and humble, they get inside one and they go like “rawrr!” They have to have that right to make decisions.

As the director of the show, how do you manage between allowing the actors to have the autonomy while keeping to a coherent story and narrative?

I’m a pretty generous director. All I ask is that people keep the puppet alive, and I also encourage them to change what they do themselves, to keep things fun for themselves and for me. As the host, when you present the show, if it’s the same over and over again, it can get boring.

When collaborating with the paleontologists, how do the worlds come together and how do you spark that inter-disciplinary collaboration?

erth dino

Dinosaur petting at the Dinosaur Zoo

Actually, no. There’s been a few people who’ve been a little difficult to work with, just because as you say it’s the left side of the brain. Luis Chiappe said to me, “Paleontology is a science of the imagination. Imagination is our most admirable tool. It’s only with imagination that allows us to hypothesize how dinosaurs behaved.” There’s a mutual admiration that we can deliver something that they may not, but we will need the knowledge that they have, and that’s the collaboration in its truest sense. But I’ve also met paleontologist who only want to argue. We tell children all the time, it’s all just theories. There’s no hard science. The only things we’ve got are their fossils. We don’t have anything else. No one know what they really ate or what they sounded like. We can base ou
r informed guesses on other living creatures. The problem with carbon dating is that no one has put a piece of bone on their desk and watched it for a million years to see what happens.

When you think about the science and art and what you really bring, what are some unique ways where Erth has contributed to paleontology?

What we do is a bridge between art and science, between the theatre and the museum. We give them a fresh perspective. We honour the science, but love the art. When we’ve done the show in museums, in some cases the museums will do surveys. For example when we did a residency at the Auckland Museum for two years, we had this story about a female dinosaur and a male dinosaur, they didn’t like each other and had to be separated. Eventually they made a nest and laid eggs and the eggs hatched. The evolution of this story happened over two years. So people returned to the museum five or six times. At that time only a third of the museum was open because they were retro-fitting it for earthquakes. So there were less museum space to visit, but their attendances were more and they made some astronomical returns. But they also realized that some 45 percent of the visitors had never been there before. It’s amazing.

Dinosaurs are a gateway. Once upon a time, dinosaurs were just something that kids liked. There was a time when dinosaurs were sort of going ‘out of favour’, and then with Spielberg’s Jurassic Park suddenly the world got interested. And now dinosaurs are a way for children with learning disabilities to learn big words. Children with autism or Aspergers they become obsessed, they learn Latin, they learn to identify a whole taxonomy. Parents and grandparents now have discussions with their children about science. The value of dinosaurs to our society is far more than in commercial gain. I get asked a lot, “Why do children like dinosaurs?” The child sees the world with infinite potential. When they are introduced to a dinosaur and told “This really existed”, we have the fossils to prove it, then they see the world with a whole new potential. Their imagination and knowledge is widened. It’s not like say vampires or unicorns, there’s not enough evidence. With dinosaurs, it’s the world. Wow, the world existed before me.

What’s your innovation process like?

It’s whatever we can get our hands on. Because we’ve been working together for 25 years, as Artistic Director it’s my job to come up with the ideas, and up to the team to work out how they can make the ideas happen. We’ve experimented many different things to create our toolbox of tricks. It comes down to what’s the idea, what do we need to do, and what do we need in order to do that. It comes down to things as complex as registered projection, tracking things with infrared, and video mapping, or something as simple as inviting a child onto the stage. We are a company that does puppetry, but puppetry by our standard is a very broad spectrum. I’ve made shows where you need a magnifying glass to watch it, right up to doing shows to open the Sydney Olympics, and everything in between.


The new generation of Singapore Fossil Collectors

We live in such a fast world that everything almost needs to be delivered as quickly as you’ve thought of it. The only challenge we really face is patience. Actually what I desire most is more time away from society to just create. We are a resident company in a really great performing arts building, and I bring in my peers, guest artists. We’re making a new show called Erth’s Prehistoric Aquarium, looking at everything from coral reef spawning, bioluminence, Plesiosaurs, Kronosaurs, Paracyclotosaurus, the whole story underwater that seldom gets told. Sometimes the things we do are so simple, like having balloons fall out of the roof. Other times we’re using iPhone devices to programme LEDs to make bioluminescent creatures. That’s what we do as smart human bein
gs; we love to creating our own problems and to solve them. I have such a privileged job, and I’m always learning, I’m never going to stop.

Erth has achieved global renown as an arts company. Do you have any advance about how more nascent Singapore arts companies might also break into the international circuit?

By building your own reputation where you are. We participate in most of the major arts festivals. We didn’t go overseas until someone noticed us, supported our reputation through word-of-mouth, and started inviting us. We grew up in a small regional town, we had never even thought of going overseas. Doing what we did patiently and persistently for at least ten years. Perfection really comes from making lots of mistakes, so you just got to do things for the sake of it and make lots of mistakes. If you stumble on something that people really like, that’s when you start to exploit it. You go “This image or this idea works, you stick to it, you keep doing it, you grow that reputation.”

Thank you so much Scott for the interview and the inspiration. We look forward to your new shows!

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Dinosaur Workshops at The ArtScience Museum

Dinosaurs: Dawn to Extinction is Southeast Asia’s biggest dinosaur exhibition. Organized by the ArtScience Museum, it features over 400 fossils and models, and 50 original artworks from the American Museum of Natural History, San Juan National Science Museum, SCI! Expo at Monash University, and paleo-artist Peter Trusler.


Singapore Fossil Collectors partnered with The ArtScience Museum to organize a series of workshop sessions from February to May 2014, where visitors to its dinosaur exhibition can gain hands-on experience handling actual fossils to further deepen their prehistoric experience.


Over a series of ten sessions, we exhibited a wide collection of actual dinosaur fossils ranging from bones, eggs, and tracks, to teeth, claws, and coprolites. Visitors were taught to handle the specimens and examine their morphology, texture, weight, and details. Our speakers brought the audiences through the beginning of life, from the Pre-Cambrian through Mesozoic various eras, to the Pleistocene and modern day animals.


The visitors included locals and foreigners of all ages, and were delighted to handle the specimens and even take selfies with them! Their excitement was palpable and some of their kind feedback included:

“Good to have interactions and experts to answer any doubts.”

“It’s fascinating to hear more about the fossils , touch and feel them too!”

“I think the presenters were very knowledgeable and was able to engage with the participants. We want them back!”

“Very detailed and informative explanation. It’s great that they allowed us to handle the various fossils. Very friendly and approachable and definitely relevant to the exhibition.”

“Very interesting and the fact that we would touch all different fossils was great. Very educational.”

“Interesting exhibition and learning journey.”

“Workshop organizers are great! Very passionate!”


We were honoured to be asked to help review of the docent scripts and prep them for potential questions and ‘fun facts’, and were really humbled by their hard work, deep knowledge, and warm welcome.

Anna Salaman, Associate Director of Public Programmes, ArtScience Museum, said,” It has been a pleasure working with The Fossil Collectors. The workshops conducted were engaging, and complemented our Dinosaurs: Dawn to Extinction exhibition perfectly. The visitors, especially the children, were really intrigued by the interesting specimens that were provided and by the explanations provided by the facilitators.”

Thank you ArtScience Museum for bringing this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition in, and for the opportunity to contribute!

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Rocking it at the United World College

United World College (UWC) was embarking on a new Grade 4 academic unit about the Earth and changes to its geology. After spending weeks investigating the structure of the earth and types of rocks and visiting the Science Centre’s Earth: Our Untamed Planet exhibition, UWC wanted to offer its students a hands-on understanding of “the secrets that rocks reveal”, and invited Singapore Fossil Collectors to conduct a lecture and demonstration to its students.4

We started our session with UWC’s 200-strong Grade 4 cohort at their Dover Campus in the morning of 6 February 2014, by cutting an aloe vera fruit to illustrate the structure of the earth, and peeling a Mandarin orange (Chinese New Year was just last week) to demonstrate the effects of plate tectonic movements on the geography.

With a four-billion year old zircon slab – the oldest rock in the world – we went through the geological time scale and radiometric dating. We then showed samples of Igneous, Metamorphic, and Sedimentary rock, to discuss the important permineralization process that offers palaeontologists fossil evidence.

The students were surprised by the range of fossil types beyond traditional fossilised skeletons, and handled samples of trace fossils such as coprolites and footprints, amber with inclusions, living fossils like Coelacanth and Ginko, casts, fake fossils, and even the mummified fossil of a Wooly Mammoth ear.

We then moved on to the main topic of how geological changes over deep time shaped the diversity of life. Firstly in the Pre-cambrian, students saw the earliest record of life as cyanobacteria, whose traces were left in three billion year old Stromatolite.

In the Cambrian, fossils preserved simple multicellular lifeforms such as Naraoia and Kimberella graduated into simple exoskeletons in Paradoxide trilobites. However, the first predators such as Anomalocaris ignited the Cambrian Explosion, an arms race which eventually led to advanced defence mechanisms such as the spines, bumps, antenna, feelers, compound eyes, and even eyes on long stalks that helped in camouflage.

The Silurian period was important as it saw the emergence of the Eurypterid, the first creature that could walk on land due to their exoskeleton and whose descendants include modern day arthropods such as insects and crabs.

Terrestrial life radiated freely in the Devonian, with plants spreading across the land and forming forests. Apart from the complex defence features of Devonian trilobites, this period of high sea levels also saw the spread of fish, from bony fish and sharks to armoured species.


As the super-continent Pangea came together in the Carboniferous, sea levels declined and this gave rise to extensive lowland swamps in North America and Europe. Trees with hard bark fibre lignin started to appear, which was too tough to be decomposed by the bacteria and fauna then. As a result, there was widespread burial of wood that became fossilised as the coal deposits extracted from the ground to power the earth today. This carbon burial led to very high oxygen content in the atmosphere; estimated at 35 percent compared to 21 percent today. The moist environment and heavy oxygen concentration reduced the respiratory effort of terrestrial creatures, and led to insect and amphibian gigantism. The Carboniferous is unique for its fossils of the two-foot long giant dragonfly Meganeura – the largest flying insect to ever roam the planet – as well as the 2.6-metre long millipede Arthropleura, the largest known land invertebrate of all time.

Subsequently, the Permian period that was not only infamous for featuring the largest extinction event of all time, but witnessed Pangea’s breaking apart. The students saw fossil specimens such as Mesosaurus and Glossopteris, whose appearance on once-united continents offer compelling evidence of continental drift.

The Permian period is known as the age of amphibians, but there were also marine reptiles such as Claudiosaurus germaini, whose descendants in the Triassic included the common marine reptile Keichousaurus. The Triassic also saw the appearance of dinosaurs, with the earliest dinosaurs such as Eoraptor and Coelophysis.

By the time of the Jurassic, dinosaurs became dominant. Fossils of the apex predator Allosaurus could be found all over Laurasia. (At that time, tyrannosaurid ancestors such as Dilong paradoxus and Guanlong wucaii only measured a couple of metres in length). By the Middle Jura
ssic, Pangaea’s separation into Laurasia and Gondwana which formed the Tethys Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Deeper seas led to the growth of marine reptiles such as the pliosaurs and plesiosaurs.


Finally, the Cretaceous period witnessed the widespread distribution of our favourite dinosaurs, ranging from the Triceratops and the T-Rex in North America, to the larger ‘African T-Rex’ the Carcharodontosaurus as well as the largest carnivorous dinosaur, the Spinosaurus, in Africa. Interestingly, students learnt that tyrannosaurids and spinosaurs have been found as close to Singapore as in Thailand, Malaysia, and Australia. Students also saw samples of the KT-boundary layer, evidencing the global asteroid impact that brought about the extinction of these dinosaurs.

Following that, the more modern periods of the Miocene and Pleistocene were marked by fossils of megafauna such as the Wooly Mammoth, Giant Kangaroo, Giant Sloth, and Sabre-tooth Tiger, as well as the first appearance of the earliest humans.

The UWC students had a wonderful time, and left the following comments:

“I really liked how you explained the whole history of the earth. It was so interesting to find out about the earth clock and that humans have only been around for three seconds. It was so cool!”

“This was really good information and an amazing presentation. I never knew we still lived in the Ice Age!”

“I think you answered all our questions that we couldn’t find the answer to.”

“Your presentation was awesome, loved it…I was inspired.”


The teachers of the Grade 4 Team at the United World College of South East Asia also were also generous with their feedback:

“Calvin, Han and Andy were a wonderful addition to our unit about The Changing Earth.  Prior to the presentation, Calvin was in contact to ensure the talk was tailored to our needs with age appropriate content. The talk was well organised and interesting for the audience and both the students and teachers learnt a lot! The display of fossils was wonderful for our students to observe and they enjoyed being able to look so closely at such a wide selection. The students were so enthusiastic about the presentation!”

Thanks for this opportunity to share our passion. The Singapore Fossil Collectors look forward to meeting the students again next year!

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