My Favourite Fossil

Article printed in ‘Trilobite’ The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences Newsletter Spring

.                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Nowhere in the Sedgwick Museum’s palaeontology collections is the whole awesome history of evolution caught so completely as in the stromatolite. This time-defying fossil sits modestly in its’ Precambrian surround at the far end of the Museum’s Oak Wing. Here, in this one fossil time stands still. It has swept through 3.5 unfathomable billennia and remains defiantly alive in places today.

Lumpy and unprepossessing in looks, the stromatolite slowly increases in size as a growing bacterial mat into a tusky, mushroom shaped form. When sliced through however, the beauty and significance of its’ structure is fully appreciated – revealing endless, exquisitely crafted threadlike layers. I have drawn it many times from this captivating ‘insiders’ view, making a series of works called ‘Whispers’.

Life has blossomed out in its gaze, grown and wearied, fast tracked and slowed. Devastating change has not defeated it. During my searches through time in the Museum I have often thought of the Dutch Vanitas paintings of the seventeenth century that depicted skulls, candles, glass as symbols to signify the transience and frailty of life. What if the great painters of that era like Pieter Claesz or Harmen Steenwyck had understood the stromatolite and placed it in their brooding still lives instead of a fading flower, apple or pocket watch? The message then? -Less certainly about transience; and surely one of awe and humility in the face of such an outstanding monument to life and hope.


Helen Gilbart 2006. Artist in Residence, Earth Sciences Dept, University of Cambridge