Geology of Memory

Diploria strigosa: Source

In 1875, when the wife of geologist Arthur Cybelene died he sought to have her body fossilised and added to his vast fossil collection. His request was denied but created enough curiosity and interest to spark the popular trend of imitation fossils created in a loved one's likeness, something that became especially popular incorporated into headstones as a design feature. A kind of solidification of love in physical form.

The wish to preserve a loved one is a hidden natural instinct, but during the Victorian age mortality was constantly on the mind. Post mortem photographs of deceased children were a popular memento mori, a side effect that came with the rising popularity of photography, replacing the painted portrait and the death mask with a trapped frame of time that must surely have unnerved when it first arrived on the mantlepiece. It is perhaps no surprise that the fossil also became a powerful, less direct, symbol of this perilous mortality.

Death portrait: Source

Victorians began to concider earnestly for the first time notions of how they would themselves be remembered and their legacy to the world. Philanthropic societies and humanist writing were on the rise. Egyptian mummies shipped back to England as souvenirs were unwrapped in elaborate party games to uncover trinkets and stare back at the past. Their new found craze for fossil hunting was less about the search for a species of animal or plant than a species of memory.

Fossils acquired an aesthetic power that was akin to holding frozen objects of time itself; time, death and immortality being constantly on the mind of the age. There was alternate speculation that fossils were traces of the future, not the past. Future creatures awaiting birth, hiding in stone until released and birthed into the present. Dinosaurs that awaited us fully formed to be faced by some distant future generation. Stone could no longer be looked upon without an air of trepidation at what lay inside. Only geologists held the key to understanding what dangers might be present. Fanciful newspaper articles by dubiously credited geologists became ever more prevelant that mixed superstition, fire and brimstone with the fresh science that only futher befuddled the ordinary public.

Heck's Pictorial Atlas: Source

New thinking was also burgeoning in the shift from the local church graveyard to notions of a new secular cemetery, where the dead could at last be kept beyond city limits and allay fears of spreading disease and devouring precious space. Before the Victorian gridded cemetery we know today became the standard, many other experimental graveyard prototypes were being concidered. The Burial Commission of the British Government sought submissions from anyone with ideas. Many still exist to this day, hidden is quiet copses or abandoned quarries, or left as merely archived plans. One example involved bodies being buried in trees that created a form of forest cemetery. Another involved the reconstitution of body parts to form building material for sculptures and a 'death wall'. Other burial experiments abounded with less orthodox results.

Victorian cemetery: Source

Arthur Cybelene was one among many others who sought out alternatives to the graveyard as a physical afterlife, and was keen to experiment with systems of Taphonomy–or means by which the body decays and eventually becomes stone. In order for an organism to be fossilised the remains need to be covered by sediment as soon as possible. His initial research uncovered the Lanesbury Pit, where successive generations of a small town community had sunk artifacts and dead ones in its muddy pits to create a fossilised vertical cultural record that was an alternative to the horizontal system of the new Victorian cemetery design; free land in Lanesbury being in such short supply due to its narrow coastline. A future age would uncover this pit as a complete vertical cabinet of wonders in stone, assuming the geology of the region remained stable.

Louis Daguerre, Arrangement of Fossil Shells: Source

In 1889 Arthur Cybelene founded the Gorgonian Foundation that would offer fossilisation on demand, for those that wished to add themselves to the vast geological record of life in stone, rather than disintegrating slowly in an empty box underground. He also claimed to have reduced the fossilisation process to mere hundreds of years. Unfortunately by this time burial experimentation had gotten so out of hand the Burial Commission was left to enforce a strict decision that the traditional grid cemetery was the only sanctioned design. No doubt a response to rumors of a cemetery said to contain twenty six people that were buried alive, held in the contorted shapes of letters of the alphabet, and many other aberrations of cemetery design rumored to exist.

Arthur Cybelene died in 1898 from typhoid fever. His body was cremated and his ashes moulded into a pseudo fossil of a common ammonite, and added at his family's request to his extensive fossil collection.

No comments:

Post a Comment