Apparently not all trilobites were created equal. Today, thanks to advanced preparation techniques, many of these ancient arthropods have emerged as pristine examples of Paleozoic preservation, half-a-billion year-old fossils with flawless exoskeletons, ideal symmetry and exquisitely detailed eyes. But for every such trilobite that may now be proudly featured in a museum display or private collection, there seems to be a distinct doppelgänger -- a specimen that presents a far less noble, and far more contemporary heritage. These creations may look good on the surface; in fact, to the naked eye they may initially appear to exhibit nothing less than primordial perfection. Lurking just underneath their shiny shells, however, are not always the fossilized remains of creatures that swam the world's oceans for nearly 300 million years. Indeed, over the last three decades, a thriving side-industry has grown up around trilobites -- one where craftsmen often working in rural outposts in far-away lands, basically manufacture their own “brand” of fossils from glue, plastic, rubber… or just about any other reliably pliable compound on which they can lay their artistically inclined hands. Such practices have become an accepted part of some trilobite transactions, especially those stemming from the paleontological hotbed of Morocco.
Since that nation's fossil trade first blossomed on the international scene in the late '80s, North African workers have become notorious for utilizing everything from local muds to cheap automobile putty to carefully construct or composite a veritable smorgasbord of trilobite species, ranging from foot-long Cambrian Paradoxides to a variety of Devonian trilo-types. Often their work is so good -- with their original molds being crafted from actual specimens -- that even university-trained trilobite “experts” have routinely been fooled.
As many trilobite enthusiasts have sadly learned, however, Morocco is far from the only place on Planet Earth where such paleontological tomfoolery is taking place. Indeed, the history of such deception dates back to the 19th Century, when quarrymen working in both the Czech Republic (then Bohemia) and the famed Silurian outcrops of Dudley, England would frequently piece together mismatched trilobite parts and then sell them to unwitting tourists… or museum officials.
In recent years similar, but somewhat more sophisticated methods of fabrication have been established in Russia. There, the beautiful array of trilobites emerging from the various Ordovician layers that surround St. Petersburg have often been augmented through the use of high-tech polymer plastics. In the hands of creative Russian artisans, these space-age ingredients are made to perfectly match in color and detail the lovely caramel-hued carapaces of these impressive trilobites. Under ultraviolet light, however, such efforts at deception are quickly, and often dramatically exposed.
Perhaps such practices -- which also take place to a lesser extent in China and Bolivia -- are just the price both the collecting and scientific communities have to pay for doing business in today's web-driven fossil market. As new trilobite locations open up in nations both near and far, the chances of circumspect material hitting the world stage are now stronger than ever before.
However, trilobite enthusiasts should enter these upcoming “battles” armed with at least a bit of knowledge, as well as with a well-honed degree of skepticism. Such tools as a UV flashlight and a good hand lens certainly helps when it comes to differentiating a fake from a fantastic specimen; after all, air bubbles are hard to hide… even when they're lurking within industrial grade bondo. It also helps to have a healthy dose of basic street smarts, which can allow a collector to look both a trilobite and a questionable merchant square in the eye and differentiate a true Paleozoic prize from a blatant fossil fraud.
Here's a look at some fake and composited trilobites from various corners of the globe:
At international fossil shows, Moroccan dealers will often display flats filled with identical, totally fake trilobites.
On occasion, Moroccan craftsmen will artfully combine pieces of real trilobites, creating chimeras that never existed in the Paleozoic. This piece combines the cephalon of a Scutellid with the pygidium of an Acnthopyge.
This is a “rare” Acanthopyge where the head and tail are real… and the body is made of plastic.
Omnipresent at fossil shows in the early years of the 21st century, many of these large (up to 25 cm), totally fake trilobites, were collectively nicknamed “Elvis”, since an exact species was indeterminate.
This Russian specimen combines the pieces of two distinctly different orders (lichid and cheirurid) into a “monster mash.”
This Chinese-made fabrication (sold as “real” on-line) contains no authentic trilobite material.
Even more than a century ago, creating trilobites was common. This is a Trimerus from the famed Dudley formation of England… composited in the 19th Century from three unrelated pieces.
With ultraviolet lighting it's often easy to see where Russian craftsmen have augmented a trilobite.