A Moroccan Trilobite Sojourn
To reach Rissani, Morocco, a small, dusty town located some 500 miles southeast of Casablanca, you first have to head to the middle of nowhere… then make a left. A hearty 12 hour drive from the capital city over the imposing Atlas mountains, Rissani seems a safe bet to avoid any future reputation as a major tourist destination. Average year-round daytime temperature in town is a scorching 90 degrees, and while the residents seem oblivious to the heat, the weather often brings any local action to a grinding halt. Activity in Rissani is conducted at two speeds, slow and slower, and those unwilling or unable to adapt to the town's tempo-- or lack thereof-- will quickly find themselves hopelessly out of step.
Why would anyone want to visit this out-of-the-way hamlet on the edge of the Sahara Desert where until recently the main means of transportation was by burro and the only apparent social activity is drinking mint tea? Sure, the occasional Hollywood movie (including everything from the classic Lawrence of Arabia to the instantly forgettable 2005 action flick, Sahara), has been filmed in the near-by desert, with Rissani serving as a pre and post-filming epicenter. But there's got to be more to it than that. And once one delves slightly under the fine layer of sand that seems to pervade everything in and around this town, still locked very much in the heart of 15th Century ideals, you find out that there indeed is something more. If you're a fossil collector, the lure of Rissani is easy to understand. Over the last two decades the city has emerged as the hub of Morocco's ever-growing fossil trade with a dizzying variety of vertebrate and invertebrate material-- trilobites, in particular-- helping to establish both the town, and the nation, among paleontology's latest hotbeds.
A stroll down "Trilobite Alley"-- a dark and mysterious street of well-packed dirt located in the heart of Rissani's "business district"-- is like taking a step back in time. The small, well maintained two-story houses which line the narrow passage, would have looked much the same a hundred… or two hundred… years prior. Women, when they are seen at all, remain in the shadows, covered from head to toe in flowing black robes, strictly following Muslim letter-of-the-law. Bands of laughing children roam the streets asking for candy with one hand while swatting away the ever-present flies with the other.
There's no question that Rissani is a man's town, a rough-'n-tumble place where life is far from easy and where the people have developed a razor-sharp survival sense that allows them to quickly and effectively deal with just about any situation that may arise. And it is unquestionably the local fossil dealers who proudly sit at the top of the city's pecking order. It is these men that control the half dozen shops that line "Trilobite Alley"-- shops that are often little more than one-room shanties with bare light bulbs illuminating hundreds of specimens that usually either line a single large wooden display case or are scattered haphazardly across the floor. But the lack of showroom ambiance is far from important when one begins to note the diversity and rarity of the trilobites strewn about. For the true "bug" collector a feeling of Trilobite Overload can easily take effect, with the sheer volume of available material threatening to overwhelm the senses.
No matter where one chooses to look, the characteristic black-on-grey appearance of Devonian-age specimens sit edge-to-edge with less common Ordovician and Cambrian-age material. Occasionally, top quality trilobites that have been more carefully prepared by air-scribe methods are proudly displayed behind somewhat flimsy plastic showcases, while the more pedestrian material is piled like kindling in a dark corner. Species familiar to most trilobite collectors-- Phacops, Paradoxides, Odontochile, Crotalocephalus, Reedops, Leonaspis, Asteropyge-- are all there, vying for attention alongside more exotic species such as Psychopyge (featuring a two-inch long nose "sword"), Quadrops (with its characteristic rows of long, pointed spines) and Dicranurus (a beautiful type featuring ram-like "horns" atop its head and long, flowing spines).
There are also trilobites that leave even the seasoned Rissani dealers confused and confounded. You ask them what these strange creatures are in either of the city's spoken languages, French or Arabic, and the best translation of their shrugging response is "your guess is as good as ours." Their lack of scientific information, though, does little to stop the shop owners from instantly assigning a hefty price tag on these new bugs on the block… especially as soon as Western eyes widen in obvious appreciation of their rarity. And since none of the displayed trilobites carry noticeable price tags, the merchants are continually free to engage in their favorite business activity, haggling over prices, as soon as an offer is made on any of their wares. Rest assured, that no matter what a trilobite dealer may initially answer when asked about the price of a particular trilobite, he expects the potential purchaser to come back with a counter offer-- and he'll be sorely disappointed if his client fails to do so. Indeed, it seems as if it matters little how high or low an initial offer may be, without the expected negotiating "game", even the most well-seasoned Rissani dealers seem to quickly lose interest in the transaction.
"Moroccan merchants have been honing their business skills for centuries," says Bill Barker, one of the preeminent American importers of Moroccan fossils, and someone who has lived in the country for over a decade. "It's been part of their culture since the old 'caravan' days. They've quickly learned about trilobites and they've become very adept at carrying on conversations about them with scientists and collectors from around the world. But, to be honest, to them it really doesn't matter what they're selling; it could be rugs, silver or fossils. For most of them, it's all just business."
Once or twice each week, the various dealers leave their Risanni shops and hop into their well-worn cars (among the very few motorized vehicles in town) to make the three hour drive to the local trilobite quarries. There, teams of hired field workers-- many of whom are members of the dealers' extended families-- as well as roaming bands of nomads, who maintain strict independence from any particular dealer, work the hillsides in search of their valuable ancient treasures.
The Cambrian-aged Pardoxides quarries, for example, are excavated in a relatively sophisticated manner. Teams of well-trained quarrymen use dynamite charges to loosen layers of sedimentary strata that are then carted down the mountainside by burro to workers waiting for their arrival in trilobite "factories", which in fact, are often little more than small stone shacks. It is there that the 'bites are further prepared by either chipping them out of the surrounding matrix with a primitive nail-and-hammer method (if they are relatively complete specimens), or by somewhat haphazardly puttying together broken trilo pieces in order to make them more presentable for sale. If need be, some specimens will then be sent to another "wing" of the factory where surprisingly skilled artisans will carefully carve missing parts of the various specimens (usually free cheeks and genal spines) into the surrounding matrix.
On the other hand, the delicate Devonian age Dicranurus trilobites are "mined" from long trenches that run parallel to the mountains by teams of wandering nomads. These unusual natives painstakingly break and then lick (yes, lick… remember that water can be a scarce commodity in these parts) every exposed rock surface in order to better view their elusive trilobite prey. Apparently the added moisture makes the dark trilobite parts contrast more prominently against the uniform gray color of the surrounding matrix. Sometimes, if they're lucky, such a process will reveal a tiny cross-section of hard-to-distinguish trilobite parts. But that is usually enough to alert these well-seasoned eyes that they have hit upon at least a tantalizing piece of their elusive target.
Usually, such finds will only provide disarticulated or incomplete specimens, but occasionally they yield a true prize-- a complete example of a rare trilobite species. Invariably, the dealers know just where these field workers are located, though finding them amid the ever-growing piles of discarded rubble is far from easy. In a single afternoon they can usually acquire enough partial and complete specimens to keep the workers who prepare the trilobites for their Rissani shops busy for the next few days.
Such weekly procedures have been going on over the last three decades-- the period since the first Berber tribesmen living in the outskirts of Rissani initially discovered the "Magic Mountain" that yielded the first mass supply of Devonian-age trilobites. Or perhaps we should say that the trilobites on the mountain discovered them. Legend has it that back in the mid-'80s, an enrolled phacopid trilobite literally tumbled down the 4,000 foot slope and stopped at the feet of one surprised local who had the interest and fortitude to climb up the mountain in an attempt to discover the fossil-bearing strata. His find sparked a nation-wide fossil movement, one spawned more by the soon-recognized commercial value of these Paleozoic treasures than by any burning scientific quest. Since then, no one knows exactly how many trilobites have been uncovered in Morocco's vast fossil fields, and conversely, no one wants to even warrant a guess regarding how many specimens have been sold by the Rissani merchants.
One dealer estimated that the numerous trilobite quarries (which at various points in time have numbered in the hundreds) annually produce thousands of the relatively common bugs like Phacops (also called Drotops in some circles) while yielding perhaps as many as 100 specimens-- and as few as one or two-- of some of the rarer species. Others have speculated that only a small fraction of Morocco's available trilobite resources have yet to be explored, and that while some quarries that were first mined back in the '80s have now been virtually tapped out, new locales are being discovered on an annual basis.
"The Moroccans take a great deal of pride in not only their collecting abilities, but in their growing scientific understanding of what they're doing," Barker said. "That's why you're beginning to see new trilobites come from different locations throughout the country. It's partially about the money… but it's also about the excitement of finding something new."
In recent years, more and more of these rare, new trilo types have begun infiltrating the commercial fossil market, showing up in often surprisingly prodigious numbers at leading trade shows in Tucson, Denver, Tokyo and Munich. Yet at virtually the same time that Morocco has assumed a leading position among the world's most renowned paleontological treasure chests, troubling questions have begun to arise in certain scientific circles, many speculating about the true origins of these specimens.
Are there more rare trilobites now available because in recent years there has been an increase in the number of Moroccan field collectors working the quarries? Or, as some experts have speculated, have some talented Rissani artisans turned to fabricating a variety of rare specimens in the hope of easily increasing their income? Even top collectors (along with a few scientists) have begun admitting to being "fooled" by top-notch Moroccan handiwork that has used highly detailed casts placed on real matrix to create a line of faux-fossils that have infiltrated the world market right along-side the real thing. To put it simply, a growing debate has erupted over whether many Moroccan trilobites are true science, or mere art.
"There's no doubt that a number of the trilobites coming out of Morocco are at least partially fabricated," says Barker. "The Paradoxides, in particular, usually have some work done on them because the original specimen, when taken from the quarry, is just too fragile. Usually some sort of preservative is placed over it, but then, quite often, whatever parts may be missing-- genal spines, thoracic segments, even the entire pygidium-- may be added by talented carvers. There is also a 'school' of artisans who have taken to molding certain Devonian trilobites out of resin and then placing them on actual rock. But that is done more for tourists than anything else."
Back on the sun-swept alleys of Rissani, though, such debates still seem to be having minimal impact on the community's approach to the marketing of their fossil goods. The dealers are certainly more aware than ever of the differences between the fake trilobites and the real ones, but in their heart-of-hearts, it's not a question of science, but one of commerce. After all, money is money. In a town where an education is still often limited to what one learns on the streets, arguments presented by American college professors or even well-intended amateur collectors tend to fall on deaf ears. However, the merchants have begun to realize that as more and more people become aware of the both the wonders and the inherent problems of the fossil specimens surfacing from the rugged hills of Morocco, additional focus will be placed on weeding out the true specimens from those of questionable virtue.
So, should the typical fossil collector be wary of acquiring expensive Moroccan specimens from local dealers, at area rock & mineral shows or on the ever-present e-Bay? Probably not-- a relatively sharp eye and a basic knowledge of trilobite morphology should eliminate most potential difficulties; though in recent years it appears as if the sophistication in trilo-fakery has often grown step-for-step with collector savvy. The fact remains, that nowhere else on Planet Earth are more spectacular and fascinating legitimate trilobite specimens coming to light than in Morocco. For a collector or scientist to turn their backs on such a proven treasure trove of material would appear to be both foolish and unnecessary. As one Rissani fossil dealer proclaimed as he hawked his wares outside of his tiny shop, "These trilobites are the best in the world."
But in the words of vigilant consumers throughout the ages, "Let the buyer beware".