Aseri Horizon Trilobites - From Russia With Love

A walking path to the right of a short, grassy cliff.

     Just about every Saturday morning from early March until late October (and even more frequently if Russia's harsh winters allow) Stanislav Pogorelskiy and his two friends get up before the crack of dawn, pull on their warmest sweaters and their heavy, weather resistant boots and head into the Volkhov River Valley in the outskirts of St. Petersburg. It takes the three geology graduate students a little more than two hours by train to reach the still mostly pristine surroundings of the valley where they plan on spending the next 12 to 14 hours. Their long day will consist of a healthy hike over the area's sparse and hilly landscape as well as downing a quick but nutritious meal that Stan's mother has prepared. But their mission in the valley isn't about hiking or picnicking. It's about collecting fossils... Ordovician age trilobite fossils, to be exact.

     For hours on end the trio will move quickly but carefully through the surrounding hillsides that encompass the 450 million year-old geological formation known as the Aseri Horizon. Occasionally they will stop to jab at a rock outcrop with their sturdy geologic hammers, to see if one of the area's dozens of trilobite species has been exposed. Often they will spot a small speck of brownish "shell", but until they later begin freeing that speck from its covering matrix, they won't know if their discovery is what they've been searching for -- a complete specimen -- or merely, as is almost always the case, just another distracting trilobite fragment. Carefully, they will chip out the rock surrounding any promising specimen, hoping to keep as much of the "bug" in one piece as possible, but the hard, chalky, tan limestone rarely breaks cleanly. Usually a find has to be removed in anywhere from two to ten pieces, only to be painstakingly reassembled later.

     They meticulously wrap their best discoveries in thick layers of newspaper and place them in their backpacks. There they will stay with perhaps a dozen other "keepers" found during the long day's work (the fragments and more incomplete partials will almost always be discarded) all eventually to be dragged back to the group's St. Petersburg laboratory. Fact is, this "lab" is actually little more than a basement room that the industrious trio has converted into a makeshift trilobite research and preparation station. But it is there, in that small, dimly lit facility, that the delicate pieces of these ancient sea creatures will be carefully extracted from their rock encasements, reassembled with skill, and returned to much of their original glory. Each trilobite specimen (which range in size from one inch to six inches in length) takes at least five hours of careful labor -- with tools ranging from dental picks to pneumatic drills -- to be removed from its hard rock matrix and correctly reassembled. Particularly exotic examples can take 15 hours or more (occasionally much more) to prepare.

     "The work of finding and then preparing the trilobites is hard, but we enjoy it," stated Pogorelskyi. "We are all students of paleontology, so we learn as we dig in different places and find more material. It is all very exciting for us.

     "For decades prior to the fall of communism in the late 1980s, rumors of stupendous Russian fossil reserves had been reported by paleontologists lucky enough to have visited behind the Iron Curtain. Tightly sequestered rooms in major Soviet museums were said to be bursting at the seams with material collected everywhere from the flat tundra of Siberia to the hilly Permian cliffs of Estonia. Those western scientists who had been invited on rare Russian field expeditions between the years of 1917 and 1989 often returned with glowing reports of strata bulging with ammonites, trilobites and vertebrate material of all sorts and ages. Yet, with most Soviet scientists of the era being directed to have their interests focused upon more pressing matters than the collection of fossils, and with the Russian government carefully regulating the export of their nation's "natural resources", few if any of these Eastern European treasures ever found their way out of their homeland and onto the world market.

     "Our scientific community was never really given the opportunity to turn its full attention towards such things as fossils," explained a respected Russian geologist who has recently relocated to Dallas, Texas. "Such things as collecting fossils were viewed as little more than a silly diversion by most communist party officials.

     "By the early 1990s, however, all of that had begun to change. At major fossil and mineral shows such as those held annually in Tucson, Tokyo and Munich, magnificent and unique Russian specimens ranging from huge split-and-polished ammonite halves to large chunks of Siberian mammoth hide -- the long-deceased beast's dark red hair still attached -- began to surface. But of all the Russian fossil material that suddenly began appearing in western markets, perhaps none drew as much attention from the both the scientific and collecting communities as the fantastically freakish assortment of Ordovician trilobites that were being pulled out of those Aseri Horizon hillsides along the Volkhov River. 

     With their shiny caramel-colored exoskeleton contrasting dramatically against a light tan matrix, these ancient arthropods soon became paleontological sensations, being featured in museum displays and marketed as part of major natural history auctions by the likes of Sotheby's and Christy's. In particular, the exotic species Neoasaphus kowalewski -- whose eyes sit atop stalks that frequently reach a length of two inches, or more -- quickly became a "must have" for every trilobite collector from London to Los Angeles. And during the 25-plus years that have now passed since the fossils of the Aseri Horizon first hit the global stage, more and more new species have begun to emerge from the rich Volkhov River locales. In fact, it is said that at least one new species is still discovered annually as more and more diggers continue to drift into the rich Ordovician layers in search of these Paleozoic prizes.

     The allure of these trilobites is obvious; they are among the most beautiful and bizarre fossils found anywhere in the world. There is Nieszkowskia tumida, a cherurid with a strange projection coming off of its thorax, Megistaspis elongata, with a triangular head and a long, spiked nose, Cybele bellatula with eye stalks as thin as angel hair pasta, and Hoplolichas furcifur with a bulbous, spine-covered cephalon. These, among many others, have continued to amaze both amateur collector and professional paleontologists around the globe. 
     Indeed, if tales emanating out of various St. Petersburg-based trilobite laboratories are to be believed, it often takes preparators upwards of 100 hours to free the spine-cushion like barbs attached to the carapace of each of these Hoplolichas specimens.  And in more recent days the use of increasingly more effective and advanced prep equipment has allowed these Russian craftsmen to create true works of ancient art. But with the ever-more dramatic appearance of these trilobites-- with many now being presented totally free-standing, anchored only by a mere pedestal of matrix -- has come a series of corresponding questions and concerns regarding the true authenticity of these magnificent specimens.
     Increased worldwide demand for these Ordovician treasures has ignited a corresponding surge in what might kindly be termed “unsavory” business practices by some along the Russian trilobite pipeline. In the early years of the 21st Century, reports of rare trilobite species being assembled from various similarly-sized but independently found parts began to fill conversations among serious trilobite enthusiasts. Rumors of particularly intriguing (and valuable) species -- such as Boedaspis ensifer, a large, spiny variety of odontopleuird -- actually being "molded" in a special calcite-infused plastic and then placed on actual Volkhov matrix began to alarm collectors around the world. 
     After all, it was indubitably easier for hard-working diggers and lab technicians to "assemble" a trilobite from the various pieces found during a long day's dig (occasionally into mismatched chimeras that would never have seen the light of day back in the Ordovician seas), than it was to wait for luck, happenstance or hard work to deliver a pristine example to be prepared and sold. A number of these concocted specimens actually made it into major private collections and prominent museum displays before whistle-blowers began to vociferously complain about such activities. Of course, as might be expected, leading Russian trilobite dealers either quickly denied these charges of fakery, or they merely laughed at the notion that such unscrupulous activities were taking place right under their noses. 

     Their responses to such "outrageous" claims were often masked behind somewhat incongruous statements about merely trying to provide their customers with "what they want." Even after such duplicitous practices were fully exposed by the early 2010s, this cavalier attitude continued on, but in an even more sophisticated manner. In more recent times these dealers continue to occasionally “enhance” even legitimate specimens, and do so with incredible insight and cunning. Such an approach to their trilobite "product" has risen to such extremes that it now allegedly includes manufacturing schizochroal eyes with multi-lensed detail for certain lichid specimens. This is done simply because Russian dealers know that many knowledgeable collectors use such specific morphological characteristics as a positive sign of a trilobite's quality and authenticity. The only problem is that these lichids never featured compound eyes of this type!
     "I got into a heated debate with a dealer a few years ago," said Sam Stubbs, a Houston-based lawyer, who is also one of the world's top trilobite collectors. "He was presenting me with an amazing lichid specimen-- a type that I had never seen before. I specifically asked him about the eyes, and he handed me a jeweler's loupe so that I could see them more clearly. The rows of lenses on those eyes were clear and beautiful. It was only a few months after the show that a scientist told me the species in question did not have compound eyes of that type. When I later confronted the dealer, he had the nerve to tell me, 'Well, you always seem so concerned with the eyes… I wanted to make sure that you were happy, so I made sure that very good ones were put on that specimen.'"
     Considering the ever-escalating interest in their paleontological product -- despite the occasional negative issue -- it should be fascinating to see in which direction the Russian fossil industry travels in the years ahead. Will it continue to flourish and grow as it has virtually non-stop since the fall of communism, or will increased scientific and collector scrutiny, along with the pressures inherent with competing on the world's ever-more-complex economic stage, bring it to a grinding halt? As has seemingly been the case with all aspects of their nation's shift to a more free market economy over the last few decades, St. Petersburg-based fossil dealers have suffered through the expected degree of growing pains. The undeniable fact is, however, that their finds continue to amaze collectors and scientists around the world, while focusing additional attention on that still often alien land known as Russia.

Click here for the Gallery of Russian Ordovician Trilobites