In recent years, fossils have generally been discovered through excavations that require extensive organization and planning. To discover fossils, a team of paleontologists usually ventures into the field and excavates a particular area. The scientists use a particular set of tools, adhere to specific codes for recording their observations, and follow certain documentation practices when discoveries are made.
These types of organized excavations are, of course, only one of the many ways fossils can be found. Fossils are sometimes discovered accidentally (see this list of accidental hominin finds), while other times they are discovered through city building and road cutting, and more.
Historically, the number of ways fossils could be stumbled upon was arguably even more diverse. In the nineteenth century, for example, prior to the formal establishment of the field of paleontology, fossils were often found by collectors (“amateurs”), other times by interested geologists, and sometimes by quarry workers or other employees of various sorts. In one peculiar instance, which occurred in the nineteenth century on the peninsula of Gibraltar, prisoners were the excavators and discoverers of fossils.
Prisoners as Excavators
Captain Frederick Brome, Governor of the Military Prison on Windmill Hill, Gibraltar, was a military captain interested in natural history. In 1862, Brome first employed prisoners to excavate caves during the expansion of the boundaries of the Windmill Hill military prison. These excavations lead to the discovery of the “Genista” caves, which yielded numerous fossils, from cave bears to hyenas to humans!
Brome corresponded with of London naturalist George Busk about these discoveries, and Busk, along with his friend, paleontologist Hugh Falconer, became very interested in the fossils from Brome’s excavations, studying them for years to come, and even visiting Gibraltar in 1864. Busk’s papers, which have been preserved at the Royal College of Surgeons, London, include numerous illustrations of fossils labeled Genista and Windmill. Busk also published papers on the fossils discovered in these caves throughout the the 1860’s and 70’s.
In 1865 Busk wrote that he and Falconer were “inclined to believe that the labour of military prisoners was never better directed in the interest of science.” Despite this enthusiasm, Brome’s geologic explorations via military prisoners were cut short. A few years later, while the prisoners were excavating some caves, “an order arrived from the War Office to discontinue the employment of the military prisoners on the cave explorations, which were consequently abandoned” (Busk 1868).
This story is meant to capture one of the interesting ways fossils have been discovered and removed from the ground. The ways fossils are discovered have undergone significant changes throughout the history of science, and employing prisoners to dig up bones is only one of many curious ways these relics have been found. It is interesting to imagine military prisoners forcibly employed as excavators, and it raises questions about who receives “credit” for fossil discoveries. Hopefully this brief story illuminates the complex web of people sometimes involved in the process of uncovered and describing fossils.
References: Busk, George. “On the Caves of Gibraltar in which Human Remains and Works of Art Have Been Found.” In International Congress of Prehistoric Archaeology: Transactions of the third session. vol. 1868, pp. 106-167.