Rainbow Fossils and Bison Calling

For an animal that looks like an awkward collision of snail and squid (Figure 1), ammonites have played surprisingly important roles in international history. To Blackfoot First Nations on the Plains of North America, the ornate edges of ammonite segments resemble miniature bison (sometimes called buffalo), and, for over a thousand years, they have been used in ceremonies to summon bison spirits. Across the ocean, 16th to 19th Century fossil hunters propelled ammonites into palaeontological fame by using them to anchor theories of an ancient earth (Figure 2). In modern Alberta, Canada, miners and members of Blackfoot First Nations are seeking iridescent ammonites to fuel a global demand for art and jewellery; sacred and secular, and now economic, ammonites are immersed in a complex story.

Figure 1. Reconstruction of ammonite Asteroceras spp. (reproduced with permission from Nobu Tamura).
Figure 2. Adapted from Ernst Haeckel’s ammonite illustration from Kunstformen der Natur (1904) (image copyright expired).

Snakestones and Iniskim

From ancient oceans 400 to 65 million years old, ammonites slowly drifted their way in to our hearts. Ammonites have been found in Solutrean archaeological sites in Western Europe beginning around 20,000 years ago (Figure 3). Human fascination with these marine invertebrates (animals without a backbone) continued across the planet: ammonites appear in traditional ceremonies of cultures from Ethiopia, China, Japan, and India. Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79) provided the first written description of these ‘horns of Ammon’ (they are named after an Egyptian deity who was commonly depicted with ram horns).

Figure 3. These ammonite fossils were found in a cave in Somerset, England, from archaeological layers that are likely older than 15,000 years. They are among the first evidence of human collection of ammonites and were thought to have been used as jewellery (image copyright of University of Bristol Spelaeological Society reproduced with permission).

Partly owing to their popularity, ammonites figured front and centre in debates during the Age of Enlightenment (late 1600s to early 1800s) about the organic origin of fossils and the Earth’s age (Figure 4). Scientists of the day argued that ammonites were once living, as opposed to prevailing thought that they were either produced by natural geological forces (as rock anomalies) or that they were once snakes turned to stone by heroes of legend (hence their nickname ‘snakestones’). Ammonites are thought to have spurred the now common usage of ‘modern analogy’ in palaeontology: interpretations of extinct animals are based on modern organisms that they resemble (ammonites were compared to modern nautilus). Ammonites also helped develop theories of extinction, evolution, and a field of study called ‘biostratigraphy’ that establishes chronologies of sediments and rock horizons based on distinct organisms that only lived during relatively narrow time frames. Ammonites helped order the ages.

Figure 4. Robert Hooke richly illustrated ammonites in a treatise about natural history in 1705. Line engraving image L0034207 Ammonite fossils courtesy of Wellcome Library, London (Wellcome Images, images@wellcome.ac.uk, copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0).

Ammonites are relatively common in North America. They were occupants of the former Bearpaw Sea that once washed what is now the centre of the continent in warm and shallow water. In Southern Alberta, river valleys have carved into the Bearpaw Formation and revealed a plethora of fascinating extinct organisms. According to some historic accounts and oral histories, First Nations on the Plains thought that fossil-bearing beds of Alberta’s badlands around Dinosaur Provincial Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) were the home of Grandfather Buffalo, which may reference dinosaur bones prevalent among the hoodoos. At the other end of the size scale, when segments of ammonite shells disarticulate (break apart into their individual chambers), they look like tiny bison (Figures 5 and 6). These are thought to be gifts to be used to call bison for hunting or as bringers of other good luck. Iniskim (ammonite sections) have been found at archaeological sites of the ancestors of Plains First Nations across the U.S. and Western Canada, with evidence that Iniskim use extends back for millennia.

Figure 5. Iniskim from Southern Alberta, Canada. If Iniskim are ceremonial objects, is it ethical to publish photographs of them? According to Elders, Iniskim are only sacred if they are blessed by a bundle holder and are associated with a current bundle. The photographs here are reproduced with permission from representatives of the Blackfoot community in Alberta (image prepared by Todd Kristensen, scale bar is 1 cm).
Figure 6. Virtually all Iniskim are thought to originate from ‘straight shelled’ varieties of ammonites called baculites. Top image reproduced with permission from Dr. Mark Wilson and bottom image of a reconstructed baculite reproduced with permission from Eric Thorsen. Palaeontological interpretation provided by Dr. Neil Landman of the American Museum of Natural History.

Fossil, gem, or both of them?     

Members of Blackfoot First Nations continue to harvest Iniskim for ceremonial purposes. Beginning in the 1960s, collectors began recognizing a commercial value of a particular type of ammonite that produced wildly iridescent colours, owing to the replacement of its shell by aragonite and a suite of geochemical processes. Iridescent ammonite shells (ammolite) are available in commercially viable beds for mining in one place on the planet: Southern Alberta.

Figure 7. Alberta’s Bearpaw ammonites have been described as the most beautiful fossils on Earth. These specimens (Placenticeras meeki and Placenticeras costatum) range from 22 cm to over 60 cm in diameter (9 to 24 inches) and have been sold at auctions for roughly $14,000 to over $250,000 (USD). Images reproduced with permission from Heritage Auctions, Bearpaw Ammonites, Ammonite Rainbow, UrbaKnight, liveauctioneers.com and I.M. Chait Gallery.

In recognition of its uniqueness and beauty, ammolite has become an internationally renowned gemstone. Ammonite mining is a regulated activity that involves participation by miners, palaeontologists, First Nations, and government bodies. The province’s legislation has evolved as the ammonite industry and regulators respond to international demand; ammonites are valued as mounted fossils (as art and in feng shui), as investments (whole fossils are purchased and stored in vaults for future re-sale), and as jewellery. Items featuring ammolite inlays are especially popular tourist purchases in Alberta’s Rocky Mountain parks of Banff and Jasper.

Figure 8. Examples of ammolite jewelry (image from public domain, Creative Commons licence with permission from Korite International).

Value

A brief history of these curious fossils reveals multiple layers of value that people have assigned to objects over thousands of years. Because of their aesthetics, biology, and uniqueness, ammonites are at once spiritual, of immense scientific importance, and a growing commodity. Balancing these interests is no easy task. Positive relationships have helped deliver particularly important fossils (ammonites as well as other organisms like marine reptiles) uncovered during mining to institutions at home (the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta), and around the world where Alberta will continue to contribute to a collective marvel of ancient life. The significance of ammonites is a story as complex as their multi-chambered shells and it will continue to evolve.

Heritage Art Series

The Heritage Art Series is a collaboration of the Historic Resources Management Branch, the University of Alberta, and the Royal Alberta Museum. Each artwork shares an important story about the people of our province: we hope it fosters a greater awareness of our past and instils a deeper respect for it. The etching below is by Calgary artist Eveline Kolijn and appropriately captures the wonderful complexity of the ammonite story in Alberta. Reconstructed ammonites swim with contemporary creatures that spill across the septa of a split ammonite shell. Diatoms (tiny and intricate aquatic organisms that reveal environmental conditions to palaeontologists) float against a backdrop of cliffs in southern Alberta. More stories and colourful scenes from Alberta’s past, from guns and boats to oil sands and arrowheads, can be viewed here.

Figure 9. Spiral into time (Eveline Kolijn, 2017).

The views expressed in this blog are of the author alone and do not necessarily represent those held by institutions involved in the Heritage Art Series.

Written By: Todd Kristensen (Archaeological Survey of Alberta).

Thank you to Dan Spivak (Royal Tyrrell Museum) for insight and edits.

Further reading:

Etter, W. 2015. Early Ideas about Fossil Cephalopods. Swiss Journal of Palaeontology 134:177-186.

Monks, N. and P. Palmer. 2002. Ammonites. Natural History Museum, London, London, England.

Mychaluk, K. A., A. A. Levinson, and R. L. Hall. 2001. Ammolite: Iridescent Fossilized Ammonite from Southern Alberta, Canada. Gems & Gemology 37: 4-25.

Peck, T. R. 2002. Archaeological Recovered Ammonites: Evidence for Long-Term Continuity in Nitsitapii Ritual. Plains Anthropologist 47:147-164.

Reeves, B. O. K. 1993. Iniskim: A Sacred Nisitapii Religious Tradition. In Kunaitupii: Coming Together on Native Sacred Sites, Their Sacredness, Conservation, and Interpretation, edited by B. O. K. Reeves and M. A. Kennedy, pp. 194-259.

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