In the Time of the Dinosaurs: Paleontological Affect

By Daniel Allen Solomon §

In Timefulness (2018), geologist Marcia Bjornerud argues that one of the key problems of the contemporary historical moment, the so-called Anthropocene, is “time denial”—the failure to come to terms with processes that do not unfold according to the schedules of modernity. She is worried by the many Earthlings, and specifically by those citizens of affluent countries who reject scientifically founded notions of deep time and conservation in favor of anthropocentric tempos such as the capitalist time of investment and profit.[1] While capitalism doesn’t exactly deny time’s existence, the institutions and value systems of capitalist profit-making set tempos for human life that maximally enable some behaviors which are useful in the short-run of individual lifespans, like extraction and wealth accumulation, while inhibiting other behaviors, like conservation, which distribute benefit to future generations. The result is a society which ticks along to anthropocentric economic tempos, subordinating life to profit (“time is money”) while failing to attend to the long-term degradation of the environment that sustains human flourishing.

A key premise in Bjornerud’s thinking, and in this essay, is that time is a relationship with the world, a “temporality,” and not a universal constant. Animals like us have no dedicated time-sensing organs, so our experiences of time are entirely inferred from whatever stimuli we can register and respond to. This means that the passage of time is relative to each body’s own style of sensing and acting in the world, and of being acted upon. Time is an affect,[2] an effect of a whole, unique body’s engagement with other bodies—mechanical clocks, the passage of the sun and the moon, our aging joints and gurgling organs, our bank statements, our dream states. One’s ability to sense the world, and therefore to parse and perceive change, is mediated by culture, history, and personality as well as by the physical parameters of one’s sense organs and nervous system. This is why two people can sit together in a room and have different experiences of the same hour of clock time. One may be captivated by a painting on the wall or a book of crossword puzzles, while the other, who is not equipped with the same tastes and sensibilities, is bored to tears by the silence.

The geological time scale. Used under Creative Commons License (

Recognizing that time is a learned relationship with the world, Bjornerud’s answer to the problem of “time denial” is polytemporality. Polytemporality is an openness to multiple times. It is a methodological faculty not unlike cultural relativism, a research technique that must be developed in the environment in which the skill is to be practiced—in “the field.” To illustrate, Bjornerud tells the story of a misadventure from her student days at a field camp in the Sawatch Range of Colorado. She and other geology students had taken a free day to hunt for crystals in an abandoned mine. Stepping into a fantastic gem pocket, they became fascinated and were seized by a “visceral greed” to collect. Bjornerud attempted to remove a perfect watermelon-colored tourmaline about eight centimeters long, but she slipped with her hammer and smashed it:

In that moment it seemed my vision was suddenly cleared, as if I had been released from a malevolent spell . . . After several years of immersion in the world of geology, I had developed some sense for Deep Time. And I saw that in an avaricious second I had carelessly destroyed an exquisite thing that had witnessed a third of Earth’s history . . . I felt sickened by the scene of devastation around me, and my complicity in it (Bjornerud 2018: 126).

An education in geology had equipped Bjornerud with the skills to identify and extract the crystals, and with an appreciation for their rarity and age. But it was her in-the-flesh encounter in the gem pocket, as curated by that ongoing education, that allowed Bjornerud a moment in the depth of tourmaline time, where should felt illness and culpability. She writes that this same feeling of sickness now haunts her when she visits the melting glaciers off Svalbard, and it complicates her enjoyment of hot showers and air travel.


Paleontology and Past Lives
Bjornerud’s fieldwork experience and her intellectual preparation had opened her to the span of the crystal’s time. Within that temporality she felt rather than calculated the value of the gem that she had destroyed. Similarly, paleontological fieldwork can open students to a kind of empathy with the worlds and times of past lives.

Like other geoscientific fieldworkers, field paleontologists learn distinct, teachable faculties for sensing, identifying, and reconstructing geological phenomena. Like the shattered tourmaline, fossil organisms can function as invitations into nonhuman transections of time. Because they are also bodies or the traces left by bodies, fossils resonate with human experiences in ways that other traces of deep time may not. Moreover, prehistoric lives, and especially extinct-but-charismatic megafauna like dinosaurs and mammoths, exert a culturally and historically specific appeal over North American tourists and other modern consumers of popular science. As the exclusive authorities on wildlife out-of-time, paleontologists enjoy a romantic caché that may not be available to other geoscientists. All of this is to suggest that because of paleontology’s emphasis on life in geophysical context, paleontological field experiences might serve as a ready scaffold for fostering public engagement with deep time.

The silhouette of a Triceratops welcomes travelers on I-25 to Glenrock, Wyoming. Photo by author, 2020.

In the summers of 2019 and 2020, I worked as a paying volunteer at dinosaur digs in Converse County, Wyoming, sponsored by the Glenrock Paleontological Museum (GPM, or just “The Paleon”) of Glenrock, Wyoming and the Morrison Natural History Museum (MNHM) of Morrison, Colorado. In 2019, I also joined a tourist-oriented “day dig” offered by the Wyoming Dinosaur Center (WDC) in Thermopolis. In this essay, I draw upon my experiences as a tourist-student to illustrate how brief, curated bouts of fieldwork facilitated my exposure to nonhuman temporalities.

Life-size silhouette of a Triceratops skeleton in the Paleon’s lab. Photo by author, 2020.

Curated paleontological field experiences can be understood as a kind of time travel. As travel across landscapes offers opportunities to engage with and become accustomed to a variety of terrains and diverse human perspectives, travel through time offers opportunities to practice engagement with the archaic lives and ecosystems that yielded our worlds, and which continue to exist within them. The stories I relate here call attention to how paleontological fieldwork and its extinct companion species invite us to imagine life under other conditions, and to recognize the material continuities between worlds apparently separated by time.


The Traces of Misfortune
The day-long experience offered by the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis was brief and closely managed. Small groups are led from the museum onto the WDC’s considerable property, where they are escorted through several active dig sites and allowed to take down some mudstone under the guidance of experienced interns. My tour group included myself, a teenage girl, and her mother. We were guided by Tim Fry, who was at that time an undergraduate student in anthropology at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. Tim and I had a lot in common. Besides being anthropologists, and fans of dinosaurs and sci-fi, we shared a home state of Virginia and some mutual colleagues, one of whom had been among Tim’s teachers on a paleoanthropological dig at Lake Turkana in Kenya. Tim’s skill at narrating the lives of fossil organisms to us in ways that emphasized the individuality and historicity of the animals was crucial to curating my experience of the sites. Tim’s storytelling transformed confusing jumbles of footprints and in situ bones into affective connections that encompassed deep time.

In the morning, Tim drove us into the hills to visit some of the Morrison Formation[3] sites on the property. He took us first to a shelter that housed a veritable ballroom of dinosaurian footprints known as Something Interesting (SI). Judging from the presence of bones found inside some tracks—bone that had been minerally transformed by alkaline water, and then flattened but not crushed by the foot of a later animal—herds of giant, long-necked sauropods like Diplodocus and Camarasaurus may have passed through the area again and again. There are also the footprints of the sauropods’ predators, three-toed, two-legged theropods like Allosaurus. One remarkable footprint preserves the moment when an Allosaurus, perhaps stalking a vulnerable sauropod, momentarily lost its footing and slipped in the mud. Tim described this as a “human” moment for the dinosaur.

This print has been interpreted as having been left in a moment of unsure footing for an Allosaurus. For anyone who has ever slipped in the mud, it could also be a “human” moment that resonates across spacetimes. Photo by author, 2019.

Preceding the emergence of humanity by as much as 156 million years, the Allosaurus‘s misstep was “human” in that the slippage provided a point of continuity between us and the dinosaur. If anything, the human foibles of clumsiness, rashness, or weakness are contemporary incarnations of an eons-old tradition of animal misfortune. (We mimic dinosaurs as we fall down, and they mimicked even more ancient archosaurian antics, which were terrestrial imitations of the follies of fishes, and so on.) Moreover, as anyone who has ever tripped on a root or hit their head on a door frame knows, the environment is partly to blame for all injuries. The Allosaurus slipping is resonant to us not because the dinosaur was prescient of human behavior, but because of the mud. Because many of us have been there, in the mud or on the ice, and felt time slow down as we have watched our own foot, skate, or wheel fly away from us, and…

My tour group spent most of the morning at another quarry called Foot Site, where we helped to remove mudstone from the vicinity of the remains of several Diplodocus. After lunch, Tim drove us to a ridge where the mid-to-late Jurassic sandstones of the Sundance Formation[4] lay exposed, and the fossils of sea creatures spilled from the hillside. We turned up handfuls of bivalves, squid-like belemnites, and even a few miniscule, puffy star-shaped segments left behind by stalked relatives of seastars known as crinoids. At the bottom of a slope, Tim looked into the sky and challenged us to imagine what the scene would look like under a shallow sea, with predatory mosasaurs gliding in the depths above us, where swallows now wheeled.

Later Tim guided us on a tour of the museum’s star exhibits. Beyond the traditional walk through the history of the planet, beyond the storied Thermopolis Archaeopteryx exhibit, beyond the spike-laden skeleton of Tuojiangosaurus, was a long trackway left behind by a horseshoe crab of the extinct genus Mesolimulus. Tim directed our attention along the length of the trackway, recounting the death of its originator in stages: How the crab’s seafloor wanderings had led it into an anoxic zone; how this mark here may indicate a stress-induced behavior seen in its contemporary relatives; then how, out of sheer bad luck, the poor animal happened to traverse the longest possible path through the anoxic zone, dooming itself to slow asphyxiation; and how the unfortunate creature finally came to rest right here, at the end of the trackway, where we have its exoskeleton re-crystallized.

You don’t have to be a prehistoric arthropod to know the feeling of being smothered. And the horseshoe crab didn’t need to be a human to know frustration. The tale of the asphyxiated Mesolimulus moved me to sadness because I too have gasped and expended my last energies in futile efforts. But this particular sympathy would not have been possible outside of the narrative expertise of Tim Fry and the attentive practices he had acquired as a student of paleontology—not to mention the work of those who discovered, interpreted, and presented the fossil trackway.[5]

The interpretation of fossil material is an empirical practice that strives to be responsive to the material world. Yet, importantly, it is also an essentially imaginative practice that is founded upon a willingness to consider the extension of the physical world beyond what is immediate to human sensibilities—whether that means imagining a sea in place of a desert, contemplating a world devoid of human life, or just wondering how far into the rock a given fragment of bone might extend.


How to Sense Fossils
To see fossils, prospectors must first acquire a “search image.” By observing their quarry in its environment, students acquire a sense of the textural distinctions and characteristic dimensions that make a fossil stand out from its landscape. As in foraging and birdwatching, fossil search images are local. Specific paleo-environments hosted specific ecologies and specific organisms, and when those organisms died their bodies became subject to the taphonomic circumstances and chemical idiosyncracies of that world. Each geological formation and each site has its own history, and thus its own perceptual idiom to which prospectors must attend.

Clockwise from top left: 1) The mudstone of Bert yields a variety of microfossils. The dark, out-of-focus fragment on the left is a piece of duck-billed dinosaur tooth. The two dark elements below and to the right are fish scales. 2) Weathered theropod bone from Triceratops Gulch. The size of the pores relative to the exterior bone suggested to Matthew that these fragments could have belonged to a big animal, such as a Tyrannosaurus. 3) Weathering has exposed this fragment of spongy, interior dinosaur bone from the Lance Formation of Triceratops Gulch. 4) Belemnite or bullet squid from the Redwater Shale (contemporaneous with the Sundance Formation) sheared into cross-section by erosion at Cottonwood Creek Dinosaur Trail, near Alcova, Wyoming. Photos by author, 2020.

Tim had begun his instructions for us at Foot Site, in the later Jurassic sediment of the Morrison Formation, by pointing out how the Diplodocus bones were distinctly darker than the surrounding material. When we drove to the other side of the ridge and visited the inland seas of the mid-to-late Jurassic Sundance Formation, Tim was prepared with examples of the pinkish mosasaur bones that could be found there. Mollusc shells like those of the belemnites and bivalves, were dark and had characteristic shapes—belemnites are shaped like bullets, and the Sundance bivalves resemble their contemporary counterparts. The miniscule remains of crinoids were the same color as the dust, and obscure.

Matthew Mossbrucker, director and curator at the Morrison Natural History Museum in Colorado stressed that color was not a good way to start spotting fossils. On the “beginner” level dig offered by the Glenrock Paleon, instruction in telling bone from stone was part of the first day’s lessons. At the end-Cretaceous Lance Formation[6] sites sometimes referred to as Triceratops Gulch, texture was key. The exterior portions of long bones are grained, while interior bone has a spongy texture. Exterior bone was generally smooth, and never as rough to the touch as sandstone. Freshly exposed bone tended to be darker while bone that had been beaten by the elements could be creamy orange to musty grey. Depending on how long they had been exposed, fish scales, fragments of turtle shells, and the broken or worn teeth of horned dinosaurs and duck-bills might be glossy or dull with abrasion, but they could be identified by their shapes and surface morphology.

I didn’t find it difficult to begin seeing fossils in Wyoming. Matthew assured us that almost all participants in the volunteer digs acquire the vision after the first day. After a few minutes of hands-on laboratory instruction and a few more spent walking with the crew along some nearby ridges, I was able to spot bits of turtle shells and fish scales in the dust. Even as I quickly began to discern bone from stone on the range, I was still liable to get excited by any small, black particle I turned up in the clay. Matthew, with years of experience doing paleontological work, remained the ultimate arbiter of not only whether we had located fossil material, but also whether our fossil finds were significant. One sign of a good find was to hear him utter an appreciative curse as a digger handed over a fossil for identification.


Landscapes within Landscapes
The dinosaur digs run jointly by staff from the Glenrock Paleontological Museum and the Morrison Natural History Museum provide sustained, multi-day, and relatively frill-less experiences that approximate abbreviated sessions of paleontology field school. “You will suffer for your science,” warns the field program’s website.[7] Paying volunteers might spend their vacations on their bellies under the hot sun while they extract fish scales from a shallow ditch using only a paint brush and a dental pick. Not only is this exactly what visitors to Triceratops Gulch are paying for, but exposure like this is foundational to learning to see and dig like a paleontologist.

Over the course of two three-day digs in 2019, I had worked mostly at a micro-site named Bert (after a volunteer, who is the mother of a GPM founder), where I had uncovered dozens of fish scales, teeth from giant duck-billed dinosaurs and horned ceratopsians, a tooth attributed to a small raptor-type dinosaur, and even some stray fossilized plant matter. On the second, “intermediate” dig, I also worked at another nearby site known as Carol, named after another volunteer, the wife of the GPM’s president, Stuart McCrary, who discovered the site and the important skeleton found there. Carol the dinosaur is probably a member of the well-known genus of horned dinosaur, Triceratops, but until the end of the 2019 field season she was considered a likely member of a similar, rarer genus Torosaurus. From my perspective, and from the perspective of many diggers who volunteered during the 2019 season, Carol the ceratopsian was the star of Triceratops Gulch.

I had spent most of a Saturday pecking at the stone between Carol’s humerus and rib as other volunteers dug around the ulna and prepared it to be removed from the jumble. I had planned to spend the following Sunday, my last day with the dig, watching the experts, including Carol’s discoverer Stuart, separate her ulna from the matrix. Predictably, the quarry was crowded. Where my attention had been effectively occupied by the concentration required to pick through the space between Carol’s rib and humerus, I found myself growing bored standing behind the crowd as the excavation’s leaders angled for the best way to roll the ulna off its pedestal.

Diggers from the Glenrock Paleontological Museum and the Morrison Natural History Museum at Triceratops Gulch waiting to see Carol’s ulna come out in 2019. Photo by author, 2019.

I decided to return to Bert. Only two diggers remained there, an eleven-year-old girl and her mother, with Matthew Mossbrucker sitting nearby, taking notes and sorting fossils. The diggers laid on their bellies perpendicular to a short trench that had been cut into the hilltop—I had spent most of the previous weekend in a similar position. When I reached the trench, I asked Matt if there was any way I could be useful there. “It’s all useful!” he cheered, but eventually I was directed to “Bert West,” a shallow hole near the main trench. It was an exploratory excavation that had been started during the previous week, while I had been in Thermopolis. The mudstone here had not yet yielded any fossils, but it was possible that somewhere, deeper in the hill, the bed of mudstone exposed at Bert West might connect to the “productive,” fossil-bearing material of the main trench.

First thing that morning, before most of us had left for Carol, Matthew had explained to us his interpretation of the strata in Bert. There were two sections to be considered, the mudstone, which yielded an array of fascinating fossil bits, and the sandstone, which yielded sand. Citing Walther’s Law for those of us new to geological thinking,[8] Matthew explained that the position of the mudstone indicated that it must have preceded the sandstone deposits. The mudstone could represent a floodplain, while the sandstone could have been a point bar, the sedimentary artifact of an independent channel of water moving across the muddy plain. The presence of filter-feeding clam remains in the mudstone layer indicated that the prairie ridge into which we were digging had once hosted a freshwater ecosystem. Taken together, the evidence suggested to Matthew that Bert might be the relic of a seasonally shifting network of energetic channels and transient ponds. The mudstone of Bert, then, represented a substrate that was cut through by swift streams, which left sand deposits in their wake. The relative lack of microfossils in the sandstone layer might have been a function of both the transportive power of moving water and of the abrasive effect of the sand.

I decided to offer my effort to Bert West for a while. I dug the hole out very slowly, with an awl and a paint brush. The hole took up my entire morning. About one carefully excavated foot down, I discovered a layer of sandstone. It was fine and soft, like playground sand, and though it was as “sterile” and as barren of fossils as the clay material above it, it also provided some insight into the hidden topography of Bert.

My paintbrush excavations at Bert West continued until about one in the afternoon, when Matthew invited us to a lesson in deposition. He recounted Walther’s Law again and demonstrated it in the example of a boulder baring several vertically successive layers of sedimentation, the topmost of which was marked by fossilized water ripples. Nearby there was another stone that bore the marks of an ancient levy break. Matthew showed us the point where water action had first created a lateral deposit, and then had broken through and surged over it. Elsewhere, there were gigantic, obscure tracks, which he attributed to duck-billed dinosaurs.

Matthew Mossbrucker wrenches figurative mud through his fingers as he narrates the tracks left by a duck-billed dinosaur. A young volunteer mimics his motions. Photo by author, 2019.

As he explained the traces to us, Matthew used his hands to describe the motions of the water that had formed the features. My eleven-year-old co-digger and I copied his movements, becoming simultaneous not only with our teacher, but with the water and the animals who had shaped the landscape sixty-seven million years before. Matthew passed his hands through the air near the layered boulder, tracing the succession of imaginary waters as they retreated and left stone strata in their wake. When the nearby levy broke, our fingers opened like doors to let the water through. When the mud squished between the digits of the giant hadrosaur, we made kneading motions with our hands, allowing our fingers to recall the sensation of squishing into mud and deforming it. We placed our feet into the footprints, and our own bodies became the metric against which we measured the size of the animals who had once traversed the floodplains.

At my first dig, Matthew had described the paleontologist’s practice of imaginatively reconstructing the prehistoric landscape as something “like intellectual time travel.” But Matthew’s hydrological tour was not strictly “intellectual” in the sense of a mental exercise. He had done more than introduce us to the -ology of hydro, more than offer us rational explanations for the shape of the landscape. As he guided us through some of the ridge’s artifacts, he curated our experience of the field in such a way so as to transmit some of his own perceptive faculties to us. It would be weeks before I would wrap my head around the connection between sedimentary deposition and the famously obtuse language of Walther’s Law, but I understood more intuitively how water lifts and suspends particles and then leaves them behind as it recedes.

Whatever fragments of the ancient floodplains I was able to summon up were founded upon the relative uniformity that existed between Matthew’s sensibilities about water and my own. I don’t know where Matthew and my fellow diggers developed their intuitions about water and sediment. But, as bodies who need water, we all, in our own historically specific but generally applicable ways, have a sense for its flows. We all know how it moves over our hands, down our crowns and our faces, between our toes, through our insides. We can observe water’s properties in cityscapes as well as in the wilderness, in the desert as well as the marsh.


Affective Gradualism
Techniques for seeing and interacting with fossil-bearing landscapes—from the local, environmental sensibilities demonstrated in Matthew’s hydrological tour, to the fine-scale extraction techniques and attentive practices I learned at Bert—allow for human-shaped access to fragments of ancient landscapes ostensibly separated by time. To resort to geological terminology, paleontological time travel works because of an affective gradualism that is both grounded in the embodied experiences of individuals, and transcendent in the resonance that occurs between experienced bodies and landscapes.

The gradualistic tradition holds that geological processes have remained mostly uniform throughout time, and that ancient formations should be explainable by comparison to contemporary, observable phenomena. Here I exapt “gradualism” and expand the term to encompass the material continuities between living experiences in separate times. Because our bodies have been touched by the effects of water, because we have encountered mud’s squishiness, because we have been immersed in the suite of experiences that accompany moving water, we can grasp the passage of ancient water through its material echoes. Fossilized ripples at Bert and elsewhere speak to the mechanical wavelengths of the tide, but also summon the play of light on the water’s surface, the clarity of the water, the sound of its lapping at the sand bar, the fineness of the silt between your fingers, the suction of the mud in your massive dinosaur toes.

At Foot Site, Tim Fry recounted an experience of temporal transport at Turkana in Kenya. Turkana is an important site in the study of human evolution because it samples a long period of human ancestry, including at least two species of archaic human as well as their ancestors, the australopithecines. It is also, according to Tim, incredibly hot. Tim said that it was so hot that digging in mid-day is impossible, and there is little to do but to relent and take siesta. One hot afternoon, as he dozed in the shade of a tree, Tim found himself struck: Hiding from the mid-day sun, he was recapitulating a behavior that was typical not just of the people who live and work around Turkana today, but also of the generations of humanity who had dwelt in that same area for two million years or more. Opening his eyes from his nap, Tim found himself transported. He looked upon a world that was functionally similar to prehistoric Turkana, a world that would have been familiar to our ancestors in many ways.

In that moment and place, Tim experienced a temporal shift, a slippage in his interpretive framework along lines of continuity between the world of his modern Homo experience, and the world of ancestral Homo. The affective physicalities to which Tim had become subject at Turkana—the heat and the shade most of all, but perhaps also exhaustion, thirst, dust, and the appealing contrast of shadow and light—drew Tim down the trunk of our family tree, and into sympathy with the ancestors. Time had deformed around Tim multiple times: By association with paleoanthropologists versed in deep time, and then through the dis-associative technologies of air travel, Tim had been wrested from the schedules of undergraduate study in Ohio and thrust into a world with markedly different tempos. Once he had been integrated into the rhythms of his new context as a digger at Turkana, time shifted around him again as the local conditions at Turkana introduced Tim to an imperfect continuity between himself and Homo habilis. H. habilis would have been strange to us—too small and too apish to pass for one of our long-legged, big-brained lot. But they had hands, and tools, and they walked on two legs. And, like their own ancestors, the ancient humans of Turkana would have gotten hot under the sun and they would have welcomed, just as Tim had, a retreat into the shade and safety of the trees.


Time Travel / Geoscience
As a genre, time travel tales rely on the existence of machines capable of effecting transport between temporalities. But time machinery is highly variable. Time “machines” per se—vehicles or devices that allow one to control their movement through time imagined as a fourth dimension—figure in many modern, scientifically informed narratives. But time-spanning apparatuses can be magical, as in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843). Time travel can also be the product of social affect, as when Rip Van Winkle, Urashima Taro, King Kakudmi and their other folkloric predecessors get carried away by faerie parties. Dilation or contraction of time is a mystical and mythological motif that predates Irving’s short story, and is common in human experience. For instance, on the airplanes and highways that took me to Glenrock and Thermopolis, time was by turns dilated or contracted by nominally separate technologies of transportation and time-keeping, but also by boredom, and by sensory arousal in the midst of novel landscapes, objects, and people.

In Annalee Newitz’s 2018 novel The Future of Another Timeline, geoscience is synonymous with time travel. In Newitz’s world, time travel has been possible for centuries thanks to a small number of ambiguously geo-technological “machines” that are billions of years old and appear to have emerged directly from the landscape. Unlike the unnamed genius who invents the time machine in H.G. Wells’s 1895 The Time Machine, the Twenty-First Century feminist geoscientists at the center of Newitz’s action are participants in a historically specific, scientifically informed moment in a longstanding tradition of human engagement with the breadth of spacetime.

If paleontological research and tourism are practices of time travel, then the geo-technological machinery that allows the student or tourist to relocate in time is the field site. Field sites are deformations in the landscape that occur wherever terrain intersects with a disciplined scientific perspective. Like Newitz’s monolithic, prehistoric time machines, paleontological sites are hybrids, cyborgs of multiple earth processes and layers of human interpretation, technology, and communication.

Put another way, field sites are spacetime crystals. Each face presents an independent plane that emerges from conditions coeval with the other facies. One face of Bert exists during the last days of the dinosaurs. It is a wetland near the shores of a continent that no longer exists. Another face is parallel to the prairie of contemporary Wyoming. With help from experienced see-ers and communicators, Triceratops Gulch and the WDC sites facilitated my acquisition of new “field visions” that allowed me to engage with points of resonance or intelligibility between apparently distinct spacetime facies. These points of resonance between spacetimes were already in me, lying in wait in the history of my own body. Time travel is effected by the interaction of a network of entities—sites, bodies, disciplines, landscapes—but it works because of the receptiveness of our bodies to the environment’s impressions. I can dither over the humanity of the Allosaurus at Something Interesting, but what matters is that we have both been dupes to mud’s devious slipperiness.

Paleontology’s emphasis on extinct life offers unique perspectives on how life emerges from and fits into the grooves laid down by long-term geophysical processes. Fossils and fossil sites are invitations to attend to the landscape and to seek in it the traces of life lived otherwise—elsewhere and elsewhen. Encountered in deep time, fossils and fossil sites are implicit challenges to the centrality of human-shaped time. Fossils remind us also that our material traces exceed our lives and will in time transform. Fossils serve as commentary on the geostellar situation of human society and its schedules, and whatever else fossils communicate, in deep time context there is always the implicit, eerie reminder, “We’ve been dead longer than your world has existed!

Polytemporality, like the anthropological principle of cultural relativism, is an active and practiced refusal to accept one’s own perspectives and experiences as adequate for interpretation. It is at odds with the totalizing impulses of capitalism and other anthropocentric schedules. “Time is money,” is a necessary axiom for survival in worlds that are structured to encourage their subjects to convert as much of their lifetimes as possible into economically productive work. However, when the sentiment is elevated to the level of commonsense, and institutionalized in law and policy, it sustains our preoccupations with human values and human structures. Temporal tourism, like geographical tourism, offers the possibility of “broadening” one’s world and sensibilities.

Public paleontology comes with the same potentials for exclusion and kitsch-mongering that other kinds of tourism bear. The peculiar charisma of dinosaurs and prehistoric life, no less than the techniques for extracting and reconstructing the fossils themselves, emerges from histories of colonialism, oppression of indigenous peoples, environmental exploitation, and the translation of western resources into the wealth and prestige of coastal elites. North American paleontology developed apace with westward expansion, and by the early 20th Century an alliance between philanthropically funded public museums, super-wealthy philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie, and the vertically integrated monopolies they captained had coalesced to make dinosaur paleontology a key aspect of public natural history education. Paleontology is as tied-up with capital and empire as the other commercially important geosciences. Public paleontology offers new perspectives on life in spacetime context, but no innocence!

Innocence is neither necessary nor desirable. Experience is needed to rattle interpretive frameworks, locked as they are in the learned patterns of interacting with the world that manifests in our own habits of movement, speech, consumption, accumulation, and thought. The promise of fieldwork is ecological, affective engagement that draws upon our present habits and intentions, and, through sensuous association with the environment itself, allow us fragments of experience out-of-time. As a practice of tracing the echoes of past lives, geoscientific time travel can facilitate the kind of exposure to polytemporality that Marcia Bjornerud hopes will enrich the ethical, political thinking of the citizens of wealthy nations.

In the midst of a lethal, global epidemic, Bjornerud’s question—Can we understand the consequences of our behaviors in multiple temporalities?—seems more important than ever. Can we moderns learn to think within the timeframes of geostellar forces, prehistory, environmental cycles, plagues, or even historical moments? Can we imagine ourselves as we are—as beings who are indigenous to nonhuman cycles, and whose survival depends upon attending to these alter-temporalities?

Curated engagement with interpretable sites can facilitate transport into local transections of time. In turn, practiced familiarity with the multiple spacetimes embodied in a given landscape is an invitation into further polytemporality, and into a greater openness for thinking and feeling with nonhuman rhythms, and into a broader recognition of the diversity of time.

[1] Bjornerud is also very critical of Young Earth geologists and end-times Christians.
[2] In this sense, the oft-cited definition of affect that Brian Massumi derived from his 1987 translation of Delueze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus might serve equally well as a definition of time: “a prepersonal intensity corresponding to the passage from one experiential state of the body to another and implying an augmentation or diminution in that body’s capacity to act” (1987: xvi). In this essay, I take affect as the sum of a body’s material expression, including posture, emotions, and style as well as the sensibilities, orientations, and proprioceptions one acquires through practiced relation with the material aspects of a given task or environment.
[3] The Morrison is a group of related formations deposited during the late Jurassic period, between 156 and 145 million years ago, and occurring from Texas to Idaho.
[4] The Sundance is a group of marine deposits laid down by the extinct Sundance Sea between 168 and 157 million years ago, occurring in Wyoming and nearby states.
[5] See Lomax and Racay (2012).
[6] The Lance samples the very last days of the dinosaurs, from 68 to 66 million years ago. Found in Wyoming and nearby states, the Lance preserves traces of prehistoric floodplains that emerged where the east coast of the lost continent of Laramidia met the western edge of the extinct Western Interior Seaway.
[7] See
[8] Walther’s Law or the Law of Correlation of Facies. Vertical layers of sediment are the result of a lateral succession of depositional environments over time. “The various deposits of the same facies-area and similarly the sum of the rocks of different facies-areas are formed beside each other in space, though in a cross-section we see them lying on top of each other. . . . it is a basic statement of far-reaching significance that only those facies and facies-areas can be superimposed primarily which can be observed beside each other at the present time.” Walther, Johannes. 1893-1894. Einleitung in die Geologie als historische Wissenschaft. Jena, Verlag von Gustav Fischer. Cited in Middleton 1973.

Works Cited
Bjornerud, Marcia. 2016. Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Buonomano, Dean. 2017. Your Brain Is a Time Machine: The Neuroscience and Physics of Time. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Irving, Washington. 2009. Rip Van Winkle. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham. London: William Heinemann, 1919. Project Gutenberg. eBook.

Lomax, Dean R., and Christopher A. Racay. 2012. “A Long Mortichnial Trackway of Mesolimulus Walchi from the Upper Jurassic Solnhofen Lithographic Limestone near Wintershof, Germany.” Ichnos 19 (3): 175–83.

Massumi, Brian. 1987. “Translator’s Foreword: Pleasures of Philosophy.” A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Middleton, Gerard V. 1973. “Johannes Walther’s Law of the Correlation of Facies.” GSA Bulletin 84 (3): 979–88.

Newitz, Annalee. 2019. The Future of Another Timeline. New York, NY: Tor Books.

“Paleontology Field Program: Morrison, CO – Official Website.” Paleontology Field Program Morrison, CO – Official Website,

Walther, Johannes. 1893-1894. Einleitung in die Geologie als historische Wissenschaft. Jena, Verlag von Gustav Fischer.

Wells, H. G. 2018 [1895]. The Time Machine. New York, NY: SDE Classics.

Danny Solomon teaches anthropology in the San Francisco Bay Area, mostly at Cabrillo College and De Anza College. His fiction, poetry, and scholarship have appeared in TeleportCanary, and Humanimalia, as well as previously in Engagement and elsewhere. Lately, Danny has been trying different ways to get unstuck from time. One recent effort was featured in the magazine of horror Novel Noctule, and another is upcoming among the irregular fiction and comics of Middle Planet. @daniel.allen.solomon

This post is part of our thematic series: Ecological Times.