The Long Odds of Becoming a Fossil
Why am I prattling on about fossils in my aircraft blog, you may ask. A fair question to be sure. During my visit to the Olomouc Air Museum for its 2013 season opening, the rarity of some of the aircraft they have in their collection got me thinking about how humans go about preserving what we’ve made and what really governs what we keep and what we don’t.
I recall volunteering with an aviation museum in my native Canada several years ago and the insights into the museum business that I got during the time I volunteered. There’s a lot more to obtaining and exhibiting something than the average museum visitor realizes and a museum might have a lot less control over it than one might assume.
Museums need to contend with a good deal of bureaucracy, financing, publicity and logistical matters, among many others, to take an artifact from where it was located and turn it into an exhibit piece.
Like the factors that must come into play for the remains of a plant or an animal to be fossilized, the factors that allow museums to take an object from the field and make a meaningful exhibit of it must come together in a particular way. Quite often, they simply don’t.
Fossilization is actually a fairly rare occurrence which requires the creature or plant to die in just the right place and at just the right time for just the right conditions to be in play to get the process started.
In the main, what governs a piece of man made technology being preserved is not that different.
Let’s look at the similarities:
The Right Place
Just as the remains of prehistoric life had to be in just the right place to be quickly covered in sediment and the process of bone becoming stone to begin, those things that we create need to be in places where they will not be ravaged into oblivion by the elements.
If a machine is abandoned in relatively dry and arid inland conditions, it’s chances of surviving in relatively good condition until someone stumbles upon it are decidedly better than if it had been left in more temperate or coastal environs.
Ghost towns and abandoned mine sites in desert areas are good evidence of this. The minimal precipitation have allowed the vestiges of such places to remain visible and in situ for a significant length of time.
The Right Time
A creature having died at a spot which had the potential for fossilization to take place did not guarantee the process would happen. If the time of year or season that the creature died wasn’t just right, that particular set of remains could be lost forever.
It is a similar case with man made things. An old machine rusting away in a scrap yard will continue to corrode, be parted out for spares or cut up for its metal value if nobody values it above those things at the particular point in time that they encounter it.
Nearly as soon as the Second World War ended, huge amounts of military equipment were promptly scrapped for their metal value, sold off as surplus or simply abandoned in the field, little regard was given to preserving much if any of it.
While it is understandable that those living in the immediate post World War Two period would want to put it all behind them as quickly as they could, it has created a situation where we are left without a single example of some types of often historically very important machinery.
That, of course, is not to begrudge that generation. Just as the prehistoric sediments could not know that we would take an interest in the dinosaurs and their world; the generation which fought and lived through the Second World War could not know that there would be a future interest in preserving machines from that era.
The Right Conditions
So, let’s say that our prehistoric creature has made it to the present day in a fossil state. This is still no guarantee that it will find its way into a museum for us to marvel at.
There are many aspects to the right conditions, not the least of which is location. Is it actually in a place where its likely to be found? If it is, will those who find it be likely to recognize it for what it is? Even if they can, will they care?
Similar things affect our more modern artifacts. Are they in a place they can be accessed? If they can be accessed physically, can they be accessed bureaucratically?
Perhaps most important, did the right set of eyes see it? The eyes of someone who knows exactly what it is and the value of it to history, either local or global.
A Case in Point
Just as only a very small percentage of prehistoric life has survived to the present day in stone or amber, a very small percentage of what humans have made gets preserved in museums.
I’ve accompanied this piece with a photo of an Avia Av-14FG which was lying in pieces around the Olomouc Air Museum when I visited in 2013. The Avia Av-14 was the Czechoslovak built version of the Illyushin Il-14 transport.
The baseline transport version of these aircraft was not particularly rare and several survive in museums. The FG version pictured here is a much more rare member of that aircraft family which was modified for aerial photography and survey work. The AV-14FG was important to the former Czechoslovakia in both military and civil circles.
This particular aircraft, from what I could find out about it, was taken into the care of the Military Historic Institute in Prague immediately upon its retirement.
At the Olomouc museum, it is clearly in the hands of people who truly care about their aircraft and to prove that point; the aircraft had been moved indoors, cleaned up and partially reassembled by the time of my next visit in 2014 .
Definitely time, place and conditions came together in just that right combination for this particular machine.