‘The artist’s piece is already in the stone’: Constructing creativity in paleontology laboratories

Author:Wylie, Caitlin, EN-Engineering and SocietyUniversity of Virginia ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-0214-7837

Laboratory technicians are typically portrayed as manual workers following routine procedures to produce scientific data. However, technicians in vertebrate paleontology laboratories often describe their work in terms of creativity and artistry. Fossil specimens undergo extensive preparation – including rock removal, damage repair, and reconstruction of missing parts – to become accessible to researchers. Technicians called fossil preparators choose, apply, and sometimes invent these preparation methods. They have no formal training, no standard protocols, and few publications to consult on techniques. Despite the resulting diversity of people and practices, preparators and their work are usually absent from research publications, making them ‘invisible technicians’ in Steven Shapin’s sense. But preparators reject the view of their work as predictable or simple; in particular, many preparators value art training, the aesthetics of prepared fossils, and the process of creative problem-solving in their work. Based on interviews and participant observation and drawing from literature in science studies, sociology of work and anthropology of craft, I ask why these technicians compare themselves with artists and how this portrayal affects scientific practice and social order in laboratories. I argue that associating artistry and creativity with their work distances preparators from ideas of unskilled technical work and technicians’ low status, thus improving their social role in the lab community and preserving their power over lab practices.

Source Citation:

Wylie, C.D. (2015). “The artist’s piece is already in the stone”: Constructing creativity in paleontology laboratories. Social Studies of Science, 45(1), 31-55.

University of Virginia
Published Date:
December 21, 2020