Mind your pickaxe: What to do when you encounter fossils and artifacts in the wild

Don't smash up ancient fossils (and other manners you should mind).

ammonite fossil
What's the polite thing to do when you see a fossil?Deposit Photos

Hello, my dears. 'Tis the season for making merry, which means you're probably wondering: if I happen to visit some particularly ancient artifacts or fossils whilst on holiday, whatever is the proper protocol for interacting with them?

These may just seem like a bunch of old rocks, but such objects present a tricky—and surprisingly delicate—social situation. Still, never fear. We’ve developed a handy guide to what should or shouldn’t be done around these venerable but vulnerable objects.

Don't Smash it with a hammer. Your beloved Uncle Urich might have given you a rock-hammer for Chanukah, but that doesn't mean you should test it on a 115 million-year-old fossil while on vacation in the south of Australia, as some people did earlier this week. Even if researchers have taken casts of the three-fingered foot and hope to put the broken priceless pieces back together, you're still destroying a precious piece of Earth's history for a few moments of fun. Test it on Aunt Mildred's granite countertops instead. I'm sure she won't mind.

Don't Add your own carvings to the decor. Yes, those ancient carvings in the Egyptian Temple are incredibly inspiring. Direct your passion to your sketchbook, and don't try to add your own mark on the walls as some tourists are wont to do even to this day. But wait, you protest. Your dearly departed ancestor Sven Svenderson had a tradition of carving his initials into ancient rocks with his viking compatriots. Alas, dear reader, he did, but his ilk also had a tendency to sacrifice humans. As we all know, this is simply not done in polite company. Times change, dear readers, and we must change with them.

Don't Sneak a souvenir into your valise. It is ever so tempting to just pluck one tiny stone from a ruined castle, a pebble from a park, or a massive horde of artifacts from a nation. But nowadays we know that picking up a fossil or an artifact like an arrowhead from public land may inadvertently destroy valuable information about how that object came to rest in that particular spot. In some cases it might even be illegal. How dreadful. Either way, taking items away from a site without permission means there's less to see for the people who come after you. Stop by the local gift shop to support the institution instead. You'll surely find something charming.

Don't Try to alter the surroundings to suit your own whims or sensibilities. How would you like it if the next time Cousin Bronthilde swung by she had a fainting spell and demanded you remove that adorable picture of your cat because it wasn't fully clothed? Or if Uncle Mathias took a casual swing at your Ming vase because he 'didn't like the look of it'?

You might be a bit peeved, and truly, who would blame you? Give the same consideration to our natural and ancient treasures. That means no defacing ancient statues or smashing stained glass because you don't like what it shows, no shoving over old rocks in the middle of a delicate balancing act because you feel like it. If you don't like it, you may avert your eyes and hurry past. Sniffing disdainfully to show your dislike may be rude, but regrettably remains within the bounds of appropriate behavior. Just keep your hands to yourself.

Do Take pictures (where allowed). Leaving your imprint on a place and taking bits of it home with you are both frowned upon, but that doesn't mean you can't have any remembrance of your journey. 'Take only pictures, leave only footprints' is generally a good rule to follow, especially with objects that have been around for thousands, or millions of years. But there are certainly exceptions. Several locales have banned selfie sticks, and you should always follow the rules of a particular site.

Do Pay attention to signs and guides. It might feel plebeian to stay within the posted trail, but there are often good reasons to take the road most traveled. Human footfalls can erode delicate landscapes, sometimes irrevocably. And for heavens sake, don't try to make a world heritage site all about you. It's the world's heritage, not just yours. Your choices could make all the difference.

Do Marvel at this thing before you that has persisted for so long, and leave it in peace for future generations.