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Life’s Dusty Attic

February 22, 2011

La Galerie de paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée, Part 3

These cases of invertebrate fossils provide a nineteenth-century natural history museum experience.

We climb yet another flight of stairs. Up here, the heat of the Paris summer is utterly stifling – it is still and humid, and we are becoming drenched. The age of the museum surrounds us, in the typewritten labels, the paint peeling from the walls, and the dust motes hanging in the sunlight. But it is a treasure house. I feel a bit like I am Howard Carter, entering the tomb of Tutankhamun. There is a sense of discovery, of marvellous objects undisturbed by a century of of change and “progress.”

Each corner of the mezzanine is "anchored" by a superb specimen. This is a painstakingly prepared cluster of irregular echinoids (similar to sand dollars).

I have to see it all, drink it in, absorb it through my eyes. There are so many fossils here, and yet there are not enough for me!  The family do not share my affliction of paleolunacy, but they accept that there is little they can do about it. They wait patiently in the air-conditioned space near the end staircase, and I am left alone in the heat, to explore the wonderful specimens in solitary revery. Here, a cluster of fossil pectens of unmatched quality and size. There, models of microfossils, hand-carved from limestone in the nineteenth century. Farther along, a huge collection of creatures that lived on some warm Paleozoic reef. This is the attic of life, holding much of the deep and fascinating story.

If you want to see more of this Paris museum, please take a look at Ghost Giants, about the fossil vertebrates, and Skeleton Squadron, about the modern vertebrates.


The wall side of the mezzanine is lined with a continuous bank of cabinets and exhibits.

This "chandelier" over the main staircase explores diversity by taking the form of an upside-down tree of life.

A spider, horseshoe crab, and dragonfly on the chandelier of life

A cluster of pectinids (scallops) from the Miocene of France

View through the railing to the fossil vertebrates below

The railings themselves are works of art that incorporate natural forms

Everywhere you look, the cases hold remarkable fossils. This Jurassic cephalopod from the Solnhofen lagerstätte of Germany is identified as Acanthoteuthis.

Also from the Solnhofen, this insect is now thought to belong to the enigmatic genus Chresmoda, which may be distantly related to stick insects (phasmids).

One of my favourite exhibits, these models of Foraminifera (microfossils) were carved from limestone by the nineteenth century paleontologist Alcide d'Orbigny.

Eventually even I cannot bear the oppressive warmth of this place, and with regret I leave the fossils in peace. Paris is suffering this July; it is now 11 am, and the attic has become a greenhouse. We head downstairs, back to the bright sunlight and blazing (but not stifling) heat. It is time for a cool drink, in a shady avenue of the Jardin des Plantes.

People cluster in the cool shade of the Jardin des Plantes

Back in the land of the living: pigeons stealing seed in the zoo of the Jardin des Plantes

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Abby permalink
    July 10, 2013 5:37 am

    Cool. This reminds me of visiting a museum in Copenhagen (http://geologi.snm.ku.dk/english/ . Very lovely metal crinoids gracing the stairs – doubling as a railing.

    • Graham permalink*
      July 10, 2013 5:45 am

      Thank you – that’s great!

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