The word “relic” is commonly used today as an insult to refer to what is old and outdated and thus unworthy, such as an iPhone 2.
In contrast, in the strict religious sense, relics of especially holy persons continue to be venerated — bones, mummified flesh, personal effects, clothing. And in a nonreligious sense, the Victorians made jewelry from the hair of loved ones, which they found particularly comforting after the death of the source of the hair.
In the third millennium, it all seems unappealingly unsanitary — a relic, so to speak, of an earlier era — compared to a digital photo, an image made of electronic zeroes and ones.
However, in the literal sense of objects tangibly connected to a person of significance, relics are still very common today and created all the time. Crayon drawings produced by kindergarteners hang in offices long after the children have graduated high school. Fine jewelry is available engraved with the fingerprints of loved ones, or even set with gems made from their cremated remains. There are kits available to memorialize the hands, feet, and buttocks of infants in three-dimensional glory.
Relics are meant to give us a tactile, not merely visual, connection to the past. And so it is with these emotions that I am fascinated by dinosaur bone fossils. I so intensely want the pieces I am showing further down on this post that I feel a greedy, acquisitive adrenaline rush just looking at the pictures.
One is inclined to think of the plain surface of bones one sees in museums, but in some fossils, the actual delicate internal structure of the bone is visible; stone has filled in the spaces of the cancellous (spongy-structured) bone that is found at the end of long bones in all sorts of creatures. You may be most familiar with cancellous bone from the chewy end of the leg bone of a chicken underneath the cartilage (birds being the most notable descendants of dinosaurs). These fossils are sometimes called “agatized.”
For me, there is an appealing intimacy to these wondrously lacy bone fossils. To me, the small, intricate reticulations prove the fleshliness of dinosaurs in a way that plainer, more stony specimens do not.
These attractive fossils make me recall the dry, warm, incredibly soft bellies of little live sunwarmed lizards I have handled in a tropical climate, and I imagine a hot planet filled with herds and flocks of reptiles big and small carrying out their lives in the midst of overflowing vegetation with sunlight streaming down through it and onto it — animals eating, and resting, flying around and running about, mating, and carefully raising their nests of babies, being so numerous and living lives in a climate so materially rich and verdant that our entire civilization is sustained by the petroleum remains of their world.
If I could handle one of these fossils, it could make me feel vividly, by means of flesh to flesh contact, that that world really existed ages of ages ago, really lived.
And for so little money! And yet as inexpensive as it is, it is a treasure. It is a beautiful thing that didn’t come out of a factory, that wasn’t imagined by the human mind, a wonderful object that shouts down through the ages of a purer, more majestic time before mankind and its moral corruptions.
But I know that if I had such a fossil, I would marvel at it for a week or so, and then set it aside, and eventually it would end up in a box of chowder, forgotten, to be thrown away by the estate liquidator when I die. I have no vitrine to display it in and keep it safe. And even if I had it set in jewelry as a pendant, I would wear it almost never. I would not give it the attention, the respect, the emotional maintenance that it deserves.
Best for me to let you enjoy it, feel the flesh of the dinosaur press against your own hand, dream the dream of the ages past, and sing the song about dead bones coming alive again:
[The Etsy listings I have linked in this post are mortal, so if these particularly nice specimens have been sold, do a search for “dinosaur bone” or “agatized dinosaur bone” on that and many other websites.]