Centennial Museum gecko logo

Desert Diary
Fossils/The Word "Fossil"


Today, when we come across an ancient, marine shell embedded in the limestone of one of our desert mountains, we immediately recognize it as a fossil. But like the desert light, words are forever changing, and the word "fossil" hasn't always meant the remains of once living organisms.

In 1565, Conrad Gesner's book "On Fossil Objects" was published. From our perspective, that title clearly reveals the subject of the book—but the longer subtitle shows otherwise: "A Book on fossil Objects, chiefly Stones and Gems, their Shapes and Appearances". In an understanding going back to the early Greeks, fossils were anything dug up, not just the remains of ancient life.

Many objects categorized as fossils were easily seen as of being of inorganic or organic origin. However, many objects were not easily classified. Only in the early 18th century did knowledge advance to the point that the word "fossil" could become limited to the remains of once-living organisms. Even today, identification often is blurred, with many "fossils" brought to the Centennial Museum turning out to be inorganic, fossil-appearing concretions.
pen and ink


Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

The word fossil


Rudwick, M. J. S. 1976. The meaning of fossils. 2nd ed. Science History Publications, USA, New York, 287 pp.

Web Resources

Yahoo! Reference.