A Revealing Peek at a Naked Archaeopteryx

By Rebecca Horne | September 13, 2010 4:29 pm

This was no ordinary bird. SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory photographer Brad Plummer knew his time with the precious Achaeopteryx thermopolis fossil would be short, so he made the best of it:

It surprised me to see the Archaeopteryx fossil arrive at the lab with such nonchalance–the two scientists pulled up in a dusty truck with it on the backseat wrapped in foam in a wooden box. I knew the best time to get the shot would be the instant the case came open, before it was mounted for the experiment. I had pre-arranged access to the fossil for a few minutes, although once the lid came off a scrum of onlookers crowded me as I tried to work. This would be the last chance for anyone to photograph the fossil, with nothing between lens and bone, for a long, long time.

Getting the right lighting was critical to catching the relief of what is mostly a flat subject. I tried at first with a tripod and cable release, but struggled to get exactly perpendicular to the rock. I took a couple of dozen exposures holding a flash, in one hand at various low angles to rake the light across the fossil and really grab the detail. Back in my studio I was especially thrilled to see the delicate filigree of mineral dendrites tracing through the bones, and the clear impression of wing feathers in the surrounding limestone.

The Archaeopteryx was a primitive bird that lived during the early Tithonian stage of the Jurassic Period, around 150 million years ago. This Archaeopteryx thermopolis specimen was found in the 1970’s in Germany–the only country that has produced Archaeopteryx specimens thus far–and came to SLAC in December 2008 to undergo several days of X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy using the synchrotron at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL). The purpose of the study was to map the chemical elements trapped in the surrounding rock as the animal decomposed, giving clues to the nature of the soft tissues, such as the composition of the feathers and internal organs. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in May 2010.

National Accelerator Laboratory
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  • Georg

    and the clear impression of wing feathers in the surrounding sandstone.

    Evolution of flight in maniraptoran dinosaurs is marked by the acquisition of distinct avian characters, such as feathers, as seen in Archaeopteryx from the Solnhofen limestone.

  • Rebecca Horne

    Hi Georg, Thanks for your careful read. You are correct- it was limestone- not sandstone. Quote was corrected.
    Rebecca Horne

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/8601342@N03/ Gregory Peterson

    It would be interesting to see what details Photoshop manipulation could further enhance…

  • Georg

    Hello Rebecca,
    the Solnhofen lime slate is easyly cleaved into plates and
    polished, for that reason it was/is used for floors
    and was basis of the lithographic process invented by
    Senefelder. (As fas as I know, all lithography was made
    on stones from Solnhofen)
    That is why archeopteryx’ full name is
    “Archeopteryx lithographica”.


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About Rebecca Horne

Rebecca Horne (http://rebeccahornephotography.com) is an artist, multi-platform freelance writer, and award-winning photography director. She launched Visual Science for Discover.com in March 2010. She also writes about science and photography for The WallStreet Journal. You can reach her at rh@rebeccahornephotography.com.


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