by Robert Verish

Documentation of Mineral [Meteorite] Specimens


Articles below were originally published in the monthly periodical, Mineral News (May, 2005)

After reading an article in a recent issue of a popular newsletter for mineral collectors, about the importance of documenting specimens in a mineral collection, I realized that the subject matter could easily apply to specimens in a meteorite collection just as well. Judge for yourself by swapping the word "meteorite" with the word "mineral" in the article that I have reprinted below:

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Documentation of Mineral Specimens

 

By James E Rumrill

 

Introduction

††††††††††† I donít know how true it is but Iíve heard that there is such a place as an elephant graveyard.A place where elephants go to die when they instinctively recognize their time is up.Well, next time you visit the Sterling Hill Museum walk over to the railing next to the admission building and look down.You will see a similar graveyard a place where orphaned minerals go to die.†† Itís a big pile made up of thousands of specimens, no name, no origin, no documentation, unceremoniously jettisoned due to mishandling by negligent guardians.If you go down and examine the pile closely, you will find many things of great interest, in fact every specimen is of interest, because it had to be of some interest to be collectable in the first place.But to the serious mineral collector they are now dead, just as dead as those doomed elephants because they have been striped of their identity, namely their place of origin, the very thing that once allowed them to live in a collection.

††††††††††† Will our collections eventually be added to a mineral graveyard such as that at Sterling Hill?In many cases yes, but they donít have to end up that way.With just a bit of effort, through proper documentation, we can insure that our treasures will live on under the protection of future guardians, The best way to accomplish this is what this article is all about .Iím sure you must have read on occasion a detailed article on this very subject. Most often it is authored by a professional who advocates documentation of great complexity and detail.The desirability of such detailed, scientifically-based specimen documentation cannot be denied, but few of us as hobbyists have the inclination to invest such extensive time and dedication,Letís face it; we donít want what should be a pleasurable pastime to become that dreaded thing we call work.Isnít work the thing we are trying to take refuge from with a leisure pursuit?Itís a conundrum, because some effort must go into the proper handling of minerals.I subscribe to the old proverb ďIf a job is worth doing, itís worth doing wellĒ; but whatís wrong with ďIf a hobbyís worth doing, itís worth doing wellĒ?

††††††††††† This introduction is in danger of reaching a length worthy of consideration by Guiness; so let me get to the point.I will describe below the minimal documentation necessary to preserve the integrity of minerals in your mineral collection, which might insure their long-term preservation well beyond the term of your guardianship.


"Meteorite fall Ensisheim on 16.11.1492 near the city of Ensisheim, Alsace, France"
(original label written by E. F. F. Chladni)

The Mineral Collection

††††††††††† Letís first define a mineral collection. Itís an organized collection of documented minerals of some worth.For example, I have several collections - a worldwide species collection, a fluorescent collection, a New Jersey collection and a couple more.They are all documented in a computer database. All minerals that are in a personís possession are not necessarily part of a collection.For example, I have thousands of self-collected specimens stored in flats in my cellar. Each specimen has not been individually documented and is not part of an official collection.Individual specimens may eventually be selected from those flats, based on their merits, and be added to one of my collections.They will then be individually numbered, labeled and cataloged in the computer database.Such documented specimens have an excellent chance of surviving my (hopefully long time away) demise and avoid that final trip of no return to a mineral graveyard.Iíve always considered the organization and documentation of a mineral collection one of the great pleasures derived from our hobby.Am I alone in that thinking?I hope not.

 

Undocumented Minerals. Before we get to the subject of documentation, what about those flats of undocumented self-collected minerals referred to above?The truth is, their long time survival is problematic.There are a few things that can be done that would be helpful.Ifthe individual specimens are not labeled, then restrict the contents of each flat to minerals from a single origin.Place a label on the flat (and the cover if there is one) with the origin of the mineral contents.In addition put a loose label showing the origin in the flat with the minerals.It should be understood that a minerals origin is infinitely more important than its name.The mineral can usually be identified through scientific investigation, while the origin can rarely be discovered through such study.While these labeling steps are not full proof, it could be enough to ensure their longtime survival.In any case, itís worth the modest effort involved.

 

Documentation of minerals.Someone thoroughly indoctrinated into our wasteful ďuse and throwawayĒ society, might not be concerned with what happens to his minerals when heís done with them.But should we not hold these miracles of nature with higher regard than the built in obsolescence of human invention?You may have noticed that I used the word guardian a couple times in the Introduction.Iíve always been of the philosophy that we do not truly own these marvels of nature, but pay a monetary price for the privilege of guardianship.Guardianship theoretically requires that they be safely passed on to future guardians for as long as humankind persists.Itís documentation that makes that possible.There are three steps that need to be taken for proper documentation Ė namely:

numbering, labeling, and cataloging.

 

1. Numbering.A number applied to a specimen serves only one purpose.It serves to connect the specimen to descriptive information on a label and in a catalog.The number is added to the label so that if the label becomes separated from a specimen, they can be reunited, or if the label is lost, a new label can be generated from information in the catalog.It can almost be thought of as insurance against loss of identity.The number should be applied to the specimen where it will not interfere esthetically, such as the bottom or back.It should be in a form that will last indefinitely.Paint is probably the most durable choice, but any long-lasting alternative is far better than nothing.If the matrix is soft or powdery, a small area might be stabilized with something like an epoxy before applying the number.Most people choose numbers in numerical progression as specimens are received.That works fine.I use a logical numbering system (described in the Rockhound Register of March 1998) that has numerical species/specimen relational integrity.I am considering taking that article out of mothballs sooner or later for benefit of new members, if our editor approves.

††††††††††† Small specimens and micros are best mounted in "cases" such as the commonly encountered†† plastic thumbnail display cases. Obviously, numbers cannot be applied directly to such tiny specimens, and anyway there is little danger of loosing the enclosed or glued-on label. However, I personally always numbersuch cases because a great amount of additional valuable information about the enclosed specimen is entered in my catalog. I mount the typed number on the case top in the upper left corner, mainly becausemy numbering system allows sorting numerically, which automatically sorts the specimens alphabetically. Any other numbering system doesnít, so it can otherwise be placed anywhere on the case.


Original label from finder.

2. Labeling. Most purchased specimens come with a label .I like to generate my own labels for uniformity. Otherwise labels of different color, size style and legibility give a mineral collection or display an unkempt look. The information on the label should be the specimen number, featured mineral name, associated minerals, and the origin. Labels that accompany a purchasedspecimen rarely include associated minerals, and with good reason. Such associations can vary from one specimen to another making multiple printing of labels impossible. While associated mineral information is not essential to the label, it is welcomed information for the general public. Some collectors will add other things such as the chemical formula to the label, but that is not in anyway necessary. The specimenís origin is not always as complete as it should be on the original label. So itís advisable to check the origin information for accuracy and completeness. Counties and various other regions can be found in an atlas and accurate locality information can often be found in many diverse mineral references books and periodicals.

 

3. Cataloging.This is an extremely important part of the documentation of a mineral collection. Even so, it is less often done than the labeling procedure. The funny thing is, itís the easiest of the tree steps described here. It can be as easy as writing by hand the number, mineral name and place of origin in a ledger. Admittedly, as a collection grows, such a listing that will not be alphabetical and will in time grow difficult to access for information. But the important thing is that the information is available when needed. There are much better ways to accomplish this. Before the computer revolution, index cards were the way to go. It still is, if computers are not your liking. The ability to add and remove files, while retaining alphabetical integrity, makes this a preferred choice for typed or hand written records.

††††††††††† Those of us mineral enthusiasts with computer skills have no excuse. Itís so easy. If you donít have database software installed in your computer, records can be kept in a word processor document. The ability to manipulate and correct entries, plus effortless printing options, makes it easy going. Of course the ultimate way to catalog a collection is using a database, which affords terrific features too numerous to describe here. One caution must be issued, if a computer is used. Failure of the hard drive or various other glitches can lead to information loss. Frequent backups should be made. It is also advisable to do periodic printouts so that an up-to-date hard copy is always available.

†††††††††† The essential information needed in the catalog is the number, mineral name and place of origin, but I include much additional information in mine, and you might want to as well. Such things as where purchased, price, and date of purchase or date collected are valuable. In fact, the price of a purchased specimen or estimated value of a collected specimen might be valuable information for the heirs of an estate. You could even indicate where specimens are stored, which can be helpful finding them quickly in a very large collection. There is no limit to information you may want to include. What you need not include is species descriptive properties such as chemical formula, crystal system, hardness and similar descriptive details that can be easily looked up in any number of mineral reference books, unless of course such information is valuable to you in a computer as a filter strategy.


A "pictorial" catalog.

†††††††††††††††††† It might be helpful to categorize various elements of specimen description. They can be divided into three different groups, 1- Essential specimen documentation. 2- Nonessential specimen documentation, and 3- Species descriptive properties.

 

1. Essential specimen documentation- the minerals name and its origin is the only essential documentation. Its is the only necessary information that accompanies most specimens we purchase and should accompany any specimen we pass along.

 

2. Nonessential specimen documentation- such information as designated number, where purchased, price, date of purchase and a good deal of other particulars are valuable for the possessor, but hardly needs to accompany a mineral when passed on to a new owner. Such information can be regarded as important, but hardly essential. On the other hand, some field-collected information may be regarded as scientifically valuable, and indeed, that should be passed along with a specimen when available.

 

3. Species descriptive properties- This information is not an essential part of specimen documentation. On index cards it is a waste of time, space and effort. Ditto for computer word-processing programs. In computer database or spreadsheet programs, many species descriptive properties are useful for filtering according to group hardness, chemistry, and many other properties. Therefore, such properties can be regarded as utilitarian as opposed to documentary. For those new to database strategy, the most efficient approach is to place specimen and species descriptive information in separate tables and designate their relationship through common mineral fields. Such designation does away with the need to enter species descriptive date more than once for any number of specimens of a single species. This avoids the need to enter redundant data, thus saving work and computer hard disk space.

 

Conclusion

†††††† I must admit that numbering, labeling, and cataloging a mineral collection involves some amount of time and work. I cannot envision any other practical way to ensure integrity of a mineral collection beyond one's lifetime. When you read about famous mineral collections that have been amassed and handed down though history, one important factor that enhances their importance and value is impeccable documentation. We may never amass collections that remotely approach those famous historical ones, but does that mean ours are not worth preserving? Think of it this way. There are no two mineral specimens in the world exactly alike, which means that every specimen is unique and thus irreplaceable. The same goes for other geologic specimens and fossils; conversely most man-made collectibles have nearly identical duplicates and are more often replicable.Consider that most natural samples have some long-term scientific value. If you want to boil it down to practicality, a mineral collection will be of much greater monetary value to an heir if it is well maintained and documented. Otherwise it will just amount to a pile of rocks to be disposed of.

 

Postscript:

 

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Observations by a Pessimist

"We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities." -- Pogo (drawn by Walt Kelly)

 

††† The above commentary would have been more useful 60 or more years ago. My recommendations are geared for 19th and early 20th century society (not the computer references of course). Just about everyone will agree with the practicality of my guidelines, but few will actually follow them. The blame for this is the cathode-ray tube. That puzzling statement will soon make sense. Iím a member of a fast disappearing group, those who lived a substantial period of their life before the emergence of television. You who donít know what that experience was like may wonder how leisure time was spent during those tube-free evenings. There was reading, listening to recorded music (or making music), and conversation with family and friends, unencumbered by TV as is usually the case today, we played all kinds of games: cards, monopoly, Chinese checkers, you name it, but most importantly, there was opportunity for a person to spend time in the evening working on oneís hobby. A mineral enthusiast could, without the many distractions present today, prepare mineral specimens and document them much as I have recommended above.

†† Iím not exactly sure about the date, probably sometime in the forties; our back door neighbor acquired a TV set. It was the first in our neighborhood. I vividly remember the evening we were first invited over to see it. A large impressive wooden cabinet sat on the floor. Centered in the upper part was a magnificent 8-inch screen; upon which black and white moving pictures were displayed, somehow miraculously coming out of thin air. Science fiction had merged with real life! I didnít know it at the time but the fabric of our society was about to change big time. It was not long before the evening activities described above gave way to an inactive and non-interactive society; their hypnotized senses help captive by the pattern on a fluorescent screen being bombarded by electronw in the vacuum of a cathode-ray tube. The vast wasteland had begun. But a new revolution was to come. The cathode-ray tube was married to a newfangled technology called the computer. Once again real life merged with science fiction, and any leisure time not gobbled up by TV was funneled into computer games and a new addictive time consuming attraction, the World Wide Web. Between the lure of TV and that of the computer, considerably less time is left for leisure activities like those enjoyed in the 19th and early 20th century.

 

††† So now you know why few hobbyists will find time to properly document their mineral collections. Those great mineral collections from the 19th and early 20th century were created by great wealth, thatís true, but they were also created in an era when the solitude of an evening was not dominated by alternate distractions as today. A large part of leisure time was put to productive use in those days and I lived enough of them to bear witness. Just as those elephants mentioned earlier will continue to return to their ancestral graveyards, victims of old age or injury; so too, undocumented minerals will continue to find their way to mineral graveyards, victims of the cathode-ray tube. The cathode-ray tube may be the protagonist in this scenario, but in the end we have nobody to blame but ourselves. The late Walt Kelly best articulated this thought though his cartoon character Pogo, ďWe have met the enemy and they are us!Ē

 

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The above articles were originally published in the monthly periodical Mineral News (May, 2005).

 


REFERENCES:

Esoteric Collecting: Part 1 - Seeing Double: When One Specimen Number Is Not Enough by Martin Horejsi from his November 2002 "The Accretion Desk" column published in MeteoriteTimes.Com

The image below is from the article REFERENCED above, and is courtesy of and by that author:

Lucky Numbers: Specimen Labels as License Plates from the Past by Martin Horejsi from his October 2003 "The Accretion Desk" column published in MeteoriteTimes.Com

The image below is from the article REFERENCED above, and is courtesy of and by that author:


My previous articles can be found *HERE*

For for more information, please contact me by email: Bolide*chaser