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Powdering Squid Fossils: Mortar and Pestle Memories

September 6, 2012

Greetings blogophiles! It has been a while since I’ve written about my big Cretaceous squid project so I thought I’d give you an update. If you’ve been following along, this past July my cohort Dan Lawver and I went into the field and visited various collections as the search part of our search and destroy mission. Mission: Find pens of the Cretaceous squid Tusoteuthis and destroy them for chemical analysis. I have finally moved on to the destroy part. This is where I take perfectly good fossil squid pen parts, break them and powder them for X-ray Defractometry (XRD) and Fourier Transform Infra-red spectroscopy (FTIR). “You’re doing what? To whom? Why?” To put it simply we’re using high tech toys to find out what minerals are in our squid pens. But before we can do this, I got to spend an entire day with one of my favorite low tech gadgets, the mortar and pestle. For those of you who are like me and can never remember which part is which, the mortar is the bowl and the pestle is the part you grind with.

Photo of equipment and supplies used to powder fossil squid

Equipment and supplies used to powder fossil squid. Notice the beautiful mortars and pestles. Photo by Trish Weaver

Yes, that’s right… I’m writing an entire blog about mortar and pestles. I have an inordinate fondness for them. In this age of new-fangled gizmos and phones that are smarter than most of the people who use them, there is nothing so satisfying as sitting down with a well-crafted mortar and pestle and grinding away at something or fossil squid pens. I’m talking nice non-porous agate or other stone ones, not the ceramic kind that get stuff stuck in them. It’s good therapy and reminds me of my childhood.

Photo of Trish Weaver grinding away

Look Gramps! I’m grinding up squid fossils using a mortar and pestle properly. Photo by Lisa Herzog

I don’t know about the rest of you but I come from a long line of chemists. My grandfather was a chemist, my father was a chemistry professor and one of my sisters majored in chemistry. Because of this there were always all sorts of chemicals, beakers, flasks, radioactive plates etc…floating about the house. “Well…that explains it.” But my favorite was always my grandfather’s agate mortars and pestles. They fascinated me, not just because they were pretty, but because we were not allowed to play with them. But I sure wanted to. I would spend hours looking at them wishing I could use them for something cool. Maybe it was because I insisted on calling them mortar and pedestals, but I think it had more to do with Gramps’s fear of a little kid using them as a hammer rather than a mill and breaking it that prevented me from getting my grimy kid’s hands on them. Thus, they sat quietly on their shelf  just taunting me.

Photo of a Cclose up of grinding a fossil squid pen into powders using a mortar and pestle

Close up of me grinding a fossil squid pen into powder. Notice the cool mortar & pestle. Photo by Morgan Raley.

Well Gramps, today I spent an entire day grinding away at my fossils squid pens and not once did I let the pestle roll off the table and chip it, nor did I pound on the mortar and crack it. In the end, even though I didn’t use Gramps’s mortars and pestles (those live in my house now and I still don’t touch them), I managed to get all of my squid parts powdered, dug up some fond memories and am ready for tomorrow’s adventure in fossil squid analysis. I wonder if squid analysis comes with a couch. I think I might need one.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 7, 2012 7:51 am

    Fe-Fi-Fo-Fid! I smell the pen of an ancient squid.
    Be he near or be he far,
    I’ll grind his pen to be a star!

    Just my slightly hysterical ode to Trish. Thank you for most enjoyable and interesting reading!

    Still living vicariously through my children and Trish,

    Betty Lawver

  2. Kathryn F. permalink
    September 7, 2012 10:21 am

    What a great memory! Thanks for sharing your story and your fondness for low-tech tools.

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