nature's preservative

Nature's Embalmers at Your Service
feather in amber

Amber may be the best natural preservative, but it's not the only one. The following mechanisms, operating alone or in concert, have also preserved interesting finds from the ancient world, generally by making life miserable for decay organisms.

  • Fossilization (where minerals replace organic chemicals);
  • Silicification of wood (this is how petrified wood is formed);
  • Freezing (cold slows all chemical reactions);
  • Dehydration (in deserts or dry, cold conditions) deprives microbes of water needed for growth. Dehydration and freezing often act together to form a natural "freeze-drying" effect. Remember the 4,000 year-old "Iceman" found in the Alps a couple of years ago? He was freeze-dried, poor fella; and
  • Peat bogs (where acidic conditions retard microbial decomposition)

This feather, identified as a member of the woodpecker and flicker family, was discovered in Dominican Republic Amber. It represents the oldest-known fossil of a New World woodpecker. Photograph by Laurie Minor-Penland. Courtesy National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.