The Earth as Archive: Contingency, Narrative, and the History of Life

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Paleontology has, from its very beginnings, been a science deeply concerned with its archive. As this chapter argues, the fossil record—paleontology’s curated archive—has taken a variety of forms over the past two hundred years: it has sometimes been understood to be the collected physical specimens stored in museum cabinets; at others, the synoptic taxonomic information compiled in illustrated atlases or textual catalogs since the early nineteenth century; more recently, as an electronic archive of data. But these textual and digital archives have explicitly referred to an original, “natural” archive—the preserved strata of the earth itself—and may be considered to be attempts to construct a series of “second natures” that have sequentially reconfigured the natural archive as archives of information and data. One of the central features of paleontological archives is that they preserve historical contingency—sequences of events that took place at particular times, in a fixed order. This chapter explores the practical and epistemic consequences of the serial “second naturing” of archival configurations in paleontology over the past two hundred years, concluding that, despite the potential decontextualizing effects of recent electronic database analyses, contingency and narrative have remained an essential feature of paleontological archives.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationScience in the Archives
Subtitle of host publicationPasts, Presents, Futures
EditorsLorraine Daston
Place of PublicationChicago
PublisherUniversity of Chicago Press
ISBN (Print)9780226432229
StatePublished - 2017


  • paleontology
  • databases
  • historical contingency
  • second natures
  • fossils


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