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Fossils for the future

Words: Cecily Layzell

Photos: Tomás João

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If our distant descendants dig up remnants of the 21st century, what will they think about how we lived? Tomás João, aka Nature the Artist, is leaving them little clues.

Like a collector, Tomás João gathers, catalogues and preserves objects he finds in forests and along the coast near his home in Portugal. Mounted on stands fitted with metal plaques, his pieces wouldn’t be out of place in a natural history museum.

Until you take a closer look, that is. What at first glance appear to be insects trapped in amber are actually cigarette butts and food wrappers. A crocodile skull has a plastic bottle clasped in its jaws, and the spine of a mysterious creature nestled in the dirt turns out to be the hose of a petrol pump. 

“The way I create [my works] mirrors nature’s own artistry,” João says. “In fact, I consider myself a humble imitator of this incredible artist. I gently press the object against a clay surface that mimics the top layers of the Earth’s crust to create an impression. I then fill it with a mineral paste that replicates the minerals found in genuine fossils. Finally, I apply pressure and give it a slight shake – precisely what the Earth does to its layers over time. And just like that, a fossil is born.”

With titles like ‘Floatius debris rex’ and ‘Plasticus sacus’, the works in the series – which is called Fossils – are a humorous take on archeological relics as well as a serious comment on our consumption habits.

“The works encapsulate our impact on the world,” says João. “I find it fascinating to envision them as a reflection of the human species, a species whose individuals typically spend around 80 years [on Earth] in the context of a planet that has existed for over 4 billion years.” 

In the small time we have, we change everything around us, and not always for the better, he says. But he also finds comfort in the permanence of fossils, which in nature are formed over millennia, and believes they can help us keep things in perspective. “Sometimes when I have a problem, I like to think that a fossil can show me how insignificant my problem is.”

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