Showing and hiding: The flickering visibility of earth workers in the archives of earth science

Lydia Barnett*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


This essay interrogates the motives of eighteenth-century European naturalists to alternately show and hide their laboring-class fossil suppliers. Focusing on rare moments of heightened visibility, I ask why gentlemen naturalists occasionally, deliberately, and even performatively made visible the marginalized science workers on whom they crucially depended but more typically ignored or effaced. Comparing archival fragments from elite works of natural history across a considerable stretch of time and space, including Italy, France, Switzerland, Britain, Ireland, Germany, Spain, and French, Spanish, and British America, this essay sketches the contours of a disparate group of people I term ‘earth workers’: laborers of very low social rank, such as quarrymen, shepherds, ditch-diggers, and fieldworkers, whose daily labor in and on the earth enabled the discovery of subterranean specimens. At the same time, archival traces of laboring lives ultimately reveal more about the naturalists who created them than they do about the marginalized laborers whose lives they faintly record. Cultural norms of elite masculinity and scholarly self-presentation in the Republic of Letters help us to understand why some eighteenth-century naturalists felt they had to publicly disavow a form of labor that would come to be recognized as a crucial and skilled part of scientific fieldwork in the modern era. Compared to other kinds of invisible labor that historians of science have brought into view, the social meaning of earth work rendered it uniquely visible in some ways and uniquely invisible in others.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)245-274
Number of pages30
JournalHistory of Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020


  • Early modern Europe
  • collecting
  • eighteenth century
  • fossils
  • labor
  • masculinity
  • natural history

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • History and Philosophy of Science

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