How Fossils are Created

Fossilization is the process by which biological remains are preserved for long periods of time. The resulting fossils are good records of life from a specific place and/or period and provides archaeologists with the necessary artifacts to understand the biodiversity of Earth today and throughout the past.. This process relatively complicated, but can be understood in simplistic terms.


When one thinks of fossilization, the process known as permineralization usually comes to mind. This form of fossilization requires the living or recently deceased organism to be rapidly covered with sedimentation. This preserves the tissue and slows the decay process. Nonetheless, the tissue does decay, leaving pockets of space that are filled with leeched minerals. As more and more sediment covers the entombed organism, these minerals accumulate. Because the process is so slow, the minerals are able to fill crevices and spaces that are very small. This results in very detailed, accurate fossils.

Geological forces cause uplifting motions that can move fossils that have been covered in many meters of sediment. Without these forces, finding the fossils would prove nearly impossible for researchers. Thankfully, many fossils have been driven closer to the surface for us to discover!

In a very similar process known as carbonization (or imprinting), plant or animal material decomposes as sedimentation occurs, leaving impressions in the resulting rock layers with varying degrees of detail. The primary difference is the speed of decomposition. In carbonization, the material decomposes quickly without necessarily being encased in surrounding material. These fossils are frequently referred to as cast or mold. An endocast can also be formed in which the space inside an organism is filled with material, essentially forming a mold of the internal cavity. These impressions can also be formed as soft material reacts with a surface during decomposition, resulting in imprints in the surface.


A unique form of fossilization, rapid freezing allows the material to be preserved almost perfectly. The process requires a flash freeze, making it very rare. However, because the specimens are nearly perfectly preserved, they often still have intact skin and hair. Some have even been found with food in their stomachs!

Similarly, organisms can become encased in other materials that perfectly preserve. One such example, popularized by Jurassic Park, is the process by which insects are trapped in amber running down a tree.


In arid climates, remains can be preserved through thorough drying. Mummified remains can contain well preserved soft tissue if the drying is rapid and complete.

Further Reading

To learn more about fossils, consult these references.

How are Fossils Formed? (

PBS Evolution Library: Becoming a Fossil

Discovering Fossils: What is a fossil?