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Diggin’ Dinos: Jurassic World

26 Nov

First things first I’m a realist – archaeologists (and bioarchaeologists) do not dig dinosaur bones, that job alone is for palaeontologists.  Palaeontology is the study of life largely prior to the Holocene period, and largely the study of fossils within a geologic context, which mixes the boundaries of geology and biology to inform on the evolution and variety of life.  The study of dinosauria, or dinosaurs as they are largely commonly known as, who became the dominant land clade throughout most of the Triassic to Cretaceous periods (within the Mesozoic geologic era), is but one part of this.

But I would be lying if I did not state that my interest in bones started early and, specifically, that it started with the dinosaurs.  More specifically still it started with Jurassic Park, a film released in 1993 by one Steven Spielberg that saw my 5-year-old self keenly watching in the local cinema.  I was fascinated by the creatures on the screen, these primordial beasts tearing to shreds the Homo sapiens who thought they could control what they had resurrected.  I was intrigued by their form, the variations in the anatomy and the differences in the (admittedly on-screen) behaviour.  Here was a film that didn’t just make the audience scared and excited, it also gave the creatures a semblance of intelligence.  Who were these long extinct creatures?  What was Dr Grant doing in the desert scaring kids with a raptor claw, whilst also overseeing someone shooting shotgun shells into the earth?  Wait, is that is a job? I thought to myself.

I was hooked.  I want to dig in the desert!  That looks great I thought.  Those creatures looks awesome!  Clearly I had to learn more.  Safe to say that the following Christmas was taken up with Jurassic Park toys – the triceratops that had a gouged bit of flesh that could come off, and the helicopter that, if I remember correctly, barely appeared in the film.  But I wanted to learn more than just play with the toys and watch the film again and again (could those raptors really open doors!).  I wanted to learn about the creatures that the film was based on, I wanted to know more about their life contexts, their habitats and their geographic span.  Just when did they live and how did they come to die out?  In a word I was curious, and I remain curious to this day about the natural world around me.

It started out with the toys, dinosaur Top Trump cards and other bits and bobs.  I collected the glow in the dark model skeletons that always seemed to flash up on the television, bit by bit I pieced together a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that looked somewhat badly proportioned.  My father subscribed me to a dedicated dinosaur magazine that explored the fossil remains a bit more in-depth, and I collected a few cast fossils of various parts of various creatures from the past.  At the major museums I would clamour around the cases that showed the fossils of dinosaurs and more recent mammals, always thinking about what these creatures must have seen during their own lifetimes, how very different our two worlds were.  In time Jurassic Park: The Lost World was released and I became enraptured all over again.  An early precursor to this blog was created during my primary school days where I put together a mini-book of drawings of Protoceratops, Triceratops, Brachiosaurus, Iguanodon, Ankylosaurus and co. with information boxes supplying the basic data of when and where they lived and what they ate.  I was thrilled when Baryonyx was found and described, a highly specialised fish eater in southern England of all places (though of course plate tectonics have substantially moved the earth’s surface around since the Late Cretaceous days).

I hate to say but this lust for dinosaur knowledge faded somewhat during my late primary school years where I was given to drawing what I thought the inside of my leg may have looked like with the-then new temporary titanium plate that was holding my left femur together (that very plate now rests in one of my draws!).  It was a natural progression from the distant past into an immediate and visceral present, one that gripped me as I learnt that bone is living, changing and dynamic material that responds to the pressures that we place it through.  But still the love for dinosauria flares up from time to time, perhaps no more so than when the BBC released the Walking with Dinosaurs television show in 1999, a real marker in the sand for the intelligent presentation and discussion of the biology and life experience of dinosaurs.  After each episode aired I would spend the next day at school talking with my friends about the episode, excitedly huddled around before the drudgery of school started.  But I did not go on to study palaeontology at any point, although I still maintain a relative interest in the latest discoveries and theories on the biology of dinosaurs and ancient life.

For me there is a certain inherent sadness when looking at the remains of species that have fossilised and have been described and documented.  The question of what lifeforms are we missing from deep geological time periods that did not survive the taphonomic processes, and luck of the draw that has preserved so many skeletons as fossils, often abounds in my head when I view specimens and casts displayed in natural history museums or spread across the pages of books.  In a way, by studying the skeletons of the more recent human past, it perhaps negates in some small way the limited archaeological remains that may, in time, become fossils themselves.  Arguably, of course, we may be destroying that record ourselves.

So no I am not a palaeontologist and I do not dig or study dinosaurs, I am a human osteologist who studies the skeletal remains of humans from archaeological contexts.  It was a close contest, but in the end I adapted to a subject that was close to my heart, that gave me a tangible connection to the past human population instead of the past animal population.  It is a distinction, but it is worth bearing in mind that the Homo sapiens species are just natural animals as well, even though life itself is a wonder.

But let me post what the blog title promises.  My interest has been piqued and, finally, the 3rd much talked about sequel is happening.  (I almost conveniently forgot about the 3rd film whilst writing this, although Spinosaurus still rocks).  Here is the just released trailer for the new 2015 movie Jurassic World*:

* I’m crossing my fingers that this is a beast of a film…

Further Information

  • Check out the palaeontologist Jon Tennant’s fantastic and informative blog Green Tea and Velociraptors for some of the latest updates in palaeontology.
  • Take a read of Neil Shubin’s fascinating book Your Inner Fish: A Journey into a 3.5 Billion year History of the Human Body.  I managed to get a copy a few years ago and it is an invigorating read on the hardships of palaeontological fieldwork that also gives an interesting account of the lab work that goes hand in hand with field explorations.  More importantly this book highlights the evolution of the human body via various parts of both extinct and extant life forms.
  • With fantastic timing a new paper by Hone et al. (2014) discusses a case study of a mass mortality event of juvenile Proterceratops discovered in Mongolia and size-segregated aggregated behaviour in this specimen of dinosaur.  There is the suggestion of sociality but the authors are rightly conservative in their observations.  There is an intriguing remark on the estimation on the age of ceratopisan dinosaurs – “Furthermore, at least some non-avian dinosaurs apparently reached sexual maturity long before reaching terminal body size or somatic maturity [36][38]. The result is a quagmire of varying definitions for ontogenetic stages and ontogenetic assignments across different publications even for single specimens” (Hone et al. 2014).  The taphonomic interpretations of this mass mortality sample is also particularly interesting and I’d recommend reading the accessible paper.


Hone, D. W. E., Farke, A. A., Watabe, M., Shigeru, S. & Tsogtbaatar. 2014. A New Mass Mortality of Juvenile Protoceratops and Size-Segregated Aggregation Behaviour in Juvenile Non-Avian Dinosaurs. PLoS. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0113306. (Open Access).

Guest Post: ‘TrowelBlazers’ by Alison Atkin

30 Sep

Alison Atkin is currently a doctoral researcher in osteoarchaeology at the University of Sheffield, where she is studying the demographic characterization of mass fatality incidents in the past and the present.  Her blog, Deathsplanation, details her on-going research and her general fascination with death and the sciences.  Alison also runs the Penny University, a site where she interviews upcoming researchers on their specialist topics.  If you are a researcher and interested in engaging the public via the Penny University, please contact Alison here.

It never bothered me growing up that I didn’t know about women like Frederica de Laguna, Mary Chubb, and Adela Catherine Breton.  It didn’t stop me from becoming an archaeologist.  The seeming lack of females in the field had no impact whatsoever on my decision to attend university for a degree in the subject for which I am most passionate.  It never crossed my mind.  I never questioned it.  Perhaps I should have.  For it bothers me now.  It staggers my mind that for years, as an individual with an interest in archaeology and related subjects, I never came across these women.  They were never pointed in my direction.  It seems an unlikely impossibility.  And yet, I am not the only one.

Enter TrowelBlazers.

A few short months ago, four individuals decided to do something about this historical void of female individuals in archaeology, palaeontology, and geology.  Because it isn’t a void at all – it’s a remarkable web of women that span the existence, origin, and expansion of these fields, inevitably impacting their current (and some would say future) place in the history of science – and, if I may be so bold, the world.

Victoria Herridge (Palaeobiologist), Suzanne Pilaar-Birch (Zooarchaeologist), Rebecca Wragg-Sykes (Archaeologist), and Brenna Hassett (Dental Anthropologist) created the tumblr TrowelBlazers.  In their own words, “This tumblr is a celebration of women archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists who have been doing awesome work for far longer, and in far greater numbers, than most people realise.  Because we think these women are awesome.  We think you’ll think these women are awesome.  And we want to keep on discovering more awesome trowel-wielding women.”  I also quite agree with the sentiment that in addition to all of the above, they also created this site because “so many of the pictures are, quite frankly, a-MAZ-ing.”  I defy anyone to resist the site for lure of the photos alone.

When I heard about TrowelBlazers I immediately recognised it as something I wanted to support.  I wanted to know about the women who has helped blaze a trail for people like me to enter these fields… often without giving them a second thought (or as in my case, even a first thought).  I wanted to be an active part of the amazing community that exists between scientists in these fields, which fosters an even deeper admiration for the subject with which I have spent my entire life becoming acquainted. I started researching these women.  Within the first week of Trowelblazers launching I had wrote a post for the site about a woman I had not heard of before their endeavour.  I only found her because they pushed me to be curious.  Am I ever glad they did.  Meet Jane.

Jane Dieulafoy TB

Jane Dieulafoy, a Persian pioneer and meticulous recorder, was one of the finest explorers and archaeologists of her age (Source: TrowelBlazers).

Jane (Jeanne) Dieulafoy (1851-1916) was a crossing-dressing, war fighting, horseback adventuring, novel writing, archaeologist – she was, very simply put, amazing.

She is an inspiring human being.

She is not alone.

There are already more than 45 featured posts on Trowelblazers and, with a list of over 100 other women to feature, it already seems a project that will continue for many years to come.  If you haven’t already, you should go and check it out.

If this is a subject that interests you – and you think that more people should be made aware of the influential female individuals in these subjects – then there is a way for you to get involved.  In addition to submitting entries for the tumblr blog, you can participate in the upcoming Wikipedia editathon, which is taking place in London on October 19th at the Natural History Museum.  This event is aiming to improve the visibility of a host of forgotten women in science on the internet, with the TrowelBlazer team focusing on Dorothea Bate, Dorothy Garrod, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, Elinor W. Gardner, Etheldred Bennett, Nina Layard, Margaret Murray, Helen Muir-Wood, and Grace Crowfoot.

The event is open both to people new to Wikipedia and to experienced contributors.  There will be practical training in how to edit a Wikipedia page, support and resources on-hand to make editing easier, and they’ve also lined up a team of experts (biographers and historians) to talk about trowelblazing women and to lend their expertise on the day.  There will also be a unique opportunity to see fossils from the NHM collections collected by these pioneering women, which are not normally on display to the general public.

If you interested in the event, but aren’t able to attend, you can follow the activities throughout the day with live-tweets from both the TrowelBlazer and Women’s Room twitter accounts.

While we’re on the subject of improving the visibility of women in the past, there is something that I must mention.  I think this point needs to go hand in hand when promoting endeavours such as TrowelBlazers.  It is, that, when regarding the history of science there can be a tendency to overstate the contributions of women in the past, in order compensate for their lack of opportunity, almost in an attempt to equalise their places in the history books.  I know that I am not alone in this view, as was evidenced by the response to historian Rebekah Higgit  when she stated it ever so well on Twitter a few months ago.  I do think it is important to keep in mind that however unfortunate it is, the past was not equal (let us not broach this matter in the present as that is another post entirely).  While nevertheless some women were defying social conventions and we should indeed celebrate their efforts and their achievements (and huzzah to TrowelBlazers for being at the forefront of this) we should not forget all of the other women who played a role in the history of science (and indeed, all of those who did not).  We should look not only to the women who stood out from the crowd, but also to those who worked behind the scenes.  We should not feel compelled to alter history in an attempt to rectify past wrongs.  We should use it as a reminder to all of us who are interested, involved, and invested in these subjects today of just how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.

I recently discovered an example of these women, in Anna and Susanna Lister, who are firmly rooted in the history of the natural sciences.  Their father, Martin Lister, was a medical doctor by profession but he had, in his own words, “the greatest enthusiasm” for natural history and was a collector of insects, spiders, and shells.  He compiled the first organized, systematic publication on shells and in its final edition, the work was illustrated with 1062 plates of shells – all the work of his daughters Anna and Susanna.  Yet, while their contributions to science were remembered, their identities were almost forgotten entirely.  It was not until Martin Lister’s own words were found in which he proudly referenced the plates as “the original drawings of my daughters” that credit was once again given where credit was due.  It seems there is a lot to learn about these women (and their amazing illustrations).  I imagine that there are many more women like them from history to be rediscovered, recognised, and remembered for their own contributions to science.

It makes me very glad to see that TrowelBlazers is not alone in their aim to spread the word on the role of women in the many fields science throughout history.  Since learning about these women it has made me realise that although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I was missing out.  It didn’t bother me, because I didn’t know any better.  I may have ended up exactly where I wanted to be, but I cannot help but feel that if I had known about women like Dorothy Garrod, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, or Jane Dieulafoy earlier in my life I may have got here in a slightly different way – and I might have been a slightly different archaeologist because of them.  I aim to redress issue this immediately, starting with TrowelBlazers and ending… well, who yet knows where this will end.