The city of Bristol, in the UK, has its own dinosaur! Thecodontosaurus antiquus was a small, herbivorous dinosaur of the late Triassic period, living in what is now the Bristol area around 230 million years ago.
This part of the south west of England is formed of limestone, and when ‘Theco’ lived here, the climate was warm and wet, a bit like the Caribbean today. Creatures that died might be washed into rivers and into caves where they were fossilised.
In 1834, two eminent Bristolians, Henry Riley, a surgeon, and Samuel Stuchbury, the curator of the Bristol Institution, were looking for fossils in the limestone quarry in Durdham Down, which today forms part of Bristol’s ‘Downs’, a large, open, green public space.
They found the fossilised bones of a small prehistoric reptile, which they named in 1836, but bear in mind that it wasn’t until 1842 that Richard Owen recognised that prehistoric creatures being excavated and studied around the country represented a type of animal he named ‘dinosaurs’.
The name Thecodontosaurus means ‘ancient socket-toothed reptile (or lizard)’ which refers to the way its teeth sit in sockets in the jawbone (like ours) rather than being fused with the bone, as in most lizards. Riley and Stuchbury knew it was prehistoric but it wasn’t recognised as a dinosaur until around 1843. Theco is about the size of a Labrador dog.
Its fossilised bones were held in Bristol Museum but Bristol suffered a severe bombardment in the Blitz of World War II and the museum took a direct hit, yet many of the bones were salvaged and later some more fossils were found at Tytherington, near Bristol.
Theco became something of a local celebrity when it represented a new public engagement with science project run by the University of Bristol in 2000. With funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and others, from 2010 the University of Bristol’s Bristol Dinosaur Project involved students in a major outreach to local schools, targeting children in 7 – 9 and 14 – 15 age groups. The project also funded new research facilities at the University to process more fossils and employed local palaeoartist Bob Nicholls to sculpt a life-size model of Theco, working with scientists to make the model as accurate as possible.
The Bristol Dinosaur Project is still going strong, visiting schools in the area and engaging tomorrow’s palaeontologists. The model of Theco – also shown in the header – now resides in the Wills Memorial Building in Bristol.
In the summer of 2019, the city of Glasgow was home to a spectacular dinosaur. “T. REX in Town” was an exhibition of a fully mounted T. rex skeleton, on tour around Europe, with Glasgow the only stop in the UK.
The centrepiece of the exhibition was ‘Trix: the Grand Old Lady’, a well preserved specimen that was excavated in Montana, in 2013, by the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, in Leiden, the Netherlands, and the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, South Dakota. The team was led by Anne Schulp from Leiden and Pete Larson from the Black Hills Institute. Early in the excavation, palaeontologists realised this was a large T. rex with a relatively complete skeleton, and while it was being prepared in the Black Hills Institute, several unusual features were found that made it a special and important fossil.
The T. rex was identified as a female because the skull had thick protuberances over the eyes which is thought to be typical of the female and continued to grow throughout life. The protuberances on this skull were very developed which also implied she had lived to a ripe old age. She was an old lady.
Another unusual feature was the number of injuries on the skeleton, including broken ribs and a line of five holes in the jaw that were inflicted by another T. rex, as well as an injury to the tail and clear evidence of scars on the fossilised bone caused by infection, scars that showed some evidence of healing so the injuries and infections were suffered during her life.
And the name? Initially referred to as ‘Grandma Rex’, the specimen was eventually named ‘Trix’ after Beatrix, the former queen of the Netherlands, and given the additional label of ‘Grand Old Lady’ as a reference to her size and age. Her lifespan could be estimated by counting the growth lines in the bones, rather like growth rings in a tree can give its age, and the researchers think that Trix was around thirty when she died.
The exhibition was held in a large hall with the specimen as the centre piece and various panels surrounding her pointing out the features and injuries on the skeleton.
Several additional, generally interactive side exhibits showed features of the dinosaur such as an animated hologram of a T. rex hatching from an egg, interactive screen/movement centres allow visitors – particularly energetic children – to find out if they could outrun a T. rex or make a T. rex move.
A fun exhibit allowed visitors to “spray paint” a T. rex with different colours and patterns and two videos showed details of the excavation and the scientists preparing the specimen.
There was an addition to the exhibition in Scotland, including a dinosaur footprint from Skye with explanatory material from the Staffin Museum, on Skye, about Scotland’s own dinosaurs.
I visited in early July and certainly felt the a sense of awe in standing next to such a magnificent dinosaur. She was mounted as if lunging forward, so the skull was at eye-level and the signs clearly explained where the injuries were. Mounted in the centre of the hall meant she could be viewed from all angles and the additional exhibits around the side meant visitors had plenty of room.
The exhibit had its own shop and café, and the shop sold a range of merchandise from children’s toys and books to local themed merchandise such as bags, t-shirts etc, but didn’t have much in the way of adult books on dinosaurs. It did, however, sell a sumptuous exhibition guide book, with background material on the dig, the people involved and the science used; my only frustration with the guide book was the printing of large, dramatic images across two pages yet the binding meant that the centre spine ran down the centre of the image.
If you still want to see Trix, her European tour is now finished and she has gone back to Leiden, but will be on permanent display at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in a new purpose built museum, opening later in 2019.
‘Trix:The Grand Old Lady’, Marijke Besselink, published by Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, 2016.
If you’re at all interested in dinosaurs, you’ll have seen the work of artist Charles R. Knight. His paintings and drawings have influenced generations of palaeoartists.
With the discovery of dinosaurs at the end of the 19th century, and the increasing number of species being found and named, the great museums of America started to show mounted dinosaur skeletons to the public. These were supplemented by painted reconstructions showing the animals as if alive, and Knight led the field in working with the museum scientists to make these reconstructions as accurate as possible.
Charles Knight (1874-1953) grew up in New York City, and developed a love of nature and animals from an early age. Encouraged by his parents, he learned to draw, at first copying pictures in books and visiting the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), which was then a single red-rick building in Manhattan Square. His father worked for J.P.Morgan, who financed the museum, and the family had special access to the museum outside visitor hours.
Charles already had been diagnosed with weak eyesight and astigmatism when, aged six, a friend threw a badly-aimed stone, which hit Charles in the right eye. It took months for him to regain any sight at all in that eye and put a strain on his left eye: he suffered from deteroriating eyesight all his life but he refused to let it stop him drawing. His love of animals and ability to draw can be seen in his drawing of the family dog, drawn at age 12.
In his teens he attended art school, including the Metropolitan Art School, held in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From art school he was employed by a firm that made stained glass windows for churches where he worked on designs for the windows but when he was 18 his father died and, devastated, he left his job and went to live with his stepmother and grandparents. This didn’t last, so he moved back to Manhattan and worked as a freelance artist, illustrating children’s books and working for McClure’s magazine, but still spent time in the AMNH, where one of the museum scientists, Dr Jacob Wortman, asked him if he could paint prehistoric animals.
The result was this painting, of a large, pig-like mammal, Elotherium, which established Knight as the artist-in-residence at the AMNH, although keeping his freelance status. Here, he worked with Henry Fairfield Osborn, the curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, and Dr William Matthew to restore prehistoric skeletons and create paintings of them as if they were alive.
Osborn arranged for Knight to spend a few weeks with the elderly Edward Drinker Cope, the distinguished palaeontologist who had found and named many iconic and familiar dinosaurs and was, himself, something of an artist. The few weeks in Philadelphia made a great impact on the young Knight and influenced many of his paintings. One of the most famous to come out of this relationship was Leaping Laelaps, unusual for its depiction of dinosaurs as active and energetic during a time when they were usually thought of as slow, ponderous and reptilian.
Knight was to do most of his work for the AMNH, including watercolours and sculptures and many of his images were replicated for schools and students, but he was in demand by other museums, and in 1926 set off for Chicago to paint a series of twenty-eight murals for the new fossil hall of the Field Museum.
These became among the most well-known of Knight’s dinosaur pictures, but by then, his eyesight was deteriorating and he could only paint on small boards, to be enlarged by assistants who painted the actual murals.
His paintings were not confined to dinosaurs, he worked on prehistoric life in all its form, including murals for the AMNH’s “Age of Mammals in North America” in 1930, and three murals for Hall of the Age of Man showed how prehistoric humans lived. In the mid-1940s, Knight also painted for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, a set of twenty-four small paintings showing life through different geological ages, but his longest association was with the AMNH.
Knight died in 1953. He had stopped painting two years earlier, having completely lost his sight.
William Stout’s introduction to ‘Charles R. Knight: Autobiography of an Artist’ states:
“If having a lasting influence on other artists is a key criterion for determining the greatness of an artists, then Charles Robert Knight is one of the most important artists of the twentieth century… Knight’s reconstructions became the basis for how dinosaurs were portrayed in the popular media – from King Kong, Fantasia and the animated films of Ray Harryhausen to the Disney theme parks. His paintings fired the ambitions of a legion of young people to choose palaeontology as their future profession. Charles R. Knight’s magnificent blend of powerful art and good science continues to inspire art, science and imagination around the world.”