Friday, 20 January 2023

Antique Paleoart: The most illegal photos of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

As you probably know, last month I was in London for my first ever Tetzoocon. But I was also there for a bunch of other stuff. One of them was the famous Crystal Palace Geological Court. While Tetzoocon offered a guided tour by Darren Naish through the park, I unfortunately could not attend that as it fell on the same day as our return flight. Therefore, me and my girlfriend went there by ourselves a day before the convention...

... just to unfortunately discover that the whole area was fenced off! Why? Apparently due to some construction work being done on the park's National Sports Centre. However, that stadium was quite removed from the place and none of that construction seems to have affected the area of the Geological Court, as there was no equipment, workers or anything dangerous even remotely close to the statues. It was a quite baffling decision by whoever was responsible. Pissed does not even describe how I felt, as, not knowing if I would ever return to London, this was the only opportunity I had to see Hawkins' famous statues in person. So we did something we probably should not have...

... and entered through a gap in the fence. Likely not the most legal thing to do, but in my defence, Naish's guided tour apparently had to resort to the same means, as even by Monday the fence had not been lifted for Tetzoocon. The photos I am thus showing in this post may therefore possibly be among the most illegal ones ever taken of the statues, so I hope you enjoy them. At the start of our tour into the forbidden land was the southern point of the Secondary Islands, inhabited by the labyrinthodonts.



The two species depicted by Hawkins for the court were one Labyrinthodon salamandroides (today classified as Mastodonsaurus giganteus) and two L. pachygnathus (today seen as an indeterminate mastodonsaurid). Their mistaken frog-like appearance stems not just from the fact that they were related to modern amphibians but curiously also because, at the time, the pelvic and limb bones of the ctenosauriscid archosaur Bromsgrovia walkeri were wrongly assigned to this genus, giving the impression of an animal with strong hindlegs (Witton & Michel 2022). Furthermore, Richard Owen, on whom Hawkins partially based his reconstructions, thought that the labyrinthodonts were responsible for the famous Chirotherium footprints, thinking that their odd arrangement was caused by an animal with abnornmally long hindlegs. Today we know these ichnofossils to have been produced by early archosaurs or archosauriforms... which in hindsight means the inclusion of Bromsgrovia in the reconstruction of these models is not that bad.

On the same island lived the two dicynodonts, of which I unfortunately could not get a good angle. These are Dicynodon lacerticeps (still valid) and Dicynodon strigiceps (indeterminate dicynodont today). There is not much I can say about these except that they are adorable, no matter how outdated they may be. It is interesting to note that while the body is obviously modelled after modern snapping turtles, the models, if you look closely enough, do not have an enveloping shell like a true turtle but only a carapace covering the back. As you can unfortunately see, the statues were also covered in quite a bit of moss and lichen, with D. lacerticeps having an obvious crack in its right leg.



Next came the various marine reptiles of the Jurassic, basking and swimming along the autumn shores. The ichthyosaurs are Ichthyosaurus communis (the large one at the back where you only see the front half), next to it I. tenuirostris (today Leptonectes) and at the front I. platyodon (today Temnodontosaurus). I find it a bit funny that I. communis was reconstructed as such a large beast. While Owen did think at the time that it could grow this large (Witton & Michel 2022), it is known today that it was among the smaller ichthyosaurs, about as imposing as a dolphin. As you can see especially on the Temnodontosaurus, the statues were also in a bit of disrepair, though at least the I. communis seems to have undergone recent restoration.

Among the plesiosaurs we find Plesiosaurus macrocephalus (the leftmost one, today seen as an indeterminate rhomalaeosaurid, possibly a juvenile Thaumatodracon), Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus (the snakey one in the middle, still valid) and Plesiosaurus hawkinsii (the one next to the tail of the Temnodontosaurus, today Thalassiodracon). Gotta love their serpentine and amphibious motions. An interesting thing I learned about the P. macrocephalus model is that its original head has gone completely missing (allegedly due to damage during the Second World War) and has been replaced by a copy from the P. hawkinsii model (Witton & Michel 2022). Originally, the Macrocephalus had a, well, larger head that more accurately reflected its rhomalaeosaurid nature.


Then there were of course the teleosaurs, usually identified as Teleosaurus chapmani (today probably Macrospondylus bollensis). Hawkins obviously modelled and posed them with reference to gharials, which, given the fossils, was a pretty obvious decision. Ironically though, these seemingly easy to reconstruct creatures show one of the more obvious errors in Hawkins' work. Even during his own time it was well known that teleosaurs had an odd armor arrangement, where the back was covered by two rows of plates and the belly by osteoderm sheets, producing an almost turtle-like arrangement (Witton & Michel 2022). But Hawkins seems to instead have simply used modern crocodilians as a reference for the skin instead of the already well-documented fossil data.

Then of course come the dinosaurs, who I think looked very pretty when surrounded by these autumny colours. Seeing these famous statues up close for the very first time really was an experience. Especially the Megalosaurus bucklandii was imposing, stalking through the primeval landscape with no less menace than any Hollywood T. rex.

 

Hylaeosaurus armatus was unfortunately turned away from the visitor path, though this was by Hawkins' design, maybe to show off its armour spikes. I did thankfully make a picture of its original concrete head, displayed at the top of the hill opposite the islands (the head on the current statue is a fibreglass replica). The head is honestly not all that bad of an approximation for an ankylosaur, which is funny, given that Hawkins actually reconstructed this skull based off a stegosaur jaw and sauropod teeth (Witton & Michel 2022).


Along with Megalosaurus, the two Iguanodon are probably the court's most famous denizens. Ironically, I think the reclining individual looked aesthetically more pleasing than the fully restored one at the back, as its degraded colour and overgrown texture blended in with the surrounding vegetation. On a different note, it has apparently become doubtful now if we can even call these Iguanodon, as most of the material that Hawkins used as reference actually came from what is today classified as the genus Barilium (Witton & Michel 2022).

Of the Pterodactylus cuvieri (today Cimoliopterus) I unfortunately could not get a good picture, as they were farther from the path and obscured by vegetation. Looking closely, much of the head of the poor quadrupedal individual seems to be missing. In the Jurassic section of the Secondary Islands there also used to be a second pair of pterosaurs, Pterodactylus bucklandi (reconstructed by Hawkins as small pterodactyloids but today recognized as being based off rhamphorhynchoid bones), which have gone missing twice. The original statues first went missing in the 1930s and were replaced in 2002 with fibreglass replicas. These lasted for only three years before either strong winds or vandals damaged them too much to still be exhibited.


At the end of the Secondary Island, by the weir connecting it to the Tertiary one, was then Mosasaurus hoffmanni, which just looked great. I would honestly take this one over the Jurassic World version. The head of Hawkins' model always reminds me of a bearded dragon.

 

The paleotheres were in a less stellar condition. Palaeotherium medium was pretty worn down, while the P. minus (today Plagiolophus minor) had its whole head missing. Again! The original head went missing somewhen between the 50s and the 90s and was replaced by a copy from the P. medium. Vandals had decapitated this restored model again in 2014. Of course it can always be worse: There used to be a third statue, an elephantine Palaeotherium magnum, which has gone missing completely! When it comes to accuracy, it is today generally doubted that these animals had trunks, as the skull does not show enough signs for the attachment of such an organ. On a side note, fossils of palaeotheres like Plagiolophus are also found in Switzerland and are even exhibited in the museum I work for

The Anoplotherium commune were in much better shape. Anoplotheres are actually starting to become some of my favorite extinct mammals, due to their unique anatomy, which Hawkins already portrayed with broad accuracy. Their vaguely dog-like appearanc just makes me want to pet them. Indeed, I think many of these early mammals would have made for great pets. Like the palaeotheres, anoplotheres were archaic ungulates native to Europe during the Paleogene and died out during the Eocene-Oligocene-Boundary, as the drying up of the Turgai Strait allowed for animals from Asia to migrate to the continent. Their fossils have also been found in Switzerland.



Of the Megatherium (whose right hand seems to be missing) I again could not get good pictures, as it was surrounded by vegetation. But imagine being an early human in the Americas and encountering such a towering beast in the middle of the woods just like this.


At the end were then the Megaloceros, which were in varying states of disrepair. Among them was still the "fawn", which is today known to actually be a misplaced Xiphodon gracilis that was once part of a whole herd on the Tertiary Island.




And at last, here is a bit of artwork I found in and around the court. Cute stuff. That concludes today's post. What will be next? I do not know. Maybe I will reflect on my visit to the Natural History Museum or I will make another non-fiction post on Har Deshur. See you until then!

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References:

  • Witton, Mark & Michel, Ellinor: The Art and Science of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, Ramsbury 2022.

Thursday, 15 December 2022

Tetzoocon 2022 - Day 2

Go here if you have not read part 1 yet. If you want to listen to Me and C.M. Kosemen talk about our experience at the con, you can also check out our two-part podcast on the event:


These podcasts are also available on most RSS-based platforms. Anyway, let's just jump right into things:

The morning of day two was all dedicated towards our favorite flying reptiles, the bir... I mean pterosaurs. Unfortunately, I arrived too late to listen to Elizabeth Martin-Silverstone's presentation on why you should (or shouldn't) CT-scan a pterosaurs. By the title alone I bet it was interesting. I did come in time for Natalia Jagielska's talk about how to describe your own pterosaur. This was much more than her just retelling how her description of Dearc went. Instead it was an actual how-to guide on what to do and what the steps are from the moment of a fossil's discovery all the way up to publishing its description in a scientific journal. Especially notable is the frustration many go through with the process of peer-review (which, in its current form, I hear many paleontologists say nowadays, has become somewhat antiquated), as well as the fact that not everyone may have the financial means to publish their findings. As you can see here, Natalia also made excellent use of memes in her presentation.

After that was the pterosaur roundtable discussion where Jagielska, Martin-Silverstone, Witton, Conway and Naish all sat together and collectively dunked on "the two Daves", also known as David Martill and David Unwin, who have gained a bit of infamy thanks to their dubious claims in recent years around pterosaur biology. Especially telling was Martin-Silverstone's account of how one of the Daves simply tried to evade the discussion when told that fossilized melanosomes were found inside pterosaur pycnofibers, which is pretty conclusive evidence that these fibres were fuzzy epidermal structures on the outside of the body. At the end of the session I actually had a question for the presenters, but there was unfortunately no time for me. I did the next-best thing and asked Darren Naish on his blog afterwards and he gave me a pretty helpful reply. Through Memo I have also heard that John Conway also disagrees with Paul's idea on pterosaur locomotion, at least when it comes to azhdarchids. 

After that was Steve White's presentation on his new Mesozoic Art, the quasi-part-three of his Dinosaur Art book series, but now under a new publisher. White told about all the trouble he went through to get these books published and I think the main take-home message I got from his talk is that nowadays, unless you are a big name or dealing with children's media, it is best for paleoart- or paleontology-themed books to be self-published, something I will have to keep in mind (*wink*wink*).

After lunch and a signing event by everyone at the con who contributed to Mesozoic Art (it was a lot), came another rountable discussion, about something completely different. C.M. Kosemen, Gert van Djik, Jennifer Colbourne, Joschua Knüppe, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Dougal Dixon all sat together to talk about designing alien life. Especially Dixon I felt shined during this event thanks to his sheer enthusiasm. He quipped some funny but also thoughtful comments about the production-constraints on alien designs and also told us more about his novel Greenworld, which still has not gotten an English release! Especially fascinating was his statement that he thinks that real alien life will probably look nothing like what he or the other presenters designed and might resemble more something from Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, which I actually somewhat agree with. Then he surprised everyone when he whipped out his... model of a Greenworld character riding on an alien insectoid creature. It does not go mentioned enough that Dixon is also a pretty great 3D-artist who does an excellent job at turning his speculative creatures into models. The next surprise then came for the whole audtitorium when Spencer Drake, the grandson of the Frank Drake, happened to sit in the audience and asked the presenters their opinion on OG Drake's claim that, due to the constraints of evolving intelligence, most spacefaring aliens will happen to look vaguely humanoid enough that, if you encountered them at night wearing a trenchcoat, you'd probably mistake them for a human. Even though I also disagree with this assessment (I am firmly of the opinion that, when we finally do find extraterrestrial life, even intelligent forms, it could be so different that we might not recognize it as alive at first. I am actually somewhat frustrated with my own alien designs being still too similar to things one might find on Earth, but it is of course difficult to imagine things beyond any of your own frames of reference), I still thought some of the responses to Spencer were a bit too blunt and harsh. Especially Knüppe just saying that he hated it (without elaboration), to the point where he made a parody of the concept where a species evolved a humanoid body shape but happens to have the intelligence of a cockroach (an admittedly fun take, but to take some wind out of his sails, H.G. Wells already did that subversion over 120 years ago).

Then came John Conway's presentation on his new book A History of Painting (With Dinosaurs), which basically sprung up from the question of what would have happened if Renaissance artists and other famous painters, from Dali to Monet and Warhol, had painted dinosaurs. What followed were Vermeer oviraptors and cubist ankylosaurs. Notably, Conway presented the book and each painting as a trial-and-error experience, the whole endeavour basically being an experiment in what styles work and do not work for dinosaur illustrations (and it of course also asks the question what dinosaur art should even be like and if it even needs a specific use to “work”). After All Yesterdays and hyper-realistic paleoart by the likes of Julius Csotonyi and Andrey Atuchin, I believe Conway here crystallized what might very well become the next big paleoart-movement, which I think had already been brewing in the background for a couple of years: A shift away from trying to be photo-realistic and more towards stylisation and experimentation with what methods and styles are useful, both for artistic as well as scientific purposes. And I can already see various areas to expand on where other arists could experiment. Conway restricted himself only to European/western art history from the Renaissance onward, but of course people all throughout the world have developed vastly different and intriguing art-styles since prehistory. How would dinosaurs look through the painting methods of East Asia? How would the Ancient Egyptians have depicted dinosaurs in their tomb reliefs?

Finally came Mark Witton and Ellinor Michel's presentation on The Art and Science of the Crystal Palace Park, a great book I have already written about. Witton and Michel talked about what drove them to write this book, as well as some anecdotes. Very fascinating was Michel's story of how, due to being restricted by her wheelchair, she was forced to stare at the park's alleged Megaloceros fawn for an extended amount of time while Witton and others were closely investigating the main statues, which led to her noticing that it did not at all look like a deer. After further investigation it turned out that this was not meant to be Megaloceros, but actually the last surviving member of a family of four Xiphodon that were originally on the Tertiary Island. As the authors note, such a massive mistake in the park's long history of restructuring makes one wonder what else might be missing from the park's original iteration. Having read the book beforehand, I already knew about the missing Xiphodon, but it was a nice detail to know how exactly Michel and Witton made that discovery.

At last then came the Tetzoocon Quiz. I got only nine out of thirty points, though according to Naish the average is four, so good for me I guess. I definitely appreciated the question about what plot did not happen in the tv show Primeval. I am always happy when people remember that one, but the question made me realize how bizarre this show must have been for people not into it.

And that concludes the first ever Tetzoocon I was able to attend. Laughs were had, merchandise was bought, friends were made. I got to photograph Dougal Dixon being proud of his dinosaur tie (and also bought from him the new 40th anniversary edition of After Man). I hope I made some people tune into the CMTK Podcast and also read Har Deshur. On the day after there was also a guided tour by Naish through the Crystal Palace Park, but I was unable to attend that because then we already had to fly back. However, I did go to the park by myself the day before the convention, and that story shall soon also be told.

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