Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Visiting the Sauriermuseum Aathal - Part 1: The Howe Quarry Dinosaurs


Once again, last month I have been to another famous Swiss dinosaur museum, this time the Sauriermuseum Aathal. This is a place very dear to my heart, as it probably is the one museum I visited the most throughout my life so far, so this will be in equal parts me reviewing things, as well as being nostalgic about it. Now, because during my trip I took something like 364 photos, we will obviously not be able to look at them all in one post. This is simply part one of many to come, focussing for now on the history of the museum and the Howe Quarry specimens.

A Little History

The history of the museum is mostly the same as the story of its founder, Hans-Jakob Siber. Siber is often nicknamed Köbi, though because English-speakers for some reason cannot pronounce Umlaute, most Americans just call him Kirby. Kirby Siber was born in 1942 in Zürich to his father Hans Siber, a successful accountant for the fashion house Grieder, which sold Elizabeth Arden’s cosmetic-products. While Switzerland remained neutral during World War II, the Allies did not really have good systems of navigation, so they occasionally dropped their bombs on Swiss cities, mistaking us for the Germans. Siber nearly died in one such air-raid, when in 1945 a bomb landed just 500 meters away from his house, this being one of his earliest memories (Meyer 2014, p. 26). Siber graduated from Gymnasium with Latin being his main subject (same as me, by the way) and went on to study film-studies at the University of Montana. During this time, he created various experimental movies, though he became rather frustrated with the lack of interest people had in his favorite genres. When he was just 22 he got a call from his father back in Zürich. Hans, having gotten into mineral-collecting just like his son, wanted to give up his job of working for Elizabeth Arden and instead open up his own business with his son: A mineral-store in the heart of Zürich. Thus, in 1964, the Siber+Siber company was born and Kirby became its main mineral- and fossil-collector, travelling throughout the world in search for lucrative specimens and through his own digging-expeditions also becoming a self-taught paleontologist.

Fig. 2: The museum-building on the left, then still a cotton-spinning factory, as it looked in the 1930s.

In the course of this career, he made some momentous discoveries in the 70s. First, he uncovered the remains of the largest Archelon specimen known up to that time, which he later sold to the Natural History Museum of Vienna (where it should still be viewable), though before that he showed the giant turtle in the yearly mineral-exhibit of the company’s second shop in Aathal. A few years afterwards, again with the intent of selling the specimen to the Vienna museum, Siber and his team discovered an Edmontosaurus-bonebed at the Mason Ranch of South Dakota. Out of the remains they assembled a full skeleton and brought it to Switzerland in 1981, where it became the first complete dinosaur to ever be mounted in the country. Like with the Archelon, the dinosaur was a major success with audiences at the mineral exhibit and led to a breakdown of the traffic leading up to Aathal. Unfortunately, Siber’s contact-man at the museum went into retirement before another deal could be talked out, so the skeleton turned into a financial setback. The success among visitors did however leave an impression on him. The majority of the 80s Siber spent with his family on expeditions in Peru. Here he was able to get digging rights to Miocene and Pleistocene mammal sites, due to the fact that the Natural History Museum of San Marcos in Lima was extremely dissatisfied with the paleontologists from a French university who were previously granted those rights. These had promised to give the museum at least one full whale-skeleton from the site in return for access, but instead only bothered to excavate the skulls of the animals (due to being the most important part for identification) and essentially smuggling these out of the country under the guise of “diplomatic gifts” (Meyer 2014, p. 120). “I think a Swiss person is more likely to keep their word than a French one”, Hernando de Macedo, then curator of the museum, is quoted as saying (Meyer 2014, p. 120). Siber would prove him right, as he and his team would not only deliver the museum a whale-skeleton, but also erect a smaller museum, the Museo the Sitio Sacaco, on-site, built right around another whale eroding out of the desert dunes to protect it from further weathering. The expeditions bring with them many more complete whales, many of which Siber is able to sell to museums in Germany and Japan, as well as other mammals, such as a fossil horse and even a marine sloth, Thalassocnus. At least one new species was found, which was eventually named Balaenoptera siberi. Unfortunately, five years of successful cooperation came to an end in 1990 as French diplomats, apparently set out for revenge, convinced the Peruvian government to pass a law that allows fossils to be exported out of the country only to established museums. As Siber was not directly associated with any such institution, being more of a private commission-worker, this meant he could not work as usual anymore, so he moved on to North America.

Fig. 3: The first dinosaur to be exhibited in Aathal before the museum even existed, the humble four-ton Edmontosaurus.

After some research, he found that the famous Howe Quarry of the Morrison Formation in Wyoming, where one Barnum Brown had dug out around 25 sauropod dinosaurs, was not actually abandoned in 1934 due to the site being depleted. Instead, the actual land-owner of the ranch, Barker Howe, had felt like he had been tricked by both Brown, the Sinlcair Oil Company which financed the digs and the American Museum of Natural History, as he was the only party that did not financially benefit from the dinosaur-boom which the quarry generated. Thus, he revoked the rights and wrote them over to his family, leading to the site being abandoned, despite there possibly still being some skeletons to be found. Thus, Siber actually located the living descendants of Howe and managed to work out a fair contract with them that would financially benefit them while he was allowed to search for dinosaurs. So the quarry was reopened in 1991 and new fossils were found almost immediately. The most well-known discovery made by Siber and his team the same year was the find of a nearly complete Allosaurus jimmadensi a few hundred meters away from the quarry, this being the famous Big Al, the same one that you probably know from the Walking with Dinosaurs-spin-off. Unfortunately, the skeleton later turned out to have accidentally been found on land owned by the US government, so Siber was not allowed to excavate it or bring it to the museum. With the fossils he did have rights to, he went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and offered them along with his services, but the museum’s president (who, if I am not mistaken, would have been George D. Langdon Jr. at the time) very rudely told him that they would not work with amateurs like him. Obviously feeling insulted, this caused Kirby Siber to go full Bender Rodriguez: Learning from the mineral-exhibits of the 70s and using the money he had acquired selling whale-skeletons in the 80s, in 1993 he purchased the old cotton-spinning factory opposite the mineral-shop in Aathal and turned it into a dinosaur museum to exhibit all the Howe Quarry saurians.

And from there everything escalated in possibly the most beautiful way possible.

Fig. 4: Siber posing with a sauropod bone during the first Howe Quarry expeditions in the 90s. He is thankfully still with us and, despite technically being in retirement, still goes on big digs.

Museum Entrance and the Howe-Quarry-Dinosaurs

And here we are now. One of the first things you notice about the museum is that from the outside the building looks very small, but once you enter it the interior appears ridiculously large, like you just entered a pocket-dimension. A paleontological TARDIS if you will. This is immediately exemplified by the fact that the entrance hall alone has room for an entire sauropod replica and then a gift shop too to the right outside of the frame. And would you look at that, there’s Mark Hallett’s old reconstruction of Mamenchisaurus at the back.

Speaking of paleoart, entering the first hallway, one is immediately greeted by some absolute classics. Next to Burian, Gurche and Hallett you could also find Barlowe, Sibbick, Paul and so on.

The entrance to the Howe Quarry exhibit was very charmingly decorated in a wild west log-cabin aesthetic. On the one hand that is probably how most of the architecture at the place was really like, on the other most people across Central Europe simply love that style, probably thanks to Karl May.

My girlfriend Miranda posing in the hallway, behind her a photo of Kirby Siber with the remains of some truly titanic beast. The door on the right led into a small exhibit room about fossil amber (more on that in a future post), the right one further back to a permanent exhibit about dinosaurs in comics, satires and movies (again, more of that in the future), and the door far back on the left to the hall housing the fully reconstructed Howe dinosaur-skeletons.

Yours truly with the skull of Big Al Two. This was the actual original skull, not just a replica. Unlike the more famous Big Al One, this guy here, discovered in 1996, was found in the Howe Quarry itself, so Siber could bring it home, totally unlike England in the last EuroCup. The brain-cast on the lower left is not actually all that small if viewed from up close. Clever girl? Who knows?

Also the original specimen was this skull of Camarasaurus “E.T” or SMA 0002, unearthed in 1993.

Rear-view of “Max”, the diplodocid Galeamopus, which the Siber-team found in 1995. This specimen was actually different enough from the original type species, G. hayi, that it was assigned its own new species, Galeamopus pabsti, honoring Swiss paleontologist Ben Pabst, who had accompanied Siber on many expeditions.

To give you a better idea of his size, here is me standing next to Max (admiring his thickness). I am about 1.73 meters tall, to give you a reference point, the dinosaur is estimated to have been about 18 meters long. In the foreground stands Diplodocus “H.Q. Eins” (Howe Quarry One), on its hind legs from the floor below to fill up the whole building.

Again me for reference point. H.Q Eins is estimated to have been about 17 meters long. The dinosaur was not complete (which is the likely reason why it has not been assigned a definitive species yet), the hindlegs and pelvis were mostly missing and had to be reconstructed with plaster, though as the plaque tells us, this gave the museum the freedom to display it in a more dramatic pose. That diplodocids could rear up into such a posture is generally agreed on to have been plausible, though there is a debate if they were high-browsers who regularly did this to reach high tree-tops or if they were grazers who only did this on occasion. I think they were high-browsers, bite me.

The mentioned plaque used an old drawing by Robert Bakker to my delight, showing a mother defending her child from a small pack of Allosaurus. I wonder if Bakker made this drawing during the time he hypothesized that sauropods gave live birth to single young.

Again, speaking of art, there was also a nice painting of how the Howe Quarry may have formed. Unfortunately, I could not make out the signature of the artist, though at least the date is 2008. The idea of the Howe Quarry once having been a mud-trap still stands its ground, as most of the sauropods here were found with their legs still standing upright and their feet fully articulated (Foster 2020, p. 115). The same explanation does however not seem to be valid anymore for the, perhaps more famous, Cleveland-Lloyd Quarry of Utah. Unlike the Howe Quarry, none of the dinosaurs at the Utah site are preserved standing up and in fact, some even have Allosaurus-bite-marks on their feet, which you would not expect if these animals died being stuck in mud.

Behind the Diplodocus, in a rather cute sitting posture, was also “H.Q. Zwei”, a 9-meter long Kaatedocus specimen found in 1992. The species name is self-explanatory, the genus name is a mix between the name of Diplodocus and the Crow-word for “small”, so its full name means “Siber’s small Diplodocus”. Imagine not only owning a private dinosaur museum but also exhibiting a dinosaur named after yourself. Studies were actually done on the neck of this specimen which showed that sauropods actually had a great deal of flexibility in them, another point for them holding their necks in elevated positions, not horizontally (Christian et al. 2011).

Another hint towards a vertical/diagonal neck-posture might be “E.T” from earlier, here shown as the nearly complete skeleton as it was found on site. While yes, this is just the pose it died in, the articulation still indicates that this neck-posture was anatomically intended. Camarasaurus was always one of my favorite sauropods, Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis is probably to blame for that.

At the top floor again was Othnielosaurus “Barbara”, found in 1996. I unfortunately forgot to take a picture of Barbara’s life-painting, which actually showed her with proto-feathers! This must have been a pretty new update, because on my last visit about three years ago she was still shown with scales.

H.Q. Eins was eternally damned to stare at a Camptosaurus, perhaps as a divine punishment that we humans are too feeble-minded to understand. If this one also had been given a name I unfortunately could not find out. I was honestly a bit surprised actually taking a good look at the skeleton. Camptosaurus is one of those dinosaurs that is often included in your classic dinosaur-books, but not one you ever actually bother to look up in more detail. Thus, all the old Sibbick- and Zallinger-esque illustrations made me believe that it was basically just a proto-Iguanodon, so seeing the skeleton up close I was actually shocked how gracile and bird-like the animal really looked, basically being just an overgrown dryosaur.

And here we have the full mount of Big Al Two, though of course with the head here being the replica, the real one being in the vitrine from before. While Al Two is not as beaten up as Al One, it still had broken neck-vertebrae, a broken shoulder-bone and a few broken ribs, attesting to a pretty tough life. Despite so many mauled Allosaurus specimens, it is somehow always Ceratosaurus who gets shown getting beaten up in Morrison reconstructions.

Underneath all those giants lies “Toni”, found in 2000. Despite his small size, he may actually be the scientifically most important find that the Siber-team made at the Howe Quarry. Except for the skull (the one you see here is a reconstruction) it is a nearly complete skeleton of a baby sauropod that was less than 2 meters long. Consensus is that he died around the age of 1 to 1.5 years, making him the only sauropod-fossil ever found so far from this age-range. What species Toni actually belonged to is still being discussed, though he is agreed to be some sort of basal titanosauriform. This makes it very plausible that Toni is actually a juvenile Brachiosaurus (Foster 2020, p. 132). It would be quite ironic if the smallest dinosaur found at the Howe Quarry actually belonged to one of the largest species of the Morrison ecosystem.

Finally, the Siber-team also found three stegosaurs at the quarry, though these were housed separately from the other dinosaurs in the fossil-wood/plants exhibit probably to spice that one up. The one you see here is named “Victoria” (the specimen at the back), who was not your Stegosaurus proper, but is actually assigned to Hesperosaurus mjosi. The numbered sections you see are actual skin-impressions that were found with the skeleton. As expected, they show small, hexagonal, non-overlapping scales (sorry to anyone who wanted to reconstruct them with a fuzzy underside), as is typical for most large dinosaurs. Victoria also preserved impressions of the surface of one of the back-plates, which show a smooth, non-scaly texture, heavily suggesting that these were indeed covered in keratin-sheaths.

Another Hesperosaurus was “Lily” here, who was preserved with a nearly complete skeleton. Despite living in the Morrison, Hesperosaurus is considered to have been more closely related to either English Dacentrurus or Chinese Wuerhosaurus, rather than Stegosaurus.

One of the dinosaur’s skulls was neatly reconstructed in what I can only call a “kaleidosauroscope”. See, stegosaurs had beaks. Take note, Jurassic World.

And finally there was Hesperosaurus “Moritz”, who was perhaps the most beautiful mount out of the three, but I decided to show you him here from afar, both to tease you and so that the fossil wood exhibit is the actual center of attention as it should be. Paleobotany deserves respect too, you know.  

And that was the (way too long) part 1. Next time we will look at the special exhibits. Expect trilobite-movies, feathered dinosaurs, dinosaurs in art and cultures around the world, meteorites and a whole lot more!

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  • Christian, Andreas et al.: Neck posture in sauropods, in: Klein, N/Remes, K./Gee, C. et al. (eds.): Biology of the sauropod dinosaurs. Understanding the life of giants, Bloomington, 2011, p. 251 – 260.

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  • Fig. 2: Wikimedia.
  • Fig. 3: Meyer 2014, inset.
  • Fig. 4: Meyer 2014, inset.
  • All others taken by me.

Sunday, 20 June 2021

Antique Paleoart: The Lost Paleozoic Museum

The Crystal Palace Park from the last post should be something well-known to most of you. What is less well-known is that the park was supposed to have a follow-up by the same modeller, constructed in the Central Park of New York no less. In 1868, seventeen years after the first opening of the Crystal Palace exhibit, the managers of the then newly created Central Park commissioned Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins to build new sculptures of prehistoric animals for their own park, which would be housed in an exhibit called the Paleozoic Museum. Why exactly it was going to be called that I am not sure, because by the looks of it none of the planned animals to be featured actually came from the Paleozoic. Unfortunately, this park never came into existence and all that exists now is concept art and sketches. Why? Read until the end to find out.

Before we take down the mood with a depressing story, let us simply appreciate what still exists. Here we see one of the earliest concepts, probably drawn in 1868 (Davidson 2018). Presumably the actual size of the museum and other details were still unknown. As you can see, unlike its British counterpart, all the sculptures were supposed to be housed in the same building, a glass palace (maybe intentionally) very similar to the one that existed in Hyde Park. As a consequence, the animals were not separated by their time period anymore but shown in one menagerie, though it seems Hawkins wanted to make at least some attempt to separate the mammals and dinosaurs through islands or pedestals. The science in here, while still goofy-looking, had greatly advanced since the Crystal Palace days. Ten years prior in 1858 William Parker Foulke discovered the remains of Hadrosaurus in Illinois, which were more complete than any other dinosaur-material in Europe and showed that instead of the rhinoceros-like creatures they were previously depicted as they were actually more kangaroo-like animals which walked on two bird-like legs. In the short time between this discovery and until the first description of Camarasaurus in 1877 it actually became common thought that all dinosaurs were bipedal (leading to pretty funny Stegosaurus-reconstructions). The same year as Hawkins was put to task for the Paleozoic Museum he also made the first full-scale skeletal reconstruction of Hadrosaurus, the first mounted skeleton of any dinosaur, for the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. Obviously, he wanted to (and did) use this model as a base for his sculptures and Hadrosaurus seems to have been the center-piece of the Paleozoic Museum, towering over the theropods and even the mastodons. The theropods here are meant to be Laelaps (Dryptosaurus), described two years prior from incomplete remains. They look pretty weird, considering that Hawkins could have just made them “Megalosaurus but bipedal”, like he did in later murals. There is something gargoylean about them, especially the ones fighting over the carcass resemble naked vultures. They actually remind me of early fan-art of the fellbeasts of Mordor (before the Peter Jackson movies). Another oddity is the eel-like creature on the bottom right. That is not meant to be a mosasaur, no, that is actually supposed to be Elasmosaurus platyurus (Davidson 2018). Remember, Edward Cope had just described this animal in 1868 and, infamously, misplaced the head on the tail, mistaking the ridiculously long neck for the tail. Even considering Cope’s error, this reconstruction is odd, because the hindlimbs are missing, the ones on the front look like articulated arms instead of flippers and the head looks like that of an iguana instead of the already known skull of Elasmosaurus. It is for reasons like this that Jane Davidson speculates that this concept art was drawn before Cope had even published his description and Hawkins was working on only the vaguest information (Davidson 2008, p. 72).

Here we see the same concept one year later and more detailed. Elasmosaurus has now already been dramatically overworked (looking closer to the plesiosaurs in Crystal Palace), in part because Cope had actually sent Hawkins the animal’s pelvic bones as reference material. Another major change is the exhibit itself. The building has shrunk down but also been decorated livelier with various ferns and other scenery-plants. It actually reminds me a lot of the main hall of the Sauriermusem Aathal, which I recently revisited again (hint, hint). The back-wall was apparently also supposed to have had a mural at this point and the menagerie was separated from the viewers by a wall or ditch. The hallway behind the balcony was likely meant to further house fossils and miniature models. The dinosaurs still look remarkably active and lively and unlike in the Crystal Palace Park actually engage in conflict. Hawkins also employs his tried and tested method of depicting at least two individuals of the same species doing different stuff to give the animals a believable range of behaviour.

Here is an engraving of Hawkins’ Central Park Studio. The reclining Hadrosaurus and Megaloceros were apparently already finished for the exhibit. Some sort of crocodilian was also planned. There are also two smaller figurines in the center. I believe these were not meant for the grand exhibit but rather were miniatures of Hadrosaurus and Laelaps, likely to be exhibited in vitrines in the back-halls of the balcony. According to Davidson, the rocks on the lower left right to the large bones might be the aforementioned Elasmosaurus-concretions that Hawkins was allowed to borrow (Davidson 2018).

Here we see another depiction of the scene, though with slightly wonkier details. Maybe it was based on the above drawing or was drawn from life when the workshop was tidied up a bit. Interestingly the skeletal mount of Hadrosaurus now bears its trademark tree that the model was usually reclining on.

And finally, here are actual surviving photographs of the workshop, proving that the above drawings were not just some fancy concepts. The second photograph is especially interesting due to the second skeleton being assembled. Mark Witton speculates that this may have been the model for Laelaps, which records indicate was finished up shortly after the photo was taken. We can also see in the background many skeletons of modern birds which Hawkins used as reference. Now, you probably want to know what happened to all of this. By the late 1860s New York City was in the iron grip of one man named William Magear Tweed, who is widely considered to have been one of the most corrupt politicians in American history. Working his early youth through various bands and gangs, he eventually became the boss of the Tammany Hall Society, which had large control over the Democratic Party of New York. In 1852 this led to him becoming the councillor of the city, as well as a member of the United States House of Representatives. Tweed used his position for exorbitant amounts of personal gain, by bleeding the city’s funds dry, putting his own men in important positions and granting them contracts, which they used to sell products to the state for ridiculously inflated prices. Almost all critics or adversaries were bribed to stay quiet or were bullied into submission. During the zenith of his power he had become the third-largest owner of real-estate in the city. The Paleozoic Museum and the Central Park in general were a great nuisance to him, as he thought they were a waste of money. In an 1870 legislature he removed Andrew Green from the park’s administration and replaced him with his own man, Peter Sweeny, to gain direct control of it and exploit it for all that it was worth. Shortly after, work on the museum was halted under the pre-text that it costed the taxpayers too much money. The foundations that were already laid were filled up with dirt and concrete. The next year something truly heinous happened. Vandals, paid by Sweeny and Tweed, broke into Hawkins’ workshop and destroyed the already finished models of Hadrosaurus, Laelaps and various other animals with sledgehammers and buried the shards in the park. Not only the finished models, but also the moulds and concept models were destroyed in the process, as well as the Elasmosaurus-remains Cope had lent out, for no other reason than wanton vandalism. Why exactly Tweed resorted to these actions is unclear, as he could have easily sold the models to institutions like the Smithsonian for easy money. According to some sources, Hawkins publicly spoke out against Tweed’s corruption, likely making this an act of revenge. Tweed’s personal comments however also indicate that he was very doubtful of the science of paleontology and he referred to the modelled animals as “alleged to be of the pre-Adamite period.” (Desmond 1975), indicating that he was sceptical of the creatures actually coming from a time before humanity existed. It therefore seems plausible that Tweed was what we would today call a young-earth-creationist and that he held a personal grudge against the models because they offended his religious beliefs. This might further explain why such a greedy man wanted to squash a project that would have otherwise brought many visitors to the Central Park, potentially increasing his revenue: He did not want people to be educated about prehistoric life. Disturbingly there still are people with such attitudes in American politics, though they now tend to come from the Republican party. Then again, this was before the 1960s, when the two parties completely switched their voter-bases.

Hawkins, devastated with the loss, went to Princeton University to draw murals (which thankfully still exist) and build one more dinosaur model, before he went back home to England. A few months after the destruction of the museum, county sheriff James O’Brien, upset about not being paid enough bribes by Tweed, decided to talk to the press and leak the large amounts of embezzlement that the Tammany Society was involved in. After national and international investors became shocked at how badly the city’s finances were managed and how it might not be able to repay its debts, the Society’s funds were cut, making Tweed unable to pay the workers he relied on, thus eroding away his voterbase. After further investigation under Andrew Green, Tweed was finally arrested, bailed out for 1 million dollars, later got arrested again, served one year in prison, got sued for embezzlement again, got jailed again and on an allowed home visit escaped to Spain. There he was recognized by a policeman as a fugitive, thanks to detailed caricatures made by Thomas Nast (which you can see above) that were used as wanted posters, and brought back to America, where in 1878 he finally died in jail from pneumonia. A slightly funny anecdote to end this story is that the policeman, presumably due to not speaking English, interpreted the caricature as Tweed being wanted for kidnapping, not corruption.

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