Tuesday 13 April 2021

Antique Paleoart: Geology and Inhabitants of the Ancient World

Who does not love the Crystal Palace Park? Looking at old, dorky reconstructions is always fun, so today we will take a look at the official guidebook that Richard Owen himself wrote for the park. The book is mostly text, as you were supposed to look at the real life statues while reading it, but there still are some illustrations in it, which give an idea of what the park used to look like/was supposed to look like before major disrepair and restorations befell it. It is also interesting to compare the illustrations with the statues.

First up we have the title page, showing a full geologic column of Britain accurate for the time. As you can see, the Phanerozoic eras were still called Primary (today Paleozoic), Secondary (Mesozoic) and Tertiary, following the classification scheme of Giovanni Arduino, who himself adapted the scheme of flood geologist Jakob Lehmann. Geologic columns are a staple in many paleontological books, but they are mostly drawn as simple diagrams and not depicted with such a beautiful artistic sense. I especially like the inclusion of the fossil plants.

Here is a neat little drawing of the park with the titular Crystal Palace in the background. Said palace, built for the purpose of holding many World Fairs such as the Great Exhibition of 1851, does not exist anymore. On November 30th, 1936, 84 years after it had been relocated from Hyde Park to Sydenham, a large fire completely destroyed the building, despite 89 fire engines and 400 firemen trying to prevent the disaster. What the actual cause of the fire was is still unknown. There are conspiracy theories that someone laid the  fire to sabotage the work of television pioneer John Logie Baird, who conducted tests at the palace’s south tower. The dinosaurs were unaffected by the fire, but the destruction of the park’s main building led to a massive decrease of its popularity, which in turn resulted in the statues becoming neglected and falling into disrepair. Today, ironically, the park is more well-known for its dinosaurs than the palace which gave it its name. Since Kevin Perjurer has focused a lot on World Fairs recently, the whole story could make for a great Defunctland episode.

Next up is Richard Owen’s original restoration of Megalosaurus. That it aged like milk from a Hittite cow I do not have to tell you, but it is interesting to point out that it is also markedly different from the statue that stands in the park. Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’ model has a longer tail, thicker legs, a muscular shoulder-hump and a bigger head, resembling a mix between a crocodile and a rhinoceros. Owen’s illustration resembles a reptilian bear. Mark Witton uses this as evidence that Owen and Hawkins did not work as closely on the models as is often purported. Rather, the models seem to have mostly been made according to Hawkins’ own research, while Owen exaggerated his own input to capitalize off the park’s growing popularity.

We are also treated to this restoration of Plesiosaurus macrocephalus, which, based on what I could find, is not a valid name anymore, though I could not find out what its correct name would be nowadays. As stated in the text, Owen thought that plesiosaurs were able to walk onto land, as, he argues, despite their flippers being whale-like, they had four of them and also had better articulation. This idea has largely fallen out of favour, though as Witton found, not because most plesiosaurs would have been too heavy to have survived out of the water, but rather because their flippers were even worse at crawling than those of sea turtles. That plesiosaurs could hold their necks in swan- or cobra-like positions has also been largely disproven, due to mechanic as well as gravitational reasons. Sorry, Nessie.

We also get an illustration of Labyrinthodon (Today Mastodonsaurus), restored as gigantic frogs, as only the head and limb bones were known. Based on the vegetation I believe this is  not meant to be restoration of the creatures in their life and time, but of the statues sitting on the Secondary Island.

This Labyrinthodon is shown in association with the trace fossil Chirotherium, which was a very popular paleoart-meme at this time (Davidson 2008). Chirotherium footprints were quite mysterious from the moment of their discovery, as the tracks resembled human handprints, but with the thumb on the opposite side of the hand. Early interpretations were that, despite their Triassic age, they were produced by some kind of ape or opossum-like marsupial. Then came Owen, who argued that the prints were left by a giant amphibian, in part because Mastodonsaurus skulls were found in the same sandstone as Chirotherium, but also because he thought the weird arrangement of the thumbs was caused by the animal having long back-legs which crossed over the path’s midline with each step (in other words the left footprints were actually produced by the right foot and vice versa), influencing the very frog-like reconstructions from before (Rieppel 2019). Today we know the footprint and the amphibian were unrelated. Chirotherium and many similar trace fossils were produced by pseudosuchian archosaurs similar to Ticinosuchus, though some older footprints may have also been made by archosauriforms, such as erythrosuchids and protosuchians. Mastodonsaurus meanwhile should be more familiar to you as an alligator-like giant newt rather than as a large frog.

The booklet ends with this illustration of Dinornis, better known as the moa. That is interesting, because no statue of this animal ever actually stood in the park. Hawkins did plan to add it on the Tertiary Island, together with models of Deinotherium and other large mammals, but he ran out of funding before he was able to. Was this included as a preview of what was supposed to come? Or perhaps it was simply included because the discovery of the moa is what made Richard Owen famous in the first place, as in 1839 he deducted based off a single fragment of a thigh bone that New Zealand may have been inhabited by giant, ostrich-like birds once, which proved correct four years later as more remains were found. Based on what was known at the time this reconstruction is pretty decent (yes, they really had no wing- or shoulder-bones whatsoever), though I wonder why so many early moa-depictions show them with diagonally held spines. Perhaps it was to make their size more impressive.

That is basically it. The guide unfortunately only touches on the statues of the Secondary Islands, meaning the Mesozoic/Paleozoic animals, not the statues of Megaloceros, the giant sloth and such. Join me next time though, when we will take a look at an exhibit that never came into existence.

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Related Posts:

Literary Sources:

  • Davidson, Jane: A History of Paleontology Illustration, Bloomington 2008.
  • Owen, Richard: Geology and Inhabitants of the Ancient World, London 1854 (Facsimile Edition).
  • Rieppel, Olivier: Mesozoic Sea Dragons. Triassic Marine Life from the Ancient Tropical Lagoon ofMonte San Giorgio, Bloomington 2019.

Further Reading: