Ever since ‘Gertie
the Dinosaur’ hit the screens in 1914 we have struggled
to bring dinosaurs to life and now, thanks to the miracles of stop
motion photography and CGI, we have over the years become pretty
blasé about them: we have seen them breathe, chase cars, open doors
and eat lots of people! They have fascinated us for over 160 years
and will no doubt continue to intrigue and entertain us for many
decades to come – I have been interested in them for considerably
less time but for me they are still magical and I always look forward
to the latest discoveries and reconstructions.
With all this technology we have forgotten just how marvellous
they were to the Victorians, which is why I like to bring them,
even in a small way, into the Grymm Tooms Travelling Museum.
Imagine trying to reconstruct an Iguanodon
from the scraps left behind in a block of stone at Maidstone when
you had nothing else to compare it to. Or the Herculean task of
from a piece of jaw and a handful of bones. So on 5th September
2006 I took a trip to Crystal
Palace Park to see these famous and fabulous sculptures
The life-size models were designed and made by Benjamin
Waterhouse Hawkins under the guidance of the famous palaeontologist
Richard Owen. They were part of what was, in modern terms,
a theme park that included the re-erection of Joseph
Palace that had stood in Hyde Park. Owen was the man who,
in 1842, coined the name ‘Dinosaur’ (‘Terrible Lizard’) and
later paid an incredible £700 for the equally famous Archaeopteryx
specimen. The project was started in 1852 and was completed in 1854.
This was something of an untimely end as Hawkins had intended to
have another 15 species of mammals, that would include mammoth,
glyptodon and bison, but sadly the Crystal Palace Company ran into
financial difficulties and ordered him to stop work.
Although the site is renowned for the dinosaur models there are
a few mammal sculptures and my first encounter was with a group
two huge stags guarding a doe while a fawn that rests a little further
on. The giant ground sloth, Megatherium,
was next, this is the only model made at great expense entirely
from concrete. Apparently this is still holding the original tree.
In America this giant was adopted by a bunch of eccentric scientists
who formed ‘The
Megatherium Club’ – but that, as they say, is another story.
The other mammals in the collection are a group of Palaeotherium
and two species of Anoplothriums
ambling about by the lake oblivious to the Mosasaur
on the verge of grounding itself in its eagerness to get to them.
The first dinosaur that I had a good look at as I went around the
lake was the Megalosaurus stalking the pair of Iguanodons.
This reconstruction reminds me of Ammut,
"the Devourer of Evil Hearts," the terrible monster who lived in
the underworld of the ancient Egyptians. Megalosaurus was
discovered in 1819 by William
Buckland and has the honour of being the first dinosaur
to be scientifically described in 1824. I have a very nice plaster
cast of part of the lower jaw; the teeth are serrated like those
of a shark. Megalosaurus is also known from the first illustration
of a dinosaur bone made by Robert
Plott 1676 - 77, sadly the whereabouts of this specimen
are not known; no doubt it is in some dusty basement full of unmarked
crates bursting with ancient artefacts.
It is not strictly true that dinner was served inside an Iguanodon
during the construction; Hawkins served up his publicity treat for
22 guests in one of the moulds. None the less the iguanodons are
very impressive, one is obviously playing with a stick that some
Titan has chucked for it while the other might be about to charge
because it caught you spying on its mate. A favourite ‘nit pick’
is the nose horn that some forty years later reveals itself to be
a thumb spike – if you only found one ‘horn’ the obvious place to
put it is the nose, there is, after all a rhinoceros iguana. (Cyclura
cornuta) I heard several people pointing out faults in the
models but to truly appreciate them it is best forget what you know
and just look at them as though you have never seen a dinosaur before
and you will be amazed.
The spiny backed Hylaeosaurus
has other ideas and appears to be heading for cover. It is rather
a pity that when you are close to this creature it has its back
to you although a little further on up the hill you can see the
original head with thick patches of bluish paint still clinging
species are represented here (I. communis, I. platyodon
and I. tenuirostris), each one basking in the shallows like
beached whales rather than the graceful dolphin like animals that
we now know them to be. These specimens are lacking dorsal fins
and have paddle-like tails similar to newts. Mary
Anning found the first ichthyosaur specimen when she was
eleven years old and got £23 – a considerable sum in 1811. The most
amazing thing I found at Lyme Regis was a small coprolite!
There are some pretty lethal looking critters around the lake and
an unwary paddler is likely to get dragged off by the great crocodile-like
teleosaurus or seriously harassed by the writhing plesiosaurs. Perched
on the rocks, waiting for the scraps, are two pairs of Pterodactyls.
The models by the lake are modern reconstructions made from fibre
glass and based on photographs of the originals. Pterosaurs varied
greatly in size, these specimens are huge - I have a cast of Pterdactylus
elegans which was about the size of a sparrow.
The giant toad-like creatures are Labyrinthodonts,
of which there are two species, once again attempts have been made
to reconstruct creatures from minimal specimens, in this case skulls.
We now know that they were crocodile-like amphibians and probably
not to be messed with. The early mammal-reptile Dicynodon
lacerticeps was also reconstructed from a skull and a few
bones; the final result is a creature that looks like a sabre toothed
alligator snapping turtle, a malevolent looking creature in any
I returned to look at the Iguanodon and Megalosaurus
group several times and just as I was about to leave I spotted an
interesting sight; perched on the outstretched wings of the pterodactyls
on the lake shore was a group of feral pigeons, the
inheritors leaving their mark on the ex-masters of the air.
It was time to depart and as I made my way back across the foundation
of the Palace a crow, perched on a plinth, eyed me up in an Edgar
Alan Poe sort of way.
So, go have a look for yourselves, pick up a leaflet and follow
‘The Monster Trail’, forget ‘Jurassic
Park’, pretend that you are a well to do Victorian enjoying
the first attempts to show dinosaurs as living creatures.
This is Prof. Grymm heading for a dinosaur
infested plateau somewhere in South America...