Grymm Tooms Travelling Museum
Coming of the dinosaurs...
 

 

 

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 creating Megalosaurus 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 for myself.

The life-size models were designed and made by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins under the guidance of the famous palaeontologist Sir Richard Owen. They were part of what was, in modern terms, a theme park that included the re-erection of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal 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 of Megaloceros, 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 to it.

Three Ichthyosaurus 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 circumstance.

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...