The Highs and Lows of Bone Hunters

For someone who's millions of years old, she's still got it...
Yes, it’s a selfie. One of the hazards of travelling solo is that you have to resort to them occasionally.

Somewhere in my parents’ house is a yellowing piece of paper, over thirty years old. It’s a newspaper clipping, of a brief article with an attached photograph. In the photo are myself and my sister, still in primary school, clutching a book about dinosaurs. We’d just won a competition about those terrible lizards, the prize of which was said book and a trip to the Ulster Museum’s then-new dinosaur exhibit.*

I wish I had a copy of that photo to use for the picture for this article. Instead, you’ll have to settle for a slightly more mature me and an even more appropriate female guest star. Lurking over my shoulder is Sue, the star exhibit of Chicago’s Field Museum, and now a movie star in her own right, with the release of the documentary Dinosaur 13.

I was a dinosaur nut as a kid, perhaps even more so than is usual. I read everything I could get my hands on, not just about the dinosaurs themselves but also about the history of their discovery. From Gideon Mantell’s reconstruction of the Iguanadon to the Bone Wars of Othniel Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, I loved it all. I even wanted to be a palaeontologist before a love of writing got in the way of scientific ambition.

So I wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to watch a documentary on the subject of dinosaurs and their discovery. I didn’t even know that Sue was the star turn of the movie until shortly after it began, but as it turns out, her story is far more interesting than the Field Museum was willing to admit.

Still the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever found, Sue was uncovered in South Dakota in 1990. It took years for her to find her way to the main hall of the Field Museum, only after many court cases as the government sought to convict the bone collectors who’d struck the jackpot in uncovering Sue. Without going into too much detail, it’s a story that combines pride, joy, greed, bureaucracy and naiveté.

It’s not as heavy on the scientific or historical detail as I might prefer, but that’s a personal judgement. This is the story of those who love fossils and dinosaurs and thought that in finding Sue they would finally put their small town on the map. That they ended up facing fines, prison and the combination of government obfuscation and personal greed is something that might conspire to put some people off palaeontology as a career.

Which would be a damn shame. Any career that offers the opportunity of coming into physical contact with the long-vanished past is one that every child ought to at least consider. And thanks to those who seek out fossils such as Sue, millions of children each year now have a chance to come into contact with one of the most impressive creatures ever to walk the planet. As victories go, it may not be complete, but it’s worth the celebration of sentiment that underlines all the hardships that Dinosaur 13 depicts.

*My sister, a year older than I, was nowhere near the dinosaur nut that I was, and was more than a little apprehensive about getting dragged into my interest. Luckily, no one in the museum was interested in interrogating her on the subject.

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