The conclusion of this painting’s 700 mile 20 year round trip is a fitting end to this series of my work and I feel like my summer projects have been finally completed.
A quick backstory on the painting’s subject in case you are catching up on this at the end: The cotylorhynchus is an early Permian synapsid that was first described by OU’s own J. Willis Stovall in 1937. The species name for the specimen found just north of Norman is Romeri for Alfred Romer (1894-1973), the founder and first president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology which now grants the Romer Prize to predoctoral students for work excellence of scientific value and oral presentation at SVP’s annual meeting.
Shead’s 1938 painting is the first attempt at depicting the animal in life and while there are many issues with the interpretations by today’s standards, it stands as a testament to his skill as an artist and the importance of paleoart, even in the 1930s. The painting itself lived in the Stovall Museum until the time came to move into the new building in the late 90s early 2000. There are a few different accounts to where it was found initially, leaning up behind a vacant building, next to the trash receptacle, or similar, but either way it was slated to be discarded. Either room or just it’s own out of date representations of science may have doomed it, but thankfully a cheerful passerby inquired about taking it and it was saved.
I don’t know the names of any of the parties involved at this point, but at least 2 different stories corroborate what happened next: The painting made it’s way to the finder’s brother who was attending A&M down in College Station, Tx and hung in his apartment until he graduated whereupon he presented it to the Biodiversity Research and Teaching Lab. There the “Komodo Dragons” quickly became a staff favorite.
Now, something about this painting if you haven’t made it out by this point is it’s size. The thing is nearly ten and a half feet long and over four feet tall. This wasn’t just swept away under an arm like a folded newspaper. To relocate this thing anywhere required work, and a great deal of it.
Thankfully the powers that be at the research lab agreed to gift the painting back to the Sam Noble where it now nearly completes some semblance of a “set” of what Shead paintings I have been able to track down. A pickup date was scheduled that coincided with a need to transfer some textiles from another collection on the A&M campus to Sam Noble and we were to initially head down sometime between the 28th and the 30th of August.
Poseidon, not being a fan of art or terrestrial fauna, had other plans. Hurricane Harvey, in addition to the immense devastation along the Texas coast, postponed the painting’s return trip. We eventually rescheduled for September 25th and 26th.
Texas A&M is about 357 miles from the University of Oklahoma and after picking up the rental van and removing what seats we could, we loaded it with all our packing and strapping and were finally headed south around 10:30 am.
The next morning we met the Biodiversity Heritage folks and prepared to claim the prize. As if making up for the delay, luck smiled on us in the form of a masonite backing on the painting which made if far easier to secure in the van. Some framing, lashing, and a few knots and it was ready to return to it’s ancestral home.
We picked up the textiles across campus and left College Station nearly exactly 24 hours after we have left Norman. We caught a break in the rain bands when we unloaded the cargo and it is now safely in “the bubble” where it will rest in a type of quarantine for a few weeks before getting it’s frame worked on and joining the other wayward Shead paintings.
Not only is the Cotylorhynchus Norman’s native son, but it is the only painting of Shead’s that we have a photograph of him painting. I don’t think I could ever thank the wonderful folks at A&M enough for agreeing gift it to us. To think that it could be displayed with the photograph of the artist at work gives me an incredible sense of satisfaction with how this whole thing has played out.
Seeing just this sampling of Ralph Shead’s work, now nearly all collected back under one roof, is amazing just from the art and the historical perspective. If these enormous works can ever be displayed together in the same room it would certainly be testament to the power of paleoart and paleoartist–past and present –to still inspire awe in the visitor.
Several days after visiting with Ralph’s great nephew, Bill, he called me to say he had found a small watercolor study for one of the old museum dioramas and a few charcoal studies that Ralph had done as a student and others that were originals submitted as accompanying illustrations for short stories.
I was finally able to go back with my camera and take better photos of the paintings as well as look at these new finds. Those “few” sketched turned out to be an enormous century-old portfolio filled with over 100 pieces of art that Ralph had done either for story illustrations, studies, or magazine cover layouts. I was in awe.
The magazine covers were layout for The Specialty Salesman: The National Inspirational Monthly for Men and Women who Sell. The earliest cover layout was the January 1924 issue. I have no idea if these are the same ones that include the illustrations, but I have three years worth (12 months collectively bound) requested through interlibrary loan to find out.
Other covers included a music journal and an advertising flyer for the ad service that Ralph was working for in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
The nudes and studies are not dated but could be from his time as a student at the University of Oklahoma. The earliest dated piece is from 1916 which was Ralph’s senior year at OU. The architectural details (Cherokee Gothic) reveal that it is somewhere on campus.
Most of the illustrations, when dated, are 1925 and 1926. These make up the bulk of the portfolio, which, incidentally survived the house burning down in 1937. Flipping through these huge (18×24 inches) original illustrations was something that doesn’t happen every day, and all could have easily been lost 80 years ago. In addition to just being great artwork, the instructions for the engraver and printer were included on many including the finished sizes for printing, the largest being a mere 8.25 inches.
There a a few pastels and watercolors among the monotones as well.
One of the watercolors ties back into Shead’s museum work. It is a watercolor sketch for one of the many dioramas he painted for the Stovall Museum at the University of Oklahoma starting around 1933. Shead created these Leptomeryx plaster models for reference.
Finally, in the back of the giant portfolio was a “regular” sized sketchbook. The remaining sketch pages were all landscape studies from the 1940s complete with the color descriptions for painting– things like “pinkish bluff” and “light purplish bluff.” Many of these are recognizable areas for anyone who frequents the Southwest. Most specifically the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico.
The Sandia Mountain sketch is dated September 1948 which means this enormous portfolio spans at least 32 years of work including Shead’s time as an OU art student, his work as a professional advertising and illustration artist, his return back to Norman and his unfathomable amount of artwork at the museum, and, likely, the personal landscapes that adorn the walls of his home. Such a corpus of work, in addition to the fact that nearly anything at the Stovall Museum with paint on it was his, proves that R.B. Shead is fantastically more than the few sentences dedicated to him in the “official” university histories.
For me, History is filled with people and things. I have never really indulged in the movements and theories and isms that seem to infect the past presently. For a historian this is a professional character defect, for me it is what brings history alive and allows us to find our connections to it. It is likely why I spent so much time learning archaeology and paleontology. I believe it is ultimately what lead me to the history of science so I could talk about all of that at once.
When I first came to OU and was getting settled across campus with the few people I had some connection with I was shown around the Sam Noble Natural History Museum. On the second floor back in the hallway to the VP lab and collections there are these two enormous paintings (13.5 feet long by 3.5 feet high). After taking in the scale and content of these behemoths I immediately looked for the signature. “Ralph B. Shead ’42” and “Ralph B. Shead ’34 (or 39 it is obscured by the frame I believe it is 34).
Who was this artist? What else had he done, and why was he doing these things at this scale? This was years before I started the digitization and scanning project and information was slow in coming. I wouldn’t even find a photo of him for 2 years. When I started scanning and updating an internal manuscript on the history of the museum I gleaned a little more information.
You can see how hard it is to piece this stuff together. Langston missed Shead’s retirement by a few years which is understandable because Langston was working at the National Museum of Canada from 1954-62. Shead stayed at the Museum until 1960 or 61 and he wan’t simply the museum artist. In addition to his museum technician and painting work he served as the Oklahoma sate superintendent for the WPA during the 30s (when the bulk of his work was completed). The WPA records and receipts over in our Western History Collection indicate that some paint and supplies were purchased as part of the “Fossil Bones” project making at least the two paintings upstairs technically WPA art. Through some interesting turn of events another giant (13-footer) painting now resides down at the Texas A&M Biodiversity Heritage prep lab. The irony behind this is that its subject matter is Norman’s native (Permian) son–the Cotylorhynchus.
The Cotylorhynchus painting falls under the WPA years as well and was complete with the aid of a plaster or clay model he created.
Shead also created other plaster models for reference, and I believe he was the one who fashioned/oversaw the plaster for the Procamelus (now Aepyicamelus) skeletal reconstruction that accompanied the skull until it disintegrated.
The bulk of Shead’s work predates the formation of the WPA by a year. They were the “missing” and then “rehomed” paints from the previous two posts. They are also impressive in scale and scope as well, and add three more paleontology paintings to Shead’s portfolio. Ralph’s great-nephew told me that the marine reptiles mural wasn’t one of Ralph’s. Conrad said he was certain that it was a signed just as the Mammoth was, of course the place where his signature would have been was unfortunately damaged when it was removed from the wall. It doesn’t look quite like other works by Shea, and was painted on sheetrock and not canvass like Shed’s other works, but he did paint most everything that was in the museum. If anyone out there has a photo of this with the signature intact please send it along.
The moving of these paintings led to some renewed interest in some old emails and leads that were passed to me for follow up. Chasing down contacts I was able to locate the final “missing” mural that I was aware of living peacefully over in the Geology Graduate offices in Sarkey’s. It is another of Shead’s giants too, this one of a Carboniferous landscape painted in 1938 (during the WPA funded period)
There were also some Shead paintings reportedly hanging out in the microbiology department so I went in search for them. There were three, two in an classroom/lab and one in the herbarium office. These were as surprising as the marine reptile mural because I had never seen mention or reference of them. I photographed them to add to my ever-growin Shead dossier. When I was processing the images later that evening I noticed that there were no signatures on the microscope or fungi ones, but I assumed they had been covered by the frame (looking back now I don’t think that is the case, I just need to look harder).
The other one was even more surprising because while it is a Shead painting, it wan’t painted by Ralph.
I had no idea there *was* a Robert Shead and that added a whole new layer to the simple project of documenting Ralph B. Shead’s work. I found even less on Robert Shead (1908-1999) than his older brother Ralph. Robert had a son who ended up working at an internationally acclaimed interior design firm in Dallas. That son’s, (David LaForge Shead) obituary outlined his work followed in his parents’ footsteps studying art and design at OU. I haven’t been able to track down Robert’s years at OU yet. William Shead confirmed all this and added that Robert had a lucrative interior design company in Oklahoma City. He even served as a designer during his war service years, boasting that he has designed the interior of MacArthur’s private plane. He also confirmed that the fungi and the microscope were Robert Shead paintings and not Ralph’s.
Ralph however received his certificate of art in 1916, 14 years before Stovall arrived at the university, and became *the* name associated with all things museum and paleontology related. David Levy’s The University of Oklahoma: A History, Volume II 1917-1950 only mentions Shead in a single sentence: “Ralph Shead, a professional artist who became a long time employee of the museum, designed displays and created historic murals.” (214). At least two of which include a Jurassic scene and the background for the oreodon exhibit. Not only did Shead paint the background but he did the figure sculpting for the diorama as well.
Pretty short-shrift for someone who produced four 13+ foot paintings, three slightly smaller ones, and served as acting director of the museum between 1952 and 54 (Stovall died in 1953) after the “new” Museum was opened in 1951.
The paleontology paintings aren’t even the largest scale that Shead worked with while painting at OU. There is an enormous geological map of Oklahoma painted with various labor scenes around it that I will be spending some time with next week photographing more completely and attempting to do some digital repairs on it.
Shead wasn’t bound to the art studio during his tenure at the museum. As WPA superintendent part of his work included accompanying the visitors and press to sites worked under WPA funding. Here here is during the “This Project Pays your Community” public tour week in the Cimarron County Dinosaur Quarry.
Similarly, Shead’s fieldwork was not simply administrative. There were times when Shead as a “museum technician” was involved in the dirt of the excavation, and like his paintings he worked with dinosaurs and extinct mammals.
Later in 1941 Shead published a 7 page informational booklet on the Bear Zuni Fetishes from the Spiro Mounds archaeological excavations. Spiro was another scientific University WPA project. OU Anthropology students Shawn Lambert and Lucius Martin presented a poster highlighting the OU WPA artists and their illustrations for the Spiro project and publications. Interestingly this poster hangs in the same paleontology hall as the first two Shead paintings that I saw.
While I was working on this collection of Shead work, I contacted his great nephew William who not only lives in Norman, but lives at the original Shead address. The original house burned in the 1930s and the current house is a gorgeous faux adobe Mexican colonial partially designed by Ralph with the interior designed by Robert. It is definitely my favorite house in Norman.
I spent the afternoon surrounded by even more of Ralph’s art in his old house catching up on the Shead family history which is as fascinating as I had figured and in a surreal way similar to threads of my mother’s side of my family. Just to add all the smaller pieces of Shead’s work here to what is part of the University it is obvious that Shead painted all the time. Some of these landscapes are from the areas in the panhandle area which William said Shead really liked. I am going to make it a habit of visiting more often and next time I will have my big camera, but for now, having all of Ralph’s extant work together, even if it is just digitally. is a pretty fulfilling feat. There is at least one more that was given to a family psychologist friend. Either set of these would be an impressive portfolio, when lumped together is simply staggering.
Most are normal “house-art” sized (16×20 or so) except the Mexican scene, it is at least 48×60. I want to try and get some better photos of at least that one for a print.
I don’t know much more about the artist that was born in New Madrid, Missouri in 1892; What was he up to between 1916 and 1933 when he started painting for Stovall and the museum? Shead’s WWI draft card lists him as a school teacher in Jenks in June of 1917. William said he thought Shead was pursuing a master’s degree in art in Indiana before the family called him home to help during the depression. A few newspapers have him exhibiting art at the Herron Art Museum and the Indiana State Fair. He is mentioned as living in Indianapolis with his brother Walter (newspaper reporter) in the reports of Laurance’s death in 1933. An article in the Inianapolis Star (January 8, 1935) lists Shead as having attended Washington University in St. Louis, MO, the Grand Central School of art, and the School of Design in New York. It mentions his OU museum murals and a potrait of Bishop Francis Kelly of the Catholic diocese of Tulsa and Oklahoma City which all seem to have been completed in 1934.
His plans to return to Indianapolis in 1935 changed when he became the WPA Oklahoma state superintendent that same year. When the WPA folded, Shead became the assistant director of the University Museum, serving as “acting director” from 1952 to 1954 when the Hungarian-born archaeologist Stephan Francis Borhegyi took over the museum directorship.
According to William Eugene Hollon’s A History of the Stovall Museum of Science and History (1956), during the late 1940s through the early years of the 1950s Shead was the only full-time museum employee. He serve as assistant director and head of exhibit preparation at the renamed Stovall Museum until he retired in 1960. He continued to paint the rest of his life finally laying down his brush in 1969.
Shead is buried next to his parents and brother (not Robert) in the the St. Joseph’s Catholic section of the Norman IOOF cemetery on Porter St. in Norman, less than 50 yards from J. Willis Stovall and his wife. There is an American Legion medallion next to his headstone. There were even a story tied to the headstone.
The large Shead stone was created by Shead’s father James. He was skilled with concrete and decorative planters and birdbaths are part of the front garden at the house.
The family stories are not without tragedy either. The brother Laurance that is buried here was a fairly successful theatre manager at the Garden Theatre in Paterson, New Jersey who was known to help anyone down on there luck. One such patron, a prospective singer from Georgia named Louis Kenneth Neu took advantage of his kindness, accompanied Laurance to his apartment for a party, and eventually hit him from behind with an iron and stole his wallet. Laurance died of his injuries and Ney was later apprehended and executed in New Orleans for the murder of Laurence Shead and a wealthy Tennessee businessman.
Their mother Mary is, so far, the longest-lived Shead, and her story ties the family to one of the most significant geological stories in North America. Her Father’s Grandfather, a LaForge survived the New Madrid Earthquake only to catch pneumonia from wading through the slush that was once his farmland when the Mississippi River flooded. He later succumbed to his illness ultimately making him another victim of the quake.
His surviving work is impressive by any standard, and that isn’t taking into account all the already (really) lost “displays” and “historic murals” that served as backdrops for all the dioramas throughout the museum. His work isn’t simply art or background, paleontology or archaeology. His work crisscrossed all aspects of the museum, its collections, and ever expanding subject areas (which I think is why I have been drawn to finding out more about him). They also remain some of the strongest physical links to the history of the university museum outside of the collection artifacts themselves.
Continuing with the Scooby Doo theme here I get to update one of the most exciting stories that has happened since my time here. You remember my last lament of the missing murals? Well guess what isn’t “missing” anymore!
This is far more than a “ta-da” story and I need to explain about the use of “” above missing. Through the years and many renovations and relocations things get shuffled and repurposed. Such was the case of the old museum storage facility. When the University Landscape Management HQ and shop moved into the old building there were four large paintings standing in the corner stacked against each other.
Luckily, Conrad Zindel, a 17-year-old temp worker in 1997 liked them enough to hang them in their break room (which I am convinced is the only reason they’ve survived intact/ this long/at all). This is why I used the “” earlier, because for me they were missing, but for Conrad, after going full-time, they are something that he has seen every day for the last 20 years!
Recent renovations for their building meant they had to come down and they would not be re-installed. It was this news that drove his wife Brandy and her sister Kimberley Cloud to hit the internet where, as luck, would have it, she hit on my most recent blog post here. I can’t describe the excitement when her comment hit “I know where these paintings are.” I dropped everything and directed her to contact me through my Paleo Porch facebook page and we started figuring out how to orchestrate the rehoming of these nearly 85-year-old paintings. It culminated with me meeting Conrad at his shop not long after I came into work.
They were coming to install sheetrock in the area where they were temporarily stored so we had to act quickly (in fact they started installing it while we were moving the last one!). Thankfully everyone who could do anything about it was on campus that morning, and through the course of the day the two largest ones were taken down the the museum. The two smaller (relatively speaking) paintings were taken to Conrad and his wife Brandy’s house lest they be stepped on or damaged in some other way and they–including the mammoth one that started this whole adventure–will be re-homed this coming week and I will update this post some higher quality images than the ones that Brandy sent me online as soon as I get them.
This wasn’t just a case of missing/found, only 2 of the four were on the list of the ones I knew existed. The other two, one large and one smaller, were both new to me and terribly exciting. At the time of writing I only have images of the one that was indeed a mural–painted on Sheetrock–and the other large canvas. But look at this classic marine reptile scene! Now I need to try and backtrack the historical side of things and see what I can find out about it. Since this piece was done directly on sheetrock it took a little damage when it was removed, losing Shead’s signature and the date (another 1934!) But it is absolutely stunning.
The other one was even more extraordinary as it wasn’t a painting by Shead, but one by J. Willis Stovall himself! I have only seen a corner of it featuring Polar Bears from an photo Brandy sent me through facebook.
It was a red letter day, and will be even more exciting this week when the other two are able to join their old roommates down at the museum.
I love everything about this story, how they were not really lost, how the timing hit to get them moved quickly, but mostly how it was my silly little blog post that helped orchestrate it. It just goes to show you what can happen when the doors of communication are opened as far as humanly possible. I am confident that there would be no other way that this would have played out so positively had it not been for my silly blogging that Brandy and her sister Kimberley found on my website in an internet search. As an archaeologist and historian I am beyond thrilled that they’ve been “found,” as a paleontologist and historian of science, I am excited about the historic representations of these scenes, and as someone who likes good stories I am beyond elated that this one played out like it did.
The conversations that this has started have also proved fruitful. Since then I have been able to ascertain that another of Shead’s paintings currently lives in the Texas A&M Biodiversity Heritage prep lab and that he was commissioned for another 5 murals related to biology and they are on campus in two different buildings which I fully intend to find in the next episode, which I think will give me enough for a full post on the artist Ralph B. Shead. Until then, I can shift pop culture references and say that this part of the case is solve-ed!
Some time back (2 years!) I began a project at our natural history museum to scan, digitize, archive, collect all of the images and negatives that were in our Vertebrate Paleontology collection. Thousands of images later a couple things really stand out: The importance of the WPA in the growth of out collections (see WPAleontology) and a couple of large paintings had disappeared since the late 30s and early 40s.
Ralph Shead was the painter and more than one link in the WPA paperwork trail throughout his tenure at the museum. There are two of his enormous murals hanging upstairs on the Paleo floor (off public display). You may recognize the layout of the one, he copied the styles of some of the more famous Peabody productions. I particularly like the IguanoFonz.
Working through all of the old photographs of the old museum on campus I began to see bits other artwork captured in the background such as the bottom of this mammoth mural just above the Procamelus reconstruction. This was the bottom of the painting, I had seen the corner of in the photo at the top.
A quick aside: everything but the skull here was plaster and disintegrated during a move, the skull is currently on display in the museum and it is now Aepyicamelus)
Back to the murals. Armed with bits of the scene like the one above I started trying to track down where it could be. From the available scale clues, this one is about 4×6 feet, but that is just a guess. One of the photos appears to show it as a canvas, and no where is is shown frames like the others, so it could have been rolled up and forgotten I suppose. I have had no luck tracking it down, but I did manage to find better photos of the entire thing.
While I was trying to track down the mammoth mural I found copies of two more murals that are also MIA. They appear to be the same size as the two extant murals in the Paleo hallway and if that is the case they are somewhere in the vicinity of 4×12 feet. They also show the same wooden frames on them.
Our vert paleo curator said that he thought the Carboniferous Forest one had been sent to one of the Texas Panhandle colleges years ago (before he got there). I contacted the collections managers at Texas Tech and the Panhandle Plains museum, but neither knew anything about them.
The final one is my favorite and the one I am most sad we don’t have. I would love to see it in the real in full color glory. There isn’t even a full good quality photo of the entire thing. Just the bad xerox copy, and some details. I don’t know the date on the mammoths or the carboniferous forest but in the detail of the Pliocene horses you can see a 3, so it was done in the 30s. The two extant ones were completed in 34 and 41 (the frame obscures the final digit in the dates, but this is what they appear to be), so it is likely they were all produced around the same time. The WPA receipts in the Western History Collection show paints and supplies so these are in fact WPA murals.
This is one of those times I really wish my readership was large enough to get hundreds of eyes looking for these. There may not be a living soul that knows anything about them, but there may be someone who has seen them and doesn’t know how they got there. They both appear to have been hanging somewhere above a wainscot, possibly in what was the first or second iteration of the museum. I hold out hope that they are still somewhere, and I suppose summer is the best time to go Scooby Doo-ing around the old buildings to try and find them.
It is amazing what you can do with an extra half-day off. This is half of the emergent specializations set, the other being Anthropology and Paleoanthropology. In this case it covers the development of paleontology from natural philosophy, through the interested gentleman scholar/statesman/parson through to its full professionalization in the beginning of the 20th century. There is no delineation of what comes from which book this week as they mostly say the same things, they only structure the order somewhat differently or go into farther in one life or another.
Let’s start as our early geologists have: In the Beginning…The books I have reabsorbed here do not concern themselves with the birth og geology per se, but it is useful to frame what happens first before jumping into what happens next. Gentleman naturalists. Men of means with an insatiable curiosity (usually) rivaled only by their families purse are the progenitors of our “geologists.” The irony of this is the amount of time these drawing room men would spend in the field, on the coast, in early stages of canal building, mud pits, mines, caves and taverns caverns.
Some of the earliest cross class relationships develop between the collector with a cabinet of curiosity and a working class man in the field or, more often, a mine or quarry. Nothing less than answering the broadest questions about the earth’s history is their duty and charge. Their approaches reveal much about their backgrounds. Catastrophists and Neptunist are the camps that Early Modern practitioners tended to raise their flags. At the most broad level they were earth’s historians looking at the vast petrified pages of the archive preserved in the countryside.
Steno lays down the sediment in order, all flat and uniformly, then converts to catholicism and moves to northern Europe letting the rest of Europe fight it out. William Smith (a working canal-man) notices that the layers can be matched with an order of fossil shells, and producing a “map that changes the world.”
Paleontology, and in this case vertebrate paleontology goes one farther to answer questions about enormous bones that are obviously not just natural stone shapes mimicking living organisms. On the American side of things, which is where I am situated–geographically, socially, and intellectually–the bones were reported by European colonists very early. Some, such as mammoth teeth, were identified by African slaves as elephant. Others were less easily identified, but neither were exactly easy to explain.
Thomas Jefferson was fashioning a bulwark against Buffon’s accusations of New World degeneration with American (vertebrate) paleontology. A giant (neé mega) claw from a cave is first described as a large American lion. TJ here is an interesting case with more involvement in the Enlightenment arguments of Europe than others of his day. John Adams was notoriously uninterested in giant bones as there were more important matters of state and nation at hand. Jefferson, like many deists of the time, could not fathom the idea of extinction. Nature was perfect and balanced and there most definitely were the American mammoths (actually mastodons) living in the vast expanses of the North American continent including the Louisiana Purchase.
The biggest question about any of these bones were “what are they?” Taken as a whole it was up to the anatomists of the day to make the distinction, and even they didn’t agree on what the similarities and differences meant. Richard Owen was of the Archetype mind which works on sort of a single blueprint with modifications for different animals idea. The reason that bats have the same bones in their wings as humans have in their hands and whales have in their fins is because they are all forms from the same archetype. Others were trying to work out a more encompassing theory and throughout the mid 19th century variations on this theme peg all along the spectrum as Darwin’s Origin ushers in a more compartmentalized theory. Is there a difference in an Archetype and a common ancestor? That depends on who you asked in the 1850s, which depended greatly on the answerers socio-economic class, political and religious affiliations, and to a great extent what the person they hated believed (see previous post).
Rudwick’s book looks at the visual aspect of not only Theories of the Earth but of the emergent descriptors of paleontology (just assume at this point when I write that I mean “vertebrate paleontology”). The illustrations themselves stem from the biblical tradition–namely putting everything possible into single image a la all those edenic scenes you are familiar with. That is almost still the case as you see a version of the Eocene with hundreds of creatures flittering about a waterhole that would never be there together if things were so green and lush. This may be practical in the case that you get as much mileage from your one or two illustrations or mural as you can, or it may be implicit nods to the biblical roots. I think it is more the former.
Publications came with illustrations too. Many, like those of Caspar Wistar, were done with an anatomist’s eye and an artists’ sensibilities. This standard was invaluable when new bones were discovered and needed to be identified. That Americans had to rely on European (mainly French and British) sources caused more than a little indignation. There was a good reason to market the American Mammoth (again mastodon) as a carnivorous giant and let the mega-claw (Megalonyx) lie after Wistar described it as a giant sloth and not a lion. This was part of nation building. I have been compiling notes on this idea of “Our Founding Fossils”™ and fossils as national identity for years now, but never enough to actually put anything together besides lists of names, dates, locations. This back and forth continued for most of the first half of the 19th century with oddities here and there trotted out by Owen or Cuvier in order to explain in support of one theory and, more often, an attack on another.
The second half of the century opens up the American West and the paleontology game entirely. Dinosaurs had already been discovered and described by the time the west was open. Mantell’s mighty megalosaurus and Leidy’s New Jersey hadrosaur aren’t as famous as the Dinosaurs of Crystal Palace but they are as old, and in some ways more important outside of the public display arena.
The bones that came to Philadelphia for Leidy to describe were far from a trickle, but the amount of prehistoric fossils that were shipped back east in the last two decades of the 19th century can hardly be fathomed. It is amongst this generational shift we see the terms of paleontology shift from collecting, naming, and describing that was so admirably done by Leidy, to a more theory driven undertaking.
Edward Cope and O.C. Marsh not only turn the tap on the firehose of fossil work up, the manage to knock the entire hydrant off the street corner and the geyser of their discoveries, animosities, and students fall out all over the discipline. That much has been said about the Bone Wars would be understatement. Much of that has been from the journalistic style or from paleontologists themselves. Historians of science have yet to really peel away the generational veneer to see what it means for American Science. That the fued spilled over into a younger generation and the Cope-Marsh battle regenerated, or at least continued, in the Hayden-Powell hostilities. When viewed together these become microcosms for the struggles between independent and government funded work. Marsh and Powell working for the USGS and Cope and Hayden working for themselves, the university, or smaller society. Whichever side you choose one of the most striking things is that when Cope was approached to prove what was his and what belonged to his backers his meticulous notes allowed him to maintain ownership of fossils collected with his own money. Marsh on the other hand faced government funding backlash over birds with teeth (which incidentally was paleontologically and evolutionarily more important than Archaeopteryx ) that the appropriations committee called for an audit. When Marsh, who saw the entire undertaking as his couldn’t adequately prove what was his and what belonged to the Peabody or the USGS, he lost most of his collection. (If your German is up to par you can enjoy this German musical of their feud)
As the 20th century dawned many of the Eastern Universities and any museum worth its salt had a collection of extinct animals. Funding was still an issue and expeditions had to be underwritten by weatlhy patrons, committees, or museum boards. The American Museum led the charge with Osborn (firmly #TeamCope) oversaw huge developments in paleontology while taking over the museum directorship and moving Columbia from College to University. His political connections and personal family wealth (railroad money) aided him in ways other directors and paleontologists could only dream. The Field Museum benefactor was tighter with the purse strings not only due to a less than rabid interest in bones, but a more logical concern of building places to house the reconstructions that had become so popular.
Carnegie financed his own expeditions and it paid off. With the discovery of a giant sauropod (diplodocus carnegii) Carnegie attempted to cash in on the popularity of the reconstructions and museums. Multiple casts of the diplodocus were sent to the main institutions in Europe to display in their main atria. With a dinosaur Carnegie tried to privatize world peace. It almost worked.
One of the reasons that the Cope and Marsh debacle is so well known outside the discipline is because the professionalization of their field occurred at the same time that the popularization of science was taking off. The Penny Press was well established by the time the Bone Wars heated up. Both men would have grown up with newspapers as staples of life. Cope had kept just as meticulous notes on Marsh’s calumnies and other errors (he had a folder labeled “Marshinalia”) Marsh notoriously would not allow his assistants to publish and was slow paying them. Many quit after Cope aired their grievances in the public press. What does this who episode reveal, is Marsh ye olde guard only threatened by Cope because he was evenly matched with family money or do the two reflect something else? Do they have to serve as avatars of larger social conditions in US science for their story to have meaning? Wither way, when the time was right Cope took his notes to the paper. The debate raged for weeks in the paper, each accusing the other of misdealing, misidentification, misdeeds, and missing the point.
For paleontology, anthropology, etc. popularization was part and parcel of professionalization. The only difference between H. F. Osborn and P.T. Barnum was Osborn was their approach to science as education versus entertainment. That, and Barnum’s penchant for humbugs which, I suppose, isn’t any worse than Osborn’s positive eugenics and anti-immigration stance in the 1920s. (more on this is a later post, but I want to foreshadow it now because I am feeling particularly clever making this connection in print). In fact, Barnum fits as neatly between Charles Wilson Peale and Osborn as Cope, and in many ways moreso. This also leads to the popular press adoring people like Osborn and his protege (and employee) Roy Chapman Andrews. Andrews’ popular books continue to influence children today because they are given as gifts from parents or grandparents as a continuation of that wonder and excitement they felt when reading it for the first time.
It should come as no surprise that this whole section is steeped in Romanticism. Many of the authors here talk about the dual nature of the paleontologist in the field vs the lab. They are the frontiersman in the badlands and the pinnacle of modern science back east. It is a timeshare in the greatest areas of American culture. What they don’t do, mainly because they don’t delve that far into it (except Rainger) is split the distinction once again between the paleontologist trained in geology and those trained biology. Most assume that geologically trained paleontologists are those that work with the invertebrates. This distinction is true but lacks totality. Modern distinctions, if they have a place here, are geologists in the field and biologist in the lab (comparative anatomy). This is a continuation of the professionalization that because somewhere between Leidy and Cope/Marsh.
The biggest boon to American paleontology (and geology more generally) is the size of the continent and Manifest Destiny that pushed the country across it entirely. Once railroads were established field work within ones own country offered many more acres than was available to the British, French, or Germans, even taken internationally. The geography also offered more in the way of diversity of species as well as geological phenomena. Even Lyell had to visit and suggested that to truly understand the history of the earth one had to visit the United States. American geology proffered a locality for nearly each one available in Europe and in some cases even more amazing finds, from giant six-horned mammals to Tyrannosaurus rex, triceratops, stegosaurs, and sauropod. The bones from the American West were incredible in size and importance. They could not, or weren’t found in Europe. To study them European paleontologists has to visit the United States museums and universities. American paleontologists were leading the whole of the discipline and were the experts parexcellance in the prehistoric world. This was a complete turnaround from the arrangement that existing when Jefferson read his Mega-Claw paper at the American Philosophical Society.
In many ways this happened within Osborn’s lifetime (1857-1935). In fact, Osborn’s death in 1935 just missed the first rejuvenation of government funding of paleontological field expedition in the form of WPA projects overseen by universities with the federal government supplying pay for manpower.
Readings for this section:
Paul Brinkman, The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
Claudine Cohen (trans William Rodarmor). The Fate of the Mammoth: Fossils, Myths, and History (University of Chicago Press, 2002) Specifically Chapter 5.
Desmond, Adrian. Archetypes and Ancestors: Paleontology in Victorian London, 1850- 1875 (U of Chicago Pr, 1995)
Url Lanham, The Bone Hunters: The Heroic Age of Paleontology in the American West
Ronald Rainger, An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890-1935
Rudwick, Martin. Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World
Thomson, Keith. The Legacy of the Mastodon: The Golden Age of Fossils in America (Yale U Pr, 2008)
They exist, and the one I am going to tell you about here is positively amazing on both counts.
If you have been following along with my arc into the madness that is doctoral work you will remember me being greatly aided in sanity by getting back into comic books. Like all things I have tried to absorb everything that is going on in the world thereof and have started following many comic book artist and writers on twitter (Fun fact: many of them are super interactive on social media). They share rants and works in progress (WIP), sketches, updates, previews, and a host of other things.
Twitter is how I found out about the Science comics series. I can’t remember who retweeted some of the art from it (I tried finding it, but my twitter feed is almost as bad as my Facebook overload) and I started tracking it down.
I am trained in paleontology (Eocene, not dinosaurs specifically) and have since moved into the History of Science to study the history of field explorations centered around paleontological madness. I do this on several public fronts which means I get a lot if dinosaur stuff sent my way. I try to keep up with the news and share it through the Paleo Porch Facebook page as well.
I also run a traveling museum of sorts filled with replica dinosaur claws, mammoth teeth, scale skulls, etc. so I am constantly looking for ways to share this stuff with others. This is one of the first reasons I fell in I’ve with :01 First Second’s Dinosaurs Fossils and Feathers.
Then, it got even better. For anyone with more than a passing interesting in the people that shaped what we have come to know as geology there are recognizable names: Smith, Buckland, Mantell, Owen, Cope, Marsh, etc. that form the mental Mount Rushmore of early Paleontology. Or at the very least the most famous (or infamous) accounts in the Bone Wars. They are all here, and they are all described and drawn beautifully.
Following the standards was great and it was looking good enough to suggest to some close colleagues as well, I was just waiting to see if the author (MK Reed) was going to fall prey to the age old Owen complex problem. I cannot tell you how delighted I was (and am) to say that she absolutely did not. In fact Reed blasts Owen for the self-absorbed force of will that he was. If I had to pick a single panel in this entire graphic novel to sum up how accurate the history of science is it would be this one:
because in reality Richard Owen was a butthead of the first order.
The writing is superb and clever and Joe Flood‘s art flows with it unimaginably well. Dinosaurs Fossils and Feather is filled with not only science but that science’s history as well, and not just the well known history either. Of course the double page spreads of Mary Anning in the Field, of the Crystal Palace, and Roy Chapman Andrews are all prints I wish I had in my office but they include an enormous swath of paleontologist rarely discussed outside hard science circles. Seriously, how many of you know the story about the Transylvanian paleobiologist Franz Nopcsa? Really, see? There you go, he is in this book, in comic form, which hides his tragic ending, but highlights his contributions to geology.
Alfred Wegener is here too! They could have chosen to talk about how he was mostly correct eventually and now we know how brilliant he was, but there is another personal favorite panel of mine included that shows why he was dismissed.
Really, how could a meteorologist (scientific, not TV forecaster by the way) dare think about the continents. Incidentally there is a much anticipated (by me and more than a few other historians of earth science) book about Wegener that is out this year too called Alfred Wegner: Science, Exploration and the Theory of Continental Drift that will be as close to a complete look at Wegener as we will likely ever see.
Get this book. Get it for yourself, get it for your kids, get it for your friends’ kids. The writing is brilliant, the art is stunning, the science is excellent, and the history is fantastic (not just for graphic novel standards but for history standards). If only it were at all possible to have full biographies of each of their included players done in this same tone and style.
I have highlighted only a few great things about this little book. There are many, many more. If I must be hard pressed to find something to complain about, or to point out as a shortcoming, I should choose to saw that I wish this book was a larger format so the pages and art would be larger.
I will end with a final snapshot merely because I have portraits of E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh hanging in my study at home which would benefit from these more stately bone crests.
Turns out Hugh Hudson has a new film out that focuses on the discovery of the prehistoric cave paintings in Altamira. If you aren’t familiar with the discovery, the Cliff Notes version is an 8 year old girl named Maria led her father Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola to a cave which held amazing paleolithic paintings of bison among other wonders; scientific debates ensue.
The end of the 19th century was rife with debates on man’s place in nature as well as the entire story of mankind in general. The established French view was that prehistoric humans were incapable of such higher forms of thought required to create such things. Arguments about the past and the professional nature of the scientists and divided disciples were heated, marked, and many times personal. Paleoanthropology and other disciplines as we know them were in their infancies fetal stages and battle for the authority to pontificate on humanity’s past was as much the prize as finding answers to the questions they were asking.
Having done a fair amount of research on the Piltdown Affair and its context within the debates that came to a head because of find like Altamira, I am especially intrigued. Adding to that is the fact that like so many other important discoveries in this period it was made by an amateur. That is to say it was reported by an amateur since it was originally discovered by a child.
The movie itself looks wonderful since it will have the debates and forces of will involved (including the Church). It also included the wonder that fills Maria as the bison from the cave come alive in her dreams and become a part of her.
As with most things in life I didn’t get to this from any direct route. I actually first heard of this film through a trailer for its soundtrack. As bizarre as soundtrack trailers sound the bits and pieces around it are where I can glean more of the story.
Mark Knopfler and Evelyn Glennie worked together to create the score for the film and it sounds incredible. It was on Mark’s official Facebook page that I first say the trailer to the soundtrack. Complete with the reimagined stylized version of the famous bison on the front.
The bison form Altamira are iconic and you may recognize them from the plethora of Bisonte cigarette ads/packs that are everywhere. (I say everywhere, that may only be the case if you are as interested in Spain as I am). If not everywhere then at least on cigarettespedia.com which is a more useful website than you may think, especially for someone who studies visual culture.
Getting to the heart of the film is difficult since all the available trailers are in Spanish since it was released there at the first of this month (April 2016). This isn’t because the film is in Spanish, but because of locality (I guess). So the trailers are dubbed into Spanish which just strikes me as odd, even if I am appreciative of the fact that was produced in English.
There are a few English clips that are part of the making of the soundtrack video below where I grabbed some of the above photos. As far as the cave itself goes, it remains closed to visitors since the damage it sustained from visitor’s breathing in the 1960s. The museum close by has a full replica included some sculptures of human faces that you couldn’t get to in the cave itself. There are also reproductions in Madrid, Germany, and most recently Japan. The Caves were up for reopening to the public a few years ago, but in an effort to preserve the site the decision was made to keep them closed. looking at a fake trope was still contentious in 2014.
The Cave was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985 and they have a short video on it as well. Until it gets wider release this will have to suffice to piece together what is going on.
Update: Aug. 3, 2016 Full length English trailer finally hits youtube.
*Thanks and/or blame for this goes to Tom Luczycki
Hey look! A paleo entry on an supposedly paleontologically themed page! How novel.
I will start with this great coincidence from 2007 when the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s journal (JVP) was released not only on my birthday, but with one of my favorite extinct creatures on the cover:
And since it is one of my favorites, the past few days’ worth of paleo news circulating in the popular press and among friends and colleagues on twitter has been a delight.
Yes, well. If you haven’t heard/read by now, they have played around with some glyptodont DNA (how cool is this?) and determined what any school kid will tell you: They are related to the stately armadillo. Actually related to “armadillos and their allies” so the end is nigh for the Ice Age Axis Powers.
Since the original press release, I have posted several different versions over on the PaleoPorch Facebook Page. Enough to constitute putting them together on here so you can be annoyed all at once instead of incremental scrolls on your timeline.
I mentioned that any school kid will tell you they are related to armadillos. I mean this in the same manner that all school kids will tell you that South America and Africa fit together–it is just obvious. Right?
Since science doesn’t like to live in the obvious it sometimes takes studies like the one linked above to provide a backing for something that seems self evident. I mean, it *could* be a case of convergent evolution like sharks and dolphins.
This might also prove that they didn’t have “trunks.” I never really bought into this argument and it is probably my own fault of thinking about an armadillo with an elephantine proportioned proboscis, which isn’t technically what proponents of the elongated schnoz are/were pitching. Bit, DNA can’t give us shapes of soft tissue unless it is fully cloned and 100% and viable and… Welcome to Ice Age Park. (A dinosaurid aside: at one point, and I am not sure where in print, Bob Bakker was theorizing that the brachissaurus’ nostril on its head made it akin to an elephant, but Darren Naish (@Tetzoo) put that to rest way back in 2009.)
Now that there is scientific proof that Glyptodonts are related to armadillos, that means the allies range from the pink fairy armadillo, which is about the size of a toilet paper tube, to the Volkswagen beetle behemoths we’ve all come to know and love.
Besides, I am from Texas, and we love our armadillos, especially when they are Texas-sized. Especially when it means that the beer can be scaled up equally.
We has one of these when I was a kid. It was plush stuffed and not taxidermy stuffed and lived, so to speak, on top of our kitchen cabinets, I thought it was the neatest thing. Full disclosure: Shiner is a better beer.
I was also less than thrilled with the short shrift they got in the Ice Age cartoons too, but that is another story.
A relatively recent documentary on Ice Age Giants captures some great fossil footage of in situ and museum specimens down in Arizona. Ice Age Giants was hosted by Professor Alice Roberts (@DrAliceRoberts) and it definitely worth a watch. (part of an older post here). Here is the first episode and the Glyptodonts show up around the 22:20 mark, just after the Shasta Ground Sloths and the Grand Canyon segment.
Since the beginning of the year I have been involved in a project of more or less my own design. I have been digitizing and curating a collection of photos at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History here at OU. They are mostly records of paleontology projects undertaken at some point with WPA funds. Some were already working before the WPA projects, others were opened with the funding, others still were either, neither, or both.
I am almost halfway through the set, scanning them as high as my laptop can stand. They aren’t bad quality, but they could be better, anything over 2400 dpi and a .tiff file goes against everything my current laptop stands for. It is a useful endeavor and one I am already seeing fruit from which makes it worth it. The reason I am updating now is that abstract submissions are open and I need to think through how I am going to present this information at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology this year. I use writing to do that.
About two-thirds of what is on display in the paleo hall in the museum was, in some way, connected to WPA money. Even the final report in 1940 stated that many of these projects will be ongoing for the foreseeable future. As a side note, the archaeological excavation of the Spiro Mounds in Oklahoma were at least partially funded by the WPA. The interesting thing about WPA funding in history is that it falls into two categories the “muralists” and the “non-muralists.” Muralists painted murals. Non-muralists has been used to describe the out of work authors. A friend of mine is doing her PhD on post office Murals in Oklahoma. I ran across some WPA stuff in my first thesis as the murals at the National Zoo in D.C. were painted by WPA painters. The artists that weer on hand for the Spiro work were WPA artists and there is even a poster about the “forgotten artists of that project hanging in the hallway going down to our collections at the museum. In that same hallway are two paleo murals painted by Ralph B. Shead, who was artist and the state supervisor for the OU branch of the WPA. The frames obscure the dates somewhat, but I believe one is from 1934 and the other was finished in 1941.
My point here is that the WPA was more than just art and literature. The “non-muralists” were the ones who were paid to write up travel guides for the western states and similar ephemera for the tourist industry. Where did WPA fund science, exactly? I know it was at OU, I know University of Texas has some stuff, KU does, and I think University of Nebraska does as well (that one is iffy). There are some reports online that some WPAleontology happened out in southern California, but I haven’t been able to chase those down yet. So there are broader connections here that I am working on and will hope to have published sooner rather than later if for not other reason that to show that the WPA funded more than ditch-digging, sidewalks, and train trestles.
My first indication that they did any more than that comes from a hippo in the Field Museum. The placard said that it was prepared by WPA workers and I have been intrigued by that ever since. Growing up in Southeast Texas many of my family had been part of the WPA projects there which amounted to digging ditches to drain the swamps and river bottoms or something similar under the Corps of Engineers, in fact my uncle (great-great uncle in fact) used to say that WPA stood for “we piddle around.”
The photos that I am digitizing reveal that there were some sparsely populated areas where few workers could be found. They also reveal that the work was not only labor intensive overburden removal. Several of the workers were installed in the Paleontology lab that was at that time housed in the football stadium and given jobs as preparators bringing fossils out of their matrices, etc.
This is as American Experience profile as much as anything we’ve seen on PBS and if I could get similar stuff from these other university museums I think I could pitch it to Ken Burns (no relation) and have him come pan over the photos for dramatic effect.
At OU and the Sam Noble in particular, some of the exhibits that have been on display for 75 years came to fruition through federal funding. That it was a federal program also give me, as a historian of science, a wealth of records as reports, letters, explanations, etc. were part of the patronage system. The papers housed in our Western History Collections reveal an astute businessman on one end dealing with the government and a natural showman when putting these things on display for the public, or an oil and gas festival, or a newspaper or radio interview.
This goes beyond just an interesting story to tell and showing cool photos. It is about civic involvement in science, it is about federal patronage, it is about governmental oversight, it is about federally funded citizen science. Community involvement was part of the deal and at least once, in May 1940 (the 20th to 25th to be precise) there was a week long exhibition at the museum, at the field sites, throughout the community that was to engage the public. It was “advertised in local newspapers and guides were present at all times to explain the exhibits.” The week was called “This Project Pays Your Community.” I have heard that some of these were held to educate people in order to stop looting, vandalism, etc. and I think that might be true for things like the Spiro Mounds, but the relative obscurity of these sites and there proximity to anything resembling town paired with the different money market for fossils then make that an unlikely motive for these particular projects.
I will try to update more, even if they are just posts of the most interesting images I have scanned or something similar. If my education and outreach poster is accepted I will definitely be sharing that on here as well. The interest is there, the timing is right, and people should know that the WPA was more than a stamp in the sidewalk and encompassed more than ditch diggers, mural painters, and guidebook authors.