Tag Archives: paleontology

A Crichton novel on the Bone Wars is coming

I’d like to apologize for that ear-piercing noise that shattered windows all over the Western Hemisphere last night.  That was me shrieking with ecstatic delight in reaction to this:

HarperCollins Publishers has acquired World English rights to DRAGON TEETH by bestselling author Michael Crichton. Harper Publisher Jonathan Burnham and Executive Editor Jennifer Barth negotiated the deal with CrichtonSun’s Sherri Crichton through Sloan Harris and Jennifer Joel of ICM Partners and Michael S. Sherman of Reed Smith LLP. The book will be published in May 2017 in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India.

Michael Crichton’s DRAGON TEETH follows the notorious rivalry between real-life paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh during a time of intense fossil speculation and discovery in the American West in 1878. The story unfolds through the adventures of a young fictional character named William Johnson who is apprenticed first to one, then to the other and not only makes discoveries of historic proportion, but transforms into an inspiring hero only Crichton could have imagined. Known for his meticulous research, Crichton uses Marsh and Copes’ heated competition during the ‘Bone Wars,’ the golden age of American fossil hunting, as the basis for a thrilling story set in the wilds of the American West.

Sherri Crichton has been working to honor her late husband by creating the Michael Crichton Archives through her company CrichtonSun. “When I came across the DRAGON TEETH manuscript in the files, I was immediately captivated. It has Michael’s voice, his love of history, research and science all dynamically woven into an epic tale.” She traced its genesis back to correspondence between Crichton and Professor Edwin H. Colbert, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. “DRAGON TEETH was clearly a very important book for Michael. I’m so pleased to continue the long relationship that he shared with HarperCollins with its publication.”

The “Bone Wars”—the bitter feud between rival naturalists Edward Cope and O.C.Marsh—pretty much defined vertebrate paleontology in the United States during the late nineteenth century.  As ugly as the Cope-Marsh spat was, it played a large role in bringing to light the fossil riches of the American West, since the two men financed prospecting and excavation in some of the country’s most important bone beds.  A lot of the “classic” dinosaurs that are household names first came to scientific attention in the papers they published.  Their rivalry has fascinated me since I was a kid; in fact, when I was an undergrad, I did my capstone research project on it.

Anyway, it’s Crichton. It’s dinosaurs. It’s American history.  As they used to say in the beer commercials, “Boys, it just doesn’t get any better than this.”

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Dino discoveries at the McClung Museum

Did I hit the special dino exhibit at the McClung Museum on opening day?  You better believe I did.

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Our knowledge of dinos has increased almost exponentially in the past decade or two, partly because there are more people engaged in the business than ever before, but also because of new specimens and new techniques for studying them.  New knowledge and new techniques are what the exhibition Dinosaur Discoveries: Ancient Fossils, New Ideas is all about.  Organized by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, it offers a look at some of the things scientists have learned in the past decade or so, and explains how they’ve learned it.  If you developed an interest in dinosaurs back in the heyday of the nineties but fell out of the loop later, or if you were a dino-obsessed kid who hasn’t picked up a paleo book in decades, this exhibit will give you a taste of what’s been going on lately in the world of terrible lizards.

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Take computer modeling, for example.  Dino bones tend to be big, heavy, and fragile, which puts limits on the things you can do with them in a lab.  Researchers can manipulate a virtual skeleton in ways that would be impossible with the genuine article, so they can study, say, the neck vertebrae of a sauropod to get a sense of what the living animal’s posture might have been like.  You know those pictures of long-necked herbivores with their heads held erect like enormous giraffes?  Turns out sauropods might not have been browsing up in the treetops after all.

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Here’s a Mesozoic arsenal: stegosaur plates and a spike, and an ankylosaur tail club.  Or were some of these things intended to win over mates rather than fend off carnivores?

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We’ve all seen images of Triceratops facing off against T. rex.  But as formidable as those horns and that bony frill look…

 

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…the headgear isn’t as impressive on smaller relatives, such as Protoceratops.  That suggests ceratopsians were using their cranial adornment for something besides dueling with predators.

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And speaking of T. rex, one of the most interesting paleontological debates involves whether the tyrant lizard king was a fast runner.  (I think it’s interesting, anyway, and in the event you ever find yourself in the presence of a tyrannosaur, I dare say you’ll take an intense and sudden interest in it, too.)  How do you gauge the top speed of an animal that died tens of millions of years ago?  This exhibit will let you see how scientists crunch the numbers, and where the numbers themselves come from.  And the news is surprisingly not that bad for those of you in the habit of driving jeeps around island theme parks during power outages.

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Some of the most fascinating dino discoveries of the past couple decades have come from the early Cretaceous deposits of Liaoning Province in northeastern China.  Animals and plants either died in or washed into still lakes before volcanic ash buried them, creating a low-oxygen environment that kept the remains intact and preserved the fossils in exquisite detail.  Because of these ideal conditions, we know that some dinosaurs from Liaoning—such as Sinosauropteryx, Microraptor, and Sinornithosaurus—had a feathery covering.  These Chinese finds have shed quite a bit of light on the relationship between birds and extinct dinosaurs and the evolution of flight.

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Dinosaur Discoveries will be at the McClung until August 28.  I definitely recommend a visit for those of you in the Knoxville area.  It’s not an assemblage of original specimens, but the casts and models are lovely, and there are plenty of interactive elements.  I love the idea of an exhibit geared toward teaching not just what scientists know, but how they know it and how much remains to be determined.  It underscores the idea of science as a process—as a set of questions and contested answers—rather than an inert body of facts that just appears out of nowhere in the pages of textbooks and on Wikipedia.

History, too, is a process  of inquiry.  And I think we should more fully exploit this same approach when it comes to history exhibits and other historical media aimed at the public.  One of the big problems historians face when it comes to advocating for the discipline is the fact that so many people don’t really understand what we do or how we go about doing it.  Since exhibits are one of our primary means of communicating with the public, we should be using them not just to convey information about our subject matter, but to give people a sense of how historians go about their work, what constitutes historical thinking, and what the possibilities and limitations of historical investigation are.  We should be using exhibits to convey information, but we should also use them to demonstrate that this information is the result of historians asking questions, figuring out how to answer them, and throwing those answers into competition with one another.

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The McClung Museum will be the epicenter of awesomeness in 2016

Somebody pinch me.  Seriously.  I’m not on cloud nine; I’m on cloud twenty-seven or twenty-eight.  Maybe higher than that.

Fallen from Edenic perfection though it is, this world affords us a great many fine things, including the companionship of family and friends, sublime sunsets, good BBQ, and free access to Shakira videos on YouTube.

Of all the pleasures we’re granted in life, however, two of the greatest are undoubtedly the study of these subjects:

  1. Dinosaurs
  2. The early history of East Tennessee

Imagine, then, how ecstatic I was to learn that the next two special exhibits at the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture here in Knoxville will be…

DINOSAUR DISCOVERIES: ANCIENT FOSSILS, NEW IDEAS

June 4, 2016–August 28, 2016

This exhibition showcases the world of modern paleontology, introducing a dynamic vision of dinosaurs and the scientists who study them. New discoveries and technologies reveal how dinosaurs lived, moved and behaved. Find out how advanced technologies allow scientists to look at fossils in fresh ways. Examine realistic models and casts, and see dinosaurs walk, run and move their long necks in fantastic computer simulations.

and…

KNOXVILLE UNEARTHED: ARCHAEOLOGY IN THE HEART OF THE VALLEY

September 7, 2016–January 8, 2017

In honor of Knoxville’s 225th anniversary, this exhibition explores the city’s heritage as seen through archaeological discoveries in the “Heart of the Valley.” Using historic artifacts unearthed in and around Knoxville, along with historical images, maps, documents, and oral histories, the exhibition tells the story of Knoxville’s development from a frontier settlement to an industrialized city.

Dinosaurs and East Tennessee history.  It’s like if you made a Venn diagram of awesomeness, and plopped the McClung Museum’s rotating exhibit gallery right down in the middle.

Could it get any better?  Oh, yes, indeed, it could.

A few days ago I opened an e-mail from the Department of History’s director of graduate studies.  My assistantship assignment for next semester came in, and I’ll be working for…wait for it…the McClung Museum.

I. GET. TO. WORK. AT. THE. MCCLUNG. MUSEUM.

Here’s a pretty close approximation of how I reacted.

Seriously, I couldn’t be more excited.  I haven’t been able to get my hands dirty with museum work in quite a while, and the fact that I get to do it at a Smithsonian-affiliated institution with a fossil exhibit and a special exhibition on Knoxville’s history makes me absolutely giddy.

Oh, one more thing.  The archaeology exhibit will feature some artifacts from excavations at Marble Springs, which is fantastic, because we haven’t really had an opportunity to showcase this stuff at the site.  If you’re interested in seeing some of these traces of John Sevier’s plantation, be sure to stop by this fall.  Admission to the McClung Museum is free, and it’s one of the most fascinating ways to spend some time in the Knoxville area.

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Site B?

What follows might seem like several hundred words of pointless navel-gazing, but I’m in a bit of a quandary, and sometimes it does me good to think out loud.

I have this thing for dinosaurs.  Perhaps you’ve noticed.

Lately I’ve been mulling over the idea of starting a second blog on which I can expound as I please on my dinosaur obsession—my own personal Site B, if you will.  Actually, I’ve toyed with the notion for some time, but I’ve given it more and more thought over the past few months.

Sometimes I give my inner dino fanboy free reign here at PitP with my periodic Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts, but all the social media experts say that bloggers should be focused.  You get and keep an audience by talking about what you know, carving out a niche, and attracting the readership of like-minded individuals.  I’m much less particular about content curation over on my Twitter account, but the longer-form nature of a conventional blog calls for a bit more consistency.

Tossing out too many dinosaur posts alongside the usual historical discussions would give this blog a sort of messy, disjunctive nature that I want to avoid.  As Tertullian might have asked, “What hath Isla Nublar to do with King’s Mountain?”  I mean, they both have visitor centers, but other than that…

jurassicpark.wikia.com

 

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Of course, blogs are an extension of a writer’s personality.  They work best when you spice them up with your own interests and quirks, which is one reason blogging differs from many other forms of writing.  Many successful bloggers leaven their sites with opinions on politics, sports, movies, the human condition, and other topics that don’t necessarily relate to the author’s usual subject matter but are nonetheless of general interest to many readers.

For example, most of the folks who read George R.R. Martin’s blog share an interest in fantasy and science fiction (and killing off major characters), but Martin’s a football fan as well as a writer, and he uses his site to ruminate on the sport.  Here in the historical blogosphere, Brooks Simpson also posts about sports from time to time.  And there are a few Springsteen fans in the historical profession who sprinkle their blogs with material about the Boss.  Leavening a history blog with reflections on sports, politics, and pop culture makes sense, because these are things about which many folks—including history aficionados—like to argue.

When it comes to history and dinosaurs, however, we’re talking about two subjects of a more specialized, rather nerdish nature.  Those of us who are nerds will often encounter people who share one of our nerdish proclivities, but it’s rare indeed to find many people whose nerdishness overlaps with one’s own in two or more areas.  I’m sure there are other individuals out there who geek out over both early American history and paleontology as intensely as I do, but I don’t think anybody’s really clamoring for a blog aimed specifically at us.

All of this would indicate that I should keep my dinosaur geekouts to a minimum herein, and concentrate instead on matters relevant to American history, which is what most of you are probably looking for when you stop by.

Just for the heck of it, though, here’s a Kentrosaurus. By LoKiLeCh (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But since the urge to talk about ginormous extinct reptiles is hard for me to resist, I’m increasingly tempted to give myself some space to talk about dinosaurs and fossils on a separate blog.  Indeed, there is a vibrant and active community of paleobloggers whose work I’ve been enjoying, and I’d love to connect with fellow paleophiles in the same way that I’ve been able to share my historical interests with you fine people.

Why not go ahead and take the plunge?  For one thing, a lot of the paleoblogs are run by actual paleontologists, science journalists, or other folks who have some expertise in the field.  Me?  I’m no expert.  I’m just a geek who likes talking and learning about the stuff.  A paleoblog of my own would probably consist mostly of me enthusing, “LOOK AT THIS THING HERE!  ISN’T IT AWESOME?!”  I do a lot of that on Twitter already.  Maybe whatever I’d have to say in longer form wouldn’t really be worth saying.    Some people might be interested in an amateur’s semi-informed reflections on paleo news, dinos in pop culture, dino-related nostalgia, and so forth, but I don’t have the training to weigh in on scientific controversies.

Time is another factor.  As you might’ve noticed, new posts got somewhat sparse around here over the past few months due to my school obligations.

Here’s one other thing that makes me hesitant to start a separate dino blog.  Since a blog should reflect something of the writer’s personality and proclivities, I sort of feel like this blog—which is, after all, one of the ways I present myself to the world—needs at least a little dinosaurian content.  The terrible lizards have been such an important part of my life that I wouldn’t be me without them.  Odd as it may sound, without any mention of dinosaurs, I’d feel like something was missing from this site, like I’d left a fundamental aspect of myself behind somewhere.  Likewise, doing a dinosaur blog free of history posts might feel a bit odd, since I’d be leaving out the stuff I spend most of my time thinking about.

So I don’t know.  Plenty of reasons to take the leap and start up a second Interwebs endeavor, and plenty of reasons not to.  Since you fine folks are the ones subjected to my periodic saurian indulgences, I’d welcome whatever feedback you have.

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Take the Jurassic World Challenge and support paleontology

A couple of days ago I finished reading An Agenda for Antiquity, Ronald Rainger’s book on the eminent naturalist Henry Fairfield Osborn and his career at the American Museum of Natural History.  It was Osborn who turned the AMNH into one of the world’s leading institutions for vertebrate paleontology.

He was never a field man, he delegated much of the nitty-gritty work of research to his subordinates, and many of his ideas about evolution were off the mark.  But as an administrator, a museum showman, and an intellectual who grappled with big questions, he left behind a tremendous legacy, the magnitude of which is apparent when you walk through those magnificent fossil galleries on the AMNH’s fourth floor.  (Incidentally, Osborn was also a master at coming up with awesome dinosaur names; he’s the guy who christened Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor, probably the two coolest scientific monikers in the history of zoology.)

Osborn’s background was critical to his success at the AMNH.  He came from a wealthy New York family, and he was connected to some of the richest and most influential Americans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  These connections enabled him to raise the money needed to mount expeditions, prepare specimens, build galleries, and publish research.  In Osborn’s day, vertebrate paleontology depended heavily on private donors.

It’s dependent on them still.  A lot of people assume that paleontology must be a lucrative business, since dinosaurs are so wildly popular.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.  Compared to scientific fields with more immediately practical applications, paleontological research is woefully underfunded.

That’s one of the reasons why I heartily endorse David Orr’s idea over at the paleoblog Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs.  Check it out:

I call it the Jurassic World Challenge. If you’re buying a ticket for the movie, it’s a fair bet that you also have that much money to give to the people who bring prehistory to life in the real world. Think of it as a matching fund, crowdsourced. See the movie, do some good. The official rules:

  • Donate the equivalent of your Jurassic World ticket price to paleontological research
    or
  • Spend the equivalent of your ticket price on the wares of an independent paleoartist

Of course, you don’t have to pick one or the other. Buy some art, give some money to a research effort, enjoy the movie. I also put together a graphic to help spread the word, in before and after flavors. You are free to disseminate these far and wide! Take it and post it on your blog or other social media channels.

If you plan on seeing Jurassic World—or if you’re like me and plan on seeing it many, many times—consider a donation to paleontological research and the production of paleoart.  If you’re unsure about exactly where to send your money, Orr’s blog post has a list of some current research projects and independent paleoartists.  You might also check with your local natural history museum or university to see what dino-related things they’ve got going on that could use your support.

The folks who study and reconstruct ancient animals have made my life exponentially more joyful.  If you’re as excited as I am about Jurassic World, they’ve probably made your life more joyful, too.  Let’s show them a little gratitude.

By Ben Townsend from Blacksburg, Virginia (File:Velociraptor Wyoming Dinosaur Center.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Here be dragons

I’m going to indulge in a little reminiscing about historic sites, summer vacations, dinosaurs, and gunfighters.  Normally these subjects wouldn’t be sharing the same space, but in my case they share a complicated autobiographical conjunction.  If that sounds bizarre, well, that’s life for you.

For most people who love history, geography evokes the past.  Visiting a region or looking at a map will cause your historical mind to kick in and make associations with past people, events, cultures, and so on.  The deeper your historical knowledge of a particular place or region, the more richly detailed the mental historical map that you can impose on the actual one.  When I look at a map of South Carolina, I see the Revolutionary War playing out.  When I drive across Virginia, I see Union and Confederate armies.  You probably have your own historical associations that you impose on particular places or regions.

For me, having this tendency is a comparatively recent development.  My passionate childhood encounters with history were pretty few and far between.  I didn’t turn into a full-fledged history nut until I was old enough to vote.  Dinosaurs took up all the neurons I could spare.  Most young dino fanatics start to cool in their enthusiasm when they become teenagers, but that was the age range in which my dino-fever intensified.  Hollywood had a lot to do with it.  The first two Jurassic Park films bracketed my high school years; the first movie opened the summer before I became a freshman, the sequel on the weekend I graduated.

In 1993, the same year that Jurassic Park whipped my dino-fixation into a fever pitch, my mom decided to start writing about gunfighters in the Old West.  For the next few years, our family vacations coincided with her research trips to the western U.S., a part of the country where none of us had spent much time before.  Since the West is also home to some of the greatest dinosaur graveyards in the world and scores of natural history museums, I’d have the chance to indulge my dinosaur obsession along the way.  Furthermore, my dad was a history teacher, so we also planned to hit some battlefields and other sites.  Something for everybody.

Thus was born a venerable Lynch family tradition, the Great Summer Western Circuits of the 1990’s.  My parents and I would stockpile books, snacks, and maps into a minivan, generally with one or two other bystanders in tow, and head across the Mississippi to spend two or three weeks at a time on the trail of gunslingers.  We usually went southwestward through Arkansas and Texas and then into Arizona and New Mexico, and then made a loop north toward the Canadian border before turning eastward and heading back home, by which point we were all ready to strangle each other from days of close confinement.

We paid homage at the usual tourist Meccas—the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore (which was overrated, I thought), the Alamo—but given Mom’s interests, most of the places we visited were gunfighter locales like Tombstone, Dodge City, Deadwood, Coffeyville, Northfield, and Fort Sumner.  We saw more restored saloons, dance halls, penitentiaries, and courthouses than I could count if I tried, and paid our respects at every outlaw’s last resting place between Montana and Arizona.

Now that I’ve had time to look back on it, these were my first sustained experiences with historical travel.  I had visited historic sites as a kid, but never so many of them in so short a period of time as I did on these vacations.  The thing is—and I didn’t realize this until recently—these early ventures as a heritage tourist were very unconventional.  Sure, I got to see some “mainstream” historic sites, mostly battlefields along with a smattering of forts and writers’ homes. (Mom is a former English teacher, so Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder were on the itinerary.)  But most of our destinations involved the West that you see in the movies, the one populated by gamblers, lawmen, train robbers, and all those other figures who cast such a long shadow across the American imagination.

Just as these characters straddle the boundary between history and myth, so the historic sites where people came to walk in their footsteps were hard to categorize.  These gunfighter attractions tended to be small, offbeat operations, lying somewhere on the spectrum between legit historic site and outright tourist trap and often much closer to the latter.  They had the kind of charming roadside aesthetic you don’t get at a place like Mount Vernon or Antietam.  The interpretation was heavy on folklore and melodrama, and collections policies were practically non-existent.  In New Mexico, we visited a Billy the Kid museum that boasted a stuffed and mounted two-headed calf as one of its artifacts. The small courthouse on the plaza in Mesilla where the Kid was (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) sentenced to hang, and where the Gadsden Purchase was signed, had become a souvenir shop; I bought an acrylic paperweight with a dead scorpion encased inside of it there, and kept it on my dresser for years afterward.  The old Birdcage Theater in Tombstone, AZ had become a quirky museum, crowded with every kind of antiquarian bric-a-brac you could imagine—an 188o’s barber chair, old medical instruments, racy photos of Victorian-era prostitutes, and (most bizarre of all) a Fiji mermaid, that staple of nineteenth-century sideshows.

Tombstone was always on the itinerary.  What Gettysburg is to the Civil War, Tombstone is to the Old West—a great tourist Mecca where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting some historic attraction or gift shop.  The main attraction was the O.K. Corral.  The proprietors had walled in the vacant lot behind the stables where the gunfight actually took place, so you had to pay admission and walk through the corral gate to get to it.  Garish mannequins representing the participants marked the spot, and a recorded spiel with sound effects played at the push of a button.  A small fee got you into Boot Hill, where a map handout guided you to all the notable graves.  You could drink a Coke in some of the old saloons, or take a stagecoach tour through the streets.  You could buy a different Wyatt Earp or Doc Holliday t-shirt for every day of the month.  One of the souvenir apparel shops was in a former pool hall where Earp’s younger brother took a fatal bullet in the back.

Allen Street in Tombstone, AZ. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The historic West I saw as a teenager was the semi-mythical West, but at the time, I didn’t really distinguish between the conventional historic sites and the kitschy tourist attractions.  It was all just filler between the dinosaur stops.  I didn’t care too much about cowboys, Indians, and vast herds of buffalo; I wanted vast herds of Triceratops.  The only history that really excited me was the history of fossil hunting.  Indifferent to Mt. Rushmore and the Truman Library, I flipped out when we drove past Como Bluff, WY, one of the nineteenth century’s most famous dinosaur burial grounds.

Como Bluff, WY. Some of the most spectacular dinosaur discoveries of the 1800's were made here during the famous "fossil feud" between rival paleontologists O.C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

My mental map of the West was very sketchy, my appreciation of its history negligible.  It was similar to those old maps that have vast expanses of terra incognita populated by monsters.  The difference is that the dragons on my mental map had once been very much alive.  I had been to these blank spaces, but they remained blank anyway because the dragons were all I really noticed at the time.

Detail from a 1570 map. Image from The Old Map & Clock Company, http://www.old-map.com

When I looked over the atlases that my dad used to navigate our western trips, and when I watched the landscape zip past the window, I associated places with the dinosaurs that once lived there: sauropods and stegosaurs in Utah, tyrannosaurs in Montana.  If geography evoked human history at all, it was only the history of paleontology, as at Como Bluff.  What seems funny to me now is how much my frame of reference has changed since then.  These days, when I look at a map or drive across a landscape, I see associations with the 1700’s and 1800’s. The ways I make sense of the world have evolved.

So although I got to travel throughout much of the West, I knew almost nothing of its rich history while I was seeing it.  Indeed, the history of the West remained a hazy subject for me even after I finished my master’s degree.  When I got assigned to teach a survey course on the post-Civil War U.S., I had to do a lot of boning up on the settlement of the trans-Mississippi before I could put a decent lecture together.

My mental map of American history doesn’t have quite as many blank spaces now as it did when I was a teenager.  I can look at an atlas of the United States or drive through a region and make connections with important people and events; the landscapes I see around me are filled with the bones of people as well as the bones of dragons.  Old habits die hard, though, and the dragons are still lurking around.  As a history major I had to take a methodology course and complete a major research project, so I wrote my paper on a feud between two nineteenth-century paleontologists, a feud in which the dinosaur graveyard of Como Bluff figured prominently.

I’m a little sorry that, when I had the chance to appreciate the historic West firsthand, I was so obsessed with the prehistoric one that I didn’t pay very close attention to anything else.  I’d like to spend some more time out there now that I’m armed with some sort of historical sensibility, and pay the dinosaurs a visit while I’m at it.  The map isn’t blank anymore, but I think there’s still enough space for the monsters.

Allosaurus takes on Diplodocus at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, from Wikimedia Commons

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