Now that’s a face

Last August Slate ran a piece debunking the mythmaking in the documentary Dinosaur 13, about the federal prosecution of a fossil-collector who found a 90% complete T Rex skeleton in 1990.

Dinosaur 13’s embattled hero is Peter Larson, introduced as a “brilliant paleontologist” by no less an authority on earth science than a former National Geographic photographer. In truth, Larson is a commercial collector and vendor of fossils. Paleontologists have formal training in graduate school, where they learn to excavate and document fossil finds to preserve invaluable information. Along the way, one hopes, they learn that fossils are part of the public trust, not to be hawked or pirated.

CNN has been showing Dinosaur 13 so I watched it; it’s pretty gripping, although the loud and repetitive music is way overdone. But I did keep thinking throughout that a dinosaur fossil shouldn’t “belong to” anyone, it should be the property of everyone and no one. I’d read about Larson and Sue at some point, so I knew to be suspicious of his take all along. It’s all a bit Greenpeace-like – he should have told museum paleontologists or academic ones or all of them about the T Rex, not treated it as a treasure belonging to him because he found it.

Larson and his Black Hills Institute are subjected to the ravages of the FBI and National Guard, who confiscate first the dinosaur and then all of the business’s files. The first federal foray aimed, rightly, to remove “Sue” from it’s legally challenged custody. But in Dinosaur 13, the fossil’s relocation is a jack-booted raid by that eternal enemy of the lawless West, the gummint.

The files were seized as part of an investigation into widespread allegations of international fossil theft and misrepresentation against Larson. Laborious research resulted in convictions of Larson and others at Black Hills for customs fraud, money laundering, and other offenses. But, in Dinosaur 13’s curious reimagination of the legal process, several convictions and a two-year prison sentence for Larson—which was, admittedly, overly harsh—are somehow proof of Larson’s fundamental innocence.

And there’s a lot of nonsense about how the T Rex should have stayed in Hill City, South Dakota. Where did it go instead? The Field Museum in Chicago. Well which is better? Obviously the latter: more people will be able to see it, more scientists will be able to study it, more professionals will take care of it. It’s treated as a tragedy but there’s nothing tragic about it.

Lost in Dinosaur 13’s re-invention of history—which is subtitled “a true tale”—is the actual import of the Larson affair. Dinosaur 13 should have celebrated the government. Its servants sought to protect our prehistory from commercial abuse by targeting one of its most prominent dealers. And they got their man.

Even the US, the Vatican of the church of the free market, doesn’t think fossils should be sold like so much gravel.

The Field Museum


  1. Blanche Quizno says

    An oddity of religious thought across all the intolerant religions that I know of is this peculiar belief that one of the confirmations that something is the truth is if people “persecute” you because of it. No, it couldn’t be that you’re a guilty criminal! No, it’s not possible that it’s just because you were being a jerk! No, the ONLY reason anyone would criticize you or worse is because you’re RIGHT!!

    In other words, there is nothing in the world that can demonstrate that someone from these beliefs is actually *wrong*. And I see that same attitude in Larson and his defenders.

    I thought Sue was supposed to be sold at auction to the highest bidder – da gummint put the kibosh on that, I take it?

  2. RJW says

    Well, the fossil has been recovered, however the information that scientists could have gained from an examination of the site is probably lost forever. Fossils and the sites where they are found, belong to the public.

    I remember a report from Italy, some years ago. Builders constructing a hotel complex in the south of the country, discovered the foundations of a Greek temple, rather than be bothered with all that red tape, and time is money, they destroyed what remained of its foundations. Some of the workers ‘souvenired’ some artefacts which were later recovered by the authorities, however the archeology of the site was completely destroyed.

  3. Trebuchet says

    We watched Dinosaur 13 last night as well. Based on the previous several weeks of hype from CNN, I expected it to be extremely biased. I was not disappointed.

  4. says

    RJW, good point. The documentary didn’t spell this out (no doubt because it wouldn’t look good), but from everything on screen it seems they did the whole excavation themselves, in secret. It seems a bit like digging into a pyramid and walking off with everything you find.

  5. Pieter B, FCD says

    I half-saw a promo, had the TiVo record it, and now it appears that you’ve saved me a couple of hours. I never really have the time to watch and read all I’d like to, so many thanks.

  6. Timothy Larson says

    The land owner kept people from returning to the site. It is private property so it was his right…, at least one paleontologist was able to get permission from Maurice Williams to return to the site of the SUE excavation. This led to the discovery of a pachycephalosaurus skeleton that was found near the SUE site. As far as I’m aware that was the last time any paleontologist was permitted on Williams’s property. Granted, this was all before the auction in 1997 (which the federal government said they were trying to prevent); it is likely that paleontologists from the Field Museum were able to visit Williams’s property, but I have no idea what the relationship was like between Williams and the Field Museum.

  7. says

    Am I the only one who sees this whole legal shenanigans, and the name of that Twitter feed, and thinks: No! Don’t sue the T-Rex; prosecute the human!

    Hey, someone had to say it 😉

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