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