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August 13 2012

The art of the dinosaur | Dr Dave Hone

The importance of palaeoart for communicating ideas about the past to the public

Palaeontology has at least one aspect to it that is little seen in any other branch of science – the artwork responsible for bringing lost extinct animals back to life. While artwork and illustration depicting dinosaurs and the like is resplendent in books and common in media coverage of the subject, it has a more general place in science education and communication.

It's pretty hard for the average person to look at a skeleton (let alone a fraction of a skeleton) and get a good impression of how that animal looked in life. Sure, something that is obviously a horse or fish might be easy enough, but animals like dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures are wonderfully alien compared with most living animals and would be far more of a challenge.

Would it stand upright or with legs bent? Would the tail be stiff or flexible? Could it rear up, or run? Would it have large scales or small, armoured bumps and spikes, feathers even? And where would they be on the body and what colours could they be? Did it live in a tropical forest or on the plains or did it roam the ancient shoreline?

Art of this kind (often termed palaeoart) can of course be beautiful and interesting in its own right, but it's also a powerful communication tool to help present these animals and show them off in a way that otherwise is hard to appreciate. Good palaeoart is also a real challenge to produce and can require a great deal of dedicated knowledge and represent a real collaboration between artist and scientist.

Most people will know when a dog or horse has been drawn wrong, even if they can't quite place a finger on what looks odd, and the artist will have innumerable photos and videos to work from and, of course, real animals. Making sure the right muscles of the right size are in the right place on a Stegosaurus or Tyrannosaurus is quite another matter, though, and the best palaeoartists generally have a super and detailed knowledge of anatomy as well as keeping up with the scientific literature. There's even a significant number of academics of sufficient talent to produce their own artwork and a search will often turn up a piece where the artist can point to having dug up and described the beast in question, as well as producing the illustrations of it stomping around the Mesozoic.

I've been fortunate enough to have had some very enjoyable collaborations with some very talented artists, working together to restore extinct animals (and also to have had some less fun ones too). It's great to be able to stray a little from the formalities of strict science and be able to be a little more expressive – something that I suspect is not afforded to too many chemists, for example.

Even before my involvement in various outreach projects and a couple of books, I've been interested in both the artistic and scientific side of this work. So in an attempt to bring this to a larger audience I have put online a nice collection of interviews with various artists on their works that can be seen here.

Which brings me round to the subject of the banner that rides high above these words. This is more that just a collection of dinosaurian-like animals, but more specifically they are all images of species where I was responsible (or partly responsible) for naming the animal. As such, it has a rather personal connection to me, and also so seemed an appropriate way to illustrate the new blog and its emphasis on the uncovering and explanation of these long dead creatures.

However, I really can't leave things there and not thank publicly and profusely those artists who generously gave me permission to use their work for this and of course explain what all those animals are. So running clockwise from the top left we have:

Limusaurus – an unusual herbivorous ceratosaurian dinosaur (all other ceratosaurs are carnivores) from western China that was named in 2009. This work is by Portia Rollings and was done as part of a spread for National Geographic on the various animals found in these beds.

Bellubrunnus – a small rhamphorhynchine pterosaur from Germany that I named just in July of this year. This digital piece was done by my friend Matt van Rooijen, an animator from Tasmania who has collaborated with me on a number of pieces.

Zhuchengtyrannus – a giant tyrannosaurid dinosaur (and close relative of Tyrannosaurus) from eastern China that I named in 2010. The art was by Bob Nicholls, a Bristol-based artist whose work can be seen in many museums in the UK. The original of this hangs on my wall at home.

Linhenykus – a tiny alvarezsaur (an ant-eating dinosaur) from central China that I helped name in 2011. This digital piece is by Julius Cystoni who has his own PhD in microbiology as well as producing artworks like this.

Anchiornis – a troodontid (a small, feathered, bird-like dinosaur) from central China that was named in 2009. This piece was created by Michael DiGiorgio illustrating recent work (that I was not involved in) on the colours of dinosaur feathers. Michael is best known for his work on birds, so it's perhaps no surprise that he was called in to illustrate this one.

My thanks to them one and all for their art in general and specifically for allowing me to use these pieces (or parts thereof) here. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 11 2011

February 16 2011

How early man used his head

Skulls unearthed in a Somerset cave were skilfully fashioned into cups with the rest of the bodies probably being cannibalised

A macabre collection of bone cups made from human skulls, unearthed in a Somerset cave, are the oldest of their kind, researchers believe.

The extraordinary vessels are the handiwork of early modern humans, who used stone tools to prepare and finish the containers around 14,700 years ago after the last ice age.

The three cups, made from the skulls of two adults and one three-year-old child, were dug up several decades ago, alongside the cracked and cut-marked remains of animal and human bones at Gough Cave in Cheddar Gorge, south-west England. They have now been re-examined using new techniques.

The human bones show clear signs of butchery, implying that the bodies were stripped for meat and crushed for marrow before the heads were severed and turned into crockery.

There is no suggestion that the cups are trophies made from the remains of dead enemies. It is more likely that making skull cups was a traditional craft and their original owners died naturally.

"It would probably take a half day to prepare a skull cup," said Silvia Bello, the palaeontologist who led the study at the Natural History Museum in London. "Defleshing the skull was a skilled and lengthy business."

Researchers said it was impossible to know how skull cups were used, but historically they have held food, blood or wine. Some are still used today in Hindu and Buddist rituals. "To us they can still seem a little strange," said Bello. "I wouldn't have my cereal in one."

Writing in the journal Plos One, the scientists describe revisiting excavated remains from the cave, including a skull cup unearthed in 1987 by Chris Stringer, head of human origins research at the museum. Detailed examination of 37 skull fragments and four pieces of jaw using a 3D microscope revealed a common pattern of hard strikes followed by more finessed stone tool work that turned a freshly decapitated head into a functional cup or bowl.

"This is the first time we've understood how this material was processed, and the fact that the skulls were not just cut and butchered, but were shaped in a purposeful way," said Stringer.

The discarded human bones had the same cut and saw marks found on butchered animal bones at the site, and some were cracked open or crushed, as was done with animal bones to expose nutritious marrow. Only the skulls seem to have been treated with special care. The cuts and dents show they were scrupulously cleaned of any soft tissues soon after death.

"They systematically shaped the skulls to make them into cups. They scalped them to remove the hair, they removed the eyeballs and ears, they knocked off the faces, then removed the jaws and chiseled away the edges to make the rims nice and even. They did a pretty thorough job,' Stringer said.

The smaller cup, made from the child's skull, would have leaked because the cranial bones had not fully fused together, but the larger two might have carried food or around two pints of liquid.

"We assume it was some kind of ritual treatment. If there's not much food around they may have eaten their dead to survive. Perhaps they did this to honour the dead, to celebrate their lives," Stringer added.

The cave dwellers were among the first humans to return to Britain at the end of the last ice age. The island was unpopulated and almost completely under ice 20,000 years ago, but as the climate warmed, plants and animals moved across Doggerland, a now submerged land bridge that linked Britain to mainland Europe. Where food went, early humans followed and brought art, craft and toolmaking skills with them.

The ages of the remains at Gough Cave suggest it was home to humans for at least 100 years. The cave is well-sheltered and, with skin flaps over the entrance, would have made a cosy abode, Stringer said. The residents were ideally placed to hunt passing deer and wild boar, while up on the Mendip Hills roamed reindeer and horses.

In the 1900s, several hundred tonnes of soil were removed from the cave to open it up as a tourist attraction, a move that may have destroyed priceless ancient remains. The skull cup and other bones unearthed in 1987 survived only because they were lodged behind a large rock.

In 1903, field researchers working in the cave's entrance uncovered Cheddar Man, the oldest complete skeleton in Britain at more than 9,000 years old. A painting of a mammoth was found on the wall in 2007. Other artefacts from the site include an exquisitely carved mammoth ivory spearhead.

A precise replica of one of the skull cups, complete with cut marks, will go on display at the Natural History Museum in London from 1 March for three months. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 05 2008

TERRA 444: Museum of the Rockies - Dino Diaries

Have you ever wondered how scientists look for dinosaur bones, or how they get these fossils safely out of the ground once they find them?

Find answers to these questions and more as students and paleontologists from the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana take you into the field on the latest episode from Terra, Dino Diaries

September 03 2008

TERRA 444: Museum of the Rockies - Dino Diaries PREVIEW

Have you ever wondered how scientists look for dinosaur bones, or how they get these fossils safely out of the ground once they find them?

Find answers to these questions and more as students and paleontologists from the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana take you into the field on the latest episode from Terra, Dino Diaries

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