Historical photos are fascinating as windows into the lives of our paleontological predecessors. I enjoy seeing the old clothing styles and haircuts, and reflecting on how some things have changed (or haven't changed) over the years.
For today's post, I found a great photo from the Smithsonian's archives, depicting fossil preparator Norman Ross assembling the mounted skeleton of a little horned dinosaur. The photo is dated to March 1921, just a few short years after these bones of Brachyceratops
were described by paleontologist Charles Gilmore. Although Brachyceratops
is no longer recognized as a distinct species (it is a juvenile animal, and doesn't show any features that distinguish it from a whole host of juvenile horned dinosaur species), the fossils carry lots of anatomical information.
As a paleontologist, this photo is important documentation. For many years, the fossil was difficult to see up close, in a big (and hard to remove) glass case. Based on the skeleton's position in its old exhibit, even if the case was removed you couldn't easily examine or photograph many of the bones. Finally, the plaster reconstruction had been painted, so distinguishing the exact limits of plaster and fossil took some effort (thankfully, the mount was never subjected to the general "paint it all brown" treatment many specimens from the era received). The right side view in the image shows a side I have never personally seen directly, and plaster reconstruction is starkly visible. Focus is crisp and clear, so the image is sufficient to answer some basic questions about the anatomy of the fossil.
So, the nearly 100 year old photo serves many purposes. It documents a moment in the lab of a museum, recognizes the contributions of a historic fossil preparator, and conveys useful information about a scientifically significant fossil. I wonder what the photos we take today will be used for!
--Dr. Andy Farke is the Augustyn Family Curator at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California