Summer 2007

Lauren Stevens, Dan Pickering, Norm Wuerthele, and Allen Shaw, with one of the fruits of their labor: a chunk of vertebrae from Corythosaurus.
Photo: Lisa Kyle

Working The Bones

For the past two years, the PaleoLab team has been working the bones of four lesser-known dinosaurs that will soon share the spotlight with the big guys in Dinosaurs in Their World.

By Betsy Momich

Most visitors to Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s old Dinosaur Hall probably didn’t even notice poor Dryosaurus (DRY-oh-sor-us). Encased for more than 60 years in a glass-covered wall mount, the 10-foot-long, 5-foot-tall specimen looked downright “pathetic,” notes Allen Shaw, supervisor of the museum’s publicly viewable fossil preparation lab, PaleoLab. He adds that the skeleton as it was—only two-dimensional, with one side hidden in plaster and rock—“had only about 35 percent of its original bones.”

Shaw knows every one of those bones well. While the museum’s largest and most famous dinosaurs received make-overs at Phil Fraley Productions’ studio in New Jersey, the transformation of four smaller but no less important future residents of Dinosaurs in Their World began with Shaw and his team of scientific preparators.

Since January 2005, they’ve been hunkered down in the museum’s PaleoLab, chemically stripping and cleaning, chipping, scraping, sculpting, even super-gluing the bones of the plant-eating dinosaurs Dryosaurus, Camptosaurus (CAMP-toh-sor-us), and Stegosaurus (STEG-oh-sor-us)—all dating back to the Jurassic Period some 145-205 million years ago, and each taking seven to eight months to complete. Their bones were then shipped off to Fraley’s studio for reassembly into free-standing skeletons. Corythosaurus (koh-RITH-oh-sor-us), a duck-billed plant-eater from the Cretaceous Period (65-144 million years ago), is still with the PaleoLab team.

“Our dinosaurs are the stars of our exhibit, and everything we’re doing is all about restoring them to their original beauty and re-mounting them in exciting, scientifically accurate poses,” says Matt Lamanna, assistant curator  of vertebrate paleontology and the museum’s point person for the new exhibit’s scientific accuracy. “Thanks to the simultaneous work of the PaleoLab team and Phil Fraley studios, we’re breathing new life into our specimens.”

Share and Share Alike

Even though Dryosaurus wasn’t totally encased in rock (which makes prepa-ration that much more difficult), this outwardly unimpressive specimen proved to be Team PaleoLab’s most impressive project.

Turns out, Dryosaurus was a pretty rare find when its bones turned up in 1910 in Utah’s Carnegie Quarry (now part of Dinosaur National Monument). So rare, in fact, that few additional Dryosaurus specimens have been unearthed since then, making the task of constructing a three-dimensional, free-standing skeleton almost impossible. Maybe that’s why no one’s ever done it. Carnegie Museum of Natural History will be the first.

So just how do you make a free-standing dinosaur skeleton out of less than half its original bones? “Typically, a museum borrows bones it doesn’t have from other museums, and then makes casts of them to include with their specimen,” Shaw explains. “In our case, I email Matt (Lamanna), who has a good network among other institutions, and he’ll contact them and tell them what we’re looking for.” A few dozen vertebrae here. A few toe bones there.

After putting feelers out about Dryosaurus, Shaw and Lamanna found about half of what they were looking for at Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. Yale offered to loan the bones it had, with one condition: The Peabody Museum wanted a full cast of the complete Dryosaurus to add to its own dinosaur display.

“Ours will be the first free-standing Dryosaurus,” Lamanna notes, “so a complete cast of it is certainly a valuable thing. We couldn’t have completed the transformation of our Dryosaurus without the Peabody’s help, so we were more than happy to share—just as they did.”

Norm Wuerthele is Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s resident expert on making casts of fossils. With more than 30 years at the museum, he’s the standard bearer of a skill that Andrew Carnegie’s museum perfected back in the early 1900s, when Carnegie insisted on giving multiple casts of his namesake, Diplodocus carnegii, to the world. Under the gun to completely mold and cast Dryosaurus, Wuerthele was joined by the rest of the PaleoLab team for a casting marathon. Lauren Stevens, the newest and youngest member of PaleoLab, made this account in her September 3, 2006, online journal entry: “It took us a month, but we did it! We molded and cast every single skeletal element of Dryosaurus in time to meet our deadline. Norm, Allen, Dan and I did little else than lay up fossils in clay, mix up silicone, and pour the casting material. Over 100 molds total, and many more casts!”

But even before the final molds could be made and the casting completed, about 25 percent of Dryosaurus still had to be created—from nothing. Enter Dan Pickering. An artist by trade, Pickering grew up in Pittsburgh and has always been a Carnegie Museums dinosaur junkie. “I’ve done exhibit work at the Museums of Art and Natural History, so when I heard Dinosaurs in Their World was starting up, wanted a piece of the dinosaur action.”

Since joining the PaleoLab team in 2005, Pickering has mastered the art of sculpting broken or missing bones using a two-part epoxy putty. “If a particular bone is missing, hopefully I have the opposite-side bone. I can then model a mirror image replica.” Sometimes, though, Pickering and the team have to look at bones from closely related dinosaurs in order to sculpt bones that fit, as they did with Dryosaurus. Pickering notes that his proudest accomplishment to date was the sculpting of a new skull for the once “pathetic,” soon history-making Dryosaurus. 

Allen Shaw’s proudest moment: “Just getting Dryosaurus out the door"
Also in this issue:

Pittsburgh Glass  ·  Time to Play  ·  A New, More Personal Jesus  ·  Mars Comes to Pittsburgh  ·  Special Supplement: Thanks to Our Donors  ·  Director's Note  ·  NewsWorthy  ·  Now Showing  ·  Face Time: Anthony Rothbauer  ·  About Town: Art Imitating Life  ·  Field Trip: On the Road with Douglas Fogle  ·  Artistic License: The Traveling Factory  ·  First Person: A Traveler's Diary  ·  Another Look: Sol LeWitt Drawings