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Barnum Brown’s dinosaur bonanza amazed the world

Posted in America, Dinosaurs, Historical articles, History, Prehistory, Science on Wednesday, 5 February 2014

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This edited article about dinosaurs first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 543 published on 10 June 1972.

Tyrannosaurus Rex,  picture, image, illustration

Barnum Bron unearthed two complete skeletons of the iconic Tyrannosaurus Rex

In the summer of 1893, a young American student at the University of Kansas named Barnum Brown led a fossil hunt through Nebraska and South Dakota.

Whether this expedition was successful or not was never stated, but the ones which followed it certainly were.

For in the following summer Brown led another fossil hunt, this time through Wyoming, where he unearthed a skull of the Tricerops. Remains of this creature had been found before by Charles Marsh, who, together with Edward Cope, had led the great Dinosaur ‘rush’ of America. But for a young, inexperienced student, such a discovery was quite a feat.

After graduating in 1897, Brown became associated with the American Museum of Natural History and was immediately sent on an expedition to Wyoming to collect dinosaurs. This was the beginning of his long and successful career in dinosaur-digging, during which he was to become one of the greatest discoverers of dinosaurs in America.

Although he had collected many fossils, not only in the United States, but throughout the world, dinosaurs were Brown’s chief joy. It was often said by those who had assisted him on his expeditions that he could almost ‘smell’ them out. The imposing collection of Cretaceous remains in the American Natural History Museum, which he served until his death in 1963, is a wonderful monument to his life’s work.

One of Brown’s greatest and most exciting discoveries was in the Howe Quarry at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains near Yellowstone Park. In 1934 a rancher named Barker Howe had reported a find of huge bones on his ranch and Brown was sent to investigate. He found what could almost be described as a dinosaur quarry. Bones were breaking through the surface of the ground, having weathered their way through the soil.

It was undoubtedly the result of some natural disaster. The bones were piled in heaps, all jumbled together, and what was even more interesting was that they were in a horizontal position. A similar find at Utah showed the bones in a vertical position. Here, the land surface, originally flat, had been heaved upright. It was believed that the find in Itah had been caused possibly by a flood or a river in spate. The dinosaurs, some very large, had been swept along by it until they were stranded on a bank. The experts had come to this conclusion because all the tails of the dinosaurs were laid in the same direction, and while the upper parts of the skeleton were reasonably intact, the under parts had broken away.

But at Howe Quarry, as it was later called, there was nothing like that. The site of this ancient disaster had remained in a horizontal position. The bones lay in a confused state of disarray. It looked as though the dinosaurs, trapped somehow, perhaps by a flood, had trampled on each other. This was made even more plausible by the fact that there was a dense heap towards the centre, thinning towards the edges.

One suggestion is that the disaster occurred in a narrow ravine with a sudden spate of water pouring along it. The dinosaurs, had therefore been trapped where the ravine sharply narrowed.

Another theory is that this mass of dinosaurs came about during a drought. Once trapped in a pool, the dinosaurs had become stuck in the mud, and in a desperate effort to escape from it, had begun to trample on each other. That would certainly account for the disorganised broken state of the bones, but why the density of them towards the centre? The questions are endless, and many remain unanswered even to this day. Perhaps this is why the study of dinosaurs has become such an exciting and fascinating subject.

The highlight of Barnum Brown’s career came in 1910 with his trip down Red Deer River in Alberta in a barge-like craft, called a scow. This was built specially for the event and was large enough to take a tent on deck and also had the necessary cargo capacity to transport heavy fossils.

When all was ready Brown and his crew set off on their search for dinosaurs. The first 60 miles of the voyage were extremely difficult, sometimes even dangerous. A fast-flowing current and a succession of rapids made it difficult to keep the scow on course.

At last they reached calm water, below a point where a great landslide had all but blocked the river. To quote Brown himself: ‘In the long midsummer days in latitude 52, there are many hours of daylight. The river would have carried us many miles per day, but frequent stops were made to prospect for fossils and we rarely covered more than 20 miles per day . . . for miles we floated through picturesque solitude, the silence unbroken save for the noise of the rapids.’

The expedition was a great success. By the end of the summer the scow was well loaded with dinosaur remains and another trip was planned for the following year, working down-stream. By the third year Brown and his men had arrived at an older rock formation with the result that specimens from different levels, or stratas, were obtained. This made it possible to judge, at a glance, how these reptiles had developed during the course of millions of years. Among the exciting finds was the complete skeleton of Corythosaurus, a Cretaceous duck-billed dinosaur, and of Monoclonius, a one-horned edition of Triceratops.

The greatest of Brown’s achievements was the discovery, at the Hell Creek Formation of Eastern Montana, of two complete skeletons of the giant of them all: Tyrannosaurus Rex, The Tyrant King. They are two of the finest dinosaur skeletons ever to have come to light, and were a fitting crown to Barnum Brown’s successful dinosaur-digging career.

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