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Dinosaurs as a Cultural Phenomenon

Keith Thomson

Fame and Fortune

Right from the beginning some dinosaur sleuths promoted their discoveries (and themselves) in ways that other fossil hunters did not (or could not). The anatomist Richard Owen, for example, featured them in a display at Britain's Great Exhibition of 1851. For this event, sculptor and master promoter Waterhouse Hawkins created life-sized reconstructions of dinosaurs, which were later removed to a permanent site in South London. Hawkins's famous dinner party inside a half-built Iguanodon moved paleontology a long way towards its modern cultural status.

In 1858, the first articulated skeleton of any dinosaur was found in a New Jersey clay pit. Waterhouse Hawkins traveled to Philadelphia to mount the new Hadrosaurus for Joseph Leidy (the leading paleontologist of the day) and then offered casts of it for sale to museums around the world. His mounted skeleton caused such a sensation that the Academy of Natural Sciences instituted admission charges to limit attendance.

The gentlemanly Leidy (once described as the last man who knew everything) was soon eclipsed by a group of well-funded scholar-adventurers who competed bitterly for some 30 years. Archrivals Othniel Charles Marsh at Yale and Edward Drinker Cope in Philadelphia collected thousands of fossils, including some 120 different dinosaurs, from the American West.

The story of Cope and Marsh is one of the great sagas of science, at turns funny, reprehensible and tragic, but there was no doubting their determination. In 1875, Marsh negotiated with the Black Hills Sioux for permission to collect on their lands and later became their advocate in Washington. In 1876, Cope collected specimens in Montana just a few weeks after the Sioux victory over the U.S. 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, reckoning that "since every able-bodied Sioux would be with the braves under [their chief] Sitting Bull … there would be no danger for us." Yet neither Cope nor Marsh brought their work to the public, perhaps because they were too busy collecting and describing fossils and feuding with each other.

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