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Hunting dinosaurs at the Rotunda Museum in Scarborough
10:45am Saturday 18th August 2012 in Features
Stuck for ideas what do with the children? MATT CLARK meets two brothers with one big suggestion
MAYBE we are going to have a summer after all, certainly if recent weather is anything to go by. Just in time, most parents will say, with the long school holidays drawing to a close.
But what to do with the little darlings when the inevitable happens?
Well if you’re in Scarborough, you won’t need sunshine to enjoy the latest display at the Rotunda museum.
Just ask Gregor and Hamish Frazer. The brothers live in town and they’ve come to see Lost Dinosaurs, an exhibition that tries to answer a question that has baffled geologists for years.
Why, when so many dinosaur footprints have been found in the Scarborough area, have so few dinosaur bones been found?
It seems we’ve been rather careless with our history, not only have we lost York’s Viking ancestors; we can’t find many dinosaur remains either.
The first point is addressed at York Archaeological Trust’s new summer exhibition, Valhalla: In Search Of The Viking Dead, the second at the Rotunda.
“The premise behind Lost Dinosaurs is that 165 million years ago in Jurassic Scarborough it was tropical, and there were tons of dinosaurs knocking around,” says museum host Jeannie Swales.
“We’ve found masses of trace evidence, but for ages we’ve been trying to figure out why there are very few bones.”
The latest theory is twofold. Scarborough was a migratory rather than residential area and while some dinosaurs will have died en-route, not as many as in a colony. Then there is the type of rock in the area. As strata layers built up over millions of years, it seems the bones simply dissolved.
A diagonal stretch from Poole in Dorset to Scarborough is called the dinosaur band and they would roam around like herds of wildebeest. The area around Scarborough is particularly well known for its dinosaur footprints but that’s about it.
There are a few bones on display at the exhibition, all on loan and survivors by chance probably. But the highlight is a life-size model of megalosaur.
“He looks a bit creepy and a bit scary,” says Gregor. “I wouldn’t want to find him in real life. I think he would run after me.”
Dinosaurs were the dominant land animals for 160 million years, making them one of the most successful groups of animals ever. They were christened by English palaeontologist Richard Owen in 1841 and the name translates as wondrous lizards. The species evolved into a wide variety of sizes and shapes, from the plant-eating Sauropods to the fast and meat-eating Tyrannosaurs, many sporting an impressive array of horns, scales and crests.
But with hardly any bones to guide us, how do we know what they looked like?
“Will Watts one of our geologists astonished me,” says Jeannie. “He picked up a footprint and said that’s a two legged dinosaur two metres high and two feet wide at the hips.
“Apparently you can tell by looking at the pressure points on the toes and the way they are spread.”
The climate in Scarborough 165 million years ago would also have supported dragonflies and organisers were keen to have a couple on show.
Trouble is, like the east coast dinosaurs, no one can find one.
So Will asked The Fly Dressers’ Guild for help and they put him in touch with Spanish fly-tier Andrés Touceda – a world leader in the painstaking skill.
The result is a pair of exquisite life-sized dragonflies, one red and one blue, to star alongside Asbo in the exhibition.
“Unlike most other creatures, dragonflies haven’t actually changed much since pre-Jurassic days,” says Will. “We also have a cast in the exhibition of a fossilised dragonfly from roughly the same period found in limestone at Schollenhof in Germany, and it’s much the same as they are now.”
It’s not only Jurassic dinosaurs and dragonflies that are on offer at the Rotunda.
Hamish and Gregor scan one of the interactive displays and head off for the next room, where Gregor discovers an internationally important plesiosaur skeleton found near Filey; one of the few unearthed from the early part of the Cretaceous period.
Meanwhile Hamish points out another world class exhibit; Gristhorpe man, a perfectly preserved Bronze Age skeleton blackened through years of lying in a peat bog.
Ironically for an area which dissolved dinosaur bones, his remarkable preservation has been as ascribed to the water retaining properties of boulder clay at nearby Gristhorpe Cliff.
“This is one of the best examples of an oak coffin burial ever found,” says Jeannie.
“He was found in the 18th century and is almost perfectly preserved. He is internationally important and it’s fascinating how tall he is, nearly six feet.
“I remember him as a kid and he used to really frighten me.”
Not Hamish though, who thinks he’s brilliant.
The dinosaur band from Poole to Scarborough is also where most of the country’s fossils are found and the Rotunda museum was built to house William Smith’s collection.
Smith was a canal builder and the first man to categorise rock strata when he noticed different levels as his was digging.
“Then he started going down coal mines,” says Jeannie. “The miners knew about the strata of course but they only had informal names for them,”
Smith formally categorised those levels and realised they must have been laid down at different times, potentially millions of years apart.
In 1815 he produced a map of British geology to prove his theory, which didn’t go down too well. Smith lived in an age bound by the dogma that God made the world in six days around 6,000 years ago.
But he began to realise his observation of rock strata didn’t support the biblical creation story.
Eventually, though, Smith’s findings changed the world by separating the link between science and dogma and once scientists accepted that the book of Genesis was not a literal account of the creation of Earth, the floodgates were open for people such as Darwin.
Although he is known as the father of geology, Smith wasn’t so much bothered about fossils, his goal was money and he wanted to know where coal was. By locating different strata he could accurately predict where a seam could be found and make a fortune.
It all went wrong though and Smith ended up in debtor’s prison. On release he moved to Scarborough for the healing powers of its spa water.
He joined the town’s philosophical society and the Rotunda Museum was built in 1829 to his specification to house the society’s private collection of east coast fossils. It is one of the oldest purpose-built museums in Britain and as interesting as the displays within. Lighthouse like, it spirals with rooms branching off and neo-classical adornments vying for attention with the artefacts.
The central circular gallery is a remarkable room. Originally the displays were on shelves that represented the strata. Now panelled and glazed they tell of the Scarborough that existed in Smith’s day and the stories of some of the town’s earliest scientists.
All kids love dinosaurs, they are real life monsters and for grown ups there’s the display cases and William Smith’s story.
If you like fossils there’s nowhere better than the Rotunda.
“I’ve got loads of fossils at home,” says Hamish. “I don’t know how old they are but I think they must be very, very old.”
• Rotunda Museum, 2 Park Lodge, Vernon Road Scarborough YO11 2PT Tel: 01723 353665 rotundamuseum.co.uk
Opening times 10am-5pm Tuesday to Sunday, open Bank Holidays. Under 18s go free.