Thursday, June 4, 2009


One of the highlights of some paleontological publications, particularly from the 19th century and earlier, are the illustrations of the fossils.

Yes, they are intended to depict the detailed reality of the fossil, still they do more. I am often captured by the light and shadow the artists use to cast these relics of ancient life into three dimensions – the images are not in stark, clinical isolation, rather, they are in a specific place and time. The arrangement of multiple specimens in the same drawing frequently seems to me to be much more than simply utilitarian – they are arranged to strike a balance, each playing off the other.

I’d love to be able to include an image of one of the many images that Joseph Dinkel drew to illustrate Louis Agassiz’s masterwork on fossil fishes (see previous post). Unfortunately, I don’t find any that I’m comfortable reproducing here.

These illustrations are in a category of paleoart that is fundamentally different from the paleoart in which the artist attempts to recreate the appearance of the original living organism and its environment.

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran an article entitled Where Art and Paleontology Intersect, Fossils Become Faces (June 1, 2009, by Donald G. McNeil, Jr.). The article profiles Viktor Deak, a paleoartist whose work is featured prominently in the American Museum of Natural History and has appeared in many publications. Deak is among those artists, grounded in science, who are putting flesh on the fossilized bones and bone fragments from ancient hominids, giving us a vision of what our early ancestor might have looked like. Others include John Gurche, the artist-in-residence at the Museum of the Earth (Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York).

Deak has created a 78 foot long mural showing human evolution in Ethiopia (the mural is seen and discussed by Deak in the video that accompanies the article on the Times web site). It’s an amazing work of art – as you scan the mural from left to right, you move from the earliest hominids some 6 million years ago, until you reach modern humans. You are also moving across a 24 hour period, from midnight to noon, and back to midnight.

The mural is part of an exhibit entitled “Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia,” currently touring North America. Among the remains of proto-humans in the exhibit is Lucy, the skeleton of an Australopithecus afarensis, some 3.18 million years old.

As much as I like the mural, I find myself in strong disagreement with the author of the Times article, Donald McNeil. He writes, “. . . his mural, a vast Photoshop collage, is more fun to ponder than the bones.”

More fun than the bones? More fun than Lucy? Not a chance. The paleoart created by Deak and others is grand and useful, the art blended with science moves our understanding forward. But, the bones, the fossils, are the essence. Without them, nothing. The fossils are the actual connection to the past, they are the touchstone to which we return if, as our understanding grows, we discover flaws in the vision depicted by this paleoart. The ancient history resides within them. They are what is to be pondered.

To be frank, for me, the murals that adorn museum exhibits are only a backdrop for the real thing.

A Couple of Asides

I must admit that seeing images of Deak at work – taking a cast of a skull fragment, adding clay and other material to complete the skull and to layer on muscle and flesh, inserting artificial eyes, photographing, manipulating the images . . . – all reminded me of the current forensic science police shows and movie animation studios. Makes Deak's work seem less special than it is (I do think it special despite my put-down of murals).

Finally, since Viktor Deak is the focus of the article, the Times, properly, provided a phonetic spelling of Mr. Deak’s name. But, it strikes me as very funny that the Times chose not the first instance of “Deak” in the article beside which to insert the phonetic spelling, but, rather, this sentence: “Mr. Deak (pronounced DAY-ahk) and Xochitl Gomez were married at the Bronx Zoo, in the gorilla grotto.” And, no, it’s not being married in the gorilla grotto that I find amusing.

Credits for Images
The first image of vertebrae is from the Smithsonian Institution's image collection with the following identifying information: James Dwight Dana, Geology, 1849. Oregon Fossils, Plate 17. Smithsonian ID: SIL19-15-023. URL:

The second image of trilobites is from the Smithsonian Institution's image collection with the following identifying information: Joachim Barrande, Systême silurien du centre de la Bohême, 1852. Smithsonian ID: SIL7-240-016. URL:

Final image is a photo of a portion of a mural at the Dinosaur State Park, Rocky Hill, Connecticut. The mural was painted by William Sillin. It depicts a prosauropod in the late Triassic.

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