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Bones for Barnum Brown: Adventures of a Dinosaur Hunter

Bones for Barnum Brown: Adventures of a Dinosaur Hunter

by Roland Bird

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Roland Thaxter Bird, universally and affectionately known to friends and associates as R. T., achieved a kind of Horatio Alger success in the scientific world of dinosaur studies. Forced to drop out of school at a young age by ill health, he was a cowboy who traveled from job to job by motorcycle until he met Barnum Brown, Curator of Vertebrae Paleontology at the


Roland Thaxter Bird, universally and affectionately known to friends and associates as R. T., achieved a kind of Horatio Alger success in the scientific world of dinosaur studies. Forced to drop out of school at a young age by ill health, he was a cowboy who traveled from job to job by motorcycle until he met Barnum Brown, Curator of Vertebrae Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and a leader in the study of dinosaurs. Beginning in 1934, Bird spent many years as an employee of the museum and as Brown's right-hand man in the field. His chart of the Howe Quarry in Wyoming, a massive sauropod boneyard, is one of the most complex paleontological charts ever produced and a work of art in its own right. His crowning achievement was the discovery, collection, and interpretation of gigantic Cretaceous dinosaur trackways along the Paluxy River near Glen Rose and at Bandera, Texas. A trackway from Glen Rose is on exhibit at the American Museum and at the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin. His interpretation of these trackways demonstrated that a large carnosaur had pursued and attacked a sauropod, that sauropods migrated in herds, and that, contrary to then-current belief, sauropods were able to support their own weight out of deep water. These behavioral interpretations anticipated later dinosaur studies by at least two decades.

From his first meeting with Barnum Brown to his discoveries at Glen Rose and Bandera, this very human account tells the story of Bird's remarkable work on dinosaurs. In a vibrantly descriptive style, Bird recorded both the intensity and excitement of field work and the careful and painstaking detail of laboratory reconstruction. His memoir presents a vivid picture of camp life with Brown and the inner workings of the famous American Museum of Natural History, and it offers a new and humanizing account of Brown himself, one of the giants of his field.

Bird's memoir has been supplemented with a clear and concise introduction to the field of dinosaur study and with generous illustrations which delineate the various types of dinosaurs.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
R. T. Bird, as he was called, made spectacular finds of dinosaur remains in the West during the 1930s. In later years he recalled the excitement of the finds; the dangers, frustrations, and fun of the camps; the brilliance of Brown, for many years curator of vertebrate paleontology of the American Museum of Natural History; and the drudgery of assembling the fragments to create some of the most spectacular displays in the world. Bird was a natural writ erdirect, understated, often witty. A concise introduction to vertebrate pale ontology, careful editing, and skillful captioning under the many photographs and drawings contribute to a lively vol ume for anyone interested in fossil- hunting in general and dinosaurs in par ticular. A good choiece for special collections and public and high school libraries. Walter C. Allen, GSLIS, Univ. of Illinois, Urbana

Product Details

Texas Christian University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
8.90(w) x 11.90(h) x 0.70(d)

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Bones for Barnum Brown

Adventures of a Dinosaur Hunter

By Roland T. Bird, V. Theodore Schreiber

TCU Press

Copyright © 1985 V. Theodore Schreiber
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87565-011-1


At first the distant buttes were purple, little purple boxes floating on the Arizona vastness. The desert road stretched long and straight and empty toward the nearest of the box-like hills. I checked the cycle's mileage on the speedometer against the road map. Winslow and Holbrook and much of the Painted Desert were well behind me. Seventy miles yet to Pine, and the chill November day in 1932 was nearly done. If I could find a place to build a campfire at the foot of one of those box-walls ahead ...

The trail was rough and rutted; the biggest bumps jarred the machine to the limits of its rugged bolts. Dust, caught in updraft behind the windshield, eddied into my face. I took a fresh grip on my bouncing body and the Harley's handlebars, sifted out the sand between my teeth for a bite of fresh air ... and ran out of dust. The road ran over a rocky outcrop and dived down a rocky draw. I fought to hang on to the bucking machine. The draw, of course, cut off my view of the purple buttes. We crossed a dry wash, climbed again to level ground. Propinquity and the paling sun had changed the purple buttes to brownish red. As the Harley and I drew closer, the brownish reds became bands of red and brown, the colors less vivid than those of the buttes on the Painted Desert east of Holbrook.

The Harley and I waddled gracelessly down another draw, but the buttes were too close now to be lost to sight. The bands of clay and sandstone resembled layer cakes, varied in area but all exactly the same height. Nature, in cutting the desert to its present level, had sought somehow to preserve in these abutments remnants of an ancient horizon. I had first become aware of this in the Petrified Forest, but where the vast plain had started and where it would end I did not know. It had occurred to me as far back as Holbrook that I might follow the march of the box-like hills west and ... somewhere beyond the limits of the strictly patrolled government park ... I might find a petrified log of my very own, since the lay of the land was much the same.

A clay apron reached out from the base of the nearest butte; it was from such clays as these that the logs of the Petrified Forest had weathered out. I could still see in mind's eye the great boles lying everywhere, scattered like logs in an old mill pond, truly an Enchanted Forest, showing jasper and quartz and agate interiors, flashing colors of a shattered rainbow. "These trees," the park ranger said, casually as if talking about breakfast, "were alive around two hundred million years ago. They grew away back in the Age of Reptiles ... the days of the dinosaurs."

I turned the machine toward the nearest butte, crashing through creosote bush and sage. The beat of stems under the sidecar sounded like splashing water. The machine with its heavy sidecar groaned and strained. I cut the switch, dismounted, and started walking toward the base of the butte. It was only some forty feet high but offered a good haven out of the rising night wind.

To think that dinosaurs had known the world I could see cross-sectioned in the faces of the weathered buttes! I knew little enough about the great beasts, but the ranger's words ... I called to mind the great skeletons in New York's American Museum of Natural History which I had known as a boy; then they weren't associated with anything in the land of the living. But I was here now ... where they had been! I looked about curiously, half expecting to find bones lying about.

The bands of clay and rock that made up the buttes were capped with coarse sandstone, several feet in thickness, emphasizing the layer cake impression. The ranger at the Petrified Forest had explained that this had once been a great marine basin into which silt and sand and mud had been dumped by mighty rivers. Trees, perhaps uprooted by storm, floated into this basin to become waterlogged and buried.

Flat slabs of red sandstone, thin as boards, lay scattered through the soft clay of the base. Their undersides undulated every inch or so, varying the thickness. I picked up a piece, perhaps a two- foot slab, smooth as a slate on one side, marked on the other by rhythmic undulations, like the record left in shore sand by a retreating tide.

A retreating tide! Memory flooded, and I was a boy again in Rye, New York, on Long Island Sound, and the tide had just gone out, leaving a ripple-marked sandy beach. Here in my hand was just such a bit of beach, frozen in stone, a record of a lazy day two hundred million years gone when dinosaurs had roamed.

Ahead lay a broad exposure, unbroken, its expanse of ripple marks etched sharply by the last glimmers of sunlight, running up into the cover of the butte wall. Sometimes, in Rye, the ripples were smudged by the bare feet of bathers. I looked about me, trying to picture an ancient shoreline. Or perhaps the ripple marks were made on a sandy flat in a river bed. In any case, it had been a warmer world, a fine world for great reptilians. If these ripple marks were smudged anywhere, it would not have been by barefoot bathers.

I moved about, inspecting with care the unbroken expanse, turning over some of the broken bits, covering the terrain with care until it grew too dark to see.

As I turned to give up for the night, a thin sliver of gold from under a low-hanging cloud conspired with reflection from the edge of the butte to give me a minute's respite. In this bit of time, a slab of rock tipped up from the shadows. The dark outline of a crocodile-like mouth printed in stone seemed to reach up in the dim light for my ankle. My heart skipped a beat, sputtered, went on. I stumbled, recovered my balance, and the stone mouth dropped back into its pool of liquid darkness, clacking.

The form in deepest shadow made no further movement. I stepped forward and bent over the object in the wash, lifting it into the last of the waning twilight. Running my fingers around a long dark smear across the surface of the stone, I felt the edge of a mouth-like form, the prints of small, sharp, numerous teeth. It was some sort of a fossil skull.

The rock was not too large nor too heavy to lift. I tugged it to the bank of the wash, where the light was slightly better. Only the head ... or rather, the skull ... was represented on the surface of the rock; the marginal outline, the rows of small sharp teeth, the oval openings into a long snout ... all were perfectly shown in deep impression. Of actual bone there was nothing left, of course. The breaks across the stone seemed to be clean and fresh. When the rest of this slab had broken away, it had carried with it not only the bone but the top half of the impression. What lay before me was a palate imprint where the upper part of a large mouth had rested, a long time ago.

I turned again to the wash. It was littered everywhere with broken bits of flat rock, little rocks, big rocks, little slabs, big slabs, a long section that had slumped from the butte's capping. Surely the other half of the strange skull imprint was here somewhere. Even the skull itself, perhaps even more of the creature's skeleton. The surface of the nearest sizable slab was barren of marks. I turned it over ... nothing on the other side. I followed the wash up to the capping and down as far as rocks of any size had been carried. No fossil bones; no imprints. It was full dark now, and fingers aren't a dependable substitute for eyes. The rising night wind began to whisper mournfully through the sagebrush, as if it too sought for what it could not find. "I've just missed it because I can't see," I thought. "I'll find it, come morning."

Turning west out of the wash, I made my way toward the dim shape of the Harley, lit only by starlight now. On the sidecar chassis was a small one-man camp trailer of my own building, folded down for daytime travel. I switched on the light and drove the outfit toward the wash, to a slightly more open spot. With the headlamp to see by, I pulled dead sagebrush for a campfire. The gnarled, knotty wood was fat, and splinters kindled readily. With the fire lighting up the area I had picked for a campsite, I turned my attention to setting up. In only moments, I had unfolded and rigged my little camper and uncovered a comfortable mattress.

Supper came from the contents of my tiny pantry, and the brushwood fire soon burned down, making a fine bed for roast sweet potatoes. Fresh meat went into the skillet and onto the bed of coals. When the cooking was done, I heaped the balance of my brush on the fire for light and warmth. The aroma of the pungent sage blended with the frying meat, the sizzling sweet potatoes ... there is no place like home on the range!

It occurred to me I could examine my fossil while I ate. I dragged it to the fireside, where the blaze lighted the mould that had been a part of the encasing matrix of a skull. What manner of creature had I found? The teeth were small and numerous, supplemented by pegs here and there about the palate. The long and rounded snout resembled a crocodile, but a faded memory told me crocodile's teeth were all long and large. Some sort of dinosaur? I wanted to think so, but the shape didn't fit my vague conception of a dinosaur's skull. Could it have been some sort of salamander? If so, he had been a giant of his kind, and he may have known dinosaurs.

The night was growing windier and colder. I wrote up the day's events, like a real scientist, then undressed and crawled into my blankets. Through a crack in the slatting canvas, I watched the fire die. The coals burst into a last flicker of flame, as though red eyes widened to take a last look across the desert. The waver of light played across my fossil skull.

The events of the day raced through my head and drove sleep out. I ran over half-made plans for running down the west coast of Mexico to escape winter and weighed these against the desire to stay right here and scout further. When I found the rest of my strange creature, I would go right on with this work. I toyed with the thought, weighed it with ignorance and care. A dinosaur hunter ... that's the ticket ... I would become a dinosaur hunter. I pictured myself in the field for some big museum, collecting prehistoric animals. Every single day I would have adventures like this. I might even become famous. Best of all, I would never need to work again at grubby, ordinary jobs, doing the tiresome things others are forced to do. I glossed over the fact I had no training in these matters, no schooling.

Dozing fitfully, I awoke when the moon was rising, flooding the desert with its cold light. The restless wind tugged and fumbled with the camper's canvas. A thin howl rose above the random little night sounds, barely audible before, distinct now. The howl was followed by a series of high-pitched yips, a wavering cry. And again, plaintive, mournful, an animal in pain of the moon's rising, of the cold wind's moaning, of his own lonely passing in the dead of night. I had never heard a coyote before; I knew I heard one now.


The sun was up before I was. The long, lean shadow of every dumpy creosote bush and sage clump told me it hadn't been up for long. Fat dewdrops on the varnished leaves of creosote and the silvery mist covering the fuzzy sage leaves told me it was cool, plumb cool.

I was almost afraid to look at the flat rock by the grey ashes of the fire, afraid to scrutinize in the cold light of dawn, afraid it might prove to be less ... But no, the print was still there, still plain and sharp. I hurried through breakfast, as driven by the exciting prospects of the new day as by the chill air.

The climbing sun took the edge off the chill rapidly, and the air was still. There didn't seem to be as many rocks to examine in daylight as there had been in yesterday's fading twilight. However, I had covered only a few feet of the wash I had stumbled through hurriedly and fumbling half-blind the night before, when I came upon a small fragment of bone encased by sandy matrix, clearly a part of the slab I had found. Though it didn't fit, I was off to an encouraging start.

So I plowed into the task ahead, properly encouraged. By the time the sun got its temperature up and was breathing hotly on the back of my neck, I had turned over tons of rock. I climbed to the edge of the caprock and made certain no bone was showing there, no fossil. Only the large mass at the head of the wash remained as a possible source of the balance of my fossil. It weighed tons and was wholly in sight, of course, except for the detritus-covered bottom and a buried end. I searched for breaks along its front, noting that the brown surface was as weathered as old boards.

The bed of the wash below the big rock was shored up with coarse sand, a foot or more deep; perhaps what I sought was buried there. I brought out a small shovel I always carried, and went to work. At the first stab into the sand, I struck a rock. I dug it out and brushed off the surface hopefully. It was just a rock. Foot by foot, I prospected the sandy shoring along the face of the block. By hot high noon, I had to show for the day: my initial bone scrap, several blisters, and a good appetite.

As I gnawed away on a cold sandwich and gulped from a can of cold tomatoes, I puzzled what to do with my palate imprint. Leaving it behind was, of course, unthinkable. I could carry it on top of my camper, but not for long; I must ship it home by freight or express. My father would be delighted to receive it. He could have it identified at the American Museum of Natural History. But what would they say about it? I knew too well. "Why didn't your boy pick up the other half?" The first scientist to ask the question should be right where I was.

The corner beyond the end of the butte still beckoned, virgin territory. More of the ripple mark stratum, though clearly my fossil didn't come from exactly that level.

Another butte beckoned, a few hundred yards off. And beyond that ... I cleaned up my lunch, grabbed a hand axe and a cold chisel from the van, handy tools for stone-cutting, just in case. With such luck as I had in my first hour here, I still might find me a dinosaur. Wide expanses of the ripple-mark stratum between here and the neighboring butte gave proof I was still in a comparable time zone.

At sunset I came dragging my way back to the Harley from a few buttes away, my axe and cold chisel clanking forlornly in the carrying-bag that should have been filled with fossils. Stone copies of creatures? I hadn't even turned up a piece of petrified wood. But I had noticed, from high on the flank of a butte I had climbed, another group of buttes a bit closer to Winslow, perhaps half an hour away. Not having been investigated, they seemed better prospects than the ones where I had spent the day. "I'll look them over in the morning," I promised myself.

The lonely coyote of the night before returned with new-found friends. At a goodly distance, they serenaded me through what seemed most of the night. They, you see, had been sleeping away the long daylight hours, while I had been working up a real incentive for a good night's sleep.

Next morning I piled the rock slab with its strange impression tenderly on the top of my van; after yesterday, its value had become greatly enhanced. The roughness of the road back toward Winslow threatened to bounce it off from time to time, but there wasn't room to put it inside. The rough dirt road met U.S. 66 just west of town. The pavement carried me toward the new buttes. The first butte seemed to me too close to the highway to be productive of anything worthwhile, but one to the north, more distant from the road, struck me as promising. A dim trail of old automobile tracks waddled uncertainly in the direction of the red-and-brown layer-cake of rock.

Its base was littered everywhere with fallen blocks from the caprock stratum. Across the breaks, the bedding showed bands of coarse grit and pebbles ... smooth, well-rounded pebbles that must have been transported a long way in the channel of a meandering stream. The bands were never continuous but crossed and dipped like piled sand in a heavy sandbar. These ancient river sands, I thought, must have been a catch-all for anything lodging against the drifting bars ... old logs, dead animals, floating drift and rubbish. If I didn't find something here, it must be simply because the cap-rock showed only a small fraction of what must lie entombed in the sweep of the mass across the top of the butte. I tried to make out some indication of the direction followed by the water that had deposited the assorted trash, but everywhere the capping had been too squarely broken.


Excerpted from Bones for Barnum Brown by Roland T. Bird, V. Theodore Schreiber. Copyright © 1985 V. Theodore Schreiber. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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