Lost Worlds Restored – Fossil Replication

I have worked on and off at a fossil casting studio for a long time. Some may wonder exactly what a fossil casting studio is and what do I do there? A fossil casting studio is where reproductions of ancient animals are made, where skeletons are built out of resins to look exactly like a real skeleton. The studio where I work, Gaston Design, is filled with all the interesting things found in museums with the dynamic nature of a working art studio. The walls are hung with the glaring, skeletal heads of hippos and Pachycephalosaurs. Life like paintings of dinosaurs sprint past as I walk through the shop, plastic and real bones from a hundred different organisms litter the tables in every room. It is a beautiful, exotic milieu as wild as the jungle.

It takes a lot of work to restore a fossil skeleton. Just to cast the bones as they are requires a lot of labor. First after a skeleton is cleaned, each articulated bone much be carefully coated with several layers of latex to capture every detail. The latex is covered with a fiber glass, resin or plaster of Paris “mother mold” to keep the outside rigid to avoid distorting the original mold. The rough edges of both the latex mold and the hard mother mold are cleaned up with a grinder or saw, so there are no ragged sharp edges to cut the person casting. Next the mold is banded or bolted shut, tight enough that it doesn’t leak but not tight enough to distort the original shape. A two part resin is then poured into the mold, which is shaken carefully, to vent air bubbles. This resin takes about an hour to harden and then the cast is removed from the mold. This process leaves a seam around the mold as well as an extra piece of resin from the hole where the resin is poured in. These are cut and ground off carefully, painstakingly to make the cast resemble the original fossil as much as possible.

Then, in places where the seam isn’t quite right, where tiny air bubbles mar the surface, any flaws at all are patched with a putty and textured to resemble the original. After drying the cast is painted, stained and colored carefully to imitate the look of a real fossil. If this is an entire skeleton, this process must be completed for every individual bone and then these must be pieced together usually on a metal structure welded specifically for this process. This usually takes weeks to complete if the molds were made before hand and months if they were not and this is just casting an original fossil. Restoring a damaged or incomplete skeleton is much more work and involves not only casting but sometimes sculpting damaged or missing pieces, consulting with scientists, diagrams and skeletons of similar animals.

Once it’s done though, you can stand for the first time in millions of years in front of the complete, articulated skeleton of a 40 foot long crocodile, a dinosaur, a wooly mammoth or a giant kangaroo. This is the beauty of restoration; it allows us not just an insight into an ancient world based on data and broken, jumbled bones but shows us a 3 dimensional portrait of some long dead beast. This process is at the heart of natural history museums, creating beautiful displays for parents to show their children, or children to show their parents. It’s not only good for the general public though, it also frees up those original bones so that research can be done on them and allows copying of fossils. With a cast a paleontologist can send an exact copy to a colleague without worrying about the priceless original being damaged or lost in the mail. Just as important, an original fossil can be held for research while a casting inspires a large audience at a museum.

When I first travelled to Tasmania, I’d been working on and off at a fossil casting studio for years in Colorado. I have always enjoyed the work, so when my boss gave me contact information for another studio in Tasmania, I was very excited. Then I made a mistake only a young Yankee could possibly make. I got Hobart and Launceston mixed up and called Peter Norton from a pay phone when I was in the wrong city. I spent a month and a half in Tasmania and loved every second of it but never got the chance to visit Gondwana Studios in Launceston. I still find fossil casting an incredibly interesting subject and Tasmania an incredibly unique and interesting place, so I decided to catch up with Peter Norton to interview him and Craig Reid from the Queen Victoria museum for this article.

I know a lot of people get their start in the fossil casting business, which deals so much with scientific subjects from the perspective of an art back ground, so I asked Peter how he got his start:

 

“Growing up I always planned to be a commercial artist, in college I was doing art related subjects, after my first year I left college (in 1992) and started volunteering at the Queen Victoria Museum in Launceston. At the museums I learnt taxidermy, moulding casting and general museum preparation skills but moulding and casting became my focus as I was good at it.

Around the same time a museum in Japan was looking to cast and reconstruct a skeleton of Dromornis, an extinct Australian flightless bird, scientists flew to Launceston to see our work and offered us the contract. During this contract more people were employed and the museum started its casting department, we went on to cast the Great Russian Dinosaurs.

I left the museum in 1996 to travel the world, while travelling I ended up working and volunteering at museums and private fossil companies and was introduced to the internet. I returned to Australia in 1998 and started my own business Gondwana Studios, selling fossil casts via the internet. Today we still do fossil casting but our main focus is travelling exhibitions.”

I think the business of fossil casting is incredibly important in making natural history and surrounding concepts of extinction, evolution and the earth’s past accessible to the general public. So I asked Peter about some of these subjects:

“I would hope our work encourages young people to develop an interest in Earth Science and Natural History. Dinosaurs can be very exciting for young and old and are a good tool to draw people into museums to learn about our planet’s history, the changes the planet has been through and the evolution of life.

Without replication of dinosaur material we would not have so many wonderful dinosaur displays for people to enjoy, learn and spark an interest in our prehistoric past. Casting dinosaurs allows the original material to remain in scientific laboratories, keeping them available to scientists, but also allow the fossils to be shared with a greater public by giving museums that don’t have access to original material an opportunity to display these wonderful animals.

There is a lot we can learn from our planet’s past inhabitants and how they became extinct, this is the reason we produced an exhibition on Permian animals and the extinction that wiped them out. There are a lot of similarities between the end Permian and the current extinction we are facing ourselves. I think it’s important to looks at the consequences of global warming on past environments, if we do this we may take our current situation more seriously. Unlike our prehistoric ancestors we have the ability to influence the outcome of our current extinction.

Craig Reid of the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (QVMAG) has a practical view of the use of fossil reconstruction for displays and the role of museum displays in educating the public:

“Because fossil bone is usually quite brittle, casts are often made if skeletal reconstruction is contemplated for exhibition purposes.

These days, reconstruction from fossil material is widely achieved digitally from CT-scans of the original material. Some of QVMAG’s collection material has been scanned in recent times for researchers to investigate the facial musculature of animals such as Palorchestes and Zygomaturus.

…The vertebrate palaeontology displays are intended to provide the public with a glimpse of Tasmania’s fauna as it was in earlier times and perhaps give cause for thought for today’s fauna and the challenges that it faces for long term survival.”

Tasmania is a great place to look at extinctions; a unique island once attached to a unique island continent where evolution has conducted outlandish experiments and created fragile wildlife like nowhere else on earth. So I asked Peter about his work on Tasmanian and Australian fossils:

“My work on Tasmanian fauna has been limited, the main being Zygomaturus at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston Tasmania. I have worked on Australian animals like Muttaburrasaurus, Megalania, Dromornis to name a few.

…Dinosaurs don’t change that much from continent to continent but what we have in Australia, that is unique, are Australian megafauna. We had some really amazing animals, like giant kangaroos, wombats and huge flightless birds, not dinosaurs but equally as impressive in my opinion.

…We haven’t worked that much on Australian fossils over the years, we’ve mainly focused on Mongolian, Russian and Chinese fossils. We have had a few opportunities to work on Australian material which I have enjoyed. Hopefully there will be more opportunities in the future to reconstruct some of the new material we are finding in Australia.”

Craig Reid (QVMAG) elaborates on the wealth of fossils in Australia and Tasmania,

“The Pleistocene megafauna from Tasmanian localities is well-represented in QVMAG’s collections and displays.

This group includes extinct kangaroos, such as Simosthenurus, Metastenurus and Protemnodon; as well as Palorchestes and the carnivorous marsupial, Thylacoleo.

There is a model and a cast of an almost-complete skeleton of Zygomaturus, a large marsupial that existed until 40 to 50000 years ago. The skeleton cast was taken from original material discovered near Smithton in 1910 and now held in the QVMAG collection.

All these animals lived during periods when Tasmania was linked to the Australian mainland so they all occurred widely in Australia.

… Much of my work has been on specimens collected from cave sites 50 or more years ago, but in more recent times there have been other notable acquisitions.

In 2000, QVMAG received an almost complete skull from a chamber in the karst system in the Mt Cripps area. It turned out to be of the extinct giant wallaby, Protemnodon, and is probably the most complete example of a skull of this species known.

Further exploration in 2006 revealed two skulls of the extinct short-faced kangaroo, Simosthenurus, one of which was accompanied by its semi-articulated partial skeleton. While skulls and even individual teeth can be readily identified, the species identification of other skeletal elements can be difficult. The discovery of the partial skeleton associated with a skull was quite significant in this context.”

The importance of art as an ambassador for science and the natural world is often overlooked. In the case of fossil casting, the piece is often so seamless that the observer doesn’t even realize that he or she is looking at a skillful reconstruction. A well done fossil replica takes years of hard work from quarrying the fossil, organizing the bones as they would be found in real life, carefully casting, painting and reconstructing the copy. This work is vital however if scientists are going to share the lost worlds and the importance of the world we’re losing today to the public.