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Dinos Stalk New York - Not the Biggest Man on Campus, but Surely the Biggest Foot
Dinos Stalk New York - Scientists discovered a rock embedded with dinosaur
tracks more than 100 million years old during a renovation of Brooklyn
College. Now, another stop on your next NYC tour! A superb addition to any
Geology Dept., but I would doubt its "archeological" value so much as its
paleontological value. - Patti
NEW YORK REGION | August 20, 2005
Not the Biggest Man on Campus, but Surely the Biggest Foot
By Michael Brick
Published: August 20, 2005
Here is a good way to hide dinosaur tracks: Wait tens of millions of years
while the footsteps fossilize under a shallow sea that will later become
Texas, dig up the tracks just before World War II, put plaster around the
sides, paint the whole thing a whimsical muddy red, take it to Brooklyn and
bolt it to a classroom wall with an unadorned case.
(See photograph by Ruby Washington/The New York Times)
Wayne G. Powell, chairman of the geology department at Brooklyn College,
with the track of an Acrocanthosaurus, top, and a larger one from a
Pleurocoelus. Scientists thought the block was a replica.
By accident, this method worked until just this summer for Roland T. Bird, a
Harley-riding excavator who called himself a dinosaur hunter. When Brooklyn
College started renovating its lecture halls in May, scientists began
packing what they had assumed was a case containing a plaster cast of
dinosaur tracks, a teaching tool held in such regard that it was often
obscured by a projector screen.
Removing the case, they found that the block on the wall of Room 3123, so
phony-looking it could be mistaken for something carbon-frozen in "The
Empire Strikes Back," was a real rock embedded with tracks more than 100
million years old, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and holding
immense archaeological value.
"It was there all the time," said Wayne G. Powell, the chairman of the
geology department, who was among the scientists removing the block from the
wall. "It really never occurred to us that it could possibly be real."
Up three flights of stairs, behind a wooden door marked Geology Lecture
Room, with the words Please Lock the Door underneath, the rock is found. It
stands 55 inches high and 32 inches across.
A worker was laying a coat of epoxy on the floor yesterday, and the room
smelled like the makings of a headache. The college has enlisted the
American Museum of Natural History for help in removing the rock to clean it
and put it back on display, but there are other considerations. Classes
start in two weeks.
Considering what it has already been through, though, the rock can be called
a survivor. No marker described its provenance, and those who knew what it
was had died or moved on over the years. It also was able to hide in plain
sight for decades largely because of changes in curatorial sensibilities The
scientists who installed it in the 1940's would never have thought to tell
anyone it was real; that would be like telling people your hair is real.
Their latter-day counterparts would never imagine treating a rare fossil so
cavalierly as to, for starters, paint it.
Mr. Powell, who describes his specialty as "not dinosaurs," removed the
rock's case at the close of the spring semester with a paleontology
professor, John Chamberlain, and a student, Matt Garb. Because real dinosaur
tracks are hard to come by, colleges and museums routinely display replicas,
and the rock looked like one, partly because plaster was visible on its
Behind the case, though, written in pencil on the wall, they found the name
R. T. Bird and the date, presumably of its installation, of May 16, 1942.
Mr. Garb recognized the name, and the men got a copy of Mr. Bird's memoir,
"Bones for Barnum Brown: Adventures of a Dinosaur Hunter."
In the book, Mr. Bird, who dropped out of junior high school and worked as a
cowboy before barnstorming the country on his motorcycle showing
archaeological finds for the American Museum of Natural History, described
discoveries in the limestone around the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Tex.
The trackways there, now famous as the site where some creationists claim
human footprints were laid contemporaneously with dinosaur tracks, have been
preserved as Dinosaur Valley State Park, so fossils can no longer be
But back in the late 1930's and early 1940's, Mr. Bird was making up his own
rules. In his memoir, he described the way he and Erich Schlaikjer, an
assistant professor of geology from Brooklyn College, distributed the blocks
of tracks. He wrote: "Erich came up with a proposal. 'And I'd like one of
the smaller ones for Brooklyn College.' "
Mr. Schlaikjer got his wish, bolted to the wall of the lecture hall and
painted the same reddish-brown color bones that usually appear in history
"They probably wanted tracks to match the bones," Mr. Powell said.
Kathleen Kovach, a facilities worker at the college, said, "That's more
decorating than curating."
There are two tracks in the rock, a shallow one a couple of feet across and
a deeper, narrower one the shape of a crescent. Based on the kinds of tracks
common to the Paluxy River bed, the scientists at Brooklyn College said the
big one was probably made by a Pleurocoelus, a 20-ton herbivore that has
been named the Texas state dinosaur. The smaller one may have come from an
Acrocanthosaurus, a sharp-toothed monster Pleurocoeluses sought to avoid
meeting in dark cretaceous alleys.
Mr. Bird would have his own ideas about the tracks' origins, and would know
why they had painted the rock, bolted it to the wall and lined it with
plaster. But he died a long time ago, and left only scattered hints of the
way he had lived.
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