24 Lies a Second: Writs and Bones

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Writs and Bones

Here's a good one, you'll like this:

‘What do you call a dinosaur that ends up in court?



Oh, all right, it's a bad joke, but then most of the story of Sue the Tyrannosaur sounds like a bad joke. Todd Douglas Miller's documentary Dinosaur 13 does a solid job of recounting it: but even so, it's a bizarre tale.

I was one of those children – couldn't you guess – who was heavily into dinosaurs from an early age. Looking back, I can see now that this was the index case of a pattern of behaviour that's been with me ever since: come across something interesting, then become completely obsessed by it and learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible. To this day I can tell an apatosaurus and a brachiosaurus apart by sight (not an especially useful skill in rural Oxfordshire, I'll grant you) and retain a lingering interest in and familiarity with the topic.

So even before seeing this film I was aware of the discovery of Sue, the largest and most complete specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered. Tyrannosaurs are such charismatic animals that it's startling to remember that back in 1990, when Sue turned up, only a dozen actual skeletons had been found, most of them less than half complete. This was one of the most spectacular dinosaur discoveries in history.

Dinosaur 13 – a reference to this being the thirteenth tyrannosaur, which itself sounds like a pretty good title for a story to me – opens with some musings on the nature of fossil hunting and paleontology, before (ha! ha!) digging into the circumstances of Sue's excavation. She owes her name to Susan Hendrickson, the paleontologist who stumbled across her fossilised backbone sticking out of a hillside in South Dakota – if you ask me, tyrannosaurs should have names like ‘Old One-Eye, the Hag Queen' or ‘Golgotha', but that's just my cultural influences showing through.

The film uses VT shot at the time to show the dig in progress and the seemingly amicable relations between the team of commercial fossil-hunters responsible and the owner of the land where the remains were found. This man received $5000 for the bones, which may sound like a lot to you, or maybe not – the important fact is that this was the largest amount ever paid for a fossil, up to that point in time.

Sue's bones were taken off to the team's base and the meticulous task of preparing them began, something expected to last a couple of years. This was about the point at which I lost touch with the original story, which is sort of ironic as it's also the point at which it gets really interesting. And absurd. And infuriating.

I don't wish to spoil the film's thunder, but: one day in 1992, a major FBI task force including over thirty agents and elements of the National Guard descended on the paleontologists' institute and seized the fossil dinosaur, on the grounds that the tyrannosaur might actually be stolen property. The fossils ended up spending the best part of five years incarcerated in a shipping container, while one of the scientists ended up doing some pretty serious jail time too.

How on Earth could this happen? The answer is that it was a perfect storm of factors, which the film does a very good job of explaining. This is a movie with a lot of different angles to it, and one of the criticisms I would make of it is that it doesn't quite give all of them the detailed attention they deserve. There's some fascinating material at the beginning concerning the near-mystical experience of extracting fossils from the earth, which communicates just how this must feel with great vividness. There are also some fascinating references to the long-standing, ill-tempered schism between commercial fossil-collectors and their academic counterparts, which may explain some of the ill-feeling the discoverers of Sue attracted.

But most of the film concentrates on the more conventionally dramatic story of the various legal wrangles Sue and her handlers found themselves caught up in. The film doesn't make much attempt at impartiality – although, to be fair, one of the FBI agents involved in the team's prosecution appears, and calmly admits the logistics of one of the court-cases involved were 'incomprehensible' – but even so I suspect most impartial observers would agree that the fossil-hunters got screwed by a series of legal decisions that would be hilarious were they not so grotesquely unfair. The tale involves the federal government, local Native American tribes, the US customs system, and a number of other players.

The movie tells the story with commendable clarity and a certain degree of dry humour – one of the scientists recalls his surprise at facing a potential 350 year jail sentence for alleged fossil smuggling, complaining that this was more than Jeffrey Dahmer received for multiple murders and cannibalism – but never quite loses track of the emotions involved: one journalist recalls her growing feelings for one of the people she was supposed to be impartially reporting on, while another principal is reduced to tears by the memory of the government stealing 'their' dinosaur.

The story is slightly oddball one, but the film tells it straight – well, as straight as possible given it contains interviewees who say things like 'Pete and that dinosaur were made for each other' quite matter-of-factly – and I have to say that a little more visual invention might have made it more memorable and striking. Perhaps it's the unique weirdness of this story that stops the film from sending any particular wider message beyond 'life can be really unfair sometimes' – it doesn't seem to be making any particular point about the monetisation of fossils, or the political side of paleontology.

None of this stops Dinosaur 13 from being quite fascinating to watch, if ultimately rather sad. It's really just the story of how something quite beautiful, elemental, and joyous is spoiled by base, petty, mercenary concerns: a David and Goliath story, for sure, but the problem is that here Goliath is definitely the winner. In its own way this is as bleak and horrible a story as any of those in films featuring more lively and homicidal dinosaurs.

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