Diplodocus ribcage

Eyewitness Guides: Dinosaur – 30 years on (part 1)

Book Review

Last month, I finally got around to reviewing the Eyewitness Dinosaur video from 1994, part of a series spun off from the Eyewitness Guides books published by Dorling Kindersley. It occurred to me then that I’d never actually reviewed the Dinosaur book itself, which prompted a quick scouring of eBay for a copy – preferably as old and cheap as possible. Having bought what I thought was a 1989 edition for less than the price of a pint, I was slightly miffed when a more recent edition arrived instead. Only very slightly miffed, mind, as my copy isn’t much newer, dating from 1992. And it was very cheap, after all.

In any case, slightly-too-new edition or no, now seems like the perfect time to take a look back at this book, as this year marks its 30th anniversary. The Eyewitness Guides revolutionised children’s non-fiction at the time. With their large, crisp, full-colour photographs and illustrations presented against stark white backgrounds, they instantly made everything else seem dated. As a kid, this was the next-best thing to being able to pore over the fossil bones in a museum collection. In this post, I wanted to focus on a particularly inventive piece of layout design in Dinosaur that epitomises the creative flair that went into the Eyewitness Guides.

Eyewitness Dinosaur 1992 cover

It’s a challenge for a book like this to give a decent overview of a sauropod skeleton. Sauropods like diplodocids or euhelopids, with their long necks and tails, are just awkward – if you try and cram their entire length onto a double-page spread, you’re going to have to scale the skeleton down to such an extent that all the finer details are lost. (They’re also awkward to cram onto a display shelf in toy form. Not that I would know that.) Dinosaur has an ingenious solution – a fantastically high quality photograph of the Natural History Museum (London) Diplodocus mount (in original, tail-dragging guise) is allowed to luxuriate over no fewer than eight pages.

Not only does this allow us to take in the finer details of the beast’s skeleton, but there’s plenty of room to tie in various aspects of the animal’s anatomy with that of other dinosaurs. It’s a thoroughly brilliant idea.

Diplodocus neck spread

Naturally, we start at the head, with the neck extending over to the opposite page. Here, Diplodocus‘ long neck is compared with other dinosaurs’ short necks, and there’s commentary on why they evolved the way they did. It’s also compared with the neck of a giraffe (of course) and that of Mamenchisaurus, infamous for having a completely absurd noodle neck that went on forever. Dinosaur isn’t especially notable for its life restorations, most of which are rather small and, often, dated even for the time; the green Diplodocus here is unusually prominent on the page. Back in the ’80s and early ’90s, it was still common to see sauropods depicted with their tails dragging along the ground, perhaps because they could justifiably still be seen as slow-moving and cumbersome. The inaccurate hands on the Diplodocus and Mamenchisaurus are also very typical, although in the case of the former, the artist may have just been copying the NHM’s outdated mount. I do like that the Diplodocus is scaly, as opposed to having a Gurche or Sibbick-esque leathery hide, even if the scales are proportionately too large.

Diplodocus body spread

My favourite spread involves the animal’s torso and legs, which completely dominate the pages they appear on. Apart from the usual copious labels, there’s very little to detract from the awesome robustness and size of the animal’s frame. It actually makes me wonder if I haven’t become a bit blasé about Diplodocus – looking at these pages, I’m reminded of how I felt when first looking at the (admittedly much more massive) Giraffatitan in Berlin. But Diplodocus is very impressive too. The curious gentleman on the left page seems conspicuously small, but it’s an amusing touch, I guess (especially as he appears apropos of nothing). Comparing a sauropod with man-made structures has become a bit of a cliché, but it seems apt – there’s something quite industrial about how ‘over-engineered’ they seemingly are, and we simply don’t have land animals alive today that provide an adequate point of comparison.

And so we reach the tail, or at least the first half of it. Here, one can freely admire the animal’s never-ending chevrons in all their pointy glory. Mmm, chevrons. Since this photograph was taken prior to the remount of ‘Dippy’ in the early 1990s, the tail bends down steeply so that its latter portion drags along the ground, like a lizard’s. I’ve got to admit that having the tail extend horizontally along the top of the page would make for a much less interesting composition. The Camarasaurus chevron is a clever inclusion, demonstrating how odd an isolated bone can look out of context (to the untrained eye, or me). The Deinonychus model is, as far as I’m aware, still on display at the NHM to this day (although don’t quote me on that, I haven’t visited the dinosaur gallery in a few years). It’s very good for the time and exquisitely made, but is now hopelessly dated scientifically, of course. Although it’d fit right in in Jurassic World.

As to why there’s a boxing kangaroo, well, some dinosaurs probably used their tails in this fashion, for balance when they were fighting, and…look, I’m sure they just had that image in their library and were dying to use it. Excellent excuse. It does also tie in with the rearing Diplodocus shown in the lower left, pleasingly drawn in a fasion that evokes 19th Century etchings, but is clearly much more modern than that.

Diplodocus tailtip spread

Seven pages after its head, the tail of Diplodocus peters out rather anticlimactically. If only it had a tail club, or something. Fortunately, more well-armoured dinosaurs are here to liven things up. Among them is Scelidosaurus, represented by another model that’s an NHM display piece. It does seem like a bit of an odd inclusion on a page that is ostensibly devoted to tails with defensive weapons, as does Moloch horridus, but never mind. Look, there’s a rather Sibbickian Euoplocephalus smacking a tyrannosaur in the shin! At least, the text says it’s a tyrannosaur, but the tyrannosaurids that were contemporaneous with Euoplocephalus only had two fingers on each hand. (Incidentally, I’m quite sure that the same illustration popped up in The Ultimate Dinosaur Book, but with corrected tyrannosaur digits.) By far the coolest thing on this page, of course, is the fossil Stegosaurus tail spike, reproduced at what appears at first to be an impressively large size – until one reads the text and learns that it’s only at half life size. Scary stuff.

The text also mentions that certain other dinosaurs didn’t have spikes or clubs on their tails because they ‘needed them for balance’. Apart from the fact that this seems like a bit of an unconvincing argument (hadrosaurs didn’t evolve spikes anywhere else, either), it ignores the fact that a huge, muscular tail was probably still quite capable of knocking a predator around through sheer brute strength alone. But, hey ho, it’s a bit of a trope.

Eyewitness Diplodocus composite

And finally…here’s a panorama of all the double-page spreads featuring Dippy’s skeleton stitched together. Now this would look fantastic stuck up on somebody’s wall. Here, we can really appreciate all the thought that went into the design of this classic book, and exemplified the Eyewitness series as a whole.

But there’s more! Next time…

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