What began with an examination of 1994’s Eyewitness Dinosaur video has lead me to this – purchasing a children’s activity pack from eBay. Ah, but not any children’s activity pack, for this one includes warm 1990s nostalgia alongside a pop-out card model, board game and (gasp!) “five facsimile documents”. Yes, it’s the DK ACTION PACK that, in true Eyewitness style, is simply entitled Dinosaur – even if it isn’t branded up with the monochromatic all-seeing eye. My copy may have been pristine in its cellophane wrapper, but there’s simply no way to resist diving in.
In fact, you might have already seen me doing just that if you follow our Facebook page, as I livestreamed my opening up the box and perusing its contents. (What have I become?) What I didn’t mention there was that I had one of these in the 1990s, bought from the Sandown Geology Museum on a family holiday to the Isle of Wight. I distinctly remember sticking the posters on the door of the static caravan my parents and I were staying in. That may well have been in 1994 (my memory’s hazy), in which case I acquired a brand new copy back then. While that particular example is, sadly, long lost, there seem to be a remarkable number of intact ACTION PACKS still kicking around – great news for palaeo-nostalgia-orientated bloggers.
The cover, naturally enough, shows off the “stegosaur skeleton” that can be constructed. It’s Tuojiangosaurus, seemingly based on a mount in the Natural History Museum (London) that you probably can’t see any more without a ladder, or sustaining a neck injury. A lovely period inclusion is Happy Rexy, the oddly adorable Tyrannosaurus model head shown facing the viewer. I think it’s those somewhat oversized eyes that make him so arrestingly cute. Happy Rexy appeared in an awful lot of DK dinosaur merch; I used to have a window sticker of him stuck to my bedroom door.
On opening her up, we’re first presented with a pair of books, one of which is in an oddly tall, rectangular format. This one (Dinosaur Fossils) explains the process of fossilisation, utilising the tall format to show a number of geologic layers on each spread. It’s quite a neat idea, although the book itself is a little dull. I’ll cover it more in a future post, alongside the ‘main’ book, again simply titled Dinosaur, which serves as an introduction to dinosaurs and their world. It also includes lots and lots of glorious model photography, making use of the models created for 1992’s The Ultimate Dinosaur Book alongside others. I don’t know how many of the 1990s DK models survived – a few can be found hanging around the Dinosaur Isle museum on the Isle of Wight, but I’m guessing most have simply been lost. Shame. As I’ve already mentioned, I’ll cover both books in more detail next time.
Beneath the books lurks the pack’s first poster, showing various dinosaur bits at full scale, including a model Compsognathus that was another 1990s DK staple. It notably sports only two fingers on each hand, the result of a little misunderstanding that would be cleared up a few years later. (At least it doesn’t have flippers.) A retro Deinonychus skull also appears, alongside a T. rex tooth, Plateosaurus hand (with obligatory Mallison-baiting ‘faculative biped’ description), and a Baryonyx thumb claw, which really is quite astonishingly large. Like, everyone knows it had a big claw (clue’s in the name), but it’s easy to forget just how big. The thing looks properly vicious.
The pack’s other poster follows the theme of several kids’ dinosaur books over the years in presenting an ‘atlas of finds’. Here, the pack really shows its age, with a very North America-heavy selection of ‘classic’ dinosaurs that includes Tyrannosaurus, Allosaurus, Triceratops and the like. The Asia panel features precisely none of the astonishing creatures that have emerged from China in the intervening 25 years, while famous animals like Giganotosaurus and Argentinosaurus are conspicuously absent from the South America section. Oh, how times change. Of course, this selection may have been somewhat dictated by the availability of suitable illustrations, as most (if not all) of them on this poster are recycled from The Ultimate Dinosaur Book. The animals have a rather Paulian look that was bang-up-to-date for the time, with a very neat, ‘clean’ appearance, rigidly straight tails where possible, and often very fetching colour schemes (including one or two that look a little familiar, like that Parasaurolophus). I’m not entirely sure who the artist was among the many credited here, so please leave a comment if you know.
Just in case books and posters seem a little run-of-the-mill for an ACTION PACK, here’s something a little different. Although not shown here (except in the lower left corner, ahem), this dinosaur parade pops up out of its card backing, providing a free-standing March of the Saurians for you to position on your mantelpiece, bookshelf, toilet cistern, or wherever you see fit. The animals here have a very Sibbickian look (down to their colouration in some cases), but I believe the artist was Giuliano Fornari. Fornari also illustrated 1991’s The Great Dinosaur Atlas, which has somehow escaped my attention so far; it’s going on the list.
Surrounding the slightly bland-looking animals of the parade are a series of push-out “dinosaur profile cards”, which seem to just be there to fill space. Regardless, they do feature some more of that gorgeous model photography, including a very familiar-looking striped purple Triceratops and a wonderful (bipedal!) Baryonyx in its environment. We’re also treated to a photo of a group of Deinonychus surrounding a Tenontosaurus carcass, a scene that anyone who visited the NHM (London) in the 1990s will remember very well. While that diorama has since been replaced, the now rather tatty and gorilla-suited Deinonychus continue to lurk around the museum’s dinosaur gallery – they really ought to be put out of their misery.
On to perhaps my favourite part of the whole affair – those “five facsimile documents” in all their greyscale glory! They may literally be “facsimiles”, but I can’t help but feel that that description really undersells these. They’re actually various letters, diagrams and illustrations written and drawn by palaeontologists when the science was in its infancy. Clockwise from left, they are explained as follows:
“The distinguished scientist, William Buckland, drew this cross-section of an Iguanodon quarry at Maidstone, England. It shows the different levels of gravel, chalk, sand and clay in which dinosaur remains are found.”
“In 1878, miners in the small Belgian town of Bernissart came across a major world dinosaur find – 39 Iguanodon skeletons, many nearly complete. Before removing them, precise illustrations were made of where each bone was found.”
“The scientist Gustave Arnaut sent this telegram on 12 April, 1878. It reads as follows: ‘Important discovery of bones in mining shaft at Bernissart, pyrite decomposition. Send Defauw tomorrow to arrive at Mons station 8 o’clock am. I will be there. Urgent. Gustave Arnaut.'”
“The famous American scientist Edward Drinker Cope drew this section of a New Mexican landscape for his field book in 1874. The many fossils he found there proved that this dry land was once green and lush.”
“This is a copy of a 19th-century letter from the British scientist William Buckland to anatomist Sir Richard Owen. In it Buckland mentions the various bone finds of animals such as crocodiles, elephants, Iguanodon, and Megalosaurus.”
The inclusion of these documents in what is ostensibly an activity pack for kids is surprising, to say the least, but also very, very welcome. Here is a very immediate link to scientific pioneers, the work they did, and how they operated. These are tiny snapshots of their lives as living scientists. It’s a great way to bring the history of palaeontology to life, and feels like a real ‘discovery’ when one’s working through the contents of this pack.
I guess it makes sense, then, that your own ‘fossil find’ lurks underneath – the various pieces of the Tuojiangosaurus skeleton, which pop out of pieces of card illustrated to resemble bare earth. But the question is: do I go ahead and assemble this thing? On the one hand, it’d be a shame to spoil a pristine copy of the ACTION PACK, but on the other, I feel a really strong compulsion to do so because that’s, you know, the whole point of it. Your thoughts, please, dear reader.
And finally…the promised board game. Pick your playing piece from a choice of Tyrannosaurus, Troodon/Stenonychosaurus/whatever, Triceratops or Euoplocephalus, grab a die (not included) and get going. The aim is to reach the centre of what appears to be a Cretaceous hedge maze. Some board squares are beneficial, but others contain hazards or distractions that will set you back. So, a typical generic board game. Sadly, there’s no ‘peek over the hedges’ option for T. rex, being the tallest player and all. I’m sure it’s all good fun, but I do question the strangely neat design of the board – something a bit more jumbled and chaotic would have suited the savage, primordial world of the dinosaurs much more, surely. Ah well.
There are also bookmarks. Look, there’s that Compsognathus again, along with Lesothosaurus! Wonderful.
Coming up next time: more from those bundled books!