I always enjoy receiving books from overseas that date to my childhood, but were never released in the UK (or if they were, were really well hidden) – there’s a special fascination in seeing what contemporary, for example, American kids were reading while I was devouring The Ultimate Dinosaur Book and Dinosaurs! magazine (er, the UK version). Graveyards of the Dinosaurs was (very kindly) sent to me from the US by Herman Diaz – thanks once again, Herman. It features a number of palaeoart pieces that I remember from my childhood – the front cover being one – along with quite a few that I’d never seen before.
Oh, and it’s not to be confused with A Night in the Dinosaur Graveyard.This is far more concerned with real-life expeditions to the Gobi, the Valley of the Moon, and so on, and doesn’t feature any holograms or supernatural phantom saurians. Apologies to those of you who are now disappointed.
Graveyards of the Dinosaurs was published in 1998, written by Shelley Tanaka, and features some truly up-to-the-minute dinosaur discoveries alongside tales (and profiles) of intrepid fossil hunters and immersive descriptions of prehistoric life based on the very latest palaeontological science. Unsurprisingly, the book boasts some impressive consultants – Philip Currie, Mark Norrell, and Paul Sereno. It also features the work of some of the best palaeoartists of the day in Mark Hallett, Michael Skrepnick and John Sibbick, although most illustrations are handled by Alan Barnard, who does a thoroughly decent job for (as far as I can tell) a non-specialist. We’ll be getting back to that cover image…
…for the moment, here’s a piece featuring an Oviraptor attempting to shelter from a sandstorm. Tanaka details the expeditions of Roy Champman Andrews, then goes on to describe how the work of Michael Novacek, Mark Norrell and their associates overturned a lot of the assumptions made by Andrews through remarkable discoveries of their own. In particular, there’s a focus on the idea of oviraptorosaurs being caring parents, rather than, you know, egg thieves.
Amusingly, I’d noted down that the above illustration was produced by Hallett, and had started writing a gushing paragraph about Hallett’s genius before I noticed the signature in the lower right (cropped out here) – “ALAN BARNARD”. This is undoubtedly Barnard’s finest work for this book, and the fact that I readily accepted it as a Hallett (one of my favourite palaeoartists) speaks volumes – it’s really well done. Of course, this scaly Oviraptor (or rather, Citipati) with its Sibbickian skin patterns has aged badly from a scientific perspective, but artistically, this remains an absolutely gorgeous piece of work. The animal itself is possessed of that Hallett-style solidity and believability, and then there are the voluminous, swirling dust clouds and meticulously detailed scattered debris around the nest. There’s so much going on here that it’s even easy to miss the tiny nestlings at first glance. Wonderful stuff, and highly evocative.
Barnard’s other contributions are very good for the time in which they were produced, but none match up to the ‘sandstorm Oviraptor‘ piece, nor the contributions from specialist palaeoartists. Still, the latter – when we’re referring to the likes of Hallett and Skrepnick – represent an extremely high bar, and Barnard’s work is impressive nevertheless. Again, while the scaliness of the maniraptorans in the above piece instantly dates it, it’s notable that the Velociraptor pair are holding their forelimbs in a highly birdlike fashion, and their general anatomy and – especially – skulls are clearly based on the real thing (by no means a given at the time). This piece is used to illustrate a short ‘day in the life’ story about Oviraptor (or rather, Citipati) that’s based directly on the discoveries of Norrell and the rest.
I feel like Michael Skrepnick’s work hasn’t been featured enough on this blog (although my memory isn’t what it was), and I think a lot of that is down to the fact that a great deal of the VDA posts over the last decade were written by, well, me – and his art hardly ever seemed to appear in UK books. That’s a real shame, as it’s inevitably fantastic.
That said, as is inevitably inevitable, the above Gorgosaurus piece is simply fantastic. By modern standards, this is an impossibly shrink-wrapped reconstruction of the animal. Nevertheless, it’s highly dynamic and lively, and more than that, Skrepnick’s use of colour is utterly wonderful. While the contrasting orange-browns and blues help emphasise the animal in the scene, it still appears to be part of its environment; our attention is drawn to it, but it doesn’t look out of place in this landscape. Quite the opposite, in fact. This is a true Renaissance dinosaur, balancing on the tips of the toes of one foot as it lunges forward, surrounded by a superbly detailed environment that’s completely immersive for the viewer. Love it.
More Barnard, now, and I thought I’d treat you to the full copyright infringin’ spread, including text. This piece illustrates another one of the short stories that describes the day in the life of a dinosaur, or in this case, a whole herd of dinosaurs. This particular story doesn’t have a particularly happy ending.
When it was all over, bodies littered the shoreline and floated in the river. As the days passed, bloated carcasses drifted downstream and became caught on sandbars and in fallen trees.
Lovely. Barnard does a wonderful job of depicting the water splashing up around the animals, and I’m very fond of both the misty spray from the centrosaur’s nostril on the left, and the variety of horn shapes displayed by the herd. I do wish he’d gone a bit further in depicting animals of different sizes and ages, but that’s probably nitpicking.
The chapter on Dinosaur Provincial Park is followed by one on the Valley of the Moon and other South American fossil localities, and so we’re treated to Barnard’s depiction of Herrerasaurus. Apart from being beautifully composed and featuring some really quite gorgeous foliage, this piece is notable for the attention to detail paid on the star dinosaur – while it has five fingers, only three have claws, and it appears convincingly solid and alive. The feet seem a little slender and birdlike, and the keratinous embellishments on the skull might not be too well justified by the fossils, but this is still lovely work.
Barnard’s Herrerasaurus pops up again in this scene, in which it narrowly escapes one of our beloved falling logs during a volcanic eruption, although Saurosuchus isn’t so lucky and is consequently squished. Never mind. The lizardlike spines on Saurosuchus are interesting – rarely seen on any depictions of a croc-line archosaur.
Once again, the foliage here is beautifully done, and it actually extends over to the opposite page (where it’s mostly covered by text). Even the obligatory Prehistoric Lost World erupting volcano is unusually well drawn, and actually justified in the text. I’m liking this book more and more.
As you might not have expected, Mark Hallett’s Carcharodontosaurus piece appears in the middle of the South America chapter. This is justified with a sojourn into how early theropods like Herrerasaurus (considered a definite theropod at the time) gave rise to later giants like T. rex, Giganotosaurus and its relation close enough to be on its Xmas card list, Carcharodontosaurus. It’s a little tenuous, but then if you’d been given permission to use this illustration, you most definitely would cram it in somewhere.
In any case, this piece really is by Mark Halett and really does demonstrate his genius. For me, Hallett is the master of the hyper-detailed, realistic school of palaeoart, at least in the pre-CG era. Sibbick came close, but there’s something about the way Hallett nails tiny subtleties that makes his work that much more immediate and visceral. This Carcharodontosaurus really does look like an enormous wall of flesh, the shadows in its creased skin belying its enormous size, its toes (and carefully detailed toe pads) compressing under its colossal bulk. Even if the head is based on 1990s ‘stretch limo’ reconstructions of the animal’s skull, that gaping maw appears vast and highly intimidating, and much of it is down to the careful attention given to every tiny wrinkle of the tongue, every intricate detail of the creature’s jaw muscles. I saw this in National Geographic as a child and never forgot it. What an impactful piece of palaeoart.
The Deltadromeus isn’t bad, either.
And finally…Rex and son witness the end of the world. As usual, artists who turn in very good work elsewhere seem to somewhat drop the ball when it comes to Rexy – this isn’t all that bad for the late ’90s, but the adult animal lacks the sort of heft and, especially, skull shape that Tyrannosaurus ought to have. (Its skull is more like that of Gorgosaurus.) What’s much more interesting here is what else is going on – giant pterosaurs fly by, edmontosaurs roam the plains, and a tiny mammal is seen glancing up at a curious tyrannosaur, a pointed reminder of what is to come.
Nevertheless, Tanaka is keen to remind us,
…it is not the fact that dinosaurs are gone that interests so many people. What fascinates us about dinosaurs is the way they lived…they thundered over the land, preyed on each other, ate monstrous amounts of vegetation, yet somehow left the earth intact for 165 million years. No wonder we think they may have something to teach us.