Zoo Chorzów, or the Silesian Zoological Park, is located a stone’s throw from the centre of Katowice in the Upper Silesia region of southern Poland. The zoo was founded on its current location in 1954, as part of the Socialist-era post-mining development of a big city park also including an amusement park, a planetarium, a sports centre and an art gallery. And there’s dinosaurs.
The Dinosaur Valley section of the zoo, or the Kotlina Dinozaurów, was finished in 1974. Originally, there were sixteen models representing seven species: Tarbosaurus, Nemegtosaurus, Saurolophus, Protoceratops, Saichania, Prenocephale and Gallimimus. You will notice these are all Mongolian taxa. These dinosaurs were all built to commemorate the succesful Polish palaeontological expeditions into Mongolia in the sixties and early seventies, lead by Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska, for it is she.
Who, I fail to hear you ask? We’ve all been sleeping on Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska (a Central-European woman forgotten by history? Perish the thought) but you are definitely familiar with some of her discoveries. That famous fossil of the Velociraptor and Protoceratops locked forever in mortal kombat? That was her what found that. These days it is mostly Roy Chapman Andrews who is associated with Mongolian dinosaurs, but Kielan-Jaworowska deserves as much if not more credit when it comes to our knowledge about the prehistoric Gobi desert. I’ve ordered one of her books online last winter, but it seems to have gotten lost in the mail. If I ever do get it I might share my thoughts here.
I’ve been searching the web far and wide, grinding page after Polish page through Google Translate, fruitlessly attempting to find out who was the designer behind the dinosaurs, until I realized I was thinking wrong. These were built in communist times, when the collective triumphs over the individual. The good working people of Silesia were the authors behind these artworks, and that is the story we will have to go with.
(But read the comments!)
What I would like to know, and couldn’t find out, is if Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska herself had any input in the design and appearance of the dinosaurs. Having passed away in 2015 at a venerable age, unfortunately we can no longer ask her. I have reason to believe the designers behind these models were were paying at least some attention to the sience and the fossils. Read on.
The dinosaurs were built out of steel mesh and cement, not at all dissimilar from the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. These are, of course, not nearly as old, but still closing in on 50 years. Pretty respectable, all in all. The fact that they weren’t made of fibreglass lends them a certain gravitas.
The dinosaurs stood for over two decades in their original states. In 2000 and again in 2009 the whole area received an update, with the dinosaurs getting new paint jobs and some new, more modern (and less interesting for our purposes) models being added.
To this day, all sixteen original dinosaur models remain at their original spots, but they have been joined by a fibreglass T. rex head, an Edaphosaurus bench and a couple of Neanderthals. Also a whole bunch of greenery has grown in.
These were all the historic photographs I could find.
So anyway. I went to Poland. Maybe I should have led with that.
I arrived at Zoo Chorzów a few days into my trip, a bit knackered from walking from my lodgings in Katowice and spending the morning and early afternoon riding the roller coasters at the nearby amusement park. Nevertheless, I was determined to see these vintage dinosaur models for myself, and to take some pictures home.
Walking through the Kotlina Dinosaurów is like walking through history. These are enormous statues, colossal, monolithic representations of how dinosaurs were seen in the days of the Warsaw Pact. Quite unbothered by Western influence, they are both strange and familiar to our eyes. On the other side of the border, Zdeněk Burian was at the height of his fame and it is in his tradition these models should be placed. Someone I showed them to called them slightly grotesque, but then again, the same might be said of Burian’s work.
Two of the sixteen original models are of Tarbosaurus. This is the first one you see upon entering the valley, threatening a Gallimimus (the other is in the background). They have three fingers, a somewhat humanoid stance, blocky heads and, like all of the bigger models, dragging tails. Yet there’s also a modernity to them, expressed through their dynamic poses. They are clearly active, dangerous predators rather than the lumbering sluggers that, for instance, Bev Halstead was suggesting tyrannosaurs to be around this time. The 2000 paint jobs gave them slit-pupil snake eyes. That’s a bit of a trope and we should probably retire it, but it does give both of them a lively character absent from the Gallimimus, whose eyes are just glazed-over orbs. Not all dinosaurs are created equal.
There are two more Gallimimus, both much smaller than the one above. This one has the low-slung fleeing posture with the outstretched neck. Again, care has been taken to make this one look fast and dynamic.
The third Gallimimus is even more demure, with its head touching the ground. I don’t know what the idea behind this one was. It’s turned the wrong way around to be drinking (historic photos show me it was always in this spot, so it hasn’t been moved or anything). Is it eating, sleeping, putting its head in the sand like an ostrich doesn’t? If the Polish signs explain it I couldn’t read them. All of the models are showing signs of wear and tear, but it’s quite noticable with this one, the features on its head all but eroded away.
Nothing towers over the pathways like a sauropod, and the two sauropods here are the rarely-seen Nemegtosaurus. It was a brand-new species, found and described by the Polish team, so seeing it here probably isn’t that much of a surprise. The choice to represent only Mongolian dinosaurs is paying off. This is the one standing around idly. The other one is getting attacked, but we’ll get to that one. The Edaphosaurus bench was added in 2009, I believe. Those newer additions do add a touch of kitsch to this monolithic dinosaur valley.
Nemegtosaurus is, famously, known only from a skull, and you know what? They’ve done a pretty good job reconstructing it. If you know your dinosaurs, the blocky head and the far-up, large eyes will look very recognizable. This is what leads me to think that the team behind these statues did have an expert on board, or at least actually paid attention and looked at the fossils. This was by no means a given in the seventies! By contrast, the hands and feet aren’t great, even for the time. But we don’t have a submerged sauropod here; it stands fimly on land, just like the other Nemegtosaurus.
Old school hadrosaurs tend to draw the short straw, but this Saurolophus is pretty cool. Its dramatic pose over the pond is a bit heroic, even. The paintjob from 2000 is tasteful and subtle, but does emphasize the crest. A plausible choice. This one has been given prominent cheeks, almost jowls. That seems to be a trend that comes and goes. You can’t quite see it here, but its hands are webbed; a strange old trope that refused to die.
The second, smaller Saurolophus fares less well. Its face has more exaggerated “duck bill” features, though the wrinkles on its face give it a lot of character. It’s exactly the right size for kids to climb on, which they do without hesitation. Its crest seems to have broken off.
Only Saichania, the ankylosaur, has been given a single model. It was at the time freshly-found but not yet descibed by Kielan’s team, so this is a cutting-edge model and it holds up surprisingly well. Again, the shape of the skull is really quite spot-on and the rings of armour around the creature’s neck are very well observed. Compared to the belly-dragging scolosaurs that were still being drawn up and sculpted en masse around this time, this is an extremely good ankylosaur from the seventies and one of the highlights of the attraction.
The only thing that seems obviously outdated about the Saichania is its girth, or lack thereof. It’s a remarkably lean fellow, its overall body shape more like a monitor lizard lifting itself up than the barrel-shaped tank it would have been. This is excusable – little was known of Saichania‘s postcranial morphology.
Of course, you can’t help but find Protoceratops in Mongolia. There’s four of them in total. These three are grouped together, all with a slightly different crest shape. The odd thing about them, apart from their scrawny, lizardly frames by current standards, is the teeth. Protoceratops have lots of teeth and the sculptors have elected to show them as little fangs sticking out of their upper jaw, a very curious choice. The paint job from 2000 again does a good job of remaining low-key while emphasizing the animal’s display features.
One of Kielan’s most famous finds, the Fighting Dinosaurs of Mongolia, has been given this magnificent interpretation, meaning Velociraptor makes a cameo appearance. It’s headless. Its head is probably meant to be buried in the sand, like Protoceratops‘ foot. Are they meant to be sinking in quicksand? Incidentally, I think this is the best looking of the four Protoceratops.
Prenocephale doing the usual pachycephalosaur thing. Like Nemegtosaurus, Gallimimus and Saichania, Prenocephale was a new Polish find. See how much we have to thank Zofia Kielan for? You’ve probably noticed how worse for wear some of the models are, and the right Prenocephale has unfortunately lost part of its head.
Finally, these two titans are among the most popular of the dinosaur models; it was hard to get photographs without people swarming around. No fences or anything separate the paths from the dinosaurs, nothing discourages you from getting up close. This is a Tarbosaurus launching itself full-on into the neck of Nemegtosaurus. You love to see it. The blood on the teeth is a 2000 addition, but the implied movement, the way the massive shock of the impact is communicated through these concrete colossi, is quite remarkable.
The pose of the sauropod is qute complex and looks awkward from some angles. Its left front leg is swung up in the air, its right front leg moving underneath it as its weight is being shifted by the impact from the carnivore. It’s a consequence of attempting to create, in steel and concrete, a scene as dynamic and explosive as this. The dragging tails from both animals slightly let the side down, but that might simply be a necessity to carry all that weight.
It’s interesting how expressive the animals are, without being too anthropomorphized. Even with the snake pupils, there is no malice in the tyrannosaur’s eye, just reptilian indifference. This is a good angle, but up close you can see there’s some missing teeth and other missing bits, leaving holes of rotting concrete in their place. Time and the elements are taking their toll, as well as the constant touching from the visitors.
After rounding up the dinosaurs of Kotlina Dinosaurów, which impressed me for many reasons, I took my abused, blistered feet for a lap around the zoo and was treated to displays from monkeys, giraffes and elephants, as well as a small but beautiful aquarium. Around four o’ clock, the rains came in and I realized I had done all I had wanted to do in Poland. I’m sure I’ll be back someday. The whole Silesian Park complex alone has a whole vacation’s worth of things to do.
I want to leave you with some parting thoughts. Let us cast our minds back to our recent conversation on the podcast with Mark Witton on the uncertain fate of the much older Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. There’s an interesting discussion there about the dividing line between what’s cultural heritage, worth preserving, and what is dated kitsch that can be safely relegated to the scrap heap once the time for new developments comes (or when they are dilapidated beyond saving). The status of the CP Dinosaurs as the former is of course beyond question, but in other cases the line can get blurry indeed. Marc Vincent brought up the original dinosaurs of Blackgang Chine on the Isle of Wight, also stemming from the 1970s. These were recently unceremoniously scrapped to make room for more modern but less unique dinosaur models. Can you make the case that those goofy things were worth saving? Did the management of Blackgang Chine commit an act of vandalism?
What, then, about these Silesian dinosaurs? Are they old enough, special enough, important enough, valuable enough to keep around for another fifty or hundred years? If they are, surely they need better care than they are getting right now. If Chorzów Zoo stays its current course, these models will continue to decline until they go the way of the Blackgang Chine dinosaurs and are replaced by, in the best case, some generic Wolter Design models.
Maybe that is simply the natural order of things. Maybe you can’t, metaphorically, preserve the entire world in formaldehyde. Now, people pose close to, and frequently on top of, the dinosaurs with their children. Kids play around them, touch them, climb them. There’s no fences, no guards telling them off. Maybe there is some value to that, as well. But if you, like me, want to see the dinosaurs of Silesia in the flesh, I suggest you do it sooner rather than later.