The word “mummy” has been used to mean many different
things, but is synonymous with excellent preservation in the realms of
archaeology and palaeontology. The term signifies the preservation of soft
tissue, such as hair, muscle, tendon, but especially skin. The most familiar examples
to us are human, usually of the Egyptian variety, but many such remains include
both human and animal remains from all over the world. While some mummies are artificially
created by human effort, many are the natural product of accidents or specific
environmental conditions. There are multiple preservation types that are unique
to each environment in which the physical remains of organisms come to rest.
The processes that impact upon a body post-deposition introduce the splendidly
macabre science of taphonomy, literally ‘burial-laws’.
impressions/remains of dinosaur skin occur in various contexts. Post-mortem
factors can move both bones and soft-tissue elements from a body after death,
often generating frustratingly isolated samples. The fossil skin impressions attributable
to dinosaurs may also be found as isolated patches not associated with a
dinosaur skeleton. In other cases, fragmentary skin impressions are found associated
with a skeleton. It is curious to note that for some reason, patches of skin on
hadrosaur tails are the most common. Only a select few palaeontologists and
fossil hunters have ever known the experience of discovering, excavating,
preparing and studying the fossil remains of a dinosaur mummy. Such stories
illustrate the changing nature of palaeontological science as new ideas and techniques
can be applied to the most special of dinosaur fossils. While it is possible to
deploy 21st Century science on such ancient remains, the recovery of
such animals has changed little since the first dinosaur mummy was discovered a
little over 100 years ago.
Charles H. Sternberg and his
sons, possibly the most successful palaeontological dynasty, were the first to
discover the mummified remains of a dinosaur in 1908. This was a find that
surpassed anything that Sternberg had ever seen in his forty years of
fieldwork. This must have been not unlike the feelings of Howard Carter upon
opening the intact tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen in 1922, resulting
in equally unprecedented insight to another world.
In 1999 a prehistoric burial site scene was discovered by a
young fossil hunter, Tyler Lyson, now a successful scientist working at the
Smithsonian in Washington D.C. This is the discovery that would lead to an
international interdisciplinary alliance centred around a beautiful fossil.
Tyler had discovered the mummified remains of a hadrosaur dinosaur in the Hell
Creek Formation of North Dakota (USA). Through a series of very fortunate
events, I got to work with Tyler and was able to help build the team of scientists
who gained access to this remarkable fossil. The dinosaur was nicknamed
‘Dakota’ and is possibly the first dinosaur to properly wear the ‘mummy’ badge,
based upon the information harvested from these fossil remains.
of this remarkable fossil took our team from NASA facilities where we probed Dakota’s
innermost secrets with high-powered tomography to particle accelerators where
the chemical ghosts of past biology were still present in the fossilized
soft-tissues. Even the diagnostic chemistry that typifies melanin skin pigment
has now been mapped and its coordination chemistry constrained within the
prehistoric hide of this very special fossil. This lecture will take you on a
whistle stop tour of the people, places, science and discoveries associated
with a very special fossil dinosaur called Dakota!