It is 1858 and Philadelphia-based lawyer and geologist William Parker Foulke is spending the humid summer in Haddonfield, New Jersey, a rural town about 10 miles outside of Philadelphia.
Foulke’s curiosity is piqued when he hears a tale about John Hopkins, a neighboring farmer who uses marl: a clay and calcium carbonate deposit that handily serves as fertilizer.
About 20 years earlier Hopkins and his workmen were digging the clay on Hopkins’ farm when they found strange dark bones, the stuff of speculation and mystery.
Foulke wants to know more — even see a specimen — and visits Hopkins. The farmer is willing to talk but has nothing to show, just a recollection of that spot where the bones were found.
The lawyer applies his trade and interrogates the farmer. He’s so persuasive that Hopkins offers to take him to the site as well as organize a digging party.
Two decades of plant growth and erosion have changed the terrain and cause uncertainty about the site location, but the team uses trial and error and sets to work. The effort pays off on day two when the crew hits pay dirt: a partial skeleton — ribs, hip, legs, and vertebrae. The head is missing, but nine scattered teeth remain behind.
Foulke, knowledgeable about current science, nurses a hunch as to what it is, but he wants expertise and contacts fellow Philadelphia-based Academy of Natural Sciences member Joseph Leidy — the era’s foremost vertebrate paleontologist (the study of prehistoric life with a backbone).
Leidy arrives, inspects the bones, and affirms the unimaginable — the evidence of something big and once relegated to the world of myths and fairy tales: the remains of an 80-million-year-old gigantic reptile — part of a group of animals that in 1841 had been christened Dinosauria (Latin for fearfully great or terrible lizard).
It is the scientific evidence that ends all prior theories of earthly existence and causes life to stand raw and mysterious before the two scientists in southern New Jersey.
No wonder the Academy calls it “The dinosaur that changed the world.”
Now that evidence — the historic skeleton of Hadrosaurus foulkii (Latin for Foulke’s bulky lizard) — is the subject of “Drawn to Dinosaurs,” opening Saturday and Sunday, March 22 and 23, at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton.
Part of the ongoing multi-phase renovation of the museum’s Natural History Hall, the weekend events include a 2 p.m. free program for children, “How Did The Dinosaur Get In The Museum?,” and the launch of the new hands-on Innovation Lab.
Museum assistant curator of natural history Jason Schein oversaw the installation and says, “After this dinosaur was found a lot of dinosaur (fossils) were found in southern New Jersey. In the middle to the late-ish 1800s southern New Jersey and Philadelphia were the centers of dinosaur paleontology. Not enough people know about this.”
The Trenton exhibition of the hadrosaur and the ongoing dinosaur exhibitions on view at its Philadelphia partner, the Academy of Natural Sciences, can help change this thinking.
Schein says that this installation has both practical and cultural significance. “The natural history hall has been closed for so many years, and the question we get all the time is, ‘Where are the dinosaurs?’ So for the first time (in over a decade) we have a dinosaur.”
It also just happens to be the most important one in history.
“Lots of people found lots of parts of a dinosaur before this one, but no one really thought it was important. No one had a clue what these things were. They knew they were reptiles. So it was revolutionary to have the skeleton. In paleontology if you find 20 percent (of a skeleton), it is really good.”
The curator says that a good scientist would see that the remains were related to a reptile, and “this dinosaur was discovered by one of the world’s best scientist of the time (Leidy). He knew about it just looking at the skeleton.” Of course, the skeleton also taught him more.
Leidy was able to claim the New Jersey bones for the Academy because the New Jersey State Museum was not yet in existence. So for the past 156 years the bones of the Hadrosaurus foulkii have been New Jersey’s oldest and most exotic export.
The state, however, symbolically asserted its claim to the fossil in 1991 when the state legislature declared it New Jersey’s official state dinosaur. Five other states and the District of Columbia also have official dinosaurs.
The replica is based on the original bones — which are fragile and protected in the Academy’s storage areas — and from an exhibition created by the Academy several years ago to celebrate its 200th anniversary. No matter, it is as close to real thing as anyone anywhere will ever see.
“I think (visitors) will be impressed by the size,” says Schein of the 25-foot head-to-tail figure. “The hadrosaur is not the biggest dinosaur out there, but it is really big. Then you add the fat and muscle on it, and you think that it is ‘really’ big.”
That thinking and visualizing will be helped by the creation of a life-sized illustration — right beside the skeleton — by dino-illustrator and manager of the Academy’s Dinosaur Hall, Jason Poole. He created a similar illustration at the Academy and will be drawing one for state museum visitors all day Friday, March 21.
Additionally there will be actual hadrosaur fossils to see. “On the side we’ll have a case of real bones from a recent dig in Montana. It is another hadrosaur,” says Schein.
The dig is an annual, independently sponsored filed trip that provides specimens for the museum and hands-on experience for those pursuing paleontology or working on a scientific dig.
“The new installation replaces the old one that was removed for building renovations,” says the museum curator. “While (the former one) was a favorite of many, it provided wrong information. It (too) wasn’t the real bones, just a cast. It kind of looked like half the skeleton was exposed in the ground. Most of the bones were in relief and sticking out. It wasn’t a great mount. It wasn’t in the right pose. It wasn’t accurate. It had a skull, but although we have pieces we don’t know what the skull really looked like. So the skull was not right. The one on the new skeleton is a guess, but it’s more accurate than the old one.”
The practice of displaying and depicting dinosaurs has been a work in progress. “If you pick up any old dinosaur book, you’ll see pictures of them looking kind of big, dumb, and dopey: tails on the ground and standing upright. There was a famous artist who started painting dinosaurs in the late 1800s, Charles R. Knight, and was pretty accurate. In the 1960s we saw they were more dynamic and ran and jumped. The Tyrannosaurus rex and others were much more horizontal than the vertical that they used to be displayed.”
The incorrect posture — dubbed a kangaroo posture by Academy associate curator and chair of the program on vertebrate zoology Ted Daeschler — was in part the product of the artistic imagination of British artist Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894). That artist worked with Leidy to create that first skeleton mount, the only display of its kind in the world for 15 years.
Hawkins — one of the original paleo-artists — also created concrete sculptures of squat or lumpy dinosaurs, based on speculation, for the popular 1855 Crystal Palace paleontology exhibition in London. He attempted to launch a similar — yet ill-fated — dinosaur exhibition in 1870 in New York City’s Central Park. That exhibition clashed with a plan by New York City political force Boss Tweed, and statues were destroyed and buried in the park.
Schein says that Hawkins “did a great job” with the information that he had, but “Knight was the first more accurate artist to portray dinosaurs. (He) was decades and decades ahead of his time.” To make the example Schein tells of Knight’s painting of fighting Dryptosaurus (tearing lizards). That dinosaur happened to be the second found skeleton, also in the Haddonfield area and also in the Academy’s collection.
Both Hawkins and Knight — whose images of dinosaurs influenced the way that Hollywood later interpreted the creatures in the 1933 film “King Kong” — have a connection to Princeton. Hawkins visited the university in the mid-1870s and created a series of paintings depicting prehistoric life, including Gumby-like hadrosaurs on the New Jersey coast. Although the paintings could be seen on campus for decades, they are now out of public view.
Knight’s more accurate dinosaurs could be seen on murals used in the university’s paleontology exhibition (which has been dismantled). However, one of his sculptures is also one of the most visible in Princeton: the bronze tiger in Palmer Square.
Schein says that the current hadrosaur project started with no real forethought from the Academy or the state museum. “The Academy had the skeleton built for their 200th anniversary. They borrowed our skeleton to help with the cast. They made a small fairly modern exhibit of just the skeleton. I’m friends with a number of people at the Academy and was invited to go to the exhibit. I thought ‘Wow!’ and wondered if it would be available for loan.
“It was obvious that it would be good for our museum even for a short period of time. I put the word out that we may be interested. Around the same time I asked (state museum curator of natural history) David Parris and (executive director) Anthony Gardner, ‘What do you think? It’s assembled and wouldn’t take much effort.’ We had a meeting at the Academy and they agreed. The Academy made it. They didn’t make it to loan for other museums. They were not originally intending for it to be loaned out.”
With the exhibition scheduled for the remainder of 2014, the partnership is mutually beneficial. The Academy has a place to store the skeleton and garner awareness of its own attractions (only about 30 miles away), and the New Jersey State Museum can provide visitors with a glimpse of one of the most fantastic icons of New Jersey history. “We hope to extend it. But it all depends on the Academy and what their plans are for it,” says Schein.
Schein started in the museum in 2007 and, until now, has only known the natural history hall as a place under renovation.
Though now steeped in New Jersey dinosaur history, the curator was born in Morgantown, West Virginia, to science-trained parents. His mother had a master’s in orthopedic biometrics and father had a doctorate in pharmacology. After several years of moving to jobs in Boston and Chicago, Schein’s parents decided to take over his maternal grandfather’s auto dealer business near Birmingham, Alabama, where Schein attended Auburn University.
He later transferred to study environmental science at Tupelo, Mississippi, and finally to Drexel University in Philadelphia to study paleontology. Fortunately for him the university recently acquired stewardship of the Academy of Natural Science.
Schein — who lives with his wife, Sarah, and two children in Dresher, Pennsylvainia — credits his interest in science in part to both his parents’ backgrounds and something they gave him: an enjoyment of hiking, fishing, canoeing, and “anything outdoors.”
His interests in reading about dinosaurs and outdoor activities seem to have created a path the New Jersey State Museum. “As a geology student in Auburn I was always reading papers by folks like David Parris and (former registrar of natural history at the New Jersey State Museum, author of the 1997 book “When Dinosaurs Roamed New Jersey,” and current professor at Rider University) Bill Gallagher. It was by coincidence that I moved to this area. Gallagher was one of my professors at Drexel and mentioned that there was a position at the New Jersey State Museum. I knew paleontology jobs were few and far between, and I jumped at the chance.”
Yet Schein had also in a way interviewed for the position many years before sending a resume. “In 2000 I went on the trip to Montana and met David Parris. He remembered me when I applied. (Paleontology) is a small community. You never know who you are going to meet, so you bust your ass. You never know when there’s another opportunity. Everyone knows everyone.”
Schein says that part of the allure of paleontology is adventure. “I always loved stories of explorers such as Lewis and Clark, and going to a place never seen before was interesting. But if you dig up a fossil you are the first person to see this object. That is the closest to becoming an explorer as one can get today, seeing something never seen before.”
Similar to what Foulke and Leidy felt when they beheld that mysterious skeleton, one that Schein says is perfect “for what we do here” at the New Jersey State Museum: remind visitors of the wonders and mysteries of the natural world.
Drawn to Dinosaurs, the Hadrosaurus foulkii Installation and debut of Innovation Lab, the New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. Saturday and Sunday, March 22 and 23, with the 2 p.m. event for children “How Did The Dinosaur Get In The Museum?” Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., $5 suggested admission fee. Free weekend parking behind the museum. www.statemuseum.nj.gov or 609-292-6464.
Dinosaur Hall, Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ongoing exhibition of more than 30 dinosaur species. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., $13 to $15.
Dinosaurs Unearthed, Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Special exhibition running to March 30. $3 to $5 plus general admission. 215-299-1000 or www.ansp.org.