Who owns a dinosaur? It’s a tricksy question, reflecting a tangle of intellectual property, land rights, culture, economics, science and nature. It’s also the topic at the centre of new film, Dinosaur 13, which tells the story of the discovery and eventual auctioning of one of the United States’ most famous dinosaurs: Sue the T-Rex.
I might have specified Chicago’s Field Museum’s Sue the T-Rex. And maybe I shouldn’t have referred to it as the United States’ most famous dinosaur. I might equally have called it FMNH PR 2081 (the museum’s catalogue number) rather than Sue, a nickname picked up in honour of Sue Hendrickson, the palaeontologist who discovered the fossil in 1990. Or I might have dubbed it Disney and McDonald’s’ most complete T-Rex skeleton. It was, after all, these companies who were at the cornerstone of the consortium who stumped up a record breaking $8,362,500 (£4.9 million) for its purchase back in 1997. We have no way of knowing how the beast itself would have described itself.
Dinosaur 13 offers us something of this story with a very engaging bit of cinema. It starts with an old photo of Sue Hendrickson surrounded by friends in the field, smiling and hot from a day digging in Dakota. The camera pulls back and to reveal what they are all sitting next to: the long sweep of a very, very large fossilised jaw. The way the camera slowly brings you the bigger picture foreshadows a theme and great strength of the film: the sheer excitement and delight felt in scientific work.
The film then takes us through the gradual extraction of the fossil, how they soon realised how complete and large it was and quite what a find they had on their hands. We also learn a bit more about the paleontological team. Not Sue, who in many ways is a minor character, but Peter Larson and his brother Neal. They’d been fascinated by fossils since childhood, we’re told, starting up a museum in their garden shed before returning from college to set up a grown up version in the shape of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research Inc, a private organisation specialising in the excavation, preparation and sale of fossils, with a non-profit museum attached.
We see the the Larsons pay $5000 to the owner of the land where Sue was found, Maurice Williams, and take the bones back to the Black Hills Institute where they start to painstakingly prepare it for display. They do this in a relatively open way, with the local people coming into watch. There’s a fair bit of excitement in the town. Such a massive dinosaur would attract tourists and be a boom for the economy. It’s also just plain interesting, and the people feel a sense of local pride. The area is sometimes known as T-Rex country, and this is their special T-Rex.
Then the FBI turn up. The land Sue was found on was Native American, and this leads to a complex legal battle. The agents don’t really know what they are doing as their seize the fossil, so Peter Larson – heartbroken – has to help. Local schoolchildren run after the vans shouting to bring Sue back. The press roll up, including journalist Kristin Donnan, who Peter Larson later marries (the couple wrote the book Rex Appeal, upon which Dinosaur 13 is based).
Strongly implied in the narrative that unfolds is a sense that academic palaeontologists snobbishly don’t trust the Larsons and feel Sue should be in a “proper” museum. It’s also suggested that Maurice Williams was an unscrupulous person to be doing business with. But Williams was eventually awarded ownership of the fossil, and Sue goes to auction. Peter Larson, meanwhile, is sentenced to two years in prison for problems with his paperwork.
He is eventually released, but Sue is still trapped in auction rooms in New York. There is some excitement when a local businessman offers to pay up to a million dollars to buy Sue back for the town, but then auction day comes and we speedy realise that she’s going to be sold for much, much more. Chicago nabs it with a bid heavily supported by McDonalds and Disney. When Sue was unveiled for public display in 2000, Peter Larson didn’t even get an invite.
It’s an exciting and often very moving story. Played as a tale of the underdog, it’s an appealing narrative, but there are large bits of this particular excavation of a dinosaur left unearthed.
Palaeontology writer Brian Switek, in his review of the film, takes issue with Larson’s portrayal of incompetent academics as not an image that fits his own experience of working in the field, and a snub to the labour of scores of volunteers who support such work. Switek further suggests that “conspicuously absent” from Dinosaur 13 and the debate around its release is the story that Larson has recently been involved in bringing a pair of controversial dinosaur skeletons (the “Duelling Dinosaurs”) to a $9 million public auction.
I was also left uneasy about the image of Maurice Williams as a simple villain. Maybe he was, but the character is left so one dimensional it is hard to tell. According to Native American news site Indian Country Daily, Williams’ widow is sure the $5,000 made to him was a payment for having disturbed the land, not for the dinosaur. The Indian Country Daily report also notes that the tribe is working towards its own museum. Much of the moral drive of Dinosaur 13 is rooted in the image of funded academics in Chicago taking the dinosaur from a small town that could have built so much around it, but other people could have built around it too.
There’s a point in the film where we learn that because Sue is fossilised, she is treated legally as real estate, compared to archaeological finds of human artefacts. There’s a sort of narrative expectation that you are meant to flinch at this point; the very idea of a dinosaur being counted as land. But there is a way in which the T-Rex is land, and considering the history of land rights in the US, this an important part of the story. At the very least Dinosaur 13 should have taken time to explore the ethics here, and possibly offer their audiences something about the history of Native American relationships with dinosaurs, including contemporary paleontological work.
I also wanted to hear more about Sue after she was sold; the way she became a piece of consumer culture. Part of what makes Sue so iconic isn’t just her size, or age, or the scientific work that unearthed and prepared her for display, but the branding, and the knowledge of quite how much was paid for her. Today, you can follow her on Twitter and buy Sue t-shirts and lip balm in the shop. That is as much part of Sue the T-Rex as anything else, just as the dinosaur themed McDonald’s in the basement of the Field Museum plays its part, and Dinosaur 13 undoubtedly will now too. It’s all human activity inscribing itself on an ancient object that is so fascinating to us because of how beyond-human it is.
Dr Alice Bell writes for Popular Science UK every month on science in the media. To read her latest column, on the ‘discovery’ of John Franklin’s arctic expedition, download the app - new subscribers get the latest issue, plus the next, free.
Photo: Peter Larson with part of the dinosaur, courtesy Dogwoof Films.