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When we see dinosaurs, we really see ourselves

Dinosaurs — Christoffer Zieler of the University Post looks at the past through the perspective of a hen. The combination of fossilized eggs and dinosaur art at the National History Museum of Denmark is a winner.

I just got some hens. And I really enjoy observing them.

With good reason! According to science, the birds – and this includes my three hens – are the only type of dinosaur that survived the cataclysm about 66 million years ago, so we should appreciate their life as poultry today. You should take care of this kind of thing.

But for someone who does not even have a hen at hand, the exhibition Dinosaur Families at the Geological Museum on Øster Voldgade is an excellent alternative.

Here the focal point is dinosaur eggs, behaviour, and family life, about which palaeontologists can tell us a lot.

Broken shells

A fossilized dinosaur nest with intact eggshells indicates, for example, that the young probably left the place where they were hatched fairly quickly, to live their own lives. Broken shells, on the other hand, indicate that helpless young ones were raised in their nests by their more or less loving parents.


Geological Museum, Øster Voldgade 5-7

Open from Friday, 2nd February

The opening hours of the museum are 10-17 Tuesday-Sunday, (all days in the winter and autumn holidays).

This is according to Christopher Ries, a PhD in history and the exhibition’s researcher at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, which gave the University Post a tour a week before the opening day.

The exhibition also contains examples of the dinosaurs’ nests and their surprisingly diverse types of egg. While the sauropods, the enormous dinosaurs with long necks, laid spherical eggs with a knobbly surface, the herbivorous bird feet dinosaurs (Ornithopods) produced flat, round, cowpat-shaped eggs.

And the carnivorous dinosaurs, the ancestors of today’s birds, made elongated eggs with beautiful furrows.

»No eggs have been found from the Ceratopsia, the dinosaurs that look like rhinos,« says Christopher Ries.

The University Post suggests they ate the shells, like hens do.

Ries says something about it being possible.

Skeletons in flight

What scientists, on the other hand, do know, is that the ceratopsia lived and moved in groups. For this same reason, the skeletons of Protoceratops are arranged in a small tableau where an adult animal – about the size of a lion or something like that – and its little bunch of young is seen frozen in graceful movement.

The empty eye sockets scan the terrain, their heads are lowered and turned upward. The bones here are ready for action, and remind you of the little skeleton dog Scraps from Tim Burton’s movie Corpse Bride. Or maybe a bunch of hungry hens running across a lawn.

»In the old days you would have set the skeletons upright, with their tails dragging along the ground,« says Christopher Ries.

Should the small protoceratops skeletons not look alive enough for you, look to the walls of the exhibition for the Spanish-Mexican artist and dinosaur interpreter Luis Rey’s scenes with dinosaurs in close-up photo-realistic style. Rey’s works are done with acrylic paint, airbrush and computer in a zany colour scale, but within the limits of what can be defended scientifically.

The large canvases are a big part of the overall exhibition and it is a fine idea to show the artistic renditions of the dinosaurs among the bones.

Dinosaur art is great art

Because when we look at the dinosaurs, we see ourselves. It can’t be otherwise. The exhibition at the Geological Museum demonstrates that palaeontologists can do far more than merely guess about the real life of the dinosaurs based on the location of the finds and the yellowish bone fragments. But we still have to dig down into our own brain’s internal layers of sediment to really make contact with the extinct animals.

This is why paleo art exists, where human self-perception and imagination are linked to the knowledge of the past to create images. For me, the genre is mostly associated with Rod Ruth’s illustrations from the book Album of Dinosaurs by Tom McGowan (first published in 1972).

But we still have to dig down into our own brain’s internal layers of sediment to really make contact with the extinct animals.

In Ruth’s stark tableaus the dinosaurs are portrayed as war machines in conflict. Raw strength versus speed, or teeth vs armour, such as in the lovely painting where the stout, underdog Ankylosaurus hammers its tail tipped with a scaly medieval club into the face of T-Rex.

To other people, the Czech artist Zdeněk Burians’ (1905-81) work is probably the greatest artistic reference. It’s less dynamic, yet still feral, his dinosaurs seemingly brooding some existential crisis. (Burian is said to be the king of 20th century dino art).

And to others still, the key dino-art image to pop up will probably be the computer-generated velociraptors from Jurassic Park. Should you belong to this last group, the exhibition will be shocking, because according to paleo-artist Luis Rey (and apparently recent science) Velociraptor was a bird with wild, carnivalesque feathers. It was no less dangerous than in the movie, it just looked a lot more crazy.

Hens lay relatively large eggs. Although the long-necked mega-dinosaurs were as large as buildings, they laid relatively small eggs.

P.S.: To those interested in paleo art: The publisher Taschen has recently published a giant book on paleo art called Paleoart – Visions of the Prehistoric Past by Zoë Lescaze. It’s a festival of images and a reminder of how contemporary views redefine the past.

P.P.S.: Misty, the Natural History Museum of Denmark’s acquired sauropod skeleton is not part of the exhibition at the Geological Museum. You’ll have to go to the (nearby) Zoological Museum to have a look at Misty.