See more photographs in
"A Luminous Legacy"
King of Prints
By Nancy Pick '83
Photographs by Frank Ward
Geology majors knew. So did a handful of Amherst natural history buffs. But few others at the college realized that for 50 years the basement of Pratt Museum housed something extraordinary: the world’s largest collection of dinosaur footprints. All 10,000 tracks were collected in the mid-1800s by the brilliant and ambitious Amherst College geologist Edward Hitchcock, who began obsessively studying the footprints before the word “dinosaur” had even been coined.
Next spring, Hitchcock’s historic tracks will move from darkness into the light. The college’s new natural history museum will showcase the dinosaur footprints in a state-of-the-art exhibition space, with movable racks to hold the massive sandstone slabs. The modernist glass-walled museum—as yet unnamed—is scheduled for official opening in May 2006. Besides footprints, the museum will exhibit the college’s other natural history treasures, including rare fossils collected during a 1911 Amherst expedition to Patagonia, a dramatic new dinosaur diorama and skeletons of Ice Age mammals. At night, the illuminated mastodon promises to look ravishing.
Gone will be the quirky charm of the old Pratt Museum, with its unpolished student displays, dusty stuffed birds and glow-in-the-dark minerals. The new museum will have a thoroughly professional look, designed by the Boston architectural firm Payette Associates, with exhibition design by Museum Design Associates of Cambridge, Mass. For the first time, the college’s natural history collections will have a coherent theme, focused on the geology and paleontology of the Pioneer Valley.
One of Hitchcock’s stone slabs will receive special attention, with star billing in the museum’s entrance hall. Known as the “Noah’s raven” slab, it contains the first dinosaur footprints ever documented in North America. According to Hitchcock, the slab was discovered by a young man named Pliny Moody about 1802, as he was plowing his father’s South Hadley field. The long, flat slab he unearthed bore a number of large, three-toed footprints. Moody, with typical New England practicality, put it to use as the family doorstep. He called the footprints those of Noah’s raven, apparently thinking that only a bird out of the Bible could have made tracks of such impressive size.
From left to right: A mastodon, Indian elephant and mammoth
Not until 1835 did Hitchcock see his first fossil footprints. He was skeptical that fossil footprints could exist in Massachusetts, for at the time the only fossil print ever documented had been made by an ancient turtle in Scotland. But a perceptive Greenfield doctor sent Hitchcock plaster casts of the Moody footprints, and seeing the tracks with his own eyes, Hitchcock became not only convinced, but consumed. He spent that summer hunting down every track he could find, in quarries and local museums, where they had occasionally been collected as mysterious curiosities.
Just a few months later, Hitchcock published his first scientific paper on the tracks in the prestigious American Journal of Science. He called his new branch of science ornithichnology, meaning “the study of stony bird tracks.” Later, he shortened the name to ichnology. Today, ichnology refers to the study of traces left by ancient animals while alive, including footprints, tail-skin impressions, bite marks, nests and even fossilized feces. Hitchcock’s great 1858 work on the tracks, Ichnology of New England, remains a landmark in the field.
From the start, Hitchcock believed that the Connecticut River Valley tracks had been made by gigantic ancient birds. Bear in mind that he had very few fossilized bones to work with: 200 million years ago, the monsoon conditions that perfectly preserved the local dinosaur footprints were less than ideal for preserving bones. By the late 1850s, Hitchcock’s bird views were coming under attack. Scientists argued that his fossil tracks were made not by birds, but by more reptilian dinosaurs. They based their views on discoveries in Europe, where knowledge of dinosaur anatomy was growing increasingly sophisticated. In 1858, Hitchcock’s bird thesis faced an even greater challenge, with the first major dinosaur find in America. Hadrosaurus, an Iguanodon-like creature, had broad, flattened teeth, sturdy back legs and small front legs. It did not much resemble a bird.
Hitchcock stuck to his guns, but he also came to believe that ancient birds might have looked quite different from modern ones. In the end, he even came around to the idea that his “birds” might have had four feet. “I have imagined that in a such a case the anterior feet would be very peculiar, and not ordinarily used for locomotion,” he wrote in the 1865 Supplement to his first Ichnology volume.
For more than a century, Hitchcock’s bird thesis was dismissed as quaint. But more recently, he has been vindicated. Most paleontologists now agree that birds not only evolved from dinosaurs, but that birds are dinosaurs. Paleontologists are currently embroiled in a hot debate over whether feather traces can be detected in Hitchcock’s footprint slabs.
Locked in the basement of Pratt, Hitchcock’s footprint collection was open only by appointment. In the new museum, the footprints will be wonderfully accessible to both students and researchers. Amherst Professor of Geology Peter Crowley, director of the new museum, is excited about the new LED lights, designed to provide low-angle illumination that will bring the footprints into dramatic relief. “If this works the way I hope it will,” Crowley says, “the tracks will be works of art.”
To help place Hitchcock’s dinosaur tracks in context, the museum has commissioned a new diorama, featuring a three-dimensional, life-sized dinosaur model. Choosing a dinosaur for the diorama posed a real challenge. Very few dinosaur bones have ever been found in the Pioneer Valley, and while footprints can reveal invaluable information about dinosaur behavior, they reveal little about a dinosaur’s anatomy. After much discussion, the college geologists opted not to commission a model of a known species of dinosaur, but rather to have an artist make a composite. The model will represent scientists’ best vision of a mid-sized track-maker. The diorama has a stunning and colorful computer-generated background, designed by Sunderland artist Will Sillin. It depicts a mountainous landscape, with two Dilophosauri standing near a lake. (Dilophosaurus was an 8-foot-tall carnivore whose feet nicely fit the largest footprints in Hitchcock’s collection. It was ruled out as a candidate for the three-dimensional model, however, because its skeletons are found in Arizona, not the Northeast.) The background also shows a composite dinosaur, a mother standing on strong back legs, with a small head and grayish skin. The three-dimensional model will represent a juvenile, her offspring.
Hitchcock’s tracks are not the only specimens newly emerging in the public eye. Important fossils from an early Amherst expedition to Patagonia will also be coming out of the Pratt Museum’s closets. In 1911, Amherst biology professor Frederic Brewster Loomis (Class of 1896) took two students and a cook to Patagonia for the summer. This was a bold adventure, for at the time Patagonia was considered virtually the ends of the earth. Loomis and his assistants spent nearly a month digging for fossils, as recorded in his popular account of the expedition, Hunting Extinct Animals in the Patagonian Pampas. The team rose every day at 4:45 a.m., just before sunrise, ate a hearty breakfast and then headed off in search of bones. Toward the end of the expedition, the newly graduated Waldo Shumway (Class of 1911) made the trip’s most significant discovery. Loomis writes:
Monday noon, Shumway reported a curious lead, which he wished passed upon to see if it were worth taking out. It appeared to be a rib, but soon developed into a skull, and when we got to the teeth, proved to be the almost unknown Pyrotherium which [paleontologist Florentino] Ameghino had found and claimed was a member of the elephant family….This was the first time more than teeth of this form had been found, and things grew exciting; so our date for leaving was set ahead three more days.
Loomis’s Pyrotherium skull is considered so significant that the American Museum of Natural History in New York made a cast of it for its research collections. The large skull—with nostril openings from its trunklike snout—will be prominently displayed in Amherst’s new museum.
Modern casts of hominid skulls
Measuring about 10,000 square feet, the new museum is considerably smaller than the Pratt. This meant the Geology Department had to make some hard choices. Professors spent long hours haggling over what to display, what to place in on-site storage drawers, and what to demote to deep storage in the college’s bunker. They set two basic priorities, said Crowley: real over fake, and extinct over extant. The college’s fabulous collection of Ice Age mammal skeletons will, of course, be showcased in the new building. The skeletons include a dire wolf, a saber-toothed cat, a mastodon and a mammoth. Interestingly, Crowley noted, the mammoth is not of the woolly variety, but rather a less shaggy species native to Florida.
Still, some sentimental favorites failed to make the cut. Personally, I loved the huge jaw of the gigantic ancient shark, Carcharodon megalodon—with its row upon row of menacing teeth—that hung above a Pratt doorway. It turns out that although the teeth were real, the jaw was made of plaster. Even worse, the jaw depicted an outdated view of the Megalodon’s anatomy. Into the bunker it went.
I also had a certain fondness for the display of stuffed birds. About 50 of them have bona fide historic significance, as they once belonged to none other than John James Audubon. An Amherst alumnus had purchased the collection decades ago and donated it to the college. Sadly, though, the documentation of the Audubon birds was quite sketchy, and many are in poor condition, according to Kate Wellspring, the museum’s hyper-competent collections manager. Except for a few examples of extinct species, including a passenger pigeon, the stuffed birds, too, are headed for storage rooms.
But then, other specimens were deemed worthy of exhibit, although they are not genuine fossils. The model of Dunkleosteus, a gigantic ancient fish with armored eyes, will remain on display, for the high-quality cast is wonderfully appealing. The same applies to the cast of a Tyrannosaurus rex skull. Until the museum is ready, though, college president Anthony Marx is keeping the T. rex skull in his office, as the ultimate conversation piece.
The new museum will also keep a display on human evolution, although the skeletons and skulls are not real. In light of the growing anti-evolution movement across the country, the college geologists wanted to make a point.
As for the college’s large mineral collection, donated by Carl Francis ’71, it will not be exhibited in the new museum. Instead, the specimens will be displayed in the new geology building, adjoining the museum. Gone is my very favorite display case from the Pratt, which illuminated fluorescent minerals when you pressed a button. Ah, well.
But these are mere quibbles. The new natural history museum promises to be a fabulous place, and it will undoubtedly attract thousands of visitors from the surrounding communities. Most liberal arts colleges in the Northeast,, including Wesleyan and Williams, dismantled their natural history collections decades ago. Amherst has not only held onto its collections, but now has committed to making them a focal point of the college. Edward Hitchcock would be proud.