Dinosaur 13


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Dinosaur 13
"What Miller’s film conveys is how fierce the battle became for Larson as he and his team fought to keep the dinosaur bones."

Post Jurassic Park, we are perhaps so used to seeing dinosaurs appearing ‘in the flesh’ on screen that it is easy to forget that very few intact and complete dinosaur fossils actually have been found, and when they are located, the job of digging them up safely involves old fashioned sweat and hard shovelling. It can also, as a group of amateur paleontologists from the Black Hills Institute in Dakota found out to their cost in the 1990s, involve painful court and media battles over who actually has the legal and moral right to walk away with the find. During one particular dig in August 1990 out in the Dakota badlands, the researchers of the Black Hills literally stumbled over a largely intact T-Rex fossil. They were elated, as few T-Rex fossil discoveries had been made historically at that point, and none had been as complete as this one (which they nicknamed Sue, after the researcher Susan Hendrickson who found it).

Director Tod Miller’s film shows us, through recent interviews and contemporaneous footage, how what should have been the beginning of a period of celebration and study for paleontologist Peter Larson and his Black Hills colleagues instead turned into a long nightmare. As the film unfolds, we see how the palaeontologists discovered to their horror that they had in fact unearthed a valuable fossil on one of the most legally ambiguous parts of the USA when it came to ownership and excavation rights. Their first warning of this was when the FBI and the National Guard showed up to claim the fossil, along with other material from the Institute.

Public outrage and a media campaign turned the quiet local town of Hill City into a circus. The palaeontologists learned that, unawares to them at the time, the federal government had long-standing historical interests in the land via the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which apparently had granted the land in trust to the landowner the team had paid for the fossil, a certain Maurice Williams. To make things worse, the team had not arranged for a signed contract for the purchase from Williams, merely a handshake and the writing of a $5,000 check. With Williams now also claiming he never approved the sale, the Sue fossil ended up locked in storage like some kind of stateless citizen, as Larson and his team filed suit against the federal government, which in turn saw fit to investigate the financial affairs of the Black Hills Institute and its long history of paying for and selling fossils.

What Miller’s film conveys is how fierce the battle became for Larson as he and his team fought to keep the dinosaur bones. For Larson in particular, the emotional connection to the dinosaur was incredibly strong: as even his wife admits, she may have been the most important lady in his life. Larson is in tears in many scenes in this film as he recalls losing the skeleton to the government. At times during the dragged-out legal proceedings he would sit and talk to the bones as they sat in a warehouse under federal lock and key. But the film also highlights how this conflict fundamentally sprung not just from a heavy handed government response, but also the blurred legal situation relating to digging up and moving items from land that had gone through multiple owners and legal statuses over decades.

Larson, in interviews, is adamant that the fossil belonged, and still belongs, in Dakota where it was found, and many others echo his claims. But judges and other federal figures said the opposite, and Maurice Williams rightly or otherwise ended up being legally granted the rights to sell the fossil, the only happy ending being that he sold it to the Chicago Field Museum which was the kind of institution that Larson was confident would look after it.

It is hard not to feel that the government’s response was staggeringly aggressive, with Larson and others ultimately forced to face dozens of charges in court as the federal investigation of the Black Hills Institution mushroomed in the wake of the Sue controversy. Lawson himself saw nearly two years in jail for the seemingly mundane offence of failing to fill out certain government approved forms relating to the transporting and selling of his fossils. But on the other hand, it does seem that the palaeontologists behind the Sue find saw and still see moral arguments as more powerful than legal ones, and this seems a little unrealistic in a country with a complex land ownership history like the US. It is not clear that the team did all they could when excavating Sue to check that they had a legally watertight case, and their arrangement with Williams seems naive. Several interviewees throughout the film comment on how this kind of loose regard for formality and regulations was common in palaeontology: thus Larson didn't even ask Williams to sign a contract for the transfer of ownership of Sue as that was ‘just the way things were done’.

Interestingly, the filmmakers at the Sundance London Q&A following the screening commented on how they learned that the US government, in the wake of the Sue debacle, passed several pieces of legislation to help clear up the rights and responsibilities of researchers and government and the legal status of fossils on public vs private land. If the film has any ‘message’ it is that government and researchers should talk to one another clearly about important issues of historical research and preservation such as this, so as to prevent anything like what happened to Larson from happening again.

If there is a flaw, it is that the film does seem to side with the BHI from the get-go on all the issues, though that is not to say at all that their treatment was not abysmal. Still, were they and should they have been legally in the right to keep Sue or even dig her up in the first place? More details about the legal ins-and-outs might have bored some audiences (it is not clear for example why Williams was ultimately free to sell the skeleton when initially the government claimed he had no right) but it might have helped better orient others looking to help pick a side.

There is a wider debate to be had about who has the right to a nation’s rarest treasures: the film could have looked more at the philosophical disagreements between academic paleontologists and the more for-profit organisations like the BHI. Nevertheless, for exposing the powerful human emotions in this situation, for showing the sheer amount of work that goes into salvaging a rare fossil, and for its simple visual magnificence, Dinosaur 13 is a fascinating watch.

Reviewed on: 27 Apr 2014
Share this with others on...
Dinosaur 13 packshot
A documentary about the legal disputes surrounding the discovery of the world's most famous tyrannosaurus rex fossil.
Amazon link

Director: Todd Douglas Miller

Year: 2014

Runtime: 117 minutes

Country: US


Sundance 2014

Search database: