Dino-tours: Bernissart's beauties

The other week it occurred to me that I haven't had a holiday in about four years - yikes! Alas, I couldn't afford to go away for the weekend, so I decided to hop on the Eurostar and head for Brussels for the day, to see some specimens that are so familiar to me and yet I had never set eyes on before.

I am talking of course, about the wonderful Iguanodons of Bernissart, on display in the Belgian Royal Institute for Natural Sciences. The 'Bernissart Thirty' have been etched into my mind since childhood - I remember gazing mystified at grainy old photos and 19th century drawings of the huge, decrepit-looking creatures, with their hideous grins and broken faces. Strangely, it is just this creepiness that is peculiar to the Bernissart finds of 1878 that I have always found so appealing. I remember having dreams as a child about the silent, sombre statues, with their glistening black sheen, like ossified ghosts. Their cracked surfaces give them the appearance of being just about to crumble to pieces; their gaping eye sockets seem to open into nothing at all and there's something just so beautifully, horrifically Victorian about them.

So, this was a personal pilgrimage for me - thirty specimens of my favourite genus of dinosauria AND such historically important ones too!

I'm happy (and not at all embarrassed) to say that when I first entered the dinosaur hall in the Institut de Sciences Naturelle I allowed myself a little snigger (...OK, so it was a girly giggle. Let me preserve a grain of pride). The exterior of the museum and the entrance hall were rather unassuming; they even reminded me a little of school, but the dinosaur hall itself really took my breath away. The architecture is stunning, with beautiful ornate bannisters and twisting wrought-iron spiral staircases and a wonderfully refreshing sense of open space. I'm a big admirer of taxidermy and was delighted to see multitudes of stuffed birds hanging from the ceiling, ducking and diving in the air above their distant cousins (some could be found wandering around at ground-level as well...no explanation, they were just there).

The hall is also home to a beautifully mounted Tyrannosaur, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus and Crylophosaurus (and many others, but I mustn't waffle!), but the stars of the show for me were the Iguanodons I had got up at a quarter-past five that morning to see:

Firstly, I have to say they are beautifully presented, those that can be mounted standing are arranged in a huge glass case, just as they were in the late 1800s. The mezzanine allows the visitors to walk all around the specimens at about eye-level before going below to experience walking through the glass tunnel that runs beneath. Those that are still set in plaster much as they were found are housed in another room below. This part of the exhibit has a glass floor, so you can walk along with this strange precarious sensation that you're going to fall several feet onto a bed of hard fossils! The lighting is quite stark around the Bernissart Thirty - the natural light is restricted and the fossils are all lit harshly from above, emphasising their monstrous quality. The final touch is the one Iguanodon on the end who has been mounted on all fours, as if she's just stepped down to wander off somewhere. This is the one animal that is presented outside of the glass enclosure that houses the others, except for her tail, which passes through the glass as if she's just stepped through a force-field.

The most striking revelation for me, seeing these specimens for the first time after twenty years, was the emotions that the Iquanodons stirred in me. They got me thinking about how important the find in the mines at Bernissart were. Before these guys were discovered, all we had of Iguanodon was a few bits and the best picture of prehistoric life we could deduce from these and other scattered remains were the Waterhouse-Hawkins sculptures at Crystal Palace. I love those sculptures dearly, but they are a poignant illustration of just how much in the dark we were back then. When the Bernissart specimens were unearthed, here at last was a whole herd of animals, almost complete in most cases, providing us with a clear picture of what these creatures actually looked like! Here at last was the silver bullet that gave irrefutable evidence of the existence of large beasts, walking the earth many millions of years before the rise of primates, bolstering the still quite radical theory of evolution and sparking public interest in new science.

But the most potent message written in the sombre, lofty stances of the Bernissart Thirty is the potent reminder that Palaeontology rose out of the blood, sweat and tears of the Industrial Revolution. When I was a child, I thought that their appearence was black and shiny because they came out of a coal mine. The truth is the fossils were filled originally with cores of pyrite when they were found and crumbled upon leaving the atmosphere of the mine. This problem was solved by removing the pyrite in a laboratory environment and boiling the remaining fossils in glue to make them hard. This brutally victorian industrial process is what gives them their Onyx glisten. When there, one cannot help but wonder what the miners must have made of the bone yard that they found. Mining in the nineteenth century, as now, was a perilous profession: Did the miners find the silent beasts to be a macabre reminder of their own lost colleagues and that someday they too may find themselves buried in the dark of the mine?

I left the exhibition hall with a great feeling of gratitude to all the workers who blasted their way through the green and pleasant lands of the nineteenth century and the amateur collectors who gathered the sudden explosion of fossils that the Industrial Revolution unearthed. I was grateful also to the Bernissart Thirty. I know I shouldn't get too sentimental about individual fossils, but I did feel a whimper of sadness for these thirty animals who all died together, along with 600 fish and a crocodile in the depths of a river bed. They had no way of even conceiving that in a hundred million years or so some hairless primates would dig up their remains and put them on display, much less that one particular primate would travel all day just to come and pay homage to them.

Thank you, Bernissart Thirty. RIP.


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