Book review – Paleontology: An Illustrated History

6-minute read

It is no mean feat to try and tell the history of a discipline as enormous as palaeontology through images in a mere 256 pages. Yet this is exactly the challenge that David Bainbridge has taken on with this book. He has curated a striking selection of vintage and modern palaeoart, archival photos of fossils and their discoverers, and scientific diagrams through the ages. The resulting Paleontology: An Illustrated History manages to combine the old and the new with the familiar and the unfamiliar into one neatly crafted package that makes for a very nice gift.

Paleontology

Paleontology: An Illustrated History, written by David Bainbridge, published by Princeton University Press in February 2022 (hardback, 256 pages)

Bainbridge previously curated The Art of Animal Anatomy, published in the US by Princeton University Press as Stripped Bare. Seeing that he is a veterinary anatomist, this did make me wonder whether he is the best authority for this project. However, as explained in his foreword, palaeontology has been a childhood fascination and he obtained a degree in vertebrate and mammalian palaeontology, being fortunate enough to be taught by no less than Jenny Clack. At the time, I remarked that The Art of Animal Anatomy could not explore palaeoart, and Bainbridge more than makes up for that here.

The book opens with a short introduction that covers how fossils possibly fed the mythologies of various cultures and how, during the Middle Ages, they were slowly recognized for the remains of once-living creatures. Bainbridge takes 1800 as his starting point of palaeontology-proper and covers the next two centuries chronologically in four chapters. Each of these consists of five-to-six-page introductions, followed by a large number of illustrations with figure legends continuing the narrative and vignettes introducing notable episodes and scientists.

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Bainbridge roughly follows the birth of palaeontology in tandem with the industrial revolution and the formulation of the theory of evolution (1800–1860), the developments post-Darwin and the rise of palaeontology in the United States (1860–1920), the transition from swashbuckling collecting expeditions to a more scientifically-grounded affair (1920–1980), to finally the discipline as we know it today (1980–now). This bird’s-eye-overview manages to highlight the under-appreciated role of women such as Mary Anning. For example, we remember Gideon Mantell, but it was probably his wife who discovered the bone fragments that would soon be named Iguanodon. Another interesting detail is how some fossil sites showing exceptional preservation (Lagerstätte) were initially overlooked. Charles Walcott discovered the well-preserved Burgess shale fossils back in 1909, yet it would be decades before they were recognized as offering a unique snapshot of the Cambrian Explosion. The same happened in the Ediacara Hills in South Australia, where Reg Sprigg discovered amazing fossils in the 1940s though their significance would not be recognized for several decades.

“The real stars of this book, however, are the illustrations. […] Bainbridge has curated a very diverse set of illustrations that are nicely balanced on three fronts.”

The real stars of this book, however, are the illustrations. Overall, the image reproduction is good to excellent, though one or two drawings suffer from moiré patterns, notably James Parkinson’s Organic Remains of a Former World on p. 38), and a few double-page spreads inevitably have details disappearing into the fold of the pages. Bainbridge has curated a very diverse set of illustrations that are nicely balanced on three fronts.

First, there is a nice spread of subjects showing that palaeontology is much more than just dinosaurs. Sure, the Berlin specimen of Archaeopteryx is included, as is the foot of the Tyrannosaurus rex specimen dubbed Sue, but there are fossil mammals, fish, plants, shells aplenty, as well as microfossils such as the mysterious conodonts and even fossils of an octopus and a fungus!

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Second, there is a good mix of types of artwork, from the gorgeous hand-drawn illustrations and stratigraphical maps of yesteryear, vintage palaeoart, to archival photos of fossils and collectors. Importantly, Bainbridge has picked classic diagrams and modern infographics. These might not necessarily be visually exciting but they tell important stories. Examples include a cladogram by Willi Hennig, or a graph showing the iridium anomaly at the K–Pg boundary. Notably absent are well-known young palaeoartists such as Mark Witton, Emily Willoughby, and many others. Though some modern palaeoart is included, I did not recognize any of the artists (but maybe that is just me).

“Importantly, Bainbridge has picked classic diagrams and modern infographics. These might not necessarily be visually exciting but they tell important stories.”

Third, and I think most importantly, the book includes the familiar and the unfamiliar. So, Scrotum Humanum is included, as is Henry de la Bèche’s Duria Antiquior. But take a look at Buckland’s detail on his drawing of a petrified crinoid (p. 50) or the beautiful grey tones on Richard Owen’s drawing of a Diprotodon skull (p. 107). Charles Knight’s famous Leaping Laelaps is balanced by a drawing by Rudolph F. Zallinger I had never seen that imagines what a sleeping (!) T. rex might have looked like. And when the Crystal Palace dinosaurs are mentioned, there is of course that woodcut illustration of the dinner in the Iguanodon mould, but also a rare 1930s photograph showing two workmen cleaning one of the statues with a bucket and brush. The inclusion of famous images ensures that the book does not estrange palaeo-novices, but there is plenty of eye candy here to keep experienced palaeontologists entertained.

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Now, obviously, a book of this calibre is going to be a mile wide and an inch deep. It is not intended to be a thorough history such as Rudwick’s two-volume magnum opus nor as lavish an affair as Taschen’s Paleoart. But one might justifiably draw comparisons to Rudwick’s Scenes from Deep Time or art historian Jane P. Davidson’s A History of Paleontology Illustration. Though I have yet to obtain these books second-hand, my impression is that Paleontology: An Illustrated History is a less scholarly affair. The size and price make this a perfect gift, and I expect this book will do very well in museum gift shops.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Paleontology

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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