Digging for truth among the dinosaur bones

Documentary ‘Dinosaur 13’ tells the remarkable story of the biggest T rex fossil ever found, and how one fossil hunter, Peter Larson, and his family were caught in the jaws of a legal row that ended in prison

Fri, Aug 15, 2014, 10:47

Never mind those super-beings in leotards or those cars that turn into robots, the most admirable movie hero of the summer might just be a softly spoken, sexagenarian palaeontologist from South Dakota.

Todd Douglas Miller’s Dinosaur 13, among the year’s very best documentaries, tells how, in 1990, Peter Larson and his team from the Black Hills Institute unearthed an unusually well-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex specimen on Native American land. We watch as the fossil hunters locate claws, ribs and a damaged skull. Named Sue, after Sue Hendrickson, one of Larson’s colleagues, the beast turned out to be the most complete T rex fossil yet found.

This ought to have been an almighty triumph for Larson and his family. Having collected fossils since childhood, the clan had long dreamed of locating this class of signature find.

“It was her completeness,” Larson says. “She’s a living entity for me. She’s not a pile of bones. And there’s something very special about her. There’s a lot of things she has already taught us. And there are still so many secrets located in those bones. There’s something really special about your first love.”

Sadly, the story rapidly turned into a potage of tragedy and farce. The FBI and the National Guard descended upon the institute and hauled off the huge fossilised remains. Larson and his team, despite having paid the apparent land owner $5,000, were charged with unlawfully removing property from government property. A bizarre, lengthy witch-hunt continued and Larson eventually found himself serving two years in prison for relatively minor offences not actually related to the T rex find.

“One measure of success is how many enemies you have,” he says with little apparent bitterness. “Finding Sue was kind of the last straw. But had we not found her and excavated her she’d be lying in that cliff and, with the speed at which that material is receding, the pelvis would be gone and the front of her skull would be gone now too.”

The DA vs the palaeontologists
The film makes a convincing argument that Larson and his friends got caught in an unfortunate pincer movement between two distinct antagonists: an ambitious district attorney on the way up; and academic palaeontologists who resent independent, commercially funded enterprises such as the Black Hills Institute.

“There were definitely some people involved in this story that were not good people,” Larson says. “I recognise that and I feel sorry for them. They feel they have to impose themselves on other people because it’s what makes them. It’s to do with money or power.”

The film is very much on Larson’s side. Still, it is hard to imagine any scenario in which the Black Hills crew could be seen as villains. They love their work. None of them becomes particularly wealthy as a result. After devoting hours of work and spending millions of federal dollars, the worst crimes the state could come up with amounted to errors in paperwork and travellers’ cheques. Yet Larson remains bafflingly jolly and impressively forgiving about the whole experience.