Bones of Contention

Finding Barnum was hard enough. But to excavate the intrigue around the prize T. rex, you must dig deeper.

In the sale agreement, Newman guaranteed delivery of no less than 25 percent of a T. rex skeleton, measured by volume. But at the time the deal was struck, many of the bones were still buried in a rock matrix Boyce had dug out of the ground. Once removed from the matrix, the bones proved to be more fragmentary and less complete than expected -- from 16 to 20 percent, depending on whether the calculation is based on volume, bone count, the "weighted value" of significant bones or some other form of measurement.

Newman had promised to make up the difference by supplying other T. rex bones. Early on, Miller had even bought some tyrannosaur teeth and a jawbone from Newman for an additional $19,600, with the aim of making Barnum more presentable. But Miller subsequently learned from experts he consulted that mixing in pieces from another specimen could "compromise the integrity" and lower the value of his fossil. He began to doubt the wisdom of assembling a composite T. rex -- particularly after another dealer told him that the jawbone he'd bought was worth no more than $5,000.

Figuring Barnum's worth without the extra parts was no easy matter, either. Ty Rex asked Robert T. Bakker, the iconoclastic Boulder paleontologist who consults on Spielberg movies and dino-mation theme parks, to appraise Barnum. Using Z-Rex as a benchmark, Bakker concluded that Barnum has roughly a third as many "high-value bones" -- skull, jaws, teeth, toes and claws -- as the more highly touted Z-Rex and thus an estimated value of a million dollars.

Tyson Smith
Missing links: A video taken during the dig, starring Japh Boyce.
Missing links: A video taken during the dig, starring Japh Boyce.

Another appraiser informed Ty Rex's principals that their fossil was worth the purchase price, $400,000, but only because they'd set the value by agreeing to pay so much. Miller's group vigorously challenged that appraiser's methods and conclusions, but his lowball opinion is echoed in other quarters. "To be honest, I think they paid way too much for it," says Herskowitz.

The true value of a fossil depends on several factors besides the number and condition of the bones, including the uniqueness of the specimen, how it's prepared and displayed, and its provenance, or "back story." Scientific merit doesn't always translate into commercial value -- a big, scary meat-eater is usually worth more than an herbivorous dinosaur, even if the latter is better preserved or more unusual -- but museums and high-end collectors do attach a great deal of importance to the scientific context of a particular specimen, including where it was found and what light its discovery may shed on matters of prehistoric life and death.

Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute says that Barnum may rank "in the bottom half" of thirty known T. rex specimens in terms of completeness, but he believes the fossil still has some interesting features going for it. "It's got quite a bit of the skull, and any time you're looking at a dinosaur, the skull is the most important part," he notes. The bones also include gastralia (stomach ribs and supports) that are rarely found in T. rex digs.

Equally important in Larson's view is the location of the find. The first T. rex ever discovered was dug out of eastern Wyoming by Barnum Brown in 1900, but few rexes have turned up in the Lance Creek area since. "It's a puzzling thing, why we don't see more of these guys from Wyoming," Larson says. "There's been intensive collecting in the area for a hundred years, but we know of only four or five specimens, while in South Dakota we're now finding one a year. It's a line of inquiry we need to pursue."

In a letter provided to Ty Rex recounting details of the excavation process, Japh Boyce describes aspects of the find that set Barnum apart from other T. rexes. The excavation spanned several summers and was "miserable work," he writes, since it involved moving large amounts of earth in order not to damage fragile, acid-etched bones trapped in boggy, shifting soil: "The dinosaur planned his death poorly and ended up in a fossil as well as a modern mud hole."

The first year's efforts were plagued by damp weather and early snowstorms. The following spring, the site had dried out enough to recover "good bones," but the yield soon dropped off dramatically. Still, Boyce found remains of duck-billed dinosaurs and other T. rex bones in what appeared to be Barnum's stomach contents, as well as the presence of coprolites -- fossilized excrement -- that suggested Barnum's corpse had been fed upon by other consumers. Pathologies in the bones reinforced the impression that life in the cretaceous period tended to be nasty, brutish and short, a rex-eat-rex struggle for survival.

But Boyce did not offer Ty Rex much documentation about the dig to back up his observations. Miller's group pressed Newman to supply "dig data": grid maps, field notes, photos and videos of the excavation process. Although Boyce claimed that he works primarily with the scientific community, Newman responded that Boyce "is foremost a fossil dealer, not an academic paleontologist. Therefore, it is unlikely that he takes detailed notes of his excavations."

Ultimately, Boyce and Newman did provide a few snapshots. "As for diggers like Mr. Boyce and myself, we don't have the time to take extensive notes nor time for pretty pictures," Newman wrote. "We locate, find, dig and get out.... Writing detailed notes regarding site data may leave yourself open to other persons invading and pillaging your dig."

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