A Dino-Porn-Free Zone

Get the real lay of Colorado’s prehistoric landscape via this way-way-back exhibit.

Not everyone can expect to find a tyrannosaurus buried in the backyard, but if you ask Denver Museum of Nature & Science paleontologist Kirk Johnson, it's, well, possible...if you live along the Front Range. And it has happened. "We have fossils with street addresses here," Johnson explains. "Colorado has some of the best geology -- with people living on top of it -- in the country."

In order to help the museum draw people into that premise in a very real way, Johnson and fellow scientist Robert Raynolds collaborated with paleo-artists Donna Braginetz, Gary Staab and Jan Vriesen to re-create Front Range scenes from periods that date back over 300 million years. The resulting exhibit, Ancient Denvers, opens Thursday at the museum and coincides with the release of an accompanying book. In addition, the museum is partnering with 58 parks in the region to provide firsthand views of the existing scientific evidence that inspired the finished paintings.

The idea for the project began with Braginetz's installation at Denver International Airport, which showed airport land as it may have appeared 65 million years ago. That display met with excellent public response. "Colorado's had all sorts of different landscapes," Johnson notes. "There are so many layers, each one a different environment -- it's been undersea several times; it's been much colder; it's been a rainforest. I thought it would be cool to paint a bunch of them." That, he adds, is something you don't usually see in contemporary renderings of prehistoric times.

Go back a long, long way with Ancient Denvers, opening Thursday at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
Go back a long, long way with Ancient Denvers, opening Thursday at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

"A lot of paleontological painting now centers around some big, gnarly animal," Johnson says. "It's dinosaur pornography: There's always a big, beautiful dinosaur in the middle, but it's really just about the dinosaurs. There aren't even any plants in the foreground, because they don't want to obscure even the toes of the dinosaur. No one's even bothered to paint Colorado when it was the stinking tropical shore of an ocean." And that, he maintains, is an unrealistic approach. "If you walk in the landscape today, what you see is the lay of the land, some plants, probably some birds...if you're lucky, you might see an animal."

So Johnson and his colleagues started with some of the foothills' more familiar geologic spots. "It would be foolish not to paint a picture of when Red Rocks was being formed," he says. They chose the obvious places, including the Dakota Hogback, the Flatirons, Roxborough Park, the Garden of the Gods and, naturally, Red Rocks. Whereas many extinct animals lack common names and go only by their tongue-twisting scientific monikers, Johnson adds, "these images look like places. Here's a case where one picture really is worth a thousand words."

Why does Johnson think people might be fascinated by such glimpses into local prehistory? "A lot of people just don't know it exists, even though they're living right on top of it. When a guy comes home from work and walks his dog in a park, he doesn't realize he's stepping on ancient landscapes. I want to tell him, 'Hey! You're walking on the remains of a rainforest.'"

How close do the paintings come to depicting the prehistoric panorama realistically? It's a bit of an act of science fiction, after all, when one attempts to re-create a landscape that no one's actually seen. "It's imagination calibrated by fact," Johnson corrects. And to that end, there are accurate scientific tools to work with: "The rocks themselves tell the geologic story, so we can be somewhat accurate about the landscape. And fossils are fragments of old life forms. But it's open territory: You're basically time traveling, in a pretty profound way.

 
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