The bone collector
Peter May, a British-born sculptor by training who founded Research Casting International (RCI) 32 years ago, sits by a cast skeleton of a duck-billed dinosaur in the mounting shop. It’s still a thrill, he says, to lay eyes on bones that have been buried for 65–150 million years. “Just thinking it’s something no one else has ever seen, you realise how lucky you are.” Of course, building two sets of T rex skeletons for Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie Jurassic Park was quite the career highlight, too.
Occupying a 5,000m2 warehouse in Trenton, Ontario, RCI specialises in the delicate art of dinosaur restoration and reconstruction. One of only five companies in the world carrying out this painstaking work, to date they’ve mounted around 800 skeletons. They also scientifically reconstruct dinosaurs such as this “fleshed out” Albertosaurus skull.
“It’s funny,” May muses, “as visitors walk through museums and see the mounted skeletons, I’m not sure many think about who built them.” One of these behind-the-scenes talents is fossil preparator Deanna Way, joining the team of sculptors, metalworkers, engineers and display artists.
A typical work table strewn with brushes, pots of adhesive and a diagram of a dinosaur skull. Like art restorers, fossil preparators use various glues and fillers to strengthen or repair specimens, avoiding any that will discolour or become brittle over time.
RCI’s head of mounting, Brett Crawford, and colleague Stephen Lee work on the very rare dinosaur Zuul crurivastator, dubbed the “living tank” for its heavy armour and sledgehammer-like tail. Discovered in 2017, this was an entirely new species of Ankylosaur and the most complete fossil of its kind ever found in North America.
Remember the acid-spitting dinosaur in Jurassic Park? That’s the Dilophosaurus – a small Early Jurassic predator that lived in what’s now North America about 193 million years ago. Here, its skull is still embedded in the rock matrix. When fossils arrive from the field, they are encased in plaster-cast jackets (much like when humans break a limb) poured by palaeontologists in the field. Technicians cut open the plaster and pick away at the matrix surrounding the fossil. – often using dental tools or custom-made carbide steel needles for this precise work.
Science meets sculpture
John Davies puts the finishing touches to a mastodon tusk. “Fusing cold hard steel to these fragile, scientifically important specimens demands a keen eye and gentle touch,” says May. These days, the RCI is slowly replacing moulding and casting with digital processes like laser scanning and 3D printing.
Standing between casts of an Ankylosaur bone bed (left) and a Camarasaurus (right), May says his job’s most rewarding part is “the wonder and excitement on museum visitors’ faces when they see the skeletons”.
Crawford uses a welding torch to bend the armature of Zuul’s skeleton. This might be their most challenging project to date, he says.
Dinosaur skin impressions are far rarer than bones – it means the dinosaur skin was buried shortly after death and covered in a coating of sand that preserved the soft tissue’s imprint. Millimetre by millimetre, suited-up technicians chip away at Zuul’s sandstone tomb with needle-tipped tools to reveal pieces of armour and individual scales. “The quality of the armour and skin preservation has exceeded our wildest dreams,” says palaeontologist David Evans of the Royal Ontario Museum, where Zuul is now displayed.