All posts by Paul D Brinkman

I am Assistant Director of the Paleontology & Geology Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, NC. In this capacity I manage the lab and do technical work in vertebrate paleontology, including fieldwork and fossil preparation. I also pursue my own research program in history of science, especially nineteenth and early twentieth century geology and vertebrate paleontology.

Dressed up for a shakedown

In the Field Museum Archives there is a brittle and cracked album full of newspaper clippings yellow with age. During a recent research trip to Chicago, I had the opportunity to thumb through this album – very carefully! – while searching for information about the Captain Marshall Field Paleontological Expeditions of the 1920s. I found a few gems, including the photograph posted below, which shows Elmer S. Riggs, George Bedford, John B. Abbott, C. Harold Riggs and Anthony Dombrosky smartly dressed and standing on a railroad platform waiting to board a train for western Canada.

E. S. Riggs, G. Bedford, J. B. Abbott, C. H. Riggs and A. Dombrosky waiting on a train
(L to R) E. S. Riggs, G. Bedford, J. B. Abbott, C. H. Riggs and A. Dombrosky waiting on a train

Before they went fossil hunting in southern Patagonia, E. S. Riggs and J. B. Abbott were involved in a shakedown expedition to the Red Deer River region of Alberta, where they tested themselves and their new equipment by collecting late Cretaceous dinosaurs. The Alberta expedition, which lasted from June through early September, 1922 and netted several quality specimens of duck-billed dinosaurs, one juvenile tyrannosaur and an assortment of plants and other fossils, is the subject of an article expected to appear in 2013 in the journal Earth Sciences History. The article is tentatively titled: “Red Deer River shakedown.”

The men in the photograph, looking more like Chicago mobsters than paleontologists, are dressed to the nines in fashionable suits, hats and shoes. When seeing the picture for the first time, a colleague quipped: “Is that the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre?” No, though they certainly look the part. So why is this group of scientists setting out on a fossil-hunting adventure so well dressed? Because they lived in an era when the standards for dress for traveling men (and women) were much, much higher. I sometimes find myself wishing I lived in another time, yet I certainly do not have the wardrobe nor the sense of style appropriate for the 1920s.

The photograph was originally published in the Pittsburgh Chronical Telegraph on 8 June 1922. It is credited to P. & A. Photos, which was a company co-owned by the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News that went belly-up in 1930. So far, a search for the original negative has turned up nothing. If there is a reader out there who would like to do some sleuthing for historic photographs, I would be very grateful to get my hands on this one. Let me know what you find.

I also include (below) a photograph taken during a break from fieldwork, lest readers think that Riggs & Co. dressed like this while collecting fossils.

(L to R) G. F. Sternberg, A. Dombrosky, C. H. Riggs, G. Bedford and J. B. Abbott posing in front of their mess tent. Field Museum number CSGEO45139.



What does the “random journal entry” read?

A number of curious readers have asked the obvious question: what does the “random journal entry” shown in my previous post read?

There are actually four entries on the two pages depicted, including 8-9 April 1923 and 5-6 April 1924. The entries for 8-9 April 1923 are the longest and most interesting. The entry for 8 April reads: “A very bad gale last night and today till evening and quite cold[.] went out on tide flat to get a Nesodon skull and lower jaws but tide did not go out far enough to uncover it[.] wind was so strong could not walk against it[.] in Afternoon wrapped specimens.” The next entry reads: “Very rainy until noon and cloudy till about 3 P.M. Prospected tide flat and did some wrapping specimens.”

John B. Abbott working at the Field Museum soon after the expedition returned home.
John B. Abbott working at the Field Museum soon after the expedition returned home.

This is no tall tale. Abbott was then encamped near the Rio Coyle, on the southeastern coast of Patagonia, and working in the mid-Miocene Santa Cruz beds. Anyone who has worked in this windy place will recognize the difficulties Abbott regales! Elmer S. Riggs, leader of the expedition, describes this weather vividly in an entry in his own journal with no date. He writes: “So strong…was wind pressure that men could not stand against it on the beach. Repeatedly we were dashed against rocks, caps and glasses blown away. Rocks were loosened from the cliffs and endangered our heads in the fall.”

Abbott and Riggs were working on the tide flat near these cliffs.
Abbott and Riggs were working on the tide flat near these cliffs.

Nesodon, now extinct, was a large-bodied notoungulate mammal endemic to South America. It was one of the more common Santa Cruz animals.

An unknown journal turns up!

I needed some background information on the fieldworkers who accompanied the Captain Marshall Field Paleontological Expedition to Argentina and Bolivia (CMFPE), including George F. Sternberg, John B. Abbott and others. I asked one of my volunteers, Dick Webb, an avid genealogist, to search for documentation about these men on-line. He found a site that he claimed was chock full of information about Abbott. When I followed the link he sent me, I found many useful documents and pictures. At the bottom of the page, I found a name and contact information for the person who had posted the pictures – a distant relative of Abbott’s. I wrote to compliment her page. I mentioned my project involving her relative and the part he played on the CMFPE. She wrote back right away with some unexpected good news: she had a diary Abbott kept in Argentina. “Would I like it?” she asked!

The journal arrives.
The journal arrives.

A few days later a package arrived at the museum. Inside I found the original journal in perfect condition. I have been so busy with other things that I’ve hardly had any time to read it over. Every now and then, though, I take it out and read a few pages.

The journal with its original cover.
The journal with its original cover.

From what little I know I can tell readers this: the Abbott journal is now one of the best sources I have on the CMFPE. It’s a first-person, daily account of expedition activities. Many entries are rich with details about the weather, their itinerary, the fossils they discovered, etc.

A random journal entry.
A random journal entry.

I look forward to the opportunity to transcribe this journal and incorporate its contents into my book.

Stay tuned.