A dinosaur dig on Victoria’s west coast reveals truths about ancient worlds and everyday people.
There’s a foot track through the dunes near Cape Otway that emerges onto a wide sandy beach. Nothing distinguishes the path from the many others that snake their way to the high tide line along this coast.
Emerging onto the sand from this track, you can see a wide belt of slate-grey rock that lies between the beach and the water. It stretches away into the distance, where you can see a colourful array of figures among the grey backdrop. There must be twenty of them – each, like a shorebird, hunched over and focused intently on the ground.
A metallic chiming sound reaches you as you approach. Chattering voices. The figures are adult humans, homo sapiens, working with picks on the sheets of rock.
These humans are volunteers with Museum Victoria, working on one of the continent’s most important paleontological sites. Known as Eric the Red West, this place was first explored in 2005 and has yielded fossils of mammals, plesiosaurs and fish from the Lower Cretaceous period, about 105-120 million years ago.
Alan Tait is one of the volunteers. A semi-retired geologist from the oil and gas industry, he speaks in a thick Scottish brogue as he describes the forces that laid down the ancient riverbed. Up close, the chlorite rock is grainy and deep grey, with jet black flecks through it. These, he explains, are fragments of wood and charcoal ‘ anything that looks brown is likely to be fossilised bone.
Alan paints a vivid picture of a rainforest ‘dreary and wet’, with a powerful river sweeping westward through it to end at an ancient coast somewhere near the Great Australian Bight. This coast wasn’t a coast back then, of course, but may have been 100 kilometres or more inland. The plesiosaurs were marine carnivores, meaning they had ventured a very long way upstream. ‘We’re standing on the riverbed,’ says Alan. ‘We might be five or even ten metres underwater here.’ The sun’s breaking through the clouds. Someone’s making tea. It’s a profound thing to imagine.
This dig is cheap to run, according to Alan. The crew are volunteers, including PhD candidates, retirees, biologists, ‘dinosaur nuts’ and undergrads. There’s also palaeobotanists ‘ someone found an entire cone from a conifer last year. Elsewhere in the world, people pay to come on dig sites, as a way of raising money for the work. The gear is almost all basic and manual (aside from a powerful rock saw that sits idle nearby). There’s the picks (each volunteer seems to have a personal one), buckets, a few shovels, simple magnifying lenses and a broom or two. And that’s about it.
The dig doesn’t have the squared-off precision of an archaeological site ‘ people are smashing happily away at rock ledges, making little piles of discarded stones and spilling buckets of water around the place. When the season’s finished in three weeks’ time, the sea will reclaim all of this as if it was never there. And next season they will start again.
Alan can see forms in the rock that are invisible to ordinary eyes. Just above the hunched volunteers, he points to the remains of aboriginal middens in the dune. A different band of history, ancient to us but modern in this context. He sees a change in the pattern of black flecks and tells me this would have been a slower point in the stream, maybe a place where a pond had formed and the fragments could settle to the bottom. He talks as though the rock faces are alive, have lived through eons of torment and triumph. He is looking at an entirely different landscape: the one that I can see around us is in fact ‘quite misleading.’ For him, it seems the rocks are an end in themselves, the fossils a mere bonus.
He is looking at an entirely different landscape: the one that I can see around us is in fact ‘quite misleading.’
The site has yielded an average of 70-140 bone fragments per week, which is not as prolific as the Flat Rocks site at Inverloch in eastern Victoria (up to 300 per week), but the pieces are better preserved here.
Balanced on a folding stool and working at a pile of fist-sized rock fragments, Mary loves to chat with passers-by. She’s got her own pick, and is reducing the rocks to smaller and smaller pieces, peering quickly into the cut surface like a squirrel investigating a nut, before flicking it into a bucket for disposal.
The rocks come to her from ‘the Hole’, the cleft in the beach where the main extraction is occurring. It’s a place for the boys, it seems. Mary likes being up here, dry and focussed on her work. She’s impervious to march flies and extremes of weather. ‘I love the work,’ she tells me. ‘It’s the world’s best treasure hunt, and it’s very social.’ Mary worries about ‘the young ones’, and wants to make sure that all of the ‘newbies’ as she calls them, get the chance to find something. The speed of her work is extraordinary ‘ within seconds of revealing something significant (which she manages to do right before my eyes), she’s passed it to a nearby huddle known as the Wrappers, who’ll parcel it up and label it for dispatch to Museum Victoria, where it’ll be thoroughly analysed. ‘This few days of digging will keep the Museum working for months,’ she says.
There appears to be no formal division of labour at the site ‘ people have their own fascinations, whether it’s the Hole, or Wrapping, or being a chipper like Mary. Others like the power tools. Someone sits on a rock near the powerful surf, meditating and chanting. Some dress like Indiana Jones, or Sam Neill in Jurassic Park. There is no Boss, although there is a father figure, American/Australian palaeontologist Tom Rich.
Someone sits on a rock near the powerful surf, meditating and chanting. Some dress like Indiana Jones, or Sam Neill in Jurassic Park.
It’s Tom who guides us down to the dig site, a checked cloth wrapped around his head like Yasser Arafat and clutching in his hand a replica of a terrifying-looking claw found at Winton, Queensland, some years earlier. Tom is a world expert in his field, which these days focuses on the small mammals that co-existed in this area with reptilian dinosaurs between 105-120 million years ago. He’s still waiting on exact dating of many of his finds. Tom’s wife Dr Patricia Vickers-Rich has her own expertise ‘ the much older dinosaurs which emerged from the Pre-Cambrian Explosion 540 million years ago. Her work is centred on Namibia.
Tom’s a prolific explainer and enthusiast for everything that’s happening here. He’s busy, brisk and slightly irascible about the obstacles he encounters, most of them bureaucratic. By his own admission, he’s ‘no good at spotting fossils’, and age has brought increasing vision problems. But his skills are in knowing where to send the good hunters, building an over-arching narrative about what it all means, and generating support for the work.
As well as the forelimb, Tom has with him a beautiful curved claw, found a few kilometres away on this same coast. It would’ve belonged to a large carnivorous dinosaur (even to my eye, it doesn’t look like the tool of a vegetarian). In 2007, an almost entire skeleton of such a creature was found in Queensland. But as Tom says ‘One bone can be the prize of an entire season ‘ it’s very slow work.’
There are more polar dinosaur species on the southern Victorian coast than anywhere in the world, including Alaska and Antarctica, and it’s less expensive to study them here than elsewhere. Victoria is also the only place in the world where dinosaurs have been found in association with permafrost, with the visual centres of the brain space enlarged to suggest they were hunting in semi-darkness.
For Tom, however, the Cape Otway site is special not for the dinosaurs, but for the small mammals found with them. He says it was these tiny creatures that first sparked his interest in palaeontology, sixty years ago. Even though he and his wife have ‘probably described about half of 1% of all known dinosaurs’, he maintains that ‘I’m not a dinosaur person, and nor is she.’
The mammal finds have mostly been lower jaws, and lately some upper jaws. 99% of the fossilised Cretaceous remains in Australia have come from only two sources, according to Tom: Victoria and central Queensland. And the Victorian sites amount to only about three square kilometres of ground. ‘That’s just the way the deck of card was dealt geologically.’ Discoveries of full skeletons in China and North America have well and truly eclipsed the fossil record here, but it’s important nonetheless. He’s proud of the team’s expertise in finding the bone fragments. ‘We came here with a North American expectation of what a fossil looks like,’ he says. ‘But most of these bones don’t look like a bone. When we started, there’d been one fragment of claw found in 1903. We found the second Australian piece in 1978, and since then we’ve found thousands.’
Many of the earlier Victorian finds came from a site at nearby Johanna Beach that’s known as Dinosaur Cove. ‘It was a hell of a place to work,’ says Tom. ‘We had to drop 90m down a cliff to work. And it’s a river channel, so you have to go up it. Which way does the channel go? Into the cliff, of course. I’m now a qualified mine manager.’ Tom once foolishly offered to give a cubic metre of chocolate to anyone at Dinosaur Cove who could find him a full mammal skeleton. Apparently, if you do the sums, that amount of chocolate would cost about $10,000. Inevitably, someone unearthed the prize, and Tom had to make good on the promise. Thankfully, a connection at Cadbury was able to come up with a compromise ‘ free chocolate for everybody. The species name was registered as Cadburyii. In recognition of other help, there’s also a Qantasaurus out there, and another creature name after Atlas Copco generators.
Why are people so fascinated by them? ‘They’re big and dangerous and dead and safe.’
The questions that animate ordinary people about dinosaurs seem puzzling to Tom. Why are people so fascinated by them? ‘Oh I don’t know,’ he laughs. ‘They’re big and dangerous and dead and safe. There you go.’ When asked how he justifies the contemporary importance of his work to bean counters, he bristles. ‘I don’t give a damn why it’s important to people. We’re looking at the past to understand the future. This place was polar (the south magnetic pole at the time was somewhere near Brisbane Post Office), but warmer than our polar regions re today. So high latitude cretaceous animals might tell us a bit about what a warmer polar region would be like where the hell we’re all going.’
This place saw the beginnings of flowering plants. It was a rift valley, like the Red Sea but cold, occasionally icy, wet and heavily vegetated. Maybe something like Norway, according to Tom. Scuttling small mammals underfoot.
The large mammals are chewing on sandwiches that have emerged from jacket pockets. They feed sporadically on these: opportunistic omnivores with large cerebral cortices. They seem thoroughly preoccupied, and thoroughly happy to be here.
When I ask how the social relationships are between the volunteers at Eric the Red West, Alan Tait smiles, and like a true scientist, he answers with data. ‘There’s been two marriages out of this dig,’ he says. At Dinosaur Cove we had five.’