Exciting news for people who like history, the state of Utah, or sauropods

February 22, 2023

… and I’m guessing that if you read this blog, you like at least one of these things.

Today sees the publication of a paper that I’m particularly pleased with, partly because it’s so far outside my usual area: The Concrete Diplodocus of Vernal — a Cultural Icon of Utah (Taylor et al. 2023). Let’s jump in by taking a look at the eponymous concrete Diplodocus:

Taylor et al. (2023:figure 5). The completed outdoor Diplodocus mount in a rare color photograph. Undated (but between 1957 and 1989). Scanned by Eileen Carr for the J. Willard Marriot Digital Library, image ID 415530. Used by permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center.

(On of the things I love about this photo is that it has the same 1950s energy as the Carnegie Tyrannosaurus mount that I posted a while back.)

This paper tells the neglected story of how the Utah Field House museum in Vernal acquired the original Carnegie Diplodocus molds in 1957, after they had languished, unloved and overlooked, in their Pittsburgh basement for forty years; how they were used to cast a Diplodocus from actual concrete (one part cement to three parts aragonite, for those who care); how the molds then went on a series of adventures, never actually yielding another complete skeleton, before being lost or destroyed; how the concrete cast stood for 30 years before the harsh Utah weather degraded it past the point of safety; how it was then used to make a fresh set of molds, and replaced by a new lightweight cast taken from those molds; and how the molds were then used to create a new generation of Diplodocus casts.

It’s a long and fascinating story with lots of twists and turns that I necessarily omitted from that summary — which is why it runs to 27 pages in the lavishly illustrated PDF. I urge you to go and read it for yourself: we wrote it to be an engaging story, and I hope it’s a pretty easy read. (My wife found it interesting, and she once literally fell asleep while I was running a talk to solicit her feedback, so that’s really something.)

Taylor et al. (2023:figure 3). Field House Museum director G. Ernest Untermann (left), and his wife, Staff Scientist Billie Untermann (right), grouting the cast dorsal vertebrae of the Field House’s concrete Diplodocus. 24 January 1957. Scanned by Aric Hansen for the J. Willard Marriot Digital Library, image ID 1086940. Used by permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center.

This paper was submitted on 2 November 2022, so it’s taken less than five months to go through peer review, editorial processes, typesetting with four(!) rounds of page proofs and online publication. This of course is how it should always be — it’s a bit stupid that I am drawing attention to this schedule like it’s something extraordinary, but the truth is that it is extraordinary. At any rate that makes it fifteen times faster than my long-delayed (mostly my fault) paper on neck incompleteness (Taylor 2022).

I got so deeply into this paper when I was lead-authoring it that the phrase “the Concrete Diplodocus of Vernal” really started to echo around in my head. That is why the paper ends by expressing this wish:

Our dearest hope for this paper is that it inspires someone to create a Dungeons and Dragons module in which the Concrete Diplodocus of Vernal is a quest artifact with magical powers.

But Mike, you ask — how did you, a scientist, find yourself writing a history paper? It’s a good question, and one with a complicated answer. Tune in next time to find out!




6 Responses to “Exciting news for people who like history, the state of Utah, or sauropods”

  1. dale mcinnes Says:

    Not that this should matter to anyone but, did you see the containers on the desk behind Mrs. Untermann ?? If you look carefully, they appear to be “tea tins” that you would keep powdered tea in, exactly as we do today. I also use those tins on my workbench to store pretty much anything I want (nuts, bolts, powders, screws and so on. Guess not everything changes over time.

  2. llewelly Says:

    Modules D-1 to D-4 Ghosts of Museum Projects Uncompleted:

    Each of these four adventure modules features a village haunted by ghosts who can only be put to rest by discovering the unfinished museum project the ghosts were previously involved with during their former lives. The first module, D1, requires the PCs solve mystery of what happened to the original Diplodocus molds, and, if possible, retrieve, repair, and use them. Each further module involves larger and more exotic museum projects which must be completed.

  3. llewelly Says:

    I should confess: I probably have neither the skill nor the persistence to create such modules. : )

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    I would 100% play these modules.

  5. Richard M Wittie Says:

    It all falls to a lack of paleopreparation and care. No one’s concerned with outdoor displays look at Rome or Egypt. Monuments Weathering away. We have the technology to stop solar, wind and moisture damage to stone and concrete, yet limit this due to cost. While paying billions for worthless prodjects.
    If we only took the time and money needed to seal many of these objects. We wouldent be so concerned for their demise afterwards. Act now! Not regret afterwards.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    To be fair, it’s not obvious to me what more the Field House could have done to preserve their Concrete Diplodocus against a pretty extreme climate: to quote the paper, “Wind, rain, and extreme temperatures (the Vernal climate typically ranges between –10°F and 89°F, and extremes of –40°F and 100°F have been recorded)”. They did seal it with fiberglass and repaint it periodically (Figure 6). But every material has a shelf-life, doesn’t it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: