January 9, 2012
Last month, paleontologist Andrew Farke and colleagues described the previously-unknown, multi-horned dinosaur Spinops sternbergorum. The centrosaurine was a gnarly-looking creature and worthy of headlines by itself, but the real hook of the story was that this dinosaur had been hiding in the collections of London’s Natural History Museum for nearly a century. The fossils–collected by veteran dinosaur hunter Charles H. Sternberg and his sons from the Cretaceous badlands of Alberta, Canada in 1916–had been regarded as “rubbish” by the museum’s staff, and it wasn’t until Farke took a second look at the specimen that the unique nature of this dinosaur was realized. But Spinops wasn’t the only creature found by the Sternbergs and ultimately lost. The same year that the bones of Spinops were first uncovered, an entire shipment of dinosaurs vanished into the cold waters of the Atlantic ocean.
Charles H. Sternberg began working for the Natural History Museum–then still part of the British Museum–in the field season of 1916. This was a lucky break. The Geological Survey of Canada–which employed Sternberg and his sons to collect Late Cretaceous dinosaurs in Alberta in a bit of friendly competition with the American Museum of Natural History’s own excavator Barnum Brown–decided to stop field work and focus on the preparation of dinosaurs already stored at the National Museum of Canada in Ottawa. But Sternberg was a field man, through and through. While his sons George and Charles Mortram stayed with the survey, his other son Levi joined Charles the elder in looking for other fieldwork opportunities.
Finding funding seemed to be a daunting task. World War I limited the amount of money available for paleontology–armored dinosaurs could not compete with armored tanks for attention–but the Natural History Museum was able to wrangle enough to underwrite Sternberg’s expenses through the Percy Sladen Memorial Fund. According to a proposal letter written by a member of the museum staff, and reprinted via a paper about the expedition by David Spalding in Mesozoic Vertebrate Life, Sternberg was to receive $2,000 for two months of initial work, with an opportunity to earn another $2,000 during the following two months if the museum was pleased with what was collected. The museum would also undertake the expense of shipping the specimens across the Atlantic so that they could be examined, prepared and stored. With any luck, the investment would yield a collection that would rival the collections the American Museum of Natural History had built up. “The Cretaceous Dinosaurs of Alberta comprise a great variety of the strangest armoured forms related to Triceratops besides other most astonishing developments of the Iguanodont and Megalosaurian groups,” the proposal promised, and it noted that the new specimens would complement an earlier collection made for the museum by William Cutler.
The challenge for Sternberg and his crew wasn’t finding dinosaurs. That part was easy. The trick was obtaining the high-quality, mountable skeletons the Natural History Museum was after. Since the area had already been explored so intensely, only the best dinosaurs available would do. Early finds–including what we now call Spinops–were scrappy and not especially wonderful, but Charles and his son Levi had better luck as the summer wore on.
In a letter sent to the museum’s paleontology curator Arthur Smith Woodward near the very end of the field season, Sternberg promised that “We have had the most wonderful success[;] three skeletons that can be mounted.” Even better, the last skeleton found that season was a nearly-complete hadrosaur, including numerous skin impressions. Sternberg regarded it as the second best specimen of its kind found in the strata–if only the dinosaur had a neck and skull! Still, the haul was good and additional specimens could certainly be obtained. While Sternberg felt that no one could ever exceed the collection Barnum Brown had built, he believed that the Natural History Museum “can however be equal or even superior to [the museum at] Ottawa if you please.”
But we’ll never know how good these specimens actually were. While an earlier shipment of fossils reached the British museum without incident about the SS Milwaukee, the second shipment was sunk along with the SS Mount Temple on December 6, 1916. The German military vessel the SMS Möwe stopped the ship, took the passengers prisoner, and then blew the Mount Temple to bits. (Coincidentally, the 95th anniversary of this event was the day when Spinops sternbergorum made its public debut.)
What had seemed like an excellent opportunity for the British museum became a frustrating tangle of paperwork. Half the dinosaurs were lost, those which had been received were not as impressive as hoped, and Sternberg sent multiple letters stressing his dire need for adequate compensation. And even the two crested hadrosaurs might not have been exactly as spectacular as the museum expected–each of the three hadrosaur skeletons was incomplete, and the dinosaur had already been named Corythosaurus by Barnum Brown. At least the fossil shipment had been insured, although this significantly complicated and delayed the payment to Sternberg.
Sternberg did not find out about what happened to the second shipment until a month after the event. “This is bitter news for me as well as for you,” he wrote to Woodward in a letter dated January 22, 1917, “As I considered the two skeletons in that shipment worth two or three times what the first shipment was, because it contained two skeletons that could be mounted.” All that work for nothing, and Sternberg urged Woodward to hurry up and send the insurance money to cover the field expenses of the previous year. In a way of mending wounds–and also securing employment–Sternberg also suggested that the museum sponsor him at the rate of $500 a month for a full year. This would allow Sternberg to make a new collection and fully prepare the specimens during the winter (while also meaning that he would have steady employment).
The museum does not seem to have shown any interest in supporting Sternberg, and the fossil hunter’s letters became more desperate as months went by. Confusion over shipping documents delayed the process of the insurance claim, and the Percy Sladen Memorial Fund was so unimpressed with the material that had been sent that they did not want to shell out additional funds for specimens sitting on the ocean bottom.
The letters sent from Sternberg to Woodward vacillated between sweet and sour–Sternberg was more polite and seemed hopeful each time he removed an additional bureaucratic obstacle to getting paid, but he would then write a cranky follow-up letter when the money still failed to arrive. In a letter to Woodward dated April 3, 1917, Sternberg wrote “Day after day I am waiting for the money I earned, and you promised to pay me, in your letter of June 3rd, 1916.” Sternberg felt betrayed. He had mortgaged his home and used all the credit available to him to excavate and ship the dinosaurs and was left to his own devices to pay down his debts while waiting for the monetary reward that had been promised. Worst of all, Sternberg lamented, there was virtually no money to launch an expedition for the summer of 1917. What had seemed to be an excellent opportunity to supply one of the world’s greatest museums with dinosaurs had turned into a financial mire that threatened to keep Sternberg out of the field. “It was awful enough to have a German Raider sink the two best specimens of Corythosaurus my party have found in 5 years … It will be still worse to completely ruin me, so I cannot keep at work.”
Just in time, the money came through. The various complications regarding paperwork were resolved and the full $2,500 estimate for the value of the fossils was awarded. Sternberg would have a 1917 season after all. He thanked Woodward for settling the matter, and in a May 5th letter advertised various fossil finds–and finds he hoped to make–that were for sale to museums. But the Natural History Museum seemingly did not want anything more to do with Sternberg. In a note Spalding turned up in the museum’s files from 1931, W.D. Lang wrote “Mr Charles Sternberg is constantly approaching the museum with offers of specimens for purchase. There is no need to take any notice of this appeal.”
Despite all the hurt feelings and frustration, however, very little was actually lost in this episode. Presuming that Sternberg had collected skeletons of Corythosaurus, the dinosaurs were not exactly rare specimens. Other, more complete individuals had been found and have been found since. As Spalding noted, their disappearance beneath the waves was primarily a loss to the British museum-going public. Beyond that, the damage was mostly restricted to Sternberg’s pride. The episode had ruined his relationship with the Natural History Museum and limited his pool of clients for the fossils he wanted to sell. Nevertheless, he kept on collecting for at least another two decades. For all the headaches the sinking of the Mount Temple created, the event is a strange wrinkle in the history of paleontology rather than a true tragedy.
Spalding, D. 2001. Bones of Contention: Charles H. Sternberg’s Lost Dinosaurs. In: Mesozioc Vertebrate Life. Ed.s Tanke, D. H., Carpenter, K., Skrepnick, M. W. Indiana University Press. pp. 481-503
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