UKAFH exclusive interview with Chris Packham, broadcaster and naturalist, at Dinosaurs of China exhibition.
UKAFH reporters Aidan Philpott, Nicky Parslow and Sam Caethoven visited the press preview of Dinosaurs of China and gained an exclusive interview with BBC’s Chris Packham. Here he gives us his views on the exhibition and tells us about his own interest in fossils as an amateur collector. Chris has been a fossil enthusiast since childhood and still recalls modelling his first plasticine T-rex as a child, complete with teeth and claws but with a dragging tail (to stop it falling over) and keeps a diary of his fossil finds.
UKAFH: How did you start fossil collecting?
CP: I grew up in Southampton so as a child I used to regularly go to nearby Bracklesham Bay where I collected bivalves, shark teeth and turritella gastropods. I recall when they built the power station they dug a tunnel under the Solent which went through the Bracklesham beds. The spoil from the tunnel works was deposited at Warsash and I found my best shark tooth there. I still have it.
We used to have family holidays in Lyme Regis too and I was always begging my parents – unsuccessfully – to get up early to beat the crowds to the beach and Black Ven. I remember other fossil hunters being kind and I still have a good ammonite that a local collector gave to me when hunting there as a kid. Oddly, even though we lived in Southampton, we never went to the Isle of Wight. But now my partner owns a zoo next to Dinosaur Isle so I look out for fossils when walking the dogs at Yaverland and have found a few bits.
UKAFH: What do you think responsible amateur fossil hunters contribute to science?
CP: When I am on the Isle of Wight I see the enormous conflict between scientists and amateurs. But amateur collectors have found a lot of fossils. Fossil collecting should primarily be about science (an enquiring mind and a wish to preserve and study) rather than money (purely commercial collecting). Amateurs contribute a lot by being out there in numbers and finding fossils.
UKAFH: What fossils do you have on display?
CP: I have a collection of axe heads – human ichnofossils – on display. I also have a museum quality T-rex skull that was given to me once as payment in kind! Aside from that I have 1/3 scale casts of T-rex and Triceratops and a really great Ichthyosaur coprolite (fossil poo) from Lyme Regis. I also have a Carcharocles megalodon tooth which sits on top of my microwave. It isn’t huge but it’s really good quality and cost around £40. If investing in fossils I consider quality is a better investment than size. My dream is to own a banana sized T-rex tooth.
UKAFH: What next?
CP: Next week I’m off to the Black Hills, South Dakota, on a T-rex dig. I’m wildly excited as the Tyrannosaurus rex is an iconic dinosaur known to everyone and was the dinosaur I modelled from plasticine as a child. I’m making a show about the T-rex which is due to air at Christmas as a 1 hour special which will look at how our understanding and depiction of the dinosaur has evolved over the years. The programme is inspired by David Hone’s Tyrannosaur Chronicles. The programme will see what a wide range of contemporary scientific research and techniques is revealing to us about T-rex physiology, biology, behaviour, diet and environment. Best of all, by the time the programme airs it will already be out of date because our understanding of dinosaurs is constantly changing and growing so there is always more to know.
UKAFH: Tell us your thoughts on the Dinosaurs of China exhibition here at Wollaton Hall, Nottingham.
CP: What this amazing exhibition really demonstrates is how our understanding of dinosaurs has transformed as scientific examination has improved and developed and more specimens have been discovered, including these extraordinary fossils from China which have remarkable soft tissue and feather preservation. The emergence of more specimens and our ever-changing understanding reminds us that we never have all the answers and that our curiosity of dinosaurs can endure and inspire future generations to constantly pursue better understanding. This exhibition principally serves to remind us that dinosaurs are not extinct and that they surround us every day in the form of modern day birds. In fact, the curation of the displays carefully blends the fossil specimens with birds from Wollaton Hall’s natural history collection, which is one of the most extensive natural history collections in the UK. WE don’t know if dinosaurs evolved feathers for warmth or display but can examine the clues And study the fossils and continue to learn.
UKAFH: The exhibition also focusses strongly on palaeoart. What are your views on this?
CP: Palaeoart is hugely important as the public face of palaeontology. People see dinosaurs depicted in books, pictures and films and it profoundly influences how we think of dinosaurs. I recall desperately wanting to see 1 Million Years BC as a child because I wanted to see moving, living dinosaurs portrayed on screen. I was hugely disappointed. Even at a young age I could see through the prosthetic horns on iguanas, enlarged tortoises and badly animated dinosaurs. Seeing specimens in the bone or, as with Dinosaurs of China, in the feathers and flesh, is hugely important to our understanding. Palaeoart can represent truth and beauty and reflect and portray animals according to the most up-to-date scientific knowledge, directly contributing to public perception. It is always disappointing when opportunities to achieve this are missed, such as Jurassic World persisting with the scaly, mis-sized beasts of the earlier and less informed original Jurassic Park.
Featuring fossils and specimens never before seen outside of Asia, Dinosaurs of China will bring to life the story of how dinosaurs evolved into the birds that live alongside us today.
Wollaton Hall, Nottingham, will host the main exhibition, with a complementary exhibition at Lakeside Arts, running from 1 July – 29 October 2017.
Adults: £7 Child: £5 Family Ticket: £20 All tickets subject to additional 10% booking fee. Under 5’s visit for free. Carers free.
Sam Caethoven and Aidan Philpott