Here is a good way to hide dinosaur tracks: Wait tens of millions of years while the footsteps fossilize under a shallow sea that will later become Texas, dig up the tracks just before World War II, put plaster around the sides, paint the whole thing a whimsical muddy red, take it to Brooklyn and bolt it to a classroom wall.
By accident, this method worked until just this summer for Roland T. Bird, a Harley-riding excavator who called himself a dinosaur hunter. When Brooklyn College started renovating its lecture halls in May, scientists began packing what they had assumed was a case containing a plaster cast of dinosaur tracks, a teaching tool held in such regard that it was often obscured by a projector screen.
Removing the case, they found that the block on the wall of Room 3123 — so phony-looking it could be mistaken for something carbon-frozen in "The Empire Strikes Back" — was a real rock embedded with tracks more than 100 million years old, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and holding immense archaeological value.
"It was there all the time," said Wayne Powell, the chairman of the geology department. "It really never occurred to us that it could possibly be real."
Up three flights of stairs, behind a wooden door marked Geology Lecture Room with the words Please Lock the Door underneath, the rock was found. It stands 55 inches high and 32 inches across. Its weight is not yet known; it’s still bolted to the wall.
There are two tracks in the rock: a deeper one probably made by a pleurocoelus, a 20-ton herbivore, and a narrower one, believed to be from an acrocanthosaurus, a sharp-toothed monster.
A worker was laying a coat of epoxy on the floor Friday, and the room smelled like the makings of a headache. The college has enlisted the American Museum of Natural History for help in removing the rock to clean it and put it back on display, but there are other considerations. Classes start in two weeks.
Considering what it has already been through, though, the rock can be called a survivor. No marker described its provenance, and those who knew what it was had died or moved on over the years.
It also was able to hide in plain sight for decades largely because of changes in curatorial sensibilities. The scientists who installed it in the 1940s would never have thought to tell anyone it was real; that would be like telling people their hair is real.
Their latter-day counterparts would never imagine treating a rare fossil so cavalierly as to paint it.
Powell, who describes his specialty as "not dinosaurs," removed the rock’s case at the close of the spring semester with a paleontology professor, John Chamberlain, and a student, Matt Garb. Because real dinosaur tracks are hard to come by, colleges and museums routinely display replicas, and the rock looked like one, partly because plaster was visible on its side.
Behind the case, though, written in pencil on the wall, they found the name R.T. Bird and the date, presumably of its installation, of May 16, 1942. Garb recognized the name, and the men got a copy of Bird’s memoir, "Bones for Barnum Brown: Adventures of a Dinosaur Hunter."
In the book, Bird, who dropped out of junior high school and worked as a cowboy before barnstorming the country on his motorcycle showing archaeological finds for the American Museum of Natural History, described discoveries in the limestone around the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Texas. The site is now preserved as Dinosaur Valley State Park.
In his memoir, Bird described the way he and Erich Schlaikjer, an assistant professor of geology from Brooklyn College, distributed the blocks of tracks. He wrote: "Erich came up with a proposal. ‘And I’d like one of the smaller ones for Brooklyn College.’ ”
Saturday, August 20, 2005
Schlaikjer got his wish, bolted to the wall of the lecture hall and painted the same reddish-brown color of bones that usually appear in history museums.
"They probably wanted tracks to match the bones," Powell said.