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#GroundsForDiscovery - a series of unlikely events, and how science and art work together beautifully

This begins about 110 million years ago with the death of an 18-foot long armour-plated ‘lizard’, some time after it had enjoyed a large salad.

Six years ago the fossilized animal re-surfaced at Alberta’s Suncor Millennium Mine, as an excavator dug down to recover the bituminous remains of prehistoric plants and animals in the tar-sands layer. The Royal Tyrrell Museum and National Geographic hail the dinosaur fossil as the finest specimen of its kind in the world—it is the best preserved, with armoured plates and even some skin tone visible. It is also the oldest dinosaur ever found in Alberta.


As yet un-named nodosaur fossil. Photo: Kristi Van Kalleveen. #GroundsForDiscovery

See the nodosaur fossil up close in this beautifully photographed essay from National Geographic, published in the June 2017 edition.

All of the Grounds For Discovery exhibit fossils were accidentally discovered during mining and excavation work in Alberta. As the Tyrrell specimen fact sheet indicates, some of the fossil animals are very close to complete. However, the tail end of the nodosaur was too damaged to recover, and a new species of 60-million year old pantodont, a bear-like mammal, had only a skull, a paw, some vertebrae and arm bones. The Tyrrell invited Calgary sculptor Jeff de Boer to work with museum scientists: using their understanding of the animal forms, Jeff was able to design steel wire sculptures that could support and complement the fossil remains, and give the specimens a new life. 

Front L-R: Les Pinter, Kelly Hofer, Jeff de Boer, Dinosaur Curator Dr Donald Henderson, Christine Pedersen, Tyrrell exhibit designer Colin Hnetka. Back row - a new genus and species of pantodont.

In January 2017, Jeff assembled his project team… 3D creature designer Cam Farn modelled scientifically-guided animal forms which were CNC-milled in polystyrene. The full-size foam animals received a flame-resistant hard coating that allowed individually hand-formed steel parts to be tack-welded into position. Kelly Hofer, Les Pinter, and I had the privilege of working with Jeff, and being mentored in the design and building of the steel-wire sculptures.

Jeff de Boer with pantodont steel wire sculpture in process.
The sculptures were cut apart to release the foam materials, and all the steel sections deep-welded back together. Metal joints were hand-ground back to a beautiful smooth finish. 

Close-up on the finished pantodont paw: cast fossil bones are supported within the powder-coated steel sculpture.
Ricardo Miranda, Alberta Minister for Culture and Tourism, with Tyrrell Executive Director Andy Neuman
and Millie - the as yet formally un-named new nodosaur.

A rear-view and cross-section of the nodosaur specimen - very unusual in having such volume and depth in the fossilized remains - including the vegetation in its intestines! The detailed wire-work sculpture hints at the armoured outline of the animal, and the massive scale of the overall fossil as it was discovered, lying on its back.

May 12, 2017, 2pm: the Tyrrell unveiled their new exhibit, Grounds For Discovery. The museum and installations are world-class, gorgeous to experience. There is something else at play here…unspoken…every atom of concrete glass plastic metal used to create plinths, cases, museums, and art-work is as old as the atoms that built the original animals, and their fossils. Materials harvested, refined, re-arranged by us - for now - into new forms to show-case the life on this planet; it is a glorious enterprise in that we are driven to build beautiful, meaningful things in our application of science and art.

It is a huge thrill to have a small part in this fabulous collective enterprise: thank you to the Tyrrell for reaching out to artists to help tell the story; and to Jeff for his commitment to expand the community of makers with the skills to take on these projects (go LEXM!).

Lots more pictures...
Kelly Hofer has published a huge collection of behind the scenes shots as we made the sculptures, and from opening day at the Tyrrell.
Yes, you can see that the nodosaur had salad for lunch... Fabulous National Geographic 3D tour of the fossilised nodosaur.

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