Monday 23 July 2018

Toy Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Creatures

How plastic is used to model the past

I have been working with the Jurassic Coast Trust on the Mesozoic Residency for the past eighteen months with Adele Keeley (Senior Lecturer in Performance Design at AUB). The Jurassic Coast is a World Heritage Site, covers 95 miles of Dorset and Devon Coast Line and is often called the ‘birthplace of paleontology’. During our time working with the Trust, we’ve been thinking about rocks and Earth Sciences. We’ve been hugely helped by the fantastic team at the Jurassic Coast, particularly so on scientific matters by Sam Scriven and Anjana Ford. We’ve been making costumes, art-work and performance which engages and inspires people into talking and thinking about the Jurassic Coast. Our aim has been to create work which is visually stunning as well as scientifically stimulating.

Dinosaur collection. Photo by Lorna Rees

This glorious process has reignited my passion for the small plastic renderings of prehistoric creatures, which you can find in toyshops all over the world. Those beautiful marine reptiles and dinosaurs you can hold in your hand. They are the way after all, that most children start to learn about the Earth’s history – that before we were on the planet these incredible creatures walked the earth. Children are still deeply passionate about their plastic T-Rexes and Triceratops and Diplodocuses. I have an abiding memory of wondering up at the amazing fossil cast of Dippy in the Natural History Museum’s Hintze Hall, whilst also clutching a small plastic figure of him tightly to my chest.

Because, I love toy dinosaurs. I have loved them since I was a child. I would play with them, make dioramas for them and they happily co-existed with my He-Man toys and my sister’s Barbies. One of the things about them is their texture – they’re almost warm to touch, pliable, not hard plastic, but soft and slightly supple. Often, I would prise the mouth of a roaring T-Rex wider in order to wedge in some unsuspecting herbivore and pretend it was savaging that stegosaurs’ throat. When my own children played with toy dinosaurs I would happily get involved – sitting for hours whilst complex games of ‘bad’ dinosaurs (the carnivores) battled against the ‘good’ dinosaurs (the veggies). These toys helped us to move on to fossil hunting and looking at rocks and we’re lucky enough to live near an extraordinary stretch of coastline, which allows us to do so.

But – despite my great affection for rocks, I’m still drawn to these lovely renderings of prehistoric animals from the Earth’s past, and in our time working with the Jurassic Coast Trust I started to collect toys which would be useful to showing others something of the creatures who used to swim and walk this bit of land we live on now.

These two toys are supposed to represent the same animal, the Scelidosaurus. Photo by Lorna Rees.
I started with Plesiosaurs – noticing that there were many available in many different interpretations, both in shade and shape. Marine Reptiles are sadly far less easy to collect than Dinosaurs are. Next was the Scelidosaurs – arguably the most complete British Dinosaur fossil ever discovered. Excitingly this dinosaur was found in Charmouth (on the Jurassic Coast) and described by Richard Owen in the mid-1800s. Once I’d ordered the toy versions though, I realised that my two Scelidosaurses looked incredibly different from one another. I hadn’t really considered it before, but just as the plaster interpretations of the dinosaurs in Crystal Palace gardens are completely different to what scientists think they look like today, toys are open to all kinds of interpretation too. One of the key things that the vast majority of plastic toy dinosaurs specifically lack is feathers. Paleontologoical thought now shows us that many, many dinosaurs would not have looked smooth and reptilian, but would have been covered in beautiful plumage. As Paleontologist Dean Lomax’s reminded us in one of his brilliant talks about British Dinosaurs when showing us a fluffy chick, “birds are dinosaurs”. 

Some of the worst toy design-interpretations are created because they’ve been made using old science as their inspiration point. The best, because in the design process they’ve so thoroughly considered what the most recent paleontology has to offer. Of course, not all toy manufacturers really care about accuracy – they want something to be understood as a ‘dinosaur’ even if it’s only been very vaguely modeled on a Ray Harryhausen film from the 1960s. But we’ve found that children really do care about the accuracy of their toys – I’ve met so many young enthusiasts during my time working with the Jurassic Coast Trust and so many of these experts (from ages 4 -11) could fiercely debate with you on the relative size of a T-Rex’s eye vs. an Icthyosaur's.

During our research, we’ve found that other people are incredibly keen on how accurate these toys are too – and we found lots of them are grown ups. Of course, the Early Learning Centre toy T-Rex my children own, which has a cannon mounting on it from which Imaginex people can fire – I’m not suggesting that kind of easy target should be offered up for realism, but lots of people take the modeling and the thought that goes into making toy dinosaurs incredibly seriously.

One of my favourite channels on youtube is ‘Your Dinosaurs Are Wrong’ by the Geek Group where Steven Bellettini describes what is wrong with various Dinosaur toys. I find it beguiling and watchable - you also inadvertently learn a lot about dinosaurs too.

From there, it is all too easy to disappear down an internet rabbit hole of Dinosaur toy reviews. There are quite a few of them.
has both adults and children reviewing the dinosaurs, and a brilliant side bar of links if you want to while away some hours. As with paleoartists (if you don’t know the term Paeloartist then look at the work of Dr Mark Witton – one of the very best in the world many of these reviewers are often hugely versed on the newest paleontological findings, some of them in fact being reviewed by professional Paleontologists.

Toy dinosaurs are made by a fascinating casting and hard plastic molding process, which goes into creating toy dinosaurs/marine reptiles. A great video of the making process can be seen below: 

Patiently, model makers piece together their toys casts, drawing on information from the skeleton of fossil finds, how the musculature might have worked and even, most recently, what tiny clues there might be in fragments of fossilized skin pigmentation. Other clues artists might use is convergent evolution – the idea that creatures evolve in similar ways to other ones in similar habitats, even though they might be say, reptiles and mammals, for example Plesiosaurs and Dolphins. I have a lovely marine reptile toy, which nicely mimics the lightening and darkening of pigmentation, which porpoises have on their bodies. Other more recent dinosaur toys sport colorful stripes, which utilise markings of tropical lizards or rainforest birds.

For Adele and I, in terms of our artistic process during our residency, we’ve used toys to inspire us. They’re bright, and modern looking. They connect us with ‘now’ as well as to the ancient and as artists it’s an amazing palette of colour to work with. We’ve been particularly taken with the idea that plastic is made from ‘fossil fuels’ and that toy dinosaurs are made from plastic…. that there is a strange cycle that the oil which helps to create these tiny (and often beautiful and accurate science-based) representations of dinosaurs comes from their fossils. This isn’t strictly the scientific case, the substance which makes oil and natural gas is a sort of oceanic gloop of organic matter; but it’s near enough to get us thinking about what we make plastic with in the first place, the ancient organisms which once lived on this planet, millions of years before we evolved. I have frequently felt humbled and overwhelmed during this project by the processes of time itself. Perhaps, I hope, our work might help to put us in our place a little.

Costumes inspired by the colours of toy dinosaurs. Photo by Dominic Old.
The Anthropocene. Photo by Dominic Old.
Costume accessories for Mesozoic. Photo by Lorna Rees.

Stop motion video created by Rufus Rees-Coshan.

Lorna Rees (Guest blogger)


Lorna Rees is Artistic Director of Gobbledegook Theatre

Adele Keeley is Senior Lecturer Arts University Bournemouth

From 2016 – 2018 Gobbledegook have worked closely with the Jurassic Coast Trust as Artists in Residence for the Big Jurassic Classroom, and Natural History Museum’s Dippy on Tour project. The Jurassic Coast Trust inspires conservation, understanding and engagement along the 95 miles of UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Working with world-renowned geologists, paleontologists, fossil hunters and scientists from numerous interrelated disciplines, Gobbledegook have made work about life on Earth, concentrating on the Mesozoic Era. The Mesozoic is an interval of geological time: 180 million years, which encompass the Triassic, Jurassic and the Cretaceous periods. 

The research and development phase of this project has been funded by the Primary Science Teaching Trust, The Natural History Museum and the Garfield Weston Foundation. It is supported by Arts University Bournemouth.