Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Footprints of Noah's Raven

OK, this is pretty mind-boggling.

In the 1830s, Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864), the third president of Amherst College, amassed the world's largest collection of dinosaur footprints, collected from the Connecticut Valley. You can see these trackways, mounted on the walls and hanging in slabs from the ceiling of a dimly lit gallery at the Amherst Natural History Museum not far from the Amherst town common. Hitchcock first began his collection before the word "dinosaur" had even been coined over in the UK. He thought the three-toed footprints had been made by giant birds.

And that would be mind-boggling enough, but it doesn't stop there. Hitchcock took some smaller slabs, split them into layers, and bound them like books, with metal hinges, so you can actually turn pages and see the dinosaur footprint cast, the actual footprint, and echoes of the print in layers of sediment further down. The Amherst Museum actually has a replica of one of these "stony books" whose pages you can turn. It's quite the weird experience, turning the pages of time.

My other favorite part? The very first dinosaur footprint in the collection was discovered by one Pliny Moody in 1802, when he was ploughing a field in South Hadley, Mass. He thought the prints must have been left by Noah's raven.

You can see Edward Hitchcock's Stony Library at the Amherst Natural History Museum through January 6. And if you can't make it to Amherst to see the stony library before they pack it all up and put it away in a back room, you can at least check out Nancy Pick's book about Hitchcock's collection, Curious Footprints.

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