Nov 25 2011: Photographs from Purnell’s Book of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals (1977)

This isn’t the first time dinosaurs have featured here and it probably won’t be the last, should any other interesting dinosaur-related paraphernalia cross my path. Having already admitted the early obsession (and found it widely shared) perhaps the appeal of this 1977 children’s book should be fairly transparent. Published by Purnell, the hardback is full of facts about evolution and the creatures that populated that process over millions of years (from the earliest amphibious fish to the Woolly Mammoth, pretty much) but that educational purpose is seasoned with theatrical flourishes: the text can’t manage on documented visual material alone, after all, since fossils, fascinating as they are, aren’t actually prehistoric animals, but their less spectacular remains. So how, in an age of photography and with pretensions to scientific accuracy, does the book cope?

With the construction of elaborately fake dioramas, staged confrontations and its fingers crossed that the boundary between these educational models and the outright entertainment offered by Ray Harryhausen’s contributions to Hammer Film Studios’ 1960s dinosaur yarns isn’t as wide as it probably ought to be. But who’s complaining? Apart from a certain uncanny quality in the unconcealed fakery of these creatures, they’re at least as real as anything else we’re ever likely to see. Even were some real life Jurassic Park scenario to be enacted, the resulting dinosaurs wouldn’t be the same creatures that roamed the Earth milllions of years ago, but some entirely new species. Even looking at a living, breathing, cloned Brachiosaurus, then, we’d be no closer to knowing what its distant ancestor actually looked like, or how it behaved in its own time.

So, odd as it seems, these superficially unconvincing (but strangely hyper-realistic) 1970s models are probably at least as authentic as anything else we might conceivably come up with to represent their subjects, regardless of how much CGI or DNA gets thrown into the frame.


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