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Boneheads: A Paleontological Mid-Life Crisis

Richard Polsky writes in the introduction to his travelogue memoir Boneheads, it was time "to experience life all over again," and a search for the most famous predator of all time seemed like just the thing

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Boneheads by Richard Polsky

Boneheads by Richard Polsky

The way a mid-life crisis manifests itself differs from person to person. Some people might suddenly decide to take up sky diving, others are driven to purchase a shiny car they can’t afford. A rare few, as in Richard Polsky’s case, may feel an overwhelming urge to find a Tyrannosaurus rex. With his career as an art dealer in stasis, Polsky writes in the introduction to his travelogue memoir Boneheads, it was time “to experience life all over again,” and a search for the most famous predator of all time seemed like just the thing.

Finding a Tyrannosaurus is no easy task. Even though more than 43 specimens have been found to date and the dinosaur is one of the most completely known of all dinosaurs, you can’t simply walk out into the field and expect to find a complete tyrant skull smiling back at you. Polsky seems to understand this, and so he fashioned himself as a fossil gadfly—buzzing around fossil dealers and commercial fossil hunters in the hope that one of them will lead him to his quarry. His quest was not to discover a Tyrannosaurus for a museum or to understand something about the animal’s biology—Boneheads is almost devoid of any scientific content—but instead merely to find a tyrant to call his own.

Polsky’s journey to secure a Tyrannosaurus winds through hotel rooms, rural bars, greasy spoons and ranches. After getting a little help with initial introductions from his friend Henry Galiano—founder of the New York City natural history store Maxilla & Mandible—Polsky eventually meets up with some of the fossil hunters associated with recent Tyrannosaurus finds in the hope that one of them will take him out into the field. Peter Larson, one of the fossil hunters who excavated the famous Tyrannosaurus known as “Sue,” declines, as do several other fossil hunters, but Polsky does have a measured degree of success. Along the way Polsky meets Maurice Williams—the owner of the ranch where Sue was found—and somehow the wannabe fossil hunter convinces Williams to let him search the ranch for other Tyrannosaurus fossils. The search doesn’t yield much, but soon Polsky latches onto the self-proclaimed “Fossil King” Bob Detrich and his crew. Given to hyperbole and stretching the evidence further than it will go, Dietrich is a man after Polsky’s own heart in that he is seemingly convinced that there is a Tyrannosaurus in almost every fossil deposit, even when more experienced dinosaur hunters say it just isn’t so.

Polsky’s attempts to locate a Tyrannosaurus are about more than the simple thrill of hunting down a prehistoric monster. The Tyrannosaurus acts as a kind of totem of a road left untraveled. Long before he became an author and an art dealer, Polsky confides, he wanted to be a paleontologist. He met with a few paleontologists, went on a fossil-hunting trip at Dinosaur National Monument, and even volunteered prepping fossils at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Polsky saw himself as a brilliant budding paleontologist, but college was a cold bath. “I never realized that majoring in geology was actually majoring in science,” Polsky writes, and after two weeks of studying geology he realized that the field was not for him. Still, the compulsion to collect fossils came back to him later in life, and Polsky believed that finding a Tyrannosaurus would act as an unmistakable confirmation that he was truly meant to be a paleontologist.

Paleontology doesn’t work that way. Simply finding a fossil—even a Tyrannosaurus—does not automatically make you a paleontologist. Anyone can become a paleontologist with effort and dedicated study—a Ph.D. in the field is not a prerequisite—but the passion to learn about the life of the past in a scientific and responsible way must be there. Polsky clearly lacks that. He spends no time educating himself on the science behind the dinosaur he is hunting, and he spends only a few short hours in the field. Boneheads is clearly the memoir of an art dealer after another rare object, not of someone who cares a whit about what fossils actually mean.

Nevertheless, Polsky’s book is a worthwhile read for dinosaur fans because it records the mania that surrounds Tyrannosaurus rex. Discovering one of these famous dinosaurs can be more of a nightmare than a blessing—especially with the complicated nature of land ownership in the West—and Polsky’s story features expert fossil hunters that are well known to those in the field but will be unfamiliar to casual dinosaur fans. The commercial fossil world is a strange place—one of petrified wonders, forgeries, and odd personalities—and Boneheads offers a brief glimpse of this unique world in which every fossil has its price.

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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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