May 6, 2019

Bringing fossils to life: New palaeoart at the Sedgwick Museum


Exhibitions Coordinator Rob Theodore, talks to model maker and student Emily Manning about her experience working with the Museum on her latest model, the Jurassic plesiosaur Cryptoclidus eurymerus.
Category: 2019
Posted by: Sarah

A museum full of rocks and fossils may not be the first place you think of to promote artist development, but our collections here at the Sedgwick are doing just that.

In the autumn of 2018, Arts University Bournemouth student and model-maker Emily Manning approached the Sedgwick Museum. The Museum was a childhood favourite of hers and she wanted to know if we would like to collaborate with her on a module of her University course.

Exhibitions coordinator at the Sedgwick Museum, Rob Theodore, asked Emily to introduce herself and her studies, and to share her experience working with the Museum on her latest model, the Jurassic plesiosaur Cryptoclidus eurymerus.

About Me

I am one-half of the model making company Creature Hut. I work as a freelance model maker and sculptor, with a dash of toy designer thrown in. My passion is for both sculpting creatures and for fabricating creatures of my own design. Alongside making physical models, props, and conceptual designs, I enjoy holding sculpting classes and demonstrations at our studio based in the south of England.


About the course

I am about to graduate from Arts University Bournemouth. I have been enrolled on their model-making course, which is really the only one like it in the UK. It is a very enriching environment, with access to high-end equipment and with students often collaborating on rewarding long-term projects. On this course there is not a project you can't approach, resulting in a fantastic variety of work produced by students. We explore stop-motion puppets, animatronics, character design, and hard edge model making.

How did the project happen?

During my time at the University, I was able to produce this sculpture for the Sedgwick Museum, a much-loved museum from my childhood. I was interested in broadening my palaeoart portfolio, and it was a great time to seek out a new challenge based around reconstruction. Having already produced a sculpture of the Chinese feathered dinosaur Epidexipteryx for my previous module, and written about the evolution of palaeoart in my studies, it all fell into place to carry on expanding my portfolio. Having worked on projects in the past for other museums, it was a pleasure to once more be working on a piece that is not only educational for myself, but for the public as well.

Model making process and challenges

The build process for the Cryptoclidus was rewarding but hard work. There was a lot of design and studying before I could really get my teeth into the sculpture. The challenge lies with the fact there are no true and singular correct references for this animal, as it is now extinct! To combat this issue, I made certain to have an open dialogue with the staff at the Sedgwick Museum. This way I was able to get constant updates, opinions and relevant reference material straight from a very reliable source. As I was acting as the primary source of the physical model during this reconstruction, all the reference material was fed to me. I then had to translate it into something with a 3D presence. 

Another method to make sure the anatomy of the animal made sense was to turn towards the concept of convergent evolution, when animals which are not closely related develop similar features because they are living in similar environment. I looked at the curves and movements of seals, and the head shape and eye placement of an anaconda. By studying living animals, it gave me an idea of how this animal would move, and helped deliver a sense of presence in the sculpture. During this time, I was playing with clay shapes, small clay maquettes and roughing out possible poses.
 

The physical sculpt was made from an oil-based clay called monster clay. It is a popular and user-friendly clay, which can be melted down and takes detail well at this size. I built a basic armature due to the centre of gravity in the sculpture, but most of the time this clay is self-supporting. Once the main shape and muscles were laid down, I could approach refining and smoothing out the sculpture. I inserted small ball bearings for eyes, and purposefully left the teeth out of the sculpture, as they would not survive the moulding process. I used a combination of special wrinkle tools to capture the skin texture of the animal, ensuring to leave natural feeling scars or skin imperfections for a more realistic look. 

The clay sculpt was moulded with silicone and a plaster jacket was made, then it was cast in resin. Once I had the complete sculpture, it was time to assemble the head, which was produced in the same way. The sculpture was prepared for painting with acrylic paints, which used a combination of airbrush and hand painting techniques. The final step was to create the animal’s characteristic teeth. These were made from shaved down sewing needle tips, and individually insert them into the sculpture with a pin vice. 

What was the most challenging part of the process?  

Definitely ensuring the animal was anatomically accurate, whilst making sure its presence was visually interesting. I wanted to capture a dynamic pose and make its paintwork simple and natural, without looking washed out. It had an additional paint-job after its first completion date to help break up its silhouette and add a more mottled skin tone. 

How did working with the museum help your development as an artist?

I learnt a great deal about reconstruction, far more than I did with my previous sculpture of Epidexipteryx, when I was working by myself. I met some very valuable contacts and was exposed to some fantastic palaeoartists, whose work is of great inspiration now. It was key to gain a deeper understanding on how to execute a good anatomical sculpt so I can launch myself into the next one with more knowledge and confidence.

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Emily’s new sculpture is a modern interpretation, based on current research and understanding of the animal’s palaeobiology. It will add a visual layer of interpretation to compliment the fossils and text already in the displays. You can find it on display in the museum’s Jurassic Seas cases.

We at the Sedgwick are always interested in exploring how we can work with artists and modelmakers to interpret our fossils - you can get in touch with Exhibitions Coordinator Rob Theodore directly at : rjt60@cam.ac.uk

Monday to Friday
10:00 to 13:00 & 14:00 to 17:00

Saturday
10:00 to 16:00 

Sunday
Closed




My name is Andrew Simpson and I am a gallery volunteer at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences and a recent MGeol graduate in Geology with Paleobiology from the University of Leicester. My main interest is in vertebrate palaeontology, however, I like writing about all facets of palaeontology, from evolutionary history to fossil lagerstätten.

Science, like any organism, is constantly changing over time with scientific theories evolving to fit the best available evidence. This phenomenon is prevalent throughout the scientific world but can be very clearly seen in Palaeontology. There are many instances of reconstructions of extinct life being different in the past than they are today. One example, represented in the Sedgwick Museum, is the Carboniferous arthropod Megarachne ("Great Spider"). Once thought to be the largest spider ever, further research in 2005 found it to instead be a medium sized species of freshwater sea scorpion (though I don’t think this makes Megarachne less unsettling to look at!)

However one of the most interesting cases of an extinct animal whose palaeontological reconstruction has changed with new discoveries is the Cambrian arthropod Anomalocaris ("strange shrimp"). The Cambrian, from an evolutionary perspective, was a renaissance. New body plans and weird evolutionary experiments were emerging. Some animals became extinct soon after they appeared. Some, like the trilobites, survived for an amazingly long period of time. While others would evolve into the main animal groups alive today.
Anomalocaris is one of these weird wonders. It was discovered in 1892 by Joseph Whiteeves in the Burgess Shale formation in Canada. The original fossil looked shrimp-like but with no clear headparts. For a long time this was the only known description, its lifestyle a complete mystery. Later in 1911 the palaeontologist Charles Walcott, who also worked on the Burgess Shale, discovered a fossil which looked like a primitive jellyfish. He gave it the name Peytoia nathorsti.
Now you may be wondering "I thought you were going to be talking about Anomalocaris? Why have you wondered off topic?" Well this is where it gets interesting! In the early 1980s, Cambridge University palaeontologist, Harry Whittington, saw something astounding whilst preparing another Burgess Shale fossil. As he chipped away at the rock he noticed two Anomalocaris "shrimps" attached to the head of a larger body of another creature. Not only that, but a Peytoia fossil was attached to this same head. It became clear that the Anomalocaris shrimp and the Peytoia jellyfish were not separate species, but all part of one large Cambrian animal.

Anomalocaris was the top predator of its day. At around a metre long it was the largest animal the earth had seen to that point. After identifying its prey using large compound eyes, it then used its prongs to grab its prey. Anomalocaris then held its prey close to its mouth-parts so they could break through the hard exoskeleton. anomalocarids were widely successful, ranging across the globe from Canada to China and living from the Early to Middle Cambrian. While most anomalocarids were predators, a filter feeding species was described in 2014 and named Tamisiocaris borealis ("sieve shrimp").
So anomalocarids, the strange shrimps of the Cambrian, really are one of the most fascinating group of arthropods known. They are a great example of the evolutionary variety that has evolved on this planet.

Andrew Simpson


This week we reached a major landmark in the development of the Museum’s new Collections Research Centre. We’ve just been handed the keys to the brand new Colin Forbes Building, a purpose-built collections store to house our internationally important rock and fossil collections.  We now start the ambitious task of moving our rock collection – weighing more than 150 tonnes – from a variety of locations across Cambridge.  Bringing our collections together, and creating a space where we can welcome research visitors enables us to take a big step towards our aim of creating a world-leading centre for Earth Sciences collections research.