Published: February 16, 2017

Picturing the Past Through Scientific Illustration

Adrienne Stroup, Collections Assistant, Gantz Family Collections Center
Colorful illustration of a landscape with palm trees, a stream, and rhino-like animals in front of a sunset

Like fitting together the pieces of a puzzle, artistic reconstructions of extinct animals, plants, and ancient landscapes help place abstract fossils into the context of both time and space. I drew this particular piece with a few different sources of inspiration. I wanted to visualize some now-extinct mammals from the Eocene, as well as depict some of The Field Museum’s own history.  Black and white photo of a man wearing a hat and sifting sand through a screen

The man pictured here is Bill Turnbull, who spent most of his career as the curator of fossil mammals here at The Field Museum. In 1956, he started collecting fossils in the Washakie Basin of southern Wyoming. These summer field seasons yielded hundreds of vertebrate fossils that date back to the middle Eocene Epoch, roughly 47 million years ago. I started my illustration by looking at old photos of Bill working in the field. In the photo, Bill (who always had a smile on his face!) is seen using a screen to sift for small fossils. I used the sediment falling through the screen as a transition to a reconstruction of the lush Eocene landscape below, portrayed in vivid color. 

The Eocene was a fascinating time for mammal evolution. One of the most common animals found in the Washakie were hornless brontotheres, seen on the right. These large herbivorous ungulates are perissodactyls (relatives of modern horses), rhinos, and tapirs. Diminutive early horses can be seen in the right foreground browsing on leaves, not far from a stream where a group of turtles gathers on a log. Unlike these early perissodactyls, the unusual uintathere, with its six knobby horns and large canines, has no living relatives. Black and white illustration of a man sifting sand through a screen in a mountainous terrain that transitions into a colorful landscape with palm trees, a stream, and a diverse array of prehistoric animals Lastly, overlooking the scene from a gingko tree is a family of miacids, early relatives of living carnivorous mammals such as cats and dogs.

Many of the specimens Bill Turnbull collected were prepared, cataloged, and integrated into the collections—all necessary steps in making them available for research. Collecting fossils is hard work, but once they are brought back to the museum, more work goes into unpacking, cleaning, repairing, identifying, and cataloging specimens. This means that some fossils can remain unstudied for long periods of time, creating a backlog of unprocessed materials.

While it’s not uncommon among museum collections to have this backlog, we wanted to get to the bottom of it. Understanding the potential wealth of information in the fossils Bill Turnbull collected, Bill Simpson, McCarter Collections Manager of Fossil Vertebrates, and Ken Angielczyk, Associate Curator of fossil mammals, received a grant that would allow the fossils to be processed. I joined the Museum as a collections assistant, helping to identify and catalog the fossils still packed in their field wrappings. 

Sadly, Bill Turnbull passed away in 2011 before we completed this effort, but we like to think he would have been proud that we identified and cataloged over 3,000 fossils. This project has reinvigorated research using the collection, and studies are underway to describe a new species of bird and a mammalian carnivore from the Washakie Basin. At the end of the project, I drew this scene to honor Bill Turnbull’s work and also highlight the unique fauna preserved in the Washakie Basin.  Pulled-out drawers contain fossils and specimens. Text and arrows point out that these objects used to be wrapped up in boxes and bags and are now carefully arranged.

The fossil record allows us to see what life on Earth was like millions of years ago, but only a fraction of this life is ever preserved. Sometimes paleontologists find perfectly preserved complete skeletons but often only isolated bones, teeth or footprints remain. When scientists describe a new species, they use measurements and scale photographs of the fossil elements to aid their descriptions, but scientific illustrators can take a step further in bringing these animals back to life.