The "Archbishop" returns, in the first detailed restoration EVER!

Posted by Nima On Saturday, September 25, 2010 8 comments

This is it. Put down that coffee and pause that youtube video! The mystery brachiosaur known as "specimen M23", a.k.a. "the Archbishop", is now drawn in a life restoration for the first time! Well sort of...

In fact I've drawn him once before, in my Brachiosaur Parade:

The Brachiosaur parade with T. rex and human for scale. (c) Nima Sassani 2009

But I wanted to do an actual scene with this little-known brachiosaur, not simply a scaled profile schematic.
In fact this obscure Jurassic giant has never been restored as an independent genus in most of the time it's been known. And I don't mean to brag, but I'm pretty confident I've got the story right here (and with several other species) - nobody has ever illustrated it before myself. It's technically still awaiting formal description. Heck, it doesn't even have a wikipedia article yet! Of course to be fair, it was only shown to be a unique genus a few years ago, but it's been lying misidentified in museum vaults for the better part of a century.

Cervical vertebra "U" of the Archbishop (copyright BMNH)

The Story (if you must needs humor yourself with it):

Frederick Migeod discovered the specimen in 1930, after years on and off as director of expeditions with a team of British fossil excavators in Tendaguru, Tanganikya (now Tanzania). He had been traveling there throughout the 1920s, hoping to find a sauropod skeleton to rival the giant Brachiosaurus finds of the Germans. Tanganikya had switched hands after the Germans lost World War I. The disastrous Treaty of Versailles, among other things, forced Germany to give up all its colonies to the Allies. Britain got Tanganikya, and rapidly multiple interests flooded in. British paleontologists got a huge boost to explore the colony, and searched all the famed Tendaguru sites which had yielded so many amazing dinosaurs to the German expeditions.

After years of finding only fragmentary remains and smaller species, Migeod finally struck gold in 1929. And the next year he excavated a huge skeleton comparable to the German finds. A partial skeleton somewhat distorted from its death pose, it included most of the spine, a shoulder blade, some hip and leg elements, and several ribs. Content with the notion that this was a Brachiosaurus like any other in Tanganikya, he packed the thing and shipped it back to London. But controversy lingered....

 Excavation field diagram of Migeod's Tendaguru brachiosaur

Alternately labeled as either BMNH M23 or BMNH R 5937, it lay in the British Museum's vaults for decades. Only one paper was ever written on it, by Migeod. He claimed it had double neural spines like Diplodocus or Dicraeosaurus, yet recognized it as a brachiosaur, as a Brachiosaurus brancai no less! It turns out the double spine claim was totally bogus and unscientific. The spines were single structures as is normal for brachiosaurs.

The Idiot We Know...

It turned out that Migeod was hardly a credible expert when it came to dinosaurs. A plant collector and an anthropologist, he knew a passable amount about local African plants and languages, but next to nothing about the bones he was excavating. During his own lifetime he was already known to paleontologists as a fool and fabricator of false data. His colleagues had little that was complimentary to say of him:

“Parrington soon discovered that Migeod's pretensions concealed a profound ignorance of many subjects.”
    -- Alan Charig's obituary of Parrington.

“The few good bones he [Migeod] collected would not constitute a single limb and but a few feet of backbone.  Indeed, much of East Africa was enclosed in plaster with the mistaken impression that bone was contained within.”
    -- W. E. Swinton, in a letter to sauropod expert Dr. John McIntosh, October 1962.

“A charlatan”
    -- Parrington's description of Migeod.

Indeed, the Germans also took aim at the man whom they labeled "Britain's buffoon". Friedrich Von Huene, the legendary German naturalist and paleontologist who brought you such legends as Antarctosaurus, wrote to Werner Janensch, discoverer of the Tendaguru B. brancai specimens, in 1927 regarding Migeod: 

“Migeod does not have the slightest notion of palaeontology.”

And indeed it seemed the old man was right.

But for many years the specimen lay untouched. And the one part of it that was prepared for public display (a pair of huge dorsal vertebrae) was often mislabeled as Brachiosaurus following Migeod's shaky example. One particularly infamous case is found in The Ultimate Dinosaur Book by David Lambert, a thick popular book published by the British firm Dorling Kindersley.

Lambert's page on Brachiosaurus using the Archbishop's vertebrae... even if B. brancai hadn't been renamed Giraffatitan, these would STILL be the wrong vertebrae.

 ... close-up of the Archbishop vertebrae (doesn't look much like the mitre of an archbishop to me, but who knows....)

Until 2005, when Dr. Mike Taylor of SV-POW fame began research on the specimen. His conclusion; it's a brachiosaur for sure, but NOT Brachiosaurus or Giraffatitan (the new classification of B. brancai).

So what is it?

Dorsal centra 4 and 5 of the Archbishop in various views (copyright BMNH)

So far a few things are certain - it's a brachiosaur similar to both Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan. I would place it in subfamily giraffatitanae, rather than the more titanosaur-like pleurocoelinae. The Archbishop lived alongside Giraffatitan in Tendaguru, and it probably had a similar lifestyle.  However it has an even longer neck in proportion to its body size. Migeod's specimen is comparable in size to the average Giraffatitan specimens in Berlin, though recent research shows that these 75-foot beasts were not fully grown mature adults. The shoulder blade of the Archbishop (though it may not belong to that individual) appears to be fused along the suture line based on Migeod's drawing, which indicates a mature animal. However given Migeod's level of credibility, that can be questioned until I see an actual photo of the shoulder blade. I think they could have grown a good bit larger. In any case, we end up with a longer neck than the mounted Giraffatitan skeleton in Berlin. The rest of the body appears to be similar to Giraffatitan in most of the general proportions, perhaps a bit slimmer and with a deeper dorsal spine, but this wouldn't be too noticeable on the live animal.


I decided that since Migeod's specimen - for all the incompleteneness of the neck - showed some hint of a death pose, then I would basically draw this guy drowning.

Not in a flood though. That's too typical. I wasn't attempting to draw this particular individual, but simply an Archbishop (and a subadult one at that) somewhere in Tanzania 150 million years ago. This had to be a dark, dramatic scene. Let's make it a predator trap! It smells like death, but how everyone's favorite Jurassic predators are drawn to it!

The poor fellow got stuck in a bog, thinking it to be simply a shallow lake. Soon other plant-eaters got stuck, followed by hasty predators who thought they could get a free lunch - for once, a sauropod that was prevented from fighting back! Yet they suffered the same fate.

So I did a quick line drawing of the Archbishop and the other victims of the bog. It's a veritable who's who of the Tendaguru fauna (except for Giraffatitan and a few other huge sauropods). You can see Kentrosaurus in there with all those spikes, as well as the familiar Allosaurus and Ceratosaurus, similar to the species you would find in North America at the same time. I also stuck in a baby Barosaurus (or rather, Tornieria africanus in this case). I also threw in a speculative megalosaur/torvosaur, since Torvosaurus also popped up in North America and Europe, a circuitous but easy route to Jurassic Africa which many species of dinosaurs, both herbivores and carnivores, eagerly exploited. You also can see the small slim meat eater Elaphrosaurus, endemic to Tanzania, hanging on the back of the Archbishop. Dryosaurus struggles to keep moving, and several crocodiles eagerly mob the hapless dinosaurs, able to avoid the doom of those long-legged landlubbers.This looks like it would make a good coloring book image with some modifications... who knows, some day I might publish a coloring book that actually teaches kids what dinosaurs REALLY looked like.

Now for some filling.

There, that's a lot better. Some background with the forest, another Kentrosaurus and a few other drowning dinosaurs, and a feel for the muck and heat of this disastrous scene, with its splashes of mud and its floating mats of water plants. I used mostly same color pattern for the Archbishop as I had in the Brachiosaur Parade. But scanners don't capture all the intensity we would like them to. So time to jack up the contrast!

Much improved. Also this was re-scanned after I added some  pterosaurs to the mix, using Rhamphorhynchus and Anurognathus as rough models. Sadly Tanzania doesn't match Europe for pterosaur remains, though conceivably in any scene with dead or dying animals, pterosaurs would be very likely scavengers (and anurognathids were probably symbionts with live sauropods as well). The Germans had better luck in their home country than in Tanzania with pterosaurs, that's for sure.

It still looked like something was missing. To add more depth to the scene I went for some blur effects and foggy lightening of the trees in the background, and there was a bit of cleanup to be done around the edges.

This is the final version.

Not a place I'd want to be in, that's for sure! Post comments below...