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History: Head Trip 

Carnegie's T. Rex finally makes it to his new home

You might call it a very long bath: For three years, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's famous Tyrannosaurus Rex has been getting cleaned and refurbished by Phil Fraley Productions in New Jersey. You might also call it a chiropractor's appointment: The T. Rex skeleton has been "repositioned" on its articulating wire frame. Last Tuesday, the museum invited guests to witness the final touch -- attaching the Rex's skull to its body.

Much of the Carnegie's refurbished dinosaur exhibit is already complete. Visitors can marvel at the skeletons of brontosauri and ancient fish encased in glass. The T. Rex is the star of Phase II, the second section of the Carnegie's newly revamped dinosaur exhibit.

On Feb. 26, Phase II didn't look like much: Lots of ladders, temporary dividers and pine crates marked "Peck's Rex Box 2" and "T. Rex 15 Cervical 10." The decapitated Rex hunched over on its simple platform, standing opposite another already installed T. Rex fossil and surrounded by journalists, photographers and TV-news cameras. When complete, the Phase II diorama will look much like Phase I, with dino fossils surrounded by an environment of replicated soil and plants, a mural depicting the Jurassic world, and interactive computer stations.

So what will these T. Rexes be doing?

"Essentially," said museum spokesperson Ellen James, "they will be fighting over the carcass of a dead dinosaur." The slain thunder-lizard will be an Edmontosaurus, a docile-looking herbivore with a face like Woody Allen. Poor thing.

The project manager is Larry Lee, a New Jersey native who has overseen the project for years. He notes that this particular T. Rex fossil has a noteworthy history: It was dug up in Montana in 1902, assembled for the American Natural History Museum in New York, and then sold to the Carnegie in 1941 for $7,000.

The Carnegie's T. Rex is only about 50 percent original bones, but it has a special significance, Lee said: "This was the first T. Rex to be described scientifically" -- that is, to be measured, diagrammed, catalogued and assembled. "As a record of the past, you can't beat it." He pointed at the T. Rex. "This is the fossil record."

Lee, a clear-pated man with a soothing voice, has an obvious affection for dinosaurs. "I like the idea of how they fit into the evolution of life on Earth."

When the head was finally attached, with the aid of Lee's own hands, the audience of roughly 30 clapped and cheered. After 65 million years, the big guy was finally home.

click to enlarge Paul Zawisha, left, and Bob Ziller install the head on the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Tyrannosaurus Rex. Photo Courtesy of Joshua Franzos, Carnegie Museum of Natural History
  • Paul Zawisha, left, and Bob Ziller install the head on the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Tyrannosaurus Rex. Photo Courtesy of Joshua Franzos, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

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