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Faculty of Archaeology launches dinosaur-focused research

Many an archaeologist, at some point in their career, is asked what type of dinosaur they discovered. Instead of once again patiently explaining that we do not do dinosaurs, the Faculty Board has now decided to listen to society’s call. ‘It is clear that the general public feels that dinosaurs are relevant and important. As a Faculty, we can no longer ignore this’. This unprecedented decision was reached in a recent Faculty meeting.

Even though dino-research seems to be a great idea, this was the Faculty of Archaeology's April Fool's Joke of 2023. Archaeologists simply don't do dinosaurs.

Department of Paleontology

Archaeology is the study of the human past based on the traces left behind. Since the time gap between the last dinos and the first humans is some 65 million years, it always made sense not to study the giga-reptiles in the Faculty’s context. Until now, that is. ‘The call from society is clear: dinosaurs are relevant and important’, Dean Jan Kolen addressed his colleagues. ‘As a Faculty, we can no longer ignore this. Therefore, starting next months, we will launch the Department of Paleontology’.

The start of the newly formed department calls for some rapid reshuffling of current research projects. PhDs and postdocs are asked to ‘dinofy’ their research.

We didn’t start the fire, they did: Dinosaurs and the origins of pyrotechnology

Researchers Anastasia Nikulina and Femke Reidsma have joined forces to explore new frontiers in the study of ancient fire use by shifting their focus from early humans to dinosaurs. They combine their expertise in agent-based modelling and geochemistry to uncover the true origins of pyrotechnology. ‘We are applying geochemical techniques at famous Palaeontological sites to find out which dinosaurs may have used fire’, explains Reidsma. So far, the two species with the strongest connection to fire use are the Pterodactyl (Jurassic period: ~150 mya) and the T-Rex (Late Cretaceous: ~68 mya). ‘We then input this data, along with other parameters, into an agent-based model so we can explore how these dinosaurs used fire’, continues Nikulina.

From the research, two distinct practices emerge: Pterodactyls, like certain modern hawks in Australia, seem to have used fire to burn down patches of vegetation as a hunting technique. T-Rexes, on the other hand, appear to have regularly gathered around campfires. Given their ability to digest large quantities of raw meat, it is unlikely that they used fire for cooking. Instead, the recent discovery of bird-like dinosaur vocal anatomy suggests T-Rexes came together around campfires to share stories and potentially to sing. ‘We hope to shine a light on the development of dinosaur culture and show that they were more than just apex predators’.

Putting Life into Late Cretaceous nests

In light of the newly formed Department of Paleontology, the research project by Professor Emeritus Annelou van Gijn and PhD candidate Lasse van den Dikkenberg has changed accordingly. ‘We have decided to shift the focus of our Putting Life into Late Neolithic houses project to Late Cretaceous nests’, Van den Dikkenberg notes. ‘The research group will create a reconstruction of the Late Cretaceous Oviraptor nest, which was recently discovered in China (Bi et al. 2021)‘.

As part of a living experiment Van Gijn and Van den Dikkenberg will live in the nest for a period of three months. They will forage wild resources while taking turns in brooding the eggs. ‘During the experiment, we will wear specially designed dinosaur suits which were created in collaboration with the TU Delft. The experiment will be closely monitored by Dr Amanda Henry, who will measure the caloric intake of the two “dinosaurs”’. This should provide valuable insights into the caloric costs and benefits of the omnivorous subsistence strategies employed by Oviraptors. ‘With the experiment, we hope to gain more insight into the daily life in and around Late Cretaceous nests’.

Did dinosaurs cause the Bronze Age Collapse?

The origins of the Bronze Age Collapse in the Eastern Mediterranean around 1200 BCE have bewildered archaeologists for decades. Despite various efforts, the causes of the collapse remain yet unknown. Riia Timonen, a PhD Candidate in Bronze Age Aegean studies, has a ground-breaking theory. ‘As part of my PhD project, I have studied the Mycenaean cultural group which preceded the collapse. I believe that we must go back to the very basis of archaeology to find what caused it. In my opinion, it was the dinosaurs - or whatever was left of them - who did it’.

Timonen’s theory is grounded in evidence. ‘Depictions of monsters in Mycenaean art represent the Mycenaean interpretation of the last Eastern Mediterranean dinosaurs. A rapid climate change and the resulting violent mass migration of the last dinosaurs is a perfectly plausible explanation for the Bronze Age collapse and the mysterious destruction of heavily fortified settlements in Greece’. As such, Timonen’s theory has the potential to revolutionise our understanding of the Mediterranean Bronze Age while making her very famous. Netflix has already shown interest in making a documentary series on the dinosaur apocalypse.

New insights in maritime paleo-archaeology

The number of shipwrecks encountered in the Netherlands is incredibly high, and for many of them, the cause of wrecking is still unknown. With the introduction of a paleontological focus in the subfield of maritime archaeology, we finally may yield some answers on this matter. ‘A first logical insight from this widened focus would be that wrecking events could have been caused by acts of aggression by Late-Jurassic fauna’, PhD candidate Rik Lettany notes. ‘This view, however, has been criticised for creating a too one-sided and simplified view of the dinosaur as the aggressor, neglecting further agency’.

It has now been proposed that several of the shipwrecks found were actually dinosaur-built. ‘The fact that so many of these ships have wrecked would indicate that dinosaurs were rather terrible at it’. The latter hypothesis seems to find general consensus among maritime-archaeologists-turned-palaeontologists, as indicated by statements such as: ‘When Pangea was still there, ships simply didn’t need waterproofing to go from one continent to the other, but this gradually changed with the introduction of oceans in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. That appears to be something that dinosaurs had to learn the hard way’.

‘As the Dino Flies’: The role of Pterodactylus antiquus in global networks of exchange from the 1st century BCE to the 1st CE

For some of our archaeologists, the step to studying dinosaurs was a small one. PhD candidate Merlijn Veltman contracted the ‘dinovirus’ when on fieldwork. ‘I remember vividly the first time I went on an excavation in Mongolia: the vast empty expanses; the beautiful horses; the kind people… But the one thing that really kept me coming back was my first Pterodactyl bone encountered in an elite burial tomb’.

At the Faculty of Archaeology, Veltman now investigates the role these flying dinosaurs played in vast networks of exchange in Eurasia in antiquity. ‘One of my findings thus far is that nomadic elites used the flying dinosaurs to establish a vast global network spanning Eurasia, trading exotic goods from China to Rome and from India to Britain’, he explains. ‘There is even rock art depicting flying Pterodactyl above the vast Eurasian steppe! I argue that, by working with dinosaurs, these nomadic elites instigated an age of exchange one could call globalisation in antiquity’. A way of flight without the associated CO2 emissions? It might be worth exploring ways to bring this back.

Of pots and dinosaurs

Pots are as close as you can get to dinosaurs without time travel*. A small scratch on the surface or a subtle indentation of the rim: it may just be the finishing touches a Tyrannosaurus rex put on a pot over 60 million years ago. ‘Yet this closeness often led archaeologists to assume rather too much about the proverbial dinosaur behind the pot’, PhD candidate Erik Kroon notes. ‘They would see a large, poorly made vessel and immediately speculate a T. rex produced it because T. rex’s small arms are held to be ill-suited for pottery production. These assumptions obviously reinforce our bias’.

Therefore, Kroon’s research focuses on detailed observations of macroscopic and microscopic traces on ceramics. ‘The only method to establish which dinosaur made a pot is by detecting these production traces and comparing them to elaborate reference collections with ethnographic and experimental materials. Applying this method, my study completely changes our view of Late Cretaceous pottery production’. For example, a close examination of claw marks shows that T. rex also produced some of the most beautiful vessels in our museums (currently ascribed to dromaeosaurids). ‘Why did they choose to produce large coarse wares on one occasion but fine wares on others? There are yet fundamental things to discover in the Late Cretaceous!’ 

 *Which incidentally means they are also the safest way to get close to dinosaurs. 

Gender roles in the dinosaur past

That the study of dinosaurs may also lead to new insights into societal issues is proven by PhD candidate Miyuki Kerkhof. ‘I look to the very deep past to find answers and to the persistent gender inequality that plagues modern society’. Kerkhof sees the harm in scholars’ projection of contemporary gender norms onto the limited fossil record and advocates for analysing the broader context and material culture.

Kerkhof shows us some glass fragments that were found surrounding a pregnant Tyrannosaurus Rex. ‘We know that this was a female T-Rex because we found eggs in her abdominal cavity. The sherd indicates she was probably shattering glass ceilings way before humans existed.’ Indeed, research shows that female dinosaurs exhibited great physical strength and cooperative ability to hunt, survive and protect their offspring in challenging environments. ‘I think we can learn a lot from dinosaurs disrupting gender norms and their valuing every dinosaur’s contribution to their species’ survival, no matter what gender’, Kerkhof claims.

‘They would have thrived for millions of years more if it had not been for an asteroid that ended this equitable society and wiped out most of its material culture’. Fortunately, the Faculty’s archaeologists are on the case, shedding new light on this lost world.

DINOLIGHT: The role of firelighting by Extremely Early Palaeolithic (EEP) hominids in the end-Cretaceous extinction of the dinosaurs

Speaking about light and a lost world, the DINOLIGHT project by Dr Andrew Sorensen hopes to gain new insights into the dinosaur apocalypse. ‘It is generally agreed among so-called “scientists” that dinosaurs were driven to extinction by a large asteroid impact 65 million years ago’, Sorensen scorns.

‘I believe this to be fake news. My project, DINOLIGHT, considers an equally compelling yet heretofore unexplored hypothesis: With the advent of fire-making technologies, the pyromaniacal tendencies of our earliest hominid ancestors were fully unleashed on the Late Cretaceous world, leading to extreme modification of landscapes through the errant firing of vegetation, often simply for the lulz’.

This widespread destruction of dinosaur habitat resulted in a catastrophic, cascading extinction event that saw the disappearance of these terrestrial titans, ushering in the age of birds and mammals. ‘Cave drawings that I assume date to this era seem to (quite literally) paint a different picture of events, however, with the EEP artists appearing to deny responsibility for the dino-demise, instead pointing to natural climatic variability altering fire regimes worldwide as the proximate cause. This project seeks to uncover the truth behind this ancient apocalypse’.

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