book review

The Palaeoartist’s Handbook, by Mark Witton

I’ll start by saying that I’m no artist. And I have no intention of trying to become one in any form, let alone a Paleoartist (specializing in artistic reconstructions of living things known from fossils). That being said, I can heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in fossil animals, ancient ecosystems, or even just beautiful illustrations of both. The truly impressive quality of this book is that I can even recommend it to someone interested in living animals, as there’s much within that describes how living animals look and function and how that’s applied to the past.

The subtitle of this book is “Recreating prehistoric animals in art”, and the book essentially delves into the process of how one can look at fossils and interpret them into a fully realized organism. The first two chapters define Paleoart (= the subtitle of the book, see above), and go through a brief history of the genre. The history was quite interesting, demonstrating how interpretations of fossil organisms, and the methods used to examine and reconstruct them have changed through the years.

Chapter 3 is titled “Researching, Resource Gathering and Planning a Paleoartwork”. At first glance, this chapter seems to be aimed directly at one who is actually going to create Paleoart, and as I said earlier that’s not me! As with this entire book, however, the focus is on the research itself, and the animals themselves and the principles of imagining and portraying extinct life. So this chapter was actually quite interesting for myself, as someone looking for information on how we believe extinct animals looked. Additionally, there’s a table at the end which lists “Paleoart Memes” which was quite fun to read through. From Marine Reptiles being portrayed as almost fully exposed on the surface of the ocean to the constant violence and roaring of prehistoric creatures, this table is a compilation of ideas that are often repeated in Paleoart but are unlikely to be accurate portrayals of the animals involved. Of course prehistoric animals would have occasionally vocalised, and of course ocean-going animals occasionally spend time at the surface, but the constant repetition of these scenarios is what creates a false impression of the prehistoric world. Animals today don’t habitually yell at each other, especially not while pursuing prey. It’s counterproductive for a Lion to keep roaring while it’s chasing down a gazelle, just as it’s unlikely that Tyrannosaurs unleashed a scream every time they burst from cover after some hapless hadrosaur.

The next 5 chapters (comprising about half the book) are titled “Reconstruction Principles” with various subheadings. This section delves into the nitty-gritty of how we know what we know about extinct animals, and how to find out more. I appreciated the fact that these chapters, while dealing with reconstructing extinct animals, continually offered living examples of the principles being examined so that the ideas presented were always backed by living examples. We can’t KNOW what Tyrannosaurus rex exactly looked like and how it moved without a direct observation of the living animal (which isn’t going to happen without some real sci-fi intervention). We can KNOW what living animal bones tell us about their life appearance and behaviour, and so we can work backward from there. One of the big debates out there about dinosaur life appearance is the visibility of their impressively long and intimidating teeth. For so long dinosaurs’ teeth were prominently on display and exposed to the air and viewer. If we look at living animals, however, we can see that even enormous teeth, such as those of monitor lizards (various Varanus species), are usually concealed within lips most of the time. As with many of these ideas, they are speculative, but looking at the extent of features within living species of animals that we can actually observe help us to familiarize ourselves with the diversity of structures and behaviours and enable us to make better speculation about what extinct animals looked like. This is essentially the theme of this book, and it’s a case that is made wonderfully throughout with countless demonstrations of research on living animals’ correlates between bones and life appearance (as well as trackways, traces and even cave art).

Chapter 9 brings the principles we’ve explored through the middle half of the book to their logical conclusions: “The Life Appearance of Some Fossil Animal Groups”. Using the evidence we have from living species (some of which are related/descended from the fossil species in question), and fossils, Witton describes what many groups of extinct animals may have looked like in life. Absolutely fascinating stuff, this was a wonderful tour through an ancient and unreachable world. The groups covered are all Tetrapods (those ‘four-limbed’ vertebrates from Amphibians to Birds), which is understandable given that adding Invertebrates to the list would substantially extend the book. Some Invertebrates are briefly mentioned in the next chapter along with Plants and surrounding environment: “Recreating Ancient Landscapes”.

The final three chapters are the most artist-focused in the book, detailing how a Paleoartist can depict extinct animals and environments in evocative ways while still remaining true to the science involved. As I’ve said a few times now, I’m no artist, but even these chapters proved interesting reading with analyses of some of Witton’s personal reconstructions and how they may be accurate or inaccurate based on the evidence available.

Finally, I’d like to mention that the book is (probably unsurprisingly) chock-full of wondrous illustrations created by not only Mark Witton himself but a handful of other amazingly talented paleoartists. In addition to this wealth of beautiful paleoart (which in my opinion is worth buying the book for in and of itself), there are countless diagrams and charts that add so much to the presentation of the material. All in all, The Palaeoartist’s Handbook is a fascinating read, full of information about extinct and living animals and ecosystems and detailing how we know what we know about the past. We may not be able to visit past ecosystems in person, but with a book like this, we can begin to truly imagine what they may have been like.

For Other Norfolk Naturalist Book Reviews, see:

The Social Biology of Wasps, ed. by Kenneth Ross and Robert Matthews

Pterosaurs, by Mark Witton

Flora of Middle-Earth, by Walter Judd and Graham Judd