how we rediscovered five missing sculptures from the famous park

This summer, our love for dinosaurs is reflected in two major releases: the David Attenborough documentary Prehistoric Planet and Jurassic World: Dominion. Such multi-million dollar projects are a far cry from the first attempts to bring dinosaurs to life in people’s imaginations.

Perhaps the most famous took place nearly 170 years ago in Crystal Palace Park, in south-east London, where more than 30 life-size sculptures of prehistoric animals, including dinosaurs, first revealed extinct life to the public.

Much like the unveiling of Jurassic Park’s computer-generated dinosaurs in 1993, Crystal Palace’s dinosaurs astounded visitors. This historic site still attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Our new book, The Art and Science of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, reveals that neglect of the site has resulted in seven – nearly a fifth – of the original sculptures disappearing. The original park was thought to have 32 sculptures, of which only 29 originals (with one replica, so 30) stand today. We showed that 37 once existed.

The lost images include the tapir-like Palaeotheriumthree delicate llama-like Anoplotherium gracile, two Jurassic pterodactyls and a female giant deer. It is unknown when and how they disappeared, but neglect, redevelopment of the site and perhaps vandalism could be responsible.

Built as part of the Crystal Palace Park project, the dinosaurs were unveiled in 1854 and completed in 1855. Although books and magazines in the early 1800s brought dinosaurs to the attention of the wealthy and educated, fossils were an interest that reserved belonged to the higher strata of society. Created by a team led by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, the sculptures were intended to introduce prehistoric life to the general public.

Map of the Geographical Court as originally planned.
Image by Mark P. Witton and Ellinor Michel.

Working with geologists David Thomas Ansted and Joseph Campbell, Hawkins created a learning experience, part spectacle and part enlightenment: the “Geological Court”. This showcase of geological and paleontological science allowed visitors to walk through geological time.

Hawkins’ largest sculptures were the dinosaurs, which were over 10 meters long. Mock geological features include hundreds of tons of rock sourced from across the UK. This was expensive blockbuster edutainment.

Despite all the ridicule thrown at the sculptures today for their scientific inaccuracy, at the time they were sophisticated representations of extinct species — and a big hit with the public. But budget problems caused the site to fall into disrepair from 1870. Degraded and fragmentary records mean that the full extent of the original representation is uncertain.

An 1853 image of the Crystal Palace paleontology shed. Several now missing models are indicated with red arrows: the Palaeotherium (left) and three Anoplotherium gracile (Turn right). the survivor A. gracile is marked with a blue arrow.
Public domain image, edited by Mark P. Witton and Ellinor Michel.

There are virtually no physical remains of the missing sculptures. Only archive photos, illustrations and texts prove their existence. For example, the image above shows several models that no longer exist.

Based on these sources, we also re-identified a sculpture in the park – an alleged giant deer – as Anoplotherium gracilewhich resembles a gazelle and is the only surviving representative of what was once a group of four statues.

If we knew that nearly 20% of this unique Victorian site was allowed to disappear so quietly, what else would be missing?

A history in danger of extinction

While the Victorian artistry and creative engineering involved in the creation of the Geological Court is celebrated today, the site has long suffered from a lack of conservation.

The unchanging nature of the concrete displays, now many generations behind the latest paleontological findings, gives a sense that they will always be there. But visit the site today and it’s clear that many of the displays are still crumbling.

Weathering, vandalism and redevelopment, the Geological Court is a mix of originals and replicas of structures destroyed in the mid-20th century.

The state of the southern corner of the Geological Court as of 2021. This part of the site has had some minor maintenance since this photo was taken.
Photo by Mark P. Witton

There is hope. The Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs charitable organization was founded in 2013 and the entire site is now ranked first and on Historic England’s official Heritage At Risk Register.

But the status of the Geological Court is precarious. Without urgent conservation, the sculptures are in danger of declining sharply.

If you’re enjoying the digital descendants of Hawkins’ dinosaurs when they hit our screens this summer, think about their Victorian ancestors. It would be tragic to lose what is left of these displays, which changed the way many people thought about life on Earth.

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