Many of the fossil skeletons displayed in our historical Fossil Halls during their first century were prepared for exhibit by Norman H. Boss. Boss worked at the Museum for 46 years, collecting fossils in the field, extracting them from rock, and mounting them in life-like poses. This post is an excerpt from a longer piece by Department of Paleobiology volunteer Mark Lay.
|Norman Boss working on the Eocene lizard Saniwa ensidens, 1922.Click photo to zoom.|
Norman H. Boss, preparator of vertebrate fossils extraordinaire, had an exceptionally long and productive career with the United States National Museum (USNM). Over his tenure, the number of vertebrate fossils in both the public display and research/study collections grew dramatically, with many of the major specimens prepared by him or under his direct supervision.
The USNM definitely had need of a vertebrate fossil preparator in 1904, when Boss was hired, at the age of 18. Yale University Prof. O. C. Marsh, who had also been the “Vertebrate Paleontologist of the United States,” had died, and many of the specimens transferred to the USNM from Yale were in essentially the same condition as when originally shipped from the field.
Triceratops: a challenging project for Boss
Among the Marsh fossils were the partial remains of more than 12 specimens of Triceratops. Charles W. Gilmore realized that these contained almost all the bones necessary to create a single complete skull and skeleton, and that preparing and mounting such a specimen would both decrease the amount of unprepared material in storage and result in the first complete Triceratops ever mounted for display. With Gilmore taking the scientific and preparatory lead, this mount was the first major specimen on which Norman Boss worked at the USNM.
It was a tough first project. The different individuals used to construct the composite mount were of different sizes, so that some bones were too small relative to the rest of the skeleton. No Triceratops foot bones were available, so bones from a suitably sized duck-billed dinosaur were used instead. And, unfortunately, some bones simply could not be found and had to be fabricated based on scientific comparison to related species. Boss’s work was competent and careful, and proved more than adequate for the display mount, which was first displayed in 1905 in the old USNM building (now called the Arts and Industries Building). Boss next worked on the preparation and mounting of two more specimens for display, the skull of a bear and a complete skull and skeleton of Dinornis maximus, a large flightless bird.
The fossil collections and exhibits were packed and moved across the Mall to the new Natural History Building in 1910. There, Boss, for the first time, assumed the lead on a dinosaur display. Although still under Gilmore’s scientific direction, Boss was responsible for the cleaning, preparing, and final mounting of a specimen then known as Camptosaurus nanus (USNM 2210). It was an unusually perfect skeleton -- with the exception of the skull, much of the skeleton as collected was complete. The skull finally mounted on the display was completely fabricated, which must have been a challenge for the still-new Boss. The mount was placed next to a larger skeleton of Camptosaurus (USNM 4282) that Gilmore, with some small assistance from Boss, had completed the year before. This pair was displayed until 2004, when the mounts were disassembled for conservation.
Gilmore's mount of C. browni (USNM 4282) left, and Boss's mount of C. nanus (USNM 2210) right, 1911. Click photo to zoom.
One of the perks of being a preparator is the opportunity to participate in collecting expeditions. Boss’s first major USNM expedition was in 1923.
1923 Expedition to Utah – the Diplodocus
Gilmore wished to add a major sauropod dinosaur to the displays, and he got his chance in 1922, when the Carnegie Museum of Natural History finished its excavations at the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and turned the quarry over to the USNM. Two of the specimens left behind by the Carnegie museum were partially excavated individuals of the large sauropod dinosaur, Diplodocus. Although neither was complete, Gilmore thought that, together, they provided the basis for a mountable display.
Excavation began in late May 1923. Gilmore brought Boss to the site to assist in the removal of the often fragile bones. As Gilmore later wrote: “The work of quarrying these often fragile bones from the ledge of rock without doing irreparable damage is a slow and tedious operation, involving the skill of both tile stone cutter and the miner.” Boss, who had now been a preparator for nearly 20 years, understood both the rock and the best methods of removing fossils with minimal damage.
The party excavated until early August and shipped 35 boxes, with a combined weight of roughly 26 tons, back to the museum. Gilmore had his Diplodocus, but Boss’s work was not done.
He and fellow preparator Thomas Horne worked on the specimen preparation almost full time, and by the end of June 1925, the tail, ribs, limb, foot, and pelvic bones had been completely removed from the hard sandstone, with 21 boxes opened and the contents of 19 completely worked up.
Work on the dinosaur slowed when it was discovered that the neck bones they were extracting were not from a Diplodocus. Replacements had to be found. Eventually, arrangements were made with the Carnegie Museum to provide casts of the needed bones.
|The mount of Diplodocus under construction in the lab, left, and installed in the Vertebrate Paleontology exhibit hall, right, labeled as an "amphibious" reptile. Click photos to zoom.|
Boss and Horne began mounting the specimen, under the scientific direction of Gilmore, in 1927, first creating a temporary supporting framework. Delays in obtaining the permanent iron supports, steel castings, and certain of the bones for the display caused work to be somewhat sporadic, and it wasn't until 1931 that the Diplodocus was finally complete and moved to the exhibit hall. Boss was involved with the specimen essentially from the start of excavation through to the completed mount eight years later. While this may seem a long time, it was not to be the longest Boss spent on a specimen.
James Gidley, assistant curator of mammalian fossils, had collected fossils extensively in Hagerman, Idaho in 1929 and 1930, recovering more than 40 more or less complete skulls and sufficient bones to restore at least three or four composite horse skeletons – the famous Hagerman Horses. Deteriorating health prevented Gidley from returning to the area in 1931, and Norman Boss was assigned to lead that year’s expedition.
Boss and his party made camp in early June. They were lucky in that the collecting locality was already well known, but unlucky in that the “easy pickings” had already been taken. The bone bed they needed to excavate extended downward, back into a steeply sloping hill, requiring the removal of up to 45 vertical feet of sediment from the side of the hill to uncover it.
|Hagerman quarry overburden diagram, left, from Norman Boss's fieldbook, the field crew (center) with a jacketed fossil, and another diagram, right, mapping the locations of fossils in the quarry. Click photos to zoom.|
Pick and shovel soon proved inadequate to the task, and Boss decided to try “stripping” the hill with a horse, plow, and scraper. After two weeks of intensive labor by the entire party (and the horse), an additional quarry area of roughly 5,000 square feet was exposed.
When excavating wrapped up at the end of July, Boss shipped back to the USNM 37 cases totaling 8,332 pounds, containing four more or less complete partly articulated skeletons, 32 skulls, 48 jaws, and a “vast number of bones representing all parts of the skeleton” of Plesippus shoshonensis. These proved invaluable to the Museum, both for the study collections and as a source of “trade goods” for exchange with other museums.
The Smithsonian’s specimen of Camarasaurus may be one of the best-traveled of the large display exhibits in the USNM, and is certainly the mount on which Boss worked the longest.
In the 1930s, Charles Gilmore planned a series of updates to the dinosaur halls, including the addition of a Camarasaurus, an herbivorous dinosaur from the Jurassic. The Carnegie Museum had excavated several specimens from their quarry at Dinosaur National Monument and, in 1933, Gilmore was able to acquire a relatively complete, articulated, and unprepared Camarasaurus missing only a section of tail.
Norman Boss was given lead on preparation. In April-May, 1936, the bones he had prepared to date and five large plaster-jacketed blocks of unprepared fossil bones were shipped to Dallas to form the centerpiece of the Smithsonian’s paleontology exhibit at the Texas Centennial Exposition.
|Boss working on Camarasaurus in the Smithsonian Institution paleontology exhibit at the Texas Centennial Exposition, Dallas, 1936. Click photos to zoom.|
Boss, too, was detailed to Dallas, spending nearly seven months at the Exposition, answering questions from the public while he prepared the remaining bones. The idea of a preparator working in public and answering questions was a new one, and Carl Mitman (Head Curator of the Department of Arts and Industries in the USNM), later wrote of the exhibit that it “…proved to be of greater popular appeal than any of the Institution’s recent efforts in this specialized field…” Boss’s knowledge and professional demeanor undoubtedly contributed to this success.
Boss returned to Washington in December 1936 and continued his preparation work. Gilmore solved the problem of the missing tail by purchasing a nearly complete and unprepared tail of Camarasaurus (USNM 15492) from the Carnegie Museum. In June, 1937, the tail bones were sent directly to Dallas, where they were met by Norman Boss, who had been detailed once again to prepare the fossils in front of the public. Boss returned to Washington with the completed tail in November 1937.
From left, Murray, Pearce, and Boss working on the skeleton of Camarasaurus in the lab. The skeleton was displayed lying in a "death pose" rather than upright. Click photo to zoom.
Despite the desire to finish preparation, mount, and display the Camarasaurus, other work and lack of space caused a delay. Work resumed in earnest in 1946, with Boss spending almost the entire year on the “preparation, restoration, mounting and related construction work” for the skeleton, with occasional help from preparators Franklin Pearce and Arlton Murray. The new mount was moved in sections to the hall in late 1947, but because no adequate case was available, the specimen was covered with a cloth and walled off by screens. Eventually, a case was built, and the Camarasaurus was “unveiled” to the public in early 1950.
Boss must have been thrilled (and relieved) to see the mount finally displayed. He had been in one way or another connected with the specimen for more than 14 years, with only occasional assistance. Camarasaurus was the last major dinosaur specimen on which he worked.
Norman Boss retired from the USNM on May 31, 1950. USNM Curator Charles Gazin, described him as "near to being the fabulous indispensable man.” David Dunkle, USNM Curator of Fossil Fishes, on Boss’s death on May 21, 1963, noted his contributions in bringing an appreciation of fossils to the public: “During his long association the exhibits of vertebrate fossils in the National Museum grew from a few to one of the most impressive displays in the country, and most of the specimens were prepared under his direct supervision and a large part represents his own skillful work”.
Very true. Collecting fossils is only part of the job. A skilled preparator is needed to clean, prepare, mount, and install them as required for either research or display. Not only are preparators critical to paleontological researchers, but they are also instrumental in creating the wonderful public displays we all enjoy. Norman Boss represented the best ideals of the profession, and many of the best vertebrate fossil displays seen in the USNM through the 20th Century were the result to his skill and handiwork.
Norman Boss putting the finishing touches on the mount of a small brontothere, Palaeosyops paludosus, 1945. Click photo to zoom.
About 15 of the fossil skeletons that Boss worked on during his career will return to public view in the renovated Fossil Halls, which will reopen in 2019. All will have been conserved, and many of the larger skeletons will have been remounted, using modern supports, in poses that reflect scientific advances in our understanding of extinct animals and how they interacted with each other and their environments. We hope Norman Boss, if he were alive today, would be delighted by the changes.
Mark Lay began volunteering in the Department of Paleobiology in 2007, molding and casting the bones of the small specimen of Camptosaurus (USNM 2210) that Norman Boss had mounted for exhibit in 1911. It was during this project that Mark's interest in the early history of the Department blossomed. He has since conducted extensive in-depth archival research and written numerous essays, which can be accessed here.