“As humans we typically think in relation to the span of our own history – years, decades, centuries,” notes Andrew Knight, this week’s featured writer based in Bristol. At a certain point though, as he points out, it becomes difficult for the human brain to process just how far time stretches back. Reflecting on this concept now, Knight discusses his own fascination with our planet’s past and the great aura of mystique surrounding a dinosaur skull on museum display.
By Andrew Knight, 18, of Bristol
As we walked through the great doors, wonders beyond description emerged before us. Enormous bears loomed overhead, with a wall of matted hair, hooked claws, and teeth rearing up to emphasize the vast space of the great Victorian hall. We continued along the first floor, my mother and Mrs. Pudvah occasionally stopping to admire the sheer menagerie of scales, feathers, and fur. A golden eagle perched there, a buffalo stood mid-graze nearby, a family of opossums hung from a branch over there.
Having seen the exhibits before, I kept walking. Senior photos were due by the end of the coming month, and there was a certain space in the museum I wanted my picture taken. Soon we found the odd little nook, its stairwell winding up to the second floor, its curved wooden expanse like that of a ship’s deck. Like a deck, the floor creaked with nearly every step and produced the only noise around, save for some side conversations and children playing downstairs. Creaking past displays of faded photographs and curious artifacts, I noticed soft light shining from behind a corner that contrasted with the brown cherry backdrop. I headed over to the corner, and before I knew it, I was standing still.
My determination had paid off. Looking back at me were a pair of hollow eye sockets, set deep in a long face that sloped into a wide frill adorned with a crown of spikes. Protruding from the top of its nose, a long nasal horn formed into what looked like a robust sword. Below the horn gaped a beaked mouth full of flat serrated teeth. Before me was the extraordinary skull of a horned dinosaur, identified, as the signage behind the creature labeled it, a Styracosaurus. Precariously balanced on its wooden frame, it was a gnarled relic of another time. The creature was familiar to me, yet different – an animal, but one of a different world.
As humans we typically think in relation to the span of our own history – years, decades, centuries. Sometimes the millennium is used as a unit of time. We’re used to categorizing hundreds and thousands of years as vast amounts of time. And yet, to the great skull, they mean nothing. Paleontologists and enthusiasts of prehistoric life often study organisms that are hundreds of thousands of years old. Or more likely even, their subjects are millions of years old. That Styracosaurus over there? Over 75 million years old. Rare is the occasion to behold such an ancient being. So is the reason behind my passion for the old dust-collecting bones sitting inside museums. Of all the wonders of the natural world, few are as vivid, as profoundly fascinating, as the Styracosaurus. Its existence alone is enough to challenge our concept of time. And so it will remain, patiently waiting to surprise whomever comes across it. It will long be sitting there in its own quiet niche among other wonders of the grandiose collection of the Fairbanks family.