Curator's Choice: Will Watts introduces the Scarborough Speeton plesiosaur

| 26 April 2013

Curator's Choice: Will Watts, Head of Public Programmes at Scarborough Museums Trust, introduces the Speeton plesiosaur...

A photo of a man looking at dinosaur bones
© Tony Bartholomew
“In 2001, an amateur fossil hunter called Nigel Armstrong found a single tail bone on the beach at Speeton, on Filey Bay, about ten miles south of Scarborough.

He knew immediately what it was – the vertebra of a plesiosaur – and he did exactly the right thing: he stopped, and got in touch with his local museum.

I joined the Scarborough team as Dinosaur Coast Project Officer in early 2002, and one of my first jobs was to organise the excavation.

I was only 24 at the time – it was a hugely exciting project for a young man.

The excavation took place over ten bitterly cold days in November 2002 – we roped in loads of help, including my mum and dad – and we soon started to find loads of bones.

We were stripping it back, mapping and recording, and establishing the relationships between the individual bones.

They were buried in clay, and it soon became clear that there was more bone than clay – we used to say it was as if someone had murdered the plesiosaur, wrapped it in a sack and dumped its body on the seabed.

The weather was getting pretty grim, so I decided to use a technique called plaster jacketing, which is more commonly used in the States than here.

It’s similar in a way to putting a plaster cast on a broken arm – we encased the various bits in plaster of Paris, strips of hessian and bits of timber, and ended up with a single lump of Lower Cretaceous Speeton Clay weighing half a tonne.

This was then sent to Mike Marshall at Sandsend, near Whitby, a specialist in the preparation of fossils, and he spent a year unearthing hundreds of bones.

During that time, it had been decided to refurbish Scarborough’s Rotunda Museum, taking it back to its origins as a geology museum. The Speeton plesiosaur was going to be a star exhibit.

But we didn’t know what we had until it was fully excavated. So we had no real idea how big, for instance, the case needed to be.

We ended up with a skeleton that’s four-and-a-half metres long – the live animal would have been another two metres, but the head is missing.

The exciting thing about the Speeton plesiosaur is that it plugs a gap of about 60 million years in the evolution of these creatures.

It’s a one-off, a brand new species, and it’s still being studied.

It hasn’t even got its own Latin name yet. Because of that, we wanted to present it in a way that makes it easy to study – to remove individual bones, for instance.

A lot of ancient skeletons like this are wired together, but I worked with the exhibition designers to come up with this Perspex support structure.

The bones are all still separate, and the plesiosaur looks as if it’s swimming, as it would in life.

It was fantastic to be involved in a project like from virtually the word go right through to the finished specimen. I feel a very personal connection to it.”
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