For three days this summer, Tidewater residents of all ages took a trip through time with Jurassic Quest, the nation’s largest traveling dinosaur exhibit.
Inside Norfolk Scope, they saw over 80 animatronic dinosaurs arranged on life-sized dioramas, with informational placards and tour guides available to interpret. Costumed performers dressed as raptors interacted with the crowd, while puppeteers allowed visitors to meet and pet “baby dinosaurs.”
Various activities were provided, including all-ages science and craft projects. A nearby theater showed a film on dinosaurs. Green screen photography was also available. My entire family enjoyed this event, from my teenage brothers to my almost 90-year old Grandmother.
The centerpiece of the event was, of course, the model dinosaurs. Every “celebrity” dinosaur was represented, as well as many lesser-known ones. The scale of the creatures is mind-blowing, to say the least. I feel like I should offer more than cliches, but sometimes cliches exist for a reason. There are no adequate words — a life-sized dinosaur model is something you have to experience for yourself.
One of my favorite displays was “Dinosaurs of a Feather,” which depicted Sinosauropteryx with feathers. An information placard told the story of how they were discovered in China in 1996, upending the popular notion of dinosaurs as leathery creatures.
For the scientifically inclined, the event also offered a table display of actual fossils and professional interpreters to explain and discuss them. As a biology student, I found this just as fascinating as the giant models outside. The showmanship of the animatronics doesn’t quite feel legitimate until you’ve also seen the real thing up close.
DINOSAURS IN VIRGINIA?
Sorry to disappoint, but no land dinosaur fossils have been found in Virginia, although we do have their footprints. Thousands of dinosaurs tracks have been found at the Luck Stone quarry in Culpeper, preserved in a large slab of siltstone. The tracks mostly belong to Coelophysis — a small, three-toed member of the theropoda suborder, which also includes such celebrities as the T-Rex and Velociraptor.
THOSE WHO CAME BEFORE
The gift shop had good merchandise, though the idea of merchandise leaves me feeling somewhat weary. Toys and t-shirts have an unintentional side-effect of reducing dinosaurs to popular kitsch, devoid of any cultural or scientific significance. Postmodern society has commercialized them to the point of parody. Their image — even just their silhouette — evokes laughter. The word “dinosaur” has become something comical and childish. Or worse: when applied to people, “dinosaur” means old … stale, outdated, expired. The terrible lizards have become paper tigers.
But let’s take a step back, when the taxon Dinosauria was first named, before Barney and Friends polluted their image. In 1842, paleontologist Sir Richard Owen named dinosaurs by combining two Greek words: δεινός (deinos, meaning “terrible”) and σαῦρος (sauros, “lizard”). We usually think that ‘terrible’ refers to their size (i.e., terribly large), but the original Greek means much more.
The word deinos is Biblical — used in the book of Hebrews admonishing men to “worship God with reverence and awe,” or “godly fear.” The name ‘dinosaur’ was coined to invoke a sense of religious fear and wonderment. From Sir Owen’s perspective, these aren’t just lizards — they’re gods, and should be respected as such. Literally, the “terrifying, godly lizards.” Dinosaurs no more belong on cheap, plastic trinkets than images of Jesus or Buddha. They are to be admired, not consumed.
Bill Nye talks about “our place in space” — how infinitesimally small we are in contrast the larger universe: “I am a speck,” he cried out in a 2011 keynote speech, “standing on a speck, in a galaxy full of specks, in the middle of speckless-ness!” Our place in space invokes a change of perspective, showing that cultural divisions mean nothing when viewed from a cosmic distance.
In that vein, dinosaurs show our place on earth. They remind us the earth is not our own; we aren’t masters of the earth or even stewards, but merely guests. Temporary, minuscule denizens of a universe that could annihilate us any second — a universe which swept the Terrible Lizards aside like so much dust.
Regardless of personal belief, the sight of our majestic predecessors invokes a deep sense of humility … and gratitude for our own existence.
Also, I want to give special shout-out to the security crew who checked everyone at the door and made sure this event was safe for everyone. Thank you for your service!
Jurassic Quest visited Norfolk Scope July 21-23, 2017.