When it’s foggy in the Badlands, you have to be careful when you go out walking, or you may end up going in a circle. Paleontologist Susan Hendrickson knew this when she set out on a morning in 1990, and still, in spite of her experience and her precautions, she ended up, as she puts it, “Right back where I started. I felt really stupid.”
It turns out that Hendrickson was incredibly lucky too. For that day’s circling led her to a remarkable find, the fossil of a dinosaur that would eventually be named for her. “We returned the next day with a video camera,” Hendrickson says, “And we reenacted how I found her.” Some of that reenactment is available in the documentary Dinosaur 13, which goes on to explain that “Sue” was the thirteenth Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton to be found in the world, and the most complete ever, some 80 percent of its skeleton recovered. Hendrickson, at the time, was a volunteer for the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, for whom the find would be an incredible, transformative event. While Sue’s story begins with Hendrickson’s discovery, it continues over many years, and involves not only the Institute, but also a thicket of legal and political questions, most left unresolved even as individuals were convicted.
Primary among these is Peter Larson, president of Black Hills Institute and the paleontologist who became most persistently identified with Sue. He and his brother Neal led the team who excavated the fossil, carefully digging and brushing and extricating, eventually moving some ten tons of material from the site. The documentary includes photos and home movie footage of their big adventure, full of smiling faces despite the difficult conditions (110 degree heat, long hours of work over months). All dedicated, all thrilled, they also felt a certain urgency, despite the fact that the fossil had been buried at least 65 million years. “Every day that it’s outside,” explains Peter, “is a day that it’s going to destruction.”
The life of the paleontologist is ever thus. While there are many millions of pieces of the past waiting to be found, many exciting and most revelatory in ways small and large, they are also, by definition, subject to changing climate and passing time, breaking down moment by moment. This essential notion helps to explain the enthusiasm engendered by Sue, the sense shared by the Black Hills team that “This is the best thing we ever found.” As to laying claim to their find, the Institute did what it always did, which is to say, since its inception in 1974. It paid $5000 to the landowner, here Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member Maurice Williams, for permission to remove the fossil. And they took it back to Hill City (whose population is 535), and went on with the business of preparing and preserving Sue.
It’s during this period, of some two years, that their good luck ran out. As recalled by Peter and other workers at the Institute—including his brother Neal, their associate Bob Farrar, and their attorney Patrick Duffy, as well as Peter’s wife at the time, Kristin Donnan (a journalist who met Peter while working on this very story, and his co-author of the book on which the film is based, Rex Appeal: The Amazing Story of Sue, the Dinosaur That Changed Science, the Law, and My Life)—the FBI came knocking. As this moment is made literal in Todd Douglas Miller’s film, which uses a few too many distractingly corny reenactments, the various players remember the trauma that ensued, the federal agents’ confiscation of all their records, the relocation of Sue to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, where, Peter remembers, he would go to visit her, promising her during conversations through the glass encasing her that he would find a way to “break” her out.
The film reinforces Peter’s dramatic sense of attachment to Sue, partly through other interviews (“It was precious, it was sweet,” says Kristin, “She was his person, that dinosaur and Pete Larson were made for each other and that was how it should be”), partly with a sentimental musical score, and partly by a story structure that helps you to believe he should rightly be reunited with the fossil. This structure is in turn helped along by footage of Hill City locals, including adorable children with handmade signs, chanting against the agents, “Save Sue! Shame on you!” It’s also supported by earnest and detailed recounting of the team’s work on the fossil, their tearful acts of remembering, and their visible frustrations with the legal complications.
These complications had to with land rights, beginning with what attorney describes as “Indian land and the Indian issue,” whether the land or the dinosaur belonged to Williams, whether or when the federal government’s “trust” had some authority, and whether Sue would be defined as land. “They could not have discovered this rex in a worse and potentially legally complicated place,” argues Duffy, “Really, Sue came out from an absolute legal Netherland.” The observation reframes the drama: it’s not only a romance between peter Larson and Sue, it’s also a story about the intersections of power and class, scientific and public interests, the eternal illegibility of law and the art of deal-making.
That Sue ended up, by way of a Sotheby’s auction, at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, suggests that she’s now available to a public, people who can, as Peter puts it, “love her just like I do.” If Sue’s story isn’t exactly circular, it’s not so surprising either.