PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


'Dinosaur 13': Finding and Losing the World's Most Complete T-Rex

Dinosaur 13 traces the emotional and legal dilemmas emerging with the discovery of a T-Rex called Sue.

Dinosaur 13

Director: Todd Douglas Miller
Cast: Phil Currie, Patrick Duffy, Bruce Ellison, Bob Farrar, Bill Harlan, Susan Hendrickson, Peter Larson, Neal Larson, Phil Manning, Carson Murdy, Louis Psihoyos, David Redden, Vincent Santucci, Kristin Donnan Standard, Harold Sykora, Terry Wentz
Rated: NR
Studio: Lionsgate
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-08-15 (Limited release)

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.