Here’s another book I recently discovered about the discovery and preparation of the first American Mastodon skeleton, joining a growing rank of other books on this subject. This one is titled The Great Unknown, written & illustrated by Taylor Morrison. (On a slightly off-topic note, Morrison dedicates the book to David Macauley, creator of my favorite archaeological satire, Motel of the Mysteries!)
Compared to Founding Monsters & Thomas Jefferson and the Mammoth Hunt, which covers some of the same information, this one feels somewhat more “formal”, mostly do to the use of fully detailed paintings as opposed to the cartoons of the other two. It’s told in more of a narrative format that Founding Monsters, but in a much more detailed and linear style than Thomas Jefferson and the Mammoth Hunt.
Unlike either of the other books I’ve looked at, this is also very much Charles Peale’s story, focusing more or less exclusively on the excavation of the Mastodon found on John Masten’s farm, and the preparation of those specific fossils. It does not overtly refer to the wider scientific context of the time, and even Thomas Jefferson is hardly mentioned. It’s a little refreshing to have this slightly reoriented focus, and gives a certain amount of focus to the story.
While the bulk of the story, like the bulk of the excavation, focused on the bones found on the Masten farm, I was surprised to learn that the surrounding area was also searched for more skeletal material when it became clear some pieces of the main skeleton were missing. Fortunately, they managed to find a second specimen that largely managed to complete the picture, of which the lower jaw was perhaps the most significant piece.
The work of Caspar Wister & Moses Williams are here highlighted as well, as they used the information provided by the second specimen to sculpt appropriately sized replicas for the missing pieces in the original skeleton. I’m pleased to see that the author remembered to give Moses Williams a prominent cameo. Having written about Dino Nerds For Black Lives, I appreciate it when books on the history of any science emphasize the contributions of marginalized people who were often denied recognition of their contributions.
The Great Unknown makes for an excellent story & picture book. The text, though perhaps a bit long for some younger audiences, tells an engaging story, and the full page paintings give it a very classy air. Despite the “cartoonier” nature of the other two books I’ve reviewed on this subject, the narrower focus of this one might make it a better introductory book in some way, even with the wordier text. It seems like it might be out of print at this time, so your best bet is to find it used at the link I’ve provided. In any case, I definitely recommend The Great Unknown if you do happen across it, and I’m pleased to give it my Dino Dad Stomp of Approval!
(Mastodon background art in the cover photo taken from the National Park Service.)