Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Dinosapiens 2

OK, so a wee while ago I had a rant. Not like me at all I know, but, at the time, I was a tad peeved that (some) people still appear to confuse archaeology with palaeontology. Dinosaurs, as I think I said at the time, have nothing to do with archaeology, they are not archaeological and are not found on archaeological sites, are not uncovered by archaeologists using archaeological tools to eventually be placed in an archaeological museum with 'other' archaeological finds.

The media (of course) often forgets this and happily talks about dinosaur bones being dug up by archaeologists, being studied by archaeologists and being endlessly searched for by archaeologists.


Archaeology is the study of human material culture and dinosaurs, as far as we can tell, were not in any way human. How organised their society was, we cannot tell, but, again as I said at the time, I suspect that they did not eat dinosaur roast dinners, work in dinosaur department stores, go to dinosaur church, restaurants or cinemas, have dinosaur holidays, fight dinosaur wars with dinosaur weapons of mass destruction and were therefore NOT human in the sense that we are human. Therefore, I went on (as I often do), as an archaeologist, I possess no opinion on their life-span, diet, skin colour, mating, forms of communication, transportation or defecation habits.

It seems I was wrong.

Last week news agencies around the world were reporting on a "gigantic communal latrine created at the dawn of time" unearthed in Argentina.

"Thousands of fossilised poos left by rhino-like megaherbivores were found clustered together" the BBC stated rather soberly. Together this 240 million year old find represented "the world's oldest public toilet", the Beeb went on adding (unnecessarily I thought) that "ancient reptiles shared collective dumping grounds".

Fossilised coprolites, some "as wide as 40cm and weighing several kilograms" were found in "seven massive patches" across the Chanares Formation in La Rioja province the BBC further reported, before going into extra detail (for those eating breakfast) that "some were sausage-like, others pristine ovals, in colours ranging from whitish grey to dark brown-violet". The Daily Mail was also able to supply the irresistible detail that the poo varied "in size and shapes, ranging from tiny nuggets to long and thin".

Dr Lucas Fiorelli, who led the study, said only a large, mammal-like reptile such as a dicynodont was "capable of producing such sizeable chunks" adding that "one purpose of communal latrines would be to keep parasites in one place, on the principle that you don't poo where you eat. It's also a warning to predators. If you leave a huge pile, you are saying: 'Hey! We are a big herd. Watch out!"


Problem is, of course, all this talk of "communal toilets" and "public lavatories" is simply anthropomorphising our dino-chums, placing human social characteristics upon them and giving the press significant justification, it would appear, to use the terms 'archaeology' and 'archaeologists' in relation to the discovery (which they did a lot). Suddenly I'm being asked for my opinion on 'South American Dino-Lavs' (this threw me for a moment as I thought Dino-Lavs to be a new type of deluxe chemical toilet).

I hereby put on record that I have no opinion on the matter, other than to agree that the discovery does indeed prove that Dinosaurs pooped, a revelation that has not, as yet, got me leaping enthusiastically from foot to foot or shrieking in a high-pitched, over-excited way. Interesting as the find undoubtedly is to the palaeontologists, geologists and fossil-hunters out there, I'm afraid that this is not something that, as we say in Sussex, in any way grabs my weasel.


  1. I wonder how many examples archaeology has found of prehistoric fossil collectors, and if we found such evidence would we recognise it? Every excavation I have ever been on the place for fossils is the spoilheap although nice/pretty examples often end up in my pockets.

    My garden is full of fossils and nice stones I've picked up, mostly within throwing distance of the back door of my house. Last time I looked in the mirror the reflection looked human, so in the past humans must have had similar behaviour traits, do we recognise this in archaeology?

    I have no wish to hear about Quartz and what people choose to do with it.

    I shall try to not put any more irrelevant comments on this blog post.

  2. You've hit on a good point in that fossils are found (in my experience) in a variety of prehistoric (mostly Neolithic) and Iron Age/Roman contexts, presumably because someone was picking them up and thinking they looked nice / odd / strange / interesting. Trouble is, the fossil sometimes ends up on the spoilheap because it's obviously not of 'human manufacture' and yet it was clearly used / prized / collected by a human. Not aware that anyone has ever really commented or published on this in the past, though it clearly needs to be looked at! I too have pockets full of fossils (mostly sea urchins as I work mostly on the chalk).

  3. I think there must be a dinosaur working in our department....they have not yet learnt to use the flush handle

    1. Indeed! Well, if it's still there, unflushed, I'll send some palaeontologist's over to probe the remains immediately....could be just the evidence they need.

    2. Despite not being a regular in your department I'm occasionally flushed with success when those logs that stand proud of the water get away the first time. I sometimes wonder did that really come out of me!?
      You don't need a paleontologist you need a coprolite expert.