Dinosaurs I have met – MATILDA

Come and find out about Queensland Dinosaurs, the flyer said. Hosted by Queensland Museum, this was part of an educational lecture series. Seriously? Dinosaurs in Queensland? I was intrigued.

The talk was introduced by Scott Hucknell, a palaeontologist, who gave a brief overview of dinosaur history. He explained how it was assumed that any dinosaur remains in outback Queensland would have been reduced to dust in the arid outback conditions. Until David Elliot found something!

That ‘something’ turned out to be part of a femur of a sauropod, a large herbivore. A very large herbivore. David had found the bone lying on the ground when out mustering sheep on his property north west of Winton. Sceptical Queensland Museum staff had been enticed out to take a look at the bone that was taking up a large space on David’s dining room table. They immediately knew what is was, and how significant. The question was, were there any more parts of this sauropod waiting to be found?

An exploratory dig was organised, and at this point Scott explained ‘normal’ dig procedure – small tools, trowels, and brushes to brush the dirt away. He then passed the microphone over to David Elliot.

David explained his D2 method. He borrowed a road grader, a D2 and, brushing aside the protestations of the palaeontologist, he arranged to have the area slowly scraped, removing two inches of soil at a time. Observers at each end of the blade watched carefully. If they saw anything they thought significant they would shout and the grader would be stopped so the area could be investigated. Then a bobcat would be used to excavate further, and if the area looked promising shovels and picks would be used. Finally, trowels and brushes would be tools of choice.

David went on to explain that this first bone was one of many, and once the word went around the area more graziers reported finding interesting bones that they had previously dismissed as rocks. And these bones, when excavated, were being stored on his property out near Winton. So many, he had to make extra space in his utility shed for them.

How could I resist an invitation like that? Next school holidays (I was working as an educator) I packed my 4WD and looked at the mud map they had sent me explaining how to find the Elliot property.

“So, we have plenty of bones,” he said. “What we need is people to come out and work on them; clean the dirt off them. We’ve got the gear and we’ll show you what to do, so if you have a 4WD and some time to spare come and stay at our shearing shed and give us a hand.” Then he added, “Bring your own tucker. It’s a bit of a way out there so don’t come for a couple of days, come for a couple of weeks.”

My first patient was Matilda (later formally identified and named Diamantinasaurus matildae), a significant sauropod thought to have been around 16 metres long and weighing close to 20 tons. She was a lady not to be trifled with, and her huge bones were amazing to work on. Patiently clearing the dirt and rock away with dentist sized drills, the interface between rock and bone was clearly marked by a change in colour. Matilda’s bones were a beautiful bronzy brown colour; I could imagine I was seeing the patina on the surface of her bones. I was mesmerised, in awe of what I was working on, and felt so privileged to be allowed to be the first person to touch the bones of this magnificent ancient animal.

Sleeping in the shearing shed at the end of each amazing day, I had dreams. Dreams of dinosaurs that later became the essence of the stories I began writing. Too much dinosaur dust up my nose!

Towards the end of the visit there was a buzz of excitement. A mysterious item had been found amongst Matilda’s bones. Not just another bone – A Claw! Matilda had company! More to be revealed …