mercoledì 20 maggio 2015

The Holy Roman Empire, pterosaurs & palaeoart: an interview with Matt Martyniuk on Beasts of Antiquity (2014)

Welcome back to the ongoing series of palaeoart interviews! After quite a long hiatus (sorry), I am now proud to present you the first episode (fingers crossed!) of a new batch of palaeoart-related interviews. In this new installment we will explore a bit Matthew Martyniuk's latest book, Beasts of Antiquity: Stem-Birds in the Solnhofen Limestone (Vernon, NJ: PanAves Publishing. 2014), discussing with the author the deep history of palaeontology (with the neglected historiographical relationship between the Holy Roman Empire and pterosaurs... how cool is that?!), the role of competing theories in the history of pterosaur science, the current status of palaeoart as a way to improve the public understanding of science, Matthew's future editorial projects, and much more!
Martyniuk, M.P. (2014). Beasts of Antiquity. Vernon, NJ: PanAves Publishing. Reproduced with permission.
I am so happy I had the chance to interview Matthew again on such a diverse array of interesting topics. So, thank you Matthew for this opportunity, and enjoy the interview!

1. Cristopher McGowan wrote once that Dinosaurs confound us with the enormity of their size, ichtyosaurs beguile us with their beauty of form. But pterosaurs capture our imagination and carry it aloft on flights of fancy. They are the stuff of dreams… and of nightmares (McGowan 1991 [1983]: 257). He also added how William Buckland likened pterosaurs to modern bats and vampires with a nod to Milton’s fiend (1836: 223-224). Beasts of Antiquity  [BoA henceforth] is rich in historiographical details about pterosaurs, far richer than the previous one (A Field Guide to Mesozoic Birds and Other Winged Dinosaurs; interview on this blog available here), and we gleefully read in it how the bat-form appearance of pterosaurs has been discarded after the works of Kevin Padian (1983, 218: There is nothing batlike about pterosaur anatomy; on the other hand, pterosaurs bear close structural resemblances to birds and dinosaurs, to which they are most closely related phylogenetically). This is just an example to highlight the fact that the history of modern anatomical and comparative research in palaeontology is a fascinating reminder of how science proceeds with initially tentative interpretations, continuous accumulation of data, and finally powerful postdictions referred to the distant past corroborated by evidence. History of science also fills the scientific accounts with memorable and informative storytelling.
Could you please tell our readers why did you specifically choose to focus on historiography, and on Solnhöfen’s spectacular limestone, in particular?

Matthew Martyniuk [MM]: I have long been fascinated with the history of pterosaur studies and of Pterodactylus in particular. Partly, this is due to lack of familiarity. Most paleo-enthusiasts are very familiar with the stories of Victorian era discoveries like Mantell and his Iguanodon, or Cope and Marsh’s Bone Wars, which are often repeated in popular books. I grew up reading about these early dinosaur discoveries and the characters behind them, but I had only seen fascinating glimpses of an earlier period of paleontology before the discovery of dinosaurs. It always seemed amazing and unusual to me that some of the earliest and most important discoveries, which shaped our understanding of what fossils are and the concept of extinction, took place during the late 18th century. The characters involved here were not Victorians and cowboys but members of royal families and their patrons, who housed their fossil collections in cabinets of curiosities long before the modern concept of the museum was invented. The idea that the first ever fossil of a bird-like reptile was treated as an ancient relic and kept in a palace of the Holy Roman Empire during its initial study struck me as really wonderful and a story that hasn’t been popularized, so that helped shape my idea for BoA to be as much a history book as a guide to fossil animals. Similarly, the idea that some of the earliest pterosaur researchers were already noticing things like “feathers” being present in the fossils helps smash our standard narrative that early scientists had it wrong and depicted them as leathery monsters, and we are only now discovering the “truth” that they were fluffy, active, and warm-blooded. At least some of these opinions have always been out there as competing hypotheses.

 Beasts of Antiquity, cit., p. 31. Image used with permission
2. What have you learned ex post from your previous book and how this helped you in editorially organising BoA?

[MM] Editing the Field Guide was relatively straightforward as I had a template to follow: most bird field guides have a fairly similar layout I was attempting to mimic to bring a sense of reality and naturalism to the depiction of proto-birds. BoA was different in that I had to try and juggle the historical narrative with individual sections on each featured species, without duplicating the material or telling significant stories in two places. It was quite a challenge and I ended up shifting material around until fairly late in the process. On the other hand, this book was much shorter which allowed me to do things I wasn’t really able to do or had not figured out a good way to handle in my first book, like full page illustrations for featured artwork or title pages, and the addition of a more extensive glossary and an index. Choosing a larger format for this book certainly helped a lot in that regard.

Beasts of Antiquity, cit., pp. 1-2. Image used with permission
3. Darren Naish has written an outstanding review of BoA, specifically focusing on the science behind your book. This leaves me with the possibility of exploring more the palaeoartistic side. The illustrations provided in your book are breathtaking, and they clearly show an evolution of your personal style toward a more suave touch. An old depiction of Juravenator starkii included in BoA (dating as far back as 2006) demonstrates this ongoing artistic process. What were, in your opinion, the major technical steps which led to this gradual change?

[MM] I think drawing so many restorations for the Field Guide helped me develop my style further and work towards bringing both more naturalism to the restorations but a bit of old-fashioned sensibility. Especially for such a historically-minded book, I consciously tried to evoke an older era of paleoart while still keeping the illustrations scientifically accurate by modern standards, which helped create a more unique look for many of them. One example is the illustration of Scaphognathus climbing in a tree; you hardly ever see pterosaurs depicted climbing anymore, though Mark Witton is doing his part to being that back to paleoart, and in my case the picture was a conscious homage to Burian’s tree-climbing Pterodactylus painting in an effort to add and old-school feel to it. I’ve also been adding a little more post production to my digital paintings such as a faint noise to pull parts of a piece together as a blending effect. Most of the illustrations are done completely in Photoshop using a Wacom tablet which certainly creates a contrast with graphite pieces like the Juravenator.

Beasts of Antiquity, cit., p. 78. Image used with permission
4. A recent article (Witton, Naish and Conway 2014) aptly summarises past and contemporary issues with palaeoart and ends with the following statement: We are optimistic that increasing awareness and promotion for palaeoartists could ultimately see the current, often downtrodden palaeoart industry become a much more vital, interesting and economically sustainable one.
Do you think that palaeoart, as a community and as a set of normative, professional rules, has changed since our last interview?

[MM] Witton, Naish, and Conway’s paper was excellent and I think really brings out into public light a lot of issues paleoartists have been dealing with for years. I think it was part of a larger trend where paleoartists are kind of coming out and standing up for themselves more in the face of a media industry that doesn’t seem to place much value in accurate depictions. For many online news outlets, and even scientific ones, it can seem like slapping any badly produced stock image of a dinosaur onto a paleontology story will do. But the fact is that the general public is hugely influenced by visual representations, and so any illustration needs to be just as educational and informative as the article itself, to avoid misinforming people. As a community, paleoartists are realizing there’s not much we can do about this other than get more vocal about it, comment on articles, and help inform journalists themselves, who often don’t realize how wildly inaccurate popular paleoart can be. One thing the paper you mentioned touches on, and which I blogged about recently, is the sad fact that in many cases the scientists who are experts when it comes to describing fossils are not actually experts when it comes to advising on life appearance and can be quite apathetic towards paleoart. I think the next step for paleoartists is to develop and make available our community as well informed technical consultants, and publicize the fact that scientists may not necessarily be as informed about the implications anatomical details on life appearance as good artists have to be.
Beasts of Antiquity, cit., p. 50. Image used with permission
5. Apart from the publication of Mark Witton’s magnum opus Pterosaurs (2013), which is both a palaeoartistic feast and a rigorous academic guide, what are the major editorial accomplishments in recent ornithodiran research? And what the major cutting-edge themes still absent from the shelves?

[MM] One book that has been a major influence on myself and other artists and even scientists has been Katrina van Grauw’s The Unfeathered Bird, which is a lavishly illustrated guide to bird anatomy (and, by extension, a necessary primer for understanding the life appearance of bird-like reptiles). Another great recent popular work is Dinosaurs Without Bones by Anthony J. Martin, focusing on the topic of ichnology and what kind of behaviors we can infer from it for Mesozoic dinosaurs. Dinosaurs and bird-like reptiles are probably the most written about group of prehistoric vertebrates, so other than these kinds of niche topics that are often ignored, there aren’t a lot of major topics that are crying out for more coverage. I’ll echo the opinion of a few others and just say that we are in dire need of more popular works covering Mesozoic psedosuchians and non-mammalian synapsids!

6. Last, but not least: what is your next book project? Are you going to focus on another specific fossil biota?

[MM] BoA grew out of a larger project that was to focus on various different stem-bird faunas by continent, and I had actually begun working on the North American edition even before Solnhofen, so it seems likely that will end up being finished next. Rather than focus on a single fauna, it will start at the beginning of the Mesozoic and even through the Cenozoic focusing on a few key sets of ornithodiran megafauna and giving some historical context as well as scientific description for each species. The major purpose of this book is to follow up on BoA with a sort of retro-style but still naturalistic and accurate take on some of the more classic dinosaurs. I also have some ideas for a children’s book on the back burner, and I’ve been keeping up with relevant proto-bird discoveries for the eventual second edition of the Field Guide to Mesozoic Birds, which I think I may have informally promised to have out five years after the original, so maybe I should get started drawing some more of those little birdy things…!


Buckland, W. 1836. The Bridgewater Treatise Part 6, Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology. London: William Pickering.

Martin, A.J. 2014. Dinosaurs Without Bones. New York and London: Pegasus Books.

McGowan, C. 1991 [1983]. Dinosaurs, Spitfires, & Sea Dragons. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

Naish, D. 2015. “New Books on Dinosaurs 1: Matthew P. Martyniuk's Beasts of Antiquity: Stem-Birds in the Solnhofen Limestone”. Tetrapod Zoology, February 7.

Padian, K. 1983.“A Functional Analysis of Flying and Walking in Pterosaurs”. Paleobiology (9) 3: 218-239. Article Stable URL:

Witton, M.P. 2013. Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Witton, M.P., Naish, D, and Conway, J. 2014. “State of the Palaeoart”. PalaeontologiaElectronica (17) 3: 5E;

van Grauw, K. 2014. The Unfeathered Bird. Princeton: Princeton University Press.