A Wealth of Information on a Glass Slide: Historical Photographs

Happily for us, when museum people go out in the field, they take photographs. Lots of photographs. Roger Bull, a Senior Research Assistant in the museum’s botany section, estimates that he made about 6000 photographs while the botany team was in Nunavut this summer. These photographs may have a specific purpose, such as documenting specimens and their habitat. Sometimes, they are taken for the same reasons that you and I take photos while we travel.

Collage: A colour photo from 2014 of a river valley and a black-and-white photo from 1915 of the Badlands in Alberta.

2014: The Coppermine River valley in Nunavut where museum botanists collected vascular-plant specimens. 1915: A quarry site in the Alberta Badlands where the Sternbergs collected dinosaur fossils. Images: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature; C.M. Sternberg and G.F. Sternberg © Public domain

Early field collectors were no different in wanting to capture their experiences, except they didn’t have the luxury of tiny digital cameras and memory cards that hold thousands of images. At one time, glass plates were the most widely used support for negative materials.

Hands hold up a glass-plate negative.

A glass-plate negative from the museum’s photographic archives. Image: Susan Goods © Canadian Museum of Nature

Fossil hunters Charles H. Sternberg and his three sons, especially George, made many photographs in the early part of the 20th century while they were collecting fossils in Canada for the Geological Survey of Canada (the museum’s predecessor).

Black-and-white photo showing two men wrapping a fossil in a plaster field jacket while a third digs nearby.

The Sternberg sons in the field in Alberta in 1915 wrapping a Lambeosaurus specimen. Image: C.M. Sternberg © Public domain

Although gelatin-silver paper negatives and gelatin-silver negatives on celluloid roll film were becoming increasingly popular at that time, glass plates continued to be favoured by many, including the Sternbergs. There were concerns that a cellulose film base could not provide the absolutely flat and rigid platform at the focal plane of a camera—so necessary for sharp images. There was also concern about the flammability and chemical instability of cellulose nitrate-based film.

Four 8 × 10 inch (about 20 × 25 cm) glass plates weigh a bit more than a kilogram. Imagine the weight of carrying hundreds of glass plates into the field, in addition to all the other supplies needed for field excursions!

The Sternbergs’ glass-plate negatives, as well as those of other early museum curators such as Taverner and Macoun, are now archived at the museum in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment.

These historical images can be a valuable source of information for today’s researchers. Extensive field notes were not always a priority for the early fossil hunters. We can, however, gain interesting information about the Age of Dinosaurs by learning more about where these fossils were found.

A black-and-white photo showing three men along a riverbank, loading cargo into a canoe with the help of a tripod, pulley and horses.

Pieces of a large dinosaur skeleton were ferried across a river in Alberta. Image: C.M. Sternberg © Public domain

The old photographs that were made when the specimens were discovered and dug up can provide clues that are not evident after the fossil has been removed.

For example, Jordan Mallon, Ph.D., studies dinosaur taphonomy. Taphonomy is essentially the study of what happens to an organism after it dies. The arrangement of dinosaur fossils in the ground, and the type of rock in which they are found, can help palaeontologists learn about the circumstances surrounding death, how the dinosaurs lived, the environment in which they lived, and other biological implications.

Jordan is using some of these old field photographs to determine how ankylosaurs were found in the field—whether they were right-side up or upside-down. Once he has established that fact, he will go on to test different hypotheses about why that was.

A black-and-white photo of a partially excavated dinosaur fossil.

The top of a section of dinosaur fossil has been wrapped in its plaster field jacket at the Oldman Formation, Alberta in 1915. Image: C.M. Sternberg © Public domain

Another legacy of the lack of field notes is that the exact location of many of the early dinosaur finds is not known. Photographs are one source of clues to narrow down were to find these collecting sites.

A black-and-white photo of the Badlands.

A dinosaur specimen was found in this area of the Alberta Badlands. Image: C.M. Sternberg and G.F. Sternberg © Public domain

As Darren Tanke of the Royal Tyrrell Museum writes in his interesting blog article about “lost” quarries, you might think that a lot has changed since those photographs were made almost 100 years ago. But the land formations in Alberta have changed only superficially and comparing the photographs made by the Sternbergs to present-day landscapes can help determine exactly where these collecting sites are.

A black-and-white photo of a plaster field jacket on the ground.

Skull of a Centrosaurus in the field in 1921. Note the shadow of the photographer and his camera on the lower left of the image. Image: C.M. Sternberg © Public domain

The museum photographic collection houses more than 275 000 non-digital items, of which only a small proportion are glass-plate negatives. Other media include lantern slides, film negatives, film positives, prints and audio-visual film.

We have been working on a digitization project to make these images more accessible and also to minimize future handling of these fragile glass-plate negatives. The digital images are also being catalogued in a database with the long-term goal of one day making them accessible online.

A man sits at a desk using a scanner.

Dennis Bason, one of our dedicated volunteers, has been vital in moving this project forward by carefully scanning each negative and rehousing them in new archival envelopes and boxes. Image: Susan Goods © Canadian Museum of Nature

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