When journalist Paige Williams wrote “Bones of Contention” for the New Yorker in 2013, she figured that would be the end of it—at more than 10,000 words long, the article seemed to cover everything a reader might want to know about the trading of Mongolian dinosaur bones.
But the story of Eric Prokopi, the commercial fossil hunter from Florida detailed in the piece, wasn’t over. Prokopi had been accused of illegally buying and selling a Tarbosaurus bataar skeleton from Mongolia, a nation forbidding the export of fossils found within its borders (the T. bataar is a cousin of the unmistakable Tyrannosaurus Rex). The resulting court case revealed the complicated history, politics, controversy, and obsession inherent in the international fossil trade. In other words, more than enough for a book.
So Williams, who was hired as a staff writer at the New Yorker in 2015, got to work. The four years she spent writing The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy sent her around the globe: think excavation sites in South Dakota, the remote Gobi Desert in Mongolia, and one of the largest fossil shows in the United States, held annually right here in Denver.
In fact, the Mile High City’s Mineral, Fossil, Gem & Jewelry Show is in town this week, and Williams isn’t far behind. The author will be at Tattered Cover in LoDo on Friday, September 14 at 7 p.m. to answer questions and sign copies of The Dinosaur Artist, published by Hachette Books this month. Before that, though, Williams chatted with 5280 to dig deep into the writing of the book—and to explain why she’s excited to talk fossils with Denverites.
5280: What draws you to write about natural history?
PW: I’ve always been interested in history. I’m almost more fascinated by what happened in the past than by what’s happening in the present. I often go down rabbit holes of historical intrigue—it fills some hole in me that wonders what life was like in a different time. In terms of the intersection with nature, I’m a Mississippian, so the outdoors was important to my family—to our history as farmers and to my immediate family in terms of recreation and happiness. So, the outdoors has always held importance in my life. Not necessarily always in my professional life, but certainly as a human being who needs to walk around in pastures, and by river, and up mountains and faraway places that seem so unusual or even magical that you can hardly believe they even exist. It’s a combination of wanderlust, and deep appreciation for nature, and a total fascination for history.
It sounds like you have quite a lot in common with Eric, the protagonist, so to speak, of The Dinosaur Artist. Did you feel that way?
I understand the impulse to want to learn. [It’s] what underlies his entire story. That got lost in the court case and all the events that engulfed him as this story progressed. A lot of people think commercial fossil hunters or dealers are just venial, crooked people. That’s not at all the case. Most of them are sincerely interested in the natural world and drawn to it for profoundly human reasons. And in their own way, they believe they’re protecting it. Now, of course, some of them cross the line, but all the good ones, and anyone I’ve ever talked to, actually, believes that they’re playing a part in the protection of nature and natural history.
Your book explores the tension between amateur fossil hunters and paleontologists quite a bit. At the end of writing this book, did you find yourself coming down on one side or another of the argument?
Well, I come down on the side of following the law. And I come down on the side, strongly, of self-education. Which is to say, if you’re not sure what a country’s laws are, it’s incumbent upon you to find out… you’ll find yourself in extreme trouble in some of these countries if you cross certain lines. So I’m in favor of people doing the right thing. And I do think there’s a place for amateur hobbyist hunters and amateur hunters and commercial hunters in the scientific world, and a lot of paleontologists will say the same thing. They just need to abide by the rules.
Did you get to go to the Gobi desert [the part of Mongolia where fossils and bones are often discovered]?
Yes. I went for most of the month of August 2015. And it was by far the most fascinating reporting trip and hardest reporting trip so far in my career. I would encourage anybody to go to Gobi, and to go to Mongolia. It’s hard to get there, expensive to get there, but it was totally worth it. Unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Did you witness any digs while you were there?
We didn’t see any digs while we were there. I saw some digs in other places in the United States, but [in Mongolia] we went to places where pivotal digs had taken place. So one of those digs was the Flaming Cliffs, which was where the first dinosaur eggs known to science were discovered in the 1920s. And it was amazing to see those red canyons and go down into them and to think about the people who came before you. And I will say, that I kept my eyes on the ground, looking to see if I saw anything interesting. To see if there might be something left behind. Because of erosion, and because of the passage of time, bits are always weathering to the surface. But I didn’t see anything. People who were there at the same time as us, they found some eggs. Some Americans. And that was pretty exciting. They were hiking one day, and someone took an unusual approach back up to the ridge. He’s a rock climber, so he kind of took a precarious route up. And as he was climbing, he saw some weird stuff poking out of the cliff and it turned out to be dinosaur eggs.
It almost sounds like it’s impossible to not get swept up in the desire to find something new.
That’s what the hunters will tell you. Once you find your first object, then you’re hooked and you can’t stop wondering what else is out there.
So maybe it was a blessing in disguise that you didn’t find anything?
(laughs) Because I’ve been a journalist so long, I don’t ever see myself getting swept up in what it is I’m covering. I feel like I can stand back from that and appreciate it from a close distance, if that makes sense. I’m much more interested in uncovering people’s stories than in uncovering the bones. Although it would have been super cool if that had happened.
You’re going to be in town on September 14th doing a book tour at the Tattered Cover. What can people expect to hear you talk about?
I’m happy to talk about what anybody wants to talk about…The [Mineral, Fossil, Gem & Jewelry Show], and Denver itself is an important link in this whole story because the show is so well known and well attended. And because so many fossil enthusiasts live in Colorado and the surrounding area, it’s just something that people are naturally interested in. It’s fun and energizing to talk to people who have a passion for this subculture and this world, who think fossils are cool and tell us so much of what we want to know about the history of life on Earth.
So will you be attending the show while you’re in town?
That’s why I’m coming then…I have told everybody that I am so excited about going to the show as a civilian for the first time in a long time. I can’t wait to just walk around as a normal person and enjoy myself without having to worry about interviews and recording and taking notes and processing those notes and wondering if I’m headed down the right track or not. I can’t wait to just go as a human being.
If you go: Paige Williams will speak at the Tattered Cover, 1701 Wynkook St., on Friday, September 14 at 7 p.m. The Mineral, Fossil, Gem & Jewelry Show takes place at the Denver Coliseum, 4600 Humboldt St., and the National Western Complex, 4655 Humboldt St., through September 16.