The date is January 11, 1911. A young German paleontologist, accompanied only by a guide, a cook, four camels, and a couple of camel drivers, reaches the lip of the vast Bahariya Depression after a long trek across the bleak plateau of the western desert of Egypt. The scientist, Ernst Freiherr Stromer von Reichenbach, hopes to find fossil evidence of early mammals. In this, he will be disappointed, for the rocks here will prove to be much older than he thinks. They are nearly a hundred million years old. Stromer is about to learn that he has walked into the age of the dinosaurs.
At the bottom of the Bahariya Depression, Stromer will find the remains of four immense and entirely new dinosaurs, along with dozens of other unique specimens. But there will be reversals—shipments delayed for years by war, fossils shattered in transit, stunning personal and professional setbacks. Then, in a single cataclysmic night, all of his work will be destroyed and Ernst Stromer will slip into history and be forgotten.
The date is January 11, 2000—eighty-nine years to the day after Stromer descended into Bahariya. Another young paleontologist, Ameri-can graduate student Josh Smith, has brought a team of fellow scientists to Egypt to find Stromer’s dinosaur graveyard and resurrect the German pioneer’s legacy. After weeks of digging, often under appalling conditions, they fail utterly at rediscovering any of Stromer’s dinosaur species.
Then, just when they are about to declare defeat, Smith’s team discovers a dinosaur of such staggering immensity that it will stun the world of paleontology and make headlines around the globe.
Masterfully weaving together history, science, and human drama, The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt is the gripping account of not one but two of the twentieth century’s great expeditions of discovery.
From the Back Cover
“The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt recounts an amazing but little-known episode in the history of dinosaur hunting. On the eve of World War I, an amazing cache of strange Cretaceous-age dinosaurs was discovered in the Great Western Desert of Egypt. With considerable difficulty, this collection was brought to Munich, only to vanish in the flames of World War II. A few years ago a young soldier-turned-researcher set out on a quest to rediscover the site and was successful beyond his wildest expectations when his team uncovered bones of one of the largest dinosaurs ever found. This remarkable account of these discoveries relates an exciting story involving dinosaurs, exploration, and the tides of European history. Seldom have I been so captivated by a book on exploration.” —Dr. Hans-Dieter Sues, president elect, Society of Vertebrate Paleon-
tology, and vice president, Collections and Research, Royal Ontario Museum
“If you loved Indiana Jones, you’ll adore this tale of two dinosaur hunters whose expeditions to Egypt, separated by nearly a century of warfare and mystery, brought to light what may have been the largest creature that ever walked the earth.” —Erik Larson, author of Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History
“Nothdurft gracefully interweaves the team’s exploits with Stromer’s own Bahariya experiences. . . First-rate popular science.” —Publishers Weekly
About the Author
William Nothdurft is the author, coauthor, or ghostwriter of nearly a dozen books, including the award-winning Ghosts of Everest, about the search for the missing mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. Josh Smith served six years in the U.S. Army before getting his B.Sc. from the University of Massachusetts and an M.Sc. and Ph.D. in paleontology from the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently an assistant professor at Washington University.
Twice-Lost Dinosaurs, January 9, 2003
"The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt" is the fascinating account of the rediscovery of the work of a German paleontologist in Egypt. Just prior to First World War, Ernst Stromer, a Bavarian aristocrat, made a remarkable discovery in a particularly inhospitable region of Egypt: the fossil remains of three different huge carnivorous dinosaurs. Painstakingly reassembled in Munich, they were destroyed in an Allied bombing raid in 1944. In 2000, a group of young American scientists returned to the area where Stromer had worked, unvisited by paleontologists in the intervening nine decades, and there discovered bones of what is believed to be the second-largest dinosaur ever, an 80 ton plant-eating behemoth.
The book juxtaposes these two stories in an entertaining and informative way. Ernst Freiherr Stromer von Reichenbach of Nuremberg arrived in Egypt and headed off to his dig with four boxes of water, a handful of camels, a Bohemian assistant who was not feeling very well but knew about collecting bones, an Egyptian in charge of the camels and their drivers and a cook. Stromer was looking for evidence of early mammals but instead stumbled onto an unknown and important dinosaur graveyard. He was correct and precise and meticulous and quite brilliant. With his little band he made amazing discoveries but the coming war overshadowed everything. The Bohemian assistant died and the cases of fossils, damaged by inept handling, did not reach the now-impoverished Stromer until 1922. For the next twelve years he wrote up wonderful monographs on his Egyptian dinosaurs. One of them, Spinosaurus, looked like a giant T-Rex with a sail on its back. But only the monographs survived the bombing raid. Stromer was a respected man of science but did not suffer fools. It appears that his opposition to the Nazi regime came with a heavy price as two of his three sons died in the war, and the third son was a Russian POW for six years. He himself was twice threatened with deportation to a concentration camp for urging the removal of the natural history collection in Munich to a safer location. After his death in 1952, he and the wonderful dinosaurs seem to have been forgotten.
The time, but not the scene, switches and we enjoy reading about the antics of a group of enthusiastic young Americans, paleontologists and geologists, who decided to mount an expedition to the same Bahariya Depression where Stromer went. But this is a an expedition in a different century, and the group travelled with Land Rovers and GPS equipment and a film crew and actually stayed in a rustic hotel near the dig rather than in a ready-to-blow-away tent that served for Stromer. But besides their somewhat better equipment-it still seems to come down to picks and shovels and hard physical labour-the group brought an interdisciplinary approach and the advantages of nine decades of additional science and understanding. Part of the interest in the newer story is the importance that the group places in trying to understand what kind of environment the dinosaurs of the time faced.
The book conveys the excitement of an expedition very well. First there is the hassle of fund-raising and then the irritation of all the paperwork and the physical discomforts and the fruitless searching. But then there are breakthroughs, sometimes lucky, and then there is the ultimate detective work of adding up all the little shards and scraps and a 5 foot long humerus and some rock profiles and coming up with an answer to what this all means.
One of the great riddles posed by Stromer’s finds was how three large types of carnivores could co-exist. This discovery of the huge herbivore answered this question nicely. But the book also makes the important point that very little is really known about dinosaurs since the fossil record is so incomplete. I was astonished to learn that fewer than 500 species of dinosaur have been definitively identified, amazingly few for the millions of years they existed on earth. As a comparison, there are about 330 known species of in the parrot family alone!
The authors do not mention that fact that the number of field paleontologists is minute and that the startling discoveries of the last decades have been the result of dedicated work by only a handful of people around the world. "The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt" tells an exciting story while recognizing the accomplishments of the past and would be a fine addition to the library of any student considering a career in this field.
To digress, this is not a book for specialists but that is not to condemn it in any way. "Popular science" is a genre that is often sniffed at but there is a huge demand to be filled. At a time when 18 percent of Americans 18-24 years of age cannot even identify where the United States is on a map, anything that arouses intellectual curiosity should be welcomed. That this book is simply-written and provides a summary of the history of paleontolgy is a good thing; that it was filmed and turned into a television documentary even better.
It is to the credit of the team of Americans that they have recognized the achievements of their predecessor in the desert in a particularly apt way. The prepared bones of the giant herbivore will return to Egypt, where they will be displayed with the creature’s newly-assigned name: Paralititan stromeri.
A Tale of Two Expeditions, December 9, 2002
If you pick up a copy of -The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt- (Random House), you will find, quite appropriately, that it bears a photograph of a desert setting on which a skeletal outline of a dinosaur is superimposed. But if you open it up and start reading, there seems as if there is something wrong: "Wing Commander G. Leonard Cheshire arrived at the Royal Air Force’s aerodrome at Woodhall Spa on the morning of April 24, 1944 …" It is a surprising start to an amazing story, written by William Nothdurft, with a co-author credit to Josh Smith, the leader of the most recent expedition to find the Egyptian dinosaurs. That expedition repeated the hunt in the area in 1911 by Ernst Stromer, a German physician who had caught the paleontology bug. Throughout the book, Stromer’s story is interwoven with Smith’s, in a narrative that is more exciting than that about fossil hunting has any right to be.
Stromer’s makeshift expedition was heroic. He traveled to the Bahariya Oasis in the Saharan desert, specifically looking for fossils of ancient mammals, and was unprepared to send back the monstrous bone specimens he found. He got back to Munich, but it was only after years of delay (the Great War didn’t help) that he got all his specimens. Eventually, as a result of British bombing raids in 1944, and because no one would heed his warnings that his fossils needed special protection, the specimens were lost when their museum was bombed. No paleontologists returned to the uninviting Bahariya for decades, until Josh Smith, a graduate student, got the idea of going. The book has an excellent account of the trip, the politicking for funds, the dangers of the field, and the excitement of making a scientific difference.
Besides being a history, and a personal account, however, -The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt- tells how paleontology has been done in the past and is done now. The bizarre roles of good luck and bad run through both Smith’s and Stromer’s endeavors. Smith’s expedition verified Stromer’s findings and made their own, including the second most massive dinosaur known, -Paralititan stromeri- (note the tribute in the species name). It also shows the importance of the expedition to paleontology overall. Smith and his fellow explorers were able to answer Stromer’s riddle of how the huge meat-eating dinosaurs of the area found anything to eat; Stromer described mostly predators. There were discoveries, too, about the ecosystem that is now desert; the geologists on the team (one of them Smith’s wife) discovered that the best explanation for the varieties of dinosaur they found in the desert is that millions of years ago, it was not desert at all, but a coastal mangrove swamp. There are plenty of surprises here, with an attractive cast of eager young paleontologists who take on the roles of fools rushing in where experts fear to tread.
This is absolutely a delightful book. Not only is it a good adventure book, it actually teaches. Being a nonscientist and more or less semi-ignorant of such things and old bones, geology, and leaping lizard type creatures, I found it to be quite informative without overloading me with massive doses of Greek and Latin vocabulary (of which I forgot all I knew shortly after high school). It put human faces on the professional crew who took part in this scientific adventure. After reading the bios on the participants, I certainly would like to read more of their travels and work. Thank you Mr Nothdurft, Drs. Smiths, et al.
WELL DONE AND WELL WORTH THE READ, October 23, 2002