As you may have read on the mainpage, the Creation "Museum" in Kentucky was using this Memorial Day weekend to open a new exhibit: a semi-complete skeleton of Allosaurus fragilis named Ebenezer.
As you may have also read on the mainpage, the paleontological profession, in particular the vertebrate paleontological profession, is really interested in figuring out how to balance private and public ownership of fossils.
Obviously you want to know more about the interplay between those two, right? Cool. I'm going to talk a lot about Ebenezer. There's a tl;dr at the end if you don't like text.
Ebenezer, courtesy of Answers in Genesis (AiG).
Ebenezer may be a dinosaur devoid of data
One of the points that vertebrate paleontologists try to make about private ownership of fossil specimens is that it can possibly break a data chain. A fossil locality is a point or area in three-dimensional space that, besides having one or multiple fossils specimens, also has important paleontological, geological, or geochemical data present at that locality. It's entirely possible to keep this data with a privately owned fossil, but this is an uncommon occurrence. I'll mention three chunks of data that may be lost in private ownership of a fossil.
Wikipedia user J. Spencer provides this map of localities where Allosaurus is known from.
Where and when is a fossil from: This AiG page mentions that the allosaur was "found in the Morrison Formation of North America (specifically in northwestern Colorado)". Ebenezer probably has more spatial information than "northwestern Colorado", up to and including GPS coordinates that give latitude, longitude, and elevation. If this data is gone, then Ebenezer is devoid of spatial data. Ebenezer probably has more stratigraphic information than "the Morrison Formation", as scientists know that the Morrison contains fossils from around ten million years of the late Jurassic. If this data is gone, then Ebenezer is devoid of stratigraphic data.
The preservation of the fossil: the orientation of the body in death can help us make more informed guesses about musculature and behaviour of extinct organisms. In the discussion of Ebenezer, I am seeing no indication of whether this data exists or to what degree it exists. An AiG website quotes Dr. Snelling as stating "It was found with its bones arranged in their correct anatomical positions relative to each other, rather than in a scattered assortment of bones as is often the case": does Ebenezer come with field notes proving this? If not, then this data is gone, and Ebenezer is devoid of taphonomic data. The Creation "Museum" had Ebenezer restored by "a Utah-based expert – who did not want to be named". Was that person trained in museum studies or did that person have experience in putting together museum fossil displays?
The depositional environment of the fossil: As you can see from photographs of Ebenezer, this specimen no longer has its original preservation; each skeletal element has been prepared out of matrix, presumably during the more than ten years that its private owners had access to it. Have samples of the matrix been saved for future geochemical work on the depositional environment of Ebenezer? If not, then this data is gone, and Ebenezer is devoid of environmental data.
Without information from the Creation "Museum", I have no way of knowing how data-deficient Ebenezer is. Ebenezer could have field notes, photographs of the excavation, and rock matrix samples stored away somewhere. If Ebenezer has these things, then Ebenezer is useful to science. If Ebenezer does not, then Ebenezer is useless scientifically.
An Allosaurus named Ebenezer walked into a bar. "Why the long face?" asked the bartender. "Because I'm being used to indoctrinate children into a worldview that equates science and Satan by ideologists who proclaim themselves the only true Christians on the planet," said Ebenezer. Photo courtesy of AiG.
Ebenezer may be a dinosaur lost to science because of private ownership
The people who might know the answer to these questions are Michael and Stephen Peroutka of the Elizabeth Streb Peroutka Foundation. They offered and donated Ebenezer to the Creation "Museum", presumably because part of their ideologies agree: they agree that the earth, universe, and everything is less than 7000 years old and that the only people saying otherwise are spreading Satanic misinformation. The Creation "Museum" press release happily said the Peroutkas donated "their allosaur", which is similar to a press release talking about "their Picasso" or "their Egyptian mummy".
Obviously a person does not have to be a press release writer for a young-Earth creationist organization to feel like people can or should own dinosaur fossils. But private ownership of fossils helps foster a culture wherein people think that they have a right to purchase specimens of scientific importance. More disturbingly from a scientific viewpoint, these particular private owners felt that they had a right to modify a fossil, not just cleaning the fossil bones but also removing them from matrix so they make a skeleton. Were there any skin impressions on Ebenezer? Was anything found preserved in the gut cavity? Unless the over-preparation was being done under skilled eyes, these possible sources of data may have been lost.
As an aside on The Brothers Peroutka… Steve Peroutka helped create ( an Internet radio network focused on anti-abortion rhetoric. Michael runs an organization called the Institute on the Constitution which argues contrary to evidence that the United States was founded solely on Biblical principles. Also a few years ago he argued that evolution is anti-American. Here's some video in case you're interested in what kind of person buys a dinosaur and then donates it to a young-earth organization.
The Brothers Peroutka are Catholics, which is interesting because Answers in Genesis's Statement of Faith flatly contradicts several Catholic teachings. It's up to the Brothers Peroutka if they're okay with "their allosaur" being used by an institution that disagrees with their Catholic faith but which agrees with them that abortion, evolution, and homosexuality are all evil evil things.
Four vertebrates who last shared a common ancestor hundreds of millions of years ago and who evolved through completely natural means. From left to right, Dr. Andrew Snelling, Ken Ham, Michael Peroutka (front), Ebenezer (back). Photo courtesy of AiG.
Ebenezer is being advertised as worth something
Ken Ham, as the person in charge of the Creation "Museum", wants to use dinosaurs to further his ideology. He knows that dinosaur paleontology captures the attention of public audiences, and so for his "museum", he wants dinosaur skeletons. He wants his "museum" to look like real natural history museums, to pretend as if his "museum" and those museums are equivalent. To quote from Mr. Ham:
While evolutionists use dinosaurs more than anything to promote their worldview, especially to young students, our museum uses dinosaurs to help tell the account of history according to the Bible. … For decades I've walked through many leading secular museums, like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and have seen their impressive dinosaur skeletons, but they were used for evolution. Now we have one of that class for our museum, and it will help us defend the book of Genesis and expose the scientific problems with evolution.
So, like most natural history museums that want dinosaur skeletons, he hired a paleontologist and gave that paleontologist a budget to go out and do field work to retrieve a dinosaur. He hired a prep lab and staffed it with both volunteers and staff to prepare the fossils, and… LOL no, he didn't do that. He wanted to buy one.
Ham's hope to obtain a world-class dinosaur for the museum had been held back because excellent skeletons were cost prohibitive. Thus he did not seek one out.
He took a donation. And then the news release staff of his "museum" gloated about the market price of the dinosaur, as if dinosaur fossils are economic commodities:
The 30-foot-long, 10-foot-high allosaur, after recent cleaning and restoration, has been reappraised at $1 million.
It makes sense for the Brothers Peroutka to gloat about the price of their donation (Jesus said to do that, in Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4) so they can write it off on their tax documents or something. I guess the news release staff of the Creation "Museum" has to talk about the market price of Ebenezer so that their "museum" sounds more palatable to possible investors.
The million dollar "worth" of Ebenezer is based on a semi-legitimate market that even actual news organizations like the BBC have been fooled into thinking is mostly-legitimate. If our world values scientific research, dinosaur skulls have no market value because they're priceless resources from the past. The Creation "Museum" is willing to claim that dinosaur skulls have a market value. I find this to be an interesting perspective by a place that wants to be viewed as a museum.
Michael Peroutka talks in front of a fossil thousands of times older than he thinks the Earth is. Photo courtesy AiG
Dr. Snelling wants to do science with Ebenezer
Dr. Snelling of the Creation "Museum" would like to put parts of Ebenezer into a CT machine. That's not an uncommon thing to do with fossil skulls: internal cranial anatomy is an informative source of data, and CT scanning fossil skulls is a much better idea that cutting through them in sections as earlier paleontologists and anatomists had to.
But most internal cranial anatomical data is used for telling us about the ecology and/or evolution of the now-extinct animal. The Creation "Museum" already knows the answer to both of those questions. Ebenezer, as an animal deposited in what scientists call the Mesozoic Era, was deposited in the fossil record during Noah's Flood. Ebenezer's ecology was that it was a large carnivorous animal in pre-Flood times. As a pre-Flood animal, it would have to compete with everything that scientists have found in rocks of Paleozoic and Mesozoic age in northwestern Colorado. Imagine Jurassic Park after Nedry turned off the power, make it more crowded by at least a magnitude, and remember that pre-Bronze Age humans at this time are also trying to survive. That's the world that Ebenezer lived in, according to the claims of the Creation "Museum". Rather than being the alpha predator of the Morrison, Ebenezer was one of several large theropod dinosaurs all precariously struggling to survive.
And as far as the evolution of Ebenezer… The Creation "Museum" says Ebenezer is a member of a baramin of theropod dinosaurs that was created during the Creation Week. That baramin probably evolved a bit from the Fall of Man until the Flood. I don't know how much any "baraminologist" can inform this discussion more.
Dr. Snelling is also an interesting person to be interested in dinosaur internal cranial anatomy, because that is in no way his specialization. Dr. Snelling obtained his PhD from the University of Sydney in 1980 with a dissertation about geochemical research into uranium deposits in Australia's Northern Territory. Uranium geochemistry and internal cranial anatomy don't have a lot to do with each other.
I can't find a copy of Dr. Snelling's dissertation so I don't know if he explained these uranium deposits using scientific or young-earth creationist interpretations. Presumably, he used science; as one website happily points out, Dr. Snelling is willing to use scientific wording to sound legitimate when working as a scientist, and young-earth creationist wording when speaking to fellow young-earth creationists.
If Dr. Snelling scans Ebenezer, gets useable CT data, and intends to publish on it, which will he do? Will he talk about Ebenezer in a scientific context, or will he talk about Ebenezer in a young-earth creationist context? If it's the former then he would be lying to scientific audiences about his beliefs, if it's the latter he would be publishing scientific results in a forum that few legitimate paleontologists will take seriously. It sounds like he might be leaning towards the latter:
He has already started a site study in Colorado, in collaboration with Dr. John Whitmore, geology professor at Cedarville University, to discover more about the animal's demise. Their research will be published in AiG's peer-reviewed Answers Research Journal.
Some of this research has already occurred, at least according to a PR release from the young-earth creationist university that employs Dr. Whitmore.
John Whitmore, Ph.D., professor of geology at Cedarville University, was invited by Dr. Andrew Snelling of the Creation Museum to investigate the collection site in Colorado.
This makes it sound as if Dr. Snelling knows the fossil locality where Ebenezer was collected, which makes it sound like the spatial information of Ebenezer was kept with the fossil. If so, that's great for Ebenezer's utility to science, and thus a shame that it's locked up at the Creation "Museum".
Dr. Whitmore brought seven advanced geology students from Cedarville to help with the work.
My apologies to those seven students if they plan on getting any job in science with a degree from Cedarville.
"Ebenezer was buried in a site filled with sandstone and volcanic debris," said Whitmore. … Based on the characteristics of the rock, Whitmore believes that huge mudflows (common phenomenon from volcanoes, such as Mt. St. Helens in 1980) came from a volcanic region somewhere west of the site and were responsible for the burial of many of the dinosaurs in this particular rock layer.
1. Young-Earth creationists like referring to Mt. St. Helens's eruption because it was a geological event in recent history that changed local topology over a matter of minutes. So they try to argue that, during the Flood, thousands of catastrophic events like Mt. St. Helens's eruption were occurring. ... except that Mt. St. Helens's eruption occurred on a planet not being entirely covered with water, which would make it a really different geological situation, since volcanoes erupting above- and underwater behave very differently.
2. This hypothetical volcanic region west of northwestern Colorado would be, in Dr. Whitmore and Dr. Snelling's beliefs, erupting while the world was also being covered with previously-unseen amounts of rain and water being pushed up from below the Earth's surface. Amounts of rain that, literally, covered the entire world with water. According to science, northwestern Colorado was underwater for a few hundred million years, then it rose in elevation as the ancestral Rocky Mountains and has stayed above sea level since then. How a flood geologist would explain this data (that highly suggests being underwater and then not at all underwater, which is kind of the opposite of what flood geologists expect) is problematic, but I'm sure that Dr. Whitmore and Dr. Snelling can make up something to explain how Ebenezer died during the Flood… in a terrestrial setting with mudflows. On top of a thick marine setting.
Dr. Whitmore seems, at face value, to be a more honest young-earth creationist than Dr. Snelling. He stopped his scientific education at a bachelor's level, obtaining fake science degrees at places of learning that agree with his ideology: his masters degree was obtained by him at the Institute for Creation Research and his doctorate was obtained at Loma Linda University. That said, he also publishes papers talking about millions of years even though he doesn't claim to believe in such things.
Let me give you a preview of what their conclusions about Ebenezer's demise will be: if they publish in young-earth creationist papers, they will say Ebenezer died in a global catastrophic flood that ended roughly 4364 years ago.If they publish in scientific papers, they will argue that Ebenezer died in a catastrophic event, with the unfounded implication that all Morrison Formation fossils did likewise.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty and via Wikimedia Commons. Photo originally at slate.com
The big picture
In our world, there are cases in which national laws allow for fossils to be privately owned without very few restrictions. Once a fossil is in private ownership, it's up to the owner what happens to the fossil. The Brothers Peroutka decided to donate the fossil they owned to a young-earth creationist ministry organization parading as a natural history museum. Assuming Ebenezer was collected on private land, they have every legal right to do so, and the Creation "Museum" has every right to show off Ebenezer, make money off gullible people with the skeleton, and publish "research" on Ebenezer in their crank journal.
If we think that these actions of theirs are somehow bad, then we have to step back and admit that private ownership of at least some fossils might not be good. I'd suggest that dinosaur skulls, being relatively rare, shouldn't be in private ownership. If this is the case, then society needs to be consistent in its outrage. If anyone knows Nicolas Cage, they would do well to let him know that he should not own a Tarbosaurus bataar skull, because doing so violates Mongolian law (unless it was collected before a certain time cut-off) and hurts science. If anyone knows Leonardo DiCaprio, they should let him know that he shouldn't be bidding on dinosaur skeletons, and that hopefully since 2007 he has grown wiser and regrets his youthful poor choices. If anyone knows Newt Gingrich, let him know that by displaying a cast of a museum specimen he helped American jobs and didn't hurt American paleontology.
tl;dr: Dinosaur private ownership might be upsetting but, unless we change laws and/or social ethics, it's not illegal or wrong. But if you think it should be illegal or wrong, give the Creation "Museum" and Nicolas Cage the same amount of grief, because they are both holding onto what could be scientifically-useful specimens.
PS if you use any permutation of this image as a comment, please be aware that it makes no sense, because Indiana Jones never ever actually puts the things he finds into museums.
UPDATED to Add: In searching around for information on Ebenezer, I missed out on this quick mention of where Ebenezer came from.
Excavated in Colorado in 2002 by people working with Pete DeRosa's family, and then acquired by the Elizabeth Streb Peroutka Foundation
The CM's press release skims over a long story which I had totally forgotten about. To quote CreationWiki's summary of the story:
In the fall of 2000 Dana Forbes discovered an Allosaur on his property located in the Skullcreek Basin of northwest Colorado. The Allosaur was subsequently excavated under the direction of creation scientist Joe Taylor and his team from the Mt. Blanco Fossil Museum (Crosbyton, TX). Assistance was provided in 2001 by Carl Baugh from the Creation Evidence Museum (Glen Rose, TX), the Derosa Family from Creation Expeditions (Crystal River, FL), and in 2002 by a homeschool tour group from Vision Forum.
Unmentioned in that is that Mr. Forbes, the landowner and thus initial owner of Ebenezer, did try to make money off the find as well. This all degenerated into a conflict in 2002 when Vision Forum and Creation Expeditions put out a documentary about the excavation which almost entirely ignored Mr. Taylor's work, Mr. Taylor got angry, and angry words got thrown around between multiple young-earth creationists.
For several years after the find, both sides issued their versions of what happened at the excavation site.
A documentary was made, Web sites were established, letter-writing campaigns were organized - a full-fledged battle of words between the two sides erupted.
Then, in April 2004, everyone sat down and agreed to a settlement. The agreement ensured Taylor would be paid $124,843 for his share of the Allosaurus, which was sold to a third party for $200,000.
Presumably that third party was the Elizabeth Streb Peroutka Foundation. Apparently Mr. DeRosa's team, Creation Expeditions, still had access to Ebenezer at said time, because in late 2005 it showed off the preparation work they had done on Ebenezer's skull.
So Ebenezer is a fossil collected by private collectors, on private land, who ranged in field experience from none to some. These private collectors didn't all work together and so one can't assume that they all coordinated together in keeping good notes. Its preparation was primarily done by a group which had almost no experience in preparation.
None of this is very reassuring, but it's entirely possible that young-earth creationists did the work necessary to preserve the data needed to make Ebenezer a scientifically-useful dinosaur. Since Ebenezer is now at the Creation Museum, where almost no one will go study it, I don't know if this makes me feel better or worse about the situation.