Bob Herbert

One of the most enjoyable things about the dinosaur tracks is that people become interested in them for such a variety of reasons. Dr. Robert Herbert is a distinguished art historian, emeritus, from Yale and Mount Holyoke colleges, whose professorial expertise is in Impressionist art. He is especially noted for his emphasis on art history as social history. To us, it was a fantastic stroke of good luck when, a few years ago, Bob became interested in the discovery of dinosaur footprints in our valley. As he pieces together the tiny, fragmented traces left behind by the obscure (except for Edward Hitchcock) figures in the story, he constantly keeps in mind the social relationships these men had to one another and the effects of these relationships on the discoveries. If you look at “Edward Hitchcock’s Travel Diaries” in the History section of this site, you will find a link to some of his online publications on this topic. 

Bob HerbertMy fascination with dinosaur and other trace impressions in the Pioneer Valley is of recent date, but it had a long preparation. In the mix of courses I taught on art history over 36 years at Yale and 7 at Mount Holyoke College, I periodically conducted seminars on art and science. Several exhibitions I curated (Musée d’Orsay, Metropolitan Museum, Art Institue of Chicago) involved art and color science, so not long after I moved to South Hadley in 1990 I became intrigued by the art Orra White Hitchcock devoted to the work of her geologist husband Edward: botanical illustrations, lithographs of the Connecticut River Valley, and classroom charts, some of which featured geological structures and prehistoric animals.

This led me on to Edward Hitchcock’s writings, beginning with his article of 1836 which first published images of dino tracks (then thought to be tracks of giant birds) and in which he coined their scientific terminology. I learned about his subsequent rivalry with Dr. James Deane of Greenfield, which eventually led to the latter’s recognition as “discoverer” of the first tracks, with Hitchcock as their “first interpreter.” By then I knew the amazing collections of stony tracks in Amherst College’s science museum (now the Beneski Museum), and in 2008 or 2009 I met Sarah Doyle who shared with me her wide knowledge of fossil impressions of this region. After I teamed up with Daria d’Arienzo, former archivist at Amherst College, to curate the exhibiton of Orra White Hitchcock’s art at the Mead Museum in 2010, I turned full time to Hitchcock’s geology and paleontology. In 2012 Amherst College published online my long study of his correspondence with Benjamin Silliman, founder of the American Journal of Science, and a shorter account of Hitchcock’s five months in Western Europe in 1850.

By then I had seen in Hitchcock’s and Deane’s publications the name of Dexter Marsh as supplier of fossil sandstone specimens. At first the two men didn’t even mention his name, but by the mid-1840’s they gave Marsh thanks for providing fossil impressions and occasionally remarked on his tracking skills. Out of curiosity I began looking for information about Marsh, who might justifiably be called the first “discoverer,” and then Sarah Doyle told me about several sources that she had already investigated. She generously gave me everything she had, and this allowed me to pursue his fascinating life as Greenfield’s stonemason, gardener, janitor, and quarrier of sandstone fossils. Imagine my astonishment when I read the visitors’ register of his own museum of dinosaur tracks and other relics that he established in Greenfield in 1846. Over 3000 visitors came to see the tracks and sign their names until Marsh’s sadly early death, at age 47, in 1853. Following the auction and dispersal of his collection, he fell into the historical forgettery, so I was happy to complete an essay about him, with Sarah’s collaboration. It was published online by Mount Holyoke College early in 2013.*

While studying Marsh, I encountered Roswell Field, a farmer in the small town of Gill, who took over the sale of the Valley’s sandstone slabs right after Marsh’s death. He became an enterprising discoverer of new quarries and was the first to identify a number of fossil prints. With Sarah, Pamela Shoemaker and Lynda Hodson Mayo of Gill, and Joel Fowler of Northfield, I’m now preparing a study of Field. It’s been greatly facilitated by Holyoke resident Bill Finn,  who introduced me to Harry Sharbaugh of Erving, whom he knew as fellow enthusiast for the New England Trail. Sharbaugh has welcomed several of us to watch him prepare his specimens of fossil fish. His generosity knows no bounds, so among other recipients, the Springfield Museum of Science has received several of his prime specimens. A retired pathologist, he’s on a level of education and skill far beyond Marsh and Field, but nonetheless seems a kind of reincarnation of their roles as fossil hunters.

Like many others, I’ve enjoyed visiting the periodic events organized under the metaphorical tent of Jurassic Roadshow, which Sarah orchestrates for the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association. I’ve equally profited from lectures and tours of the Pioneer Valley Institute, which the geologist Dick Little has formed in connection with Greenfield Community College, where he taught for fruitful years before he retired.

*My online publications can be found by searching Hitchcock, Marsh, or my name on the Five College library site or the World Cat.

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