Mapping dinosaur secrets
A paleontologist wants to keep the site of his fossil find a secret. Cartographer Chris Brackley explains how to put that secret on a map without giving anything away.
By Samia Madwar
In Showdown at Tumbler Ridge, writer Leslie Anthony explains that fossil finds are not protected by the B.C. government. Paleontologist Rich McCrea wants to keep the location of his recent dinosaur find near Tumbler Ridge, B.C., a secret to protect it from looters. That meant Canadian Geographic couldn’t identify the location on a map, either.
Q: So how do you go about drawing a map for a secret location?
A: I read the article and I had a sense from the editor that there was some sensitivity about the specific sites where [paleontologists] were excavating.
When I read the article I could see clearly that this is a treasure map! It sounds like the value of dinosaur bones makes this a classic treasure map, and we just don’t want to show the x that marks the spot. There’s not only the curiosity potential for outright thievery; it’s compounded by the fact that no legislation [exists] to protect these sites.
So in perhaps another province, it might have been slightly more acceptable to put the location of the sites where they’re protected by law. In this case, it’s the wild west for bones and fossils. I utterly appreciated the fact that they didn’t want anybody seeing where these [fossils] were.
The only site [Rich McCrea] was open to me putting on the map was the flatbed creeksite where a local found [dinosaur] tracks.
Q: What elements in the article could you draw on?
A: You have to take a different phrasing to what the story is. This is not an explicit map of where everything is in the article. That’s the typical map where people can see the relative geography of the story. We had to focus the map on the more general qualities of the area.
When I read the article I got a sense of the steep cliffs and bubbling pools, and the sense of the mountainous region in which this [story] took place. I got a sense of Tumbler Ridge as a community built around mines.
This then becomes not a story of just exactly where is all of this going on; it becomes a more generalized story of what is happening at Tumbler Ridge; it’s about the topography and beauty of the site. It’s about the mining.
That’s the kind of story you end up being able to tell.
I included symbols of dinosaur finds throughout B.C. and Alberta. That tells the story of where the dinosaurs were in the context of the provinces, one that … speaks more to the story of what was happening with dinosaurs when they roamed across B.C. and Alberta. That became the focus: To see how they spread across the provinces.
Q: How do you think readers react to that kind of map?
A: The reader may see that the [fossil] sites haven’t been marked on the map. In a way when we don’t show something that should be there, there’s an interest in it. When you think about how explicit the maps of Canadian Geographic tend to be, showing exactly where a place is, it becomes obvious we’re not showing where this site is. It arouses curiosity, because it’s uncharted territory, so it remains in the imagination. I think that’s of interest.
Q: Have you ever had to map a “secret” place before?
A: There are all kinds of levels of secrecy that come to mapping. [This] example [of Richard McCrea’s discovery of dinosaur fossils in Tumbler Ridge] is quite representative of what I’ve run into. It’s a local scale of mapping, or mapping something that’s known to few and has never been put on a map before. I may or may not come to know where such a place is, and then the question is, should it be put on a map?
Here’s one example: I have a cottage on Algonquin Park on Canoe Lake, the stomping grounds of Tom Thompson. The site where he was buried is a huge controversy; there are volumes written about whether he was exhumed from his grave. The grave site is not well marked. So this most important character in Canadian art is mostly known to locals, including me. I was making a map of Canoe Lake, which was to be used by cottagers primarily. We made a version available at the local store. But putting it on the map meant little; there were no signs [in the park pointing to the grave]; you had to know the signs.
That’s the map that got me most concerned. Should we put this on there? How is this going to change the level of traffic [at Algonquin Park]? It was similar to the dinosaur reality. We put the [grave site on the map] in the end, and ultimately I feel like when a map goes out to the whole world will see it, but that’s not true.
I think the phrase, “putting it on the map” comes from a very real place, because it seems to come from the consciousness of the world at large. How carefully are people going to look at it?