A Splendid Blend of Art and science: State's Fossil Record Adorns Capitol Floor

A Splendid Blend of Art and science:
State's Fossil Record Adorns Capitol Floor
Nebraksa State Capitol @ wikipedia, Bertram Goodhue @ wikipedia

Omaha World Herald, Apr 26, 2005
LINCOLN -- Neale Monks, a paleontologist from the British Museum in London, was walking across the rotunda of the State Capitol in Lincoln when his gaze fell upon the floor.
He was suddenly, well, floored.

Before the fossil scientist's eyes, a series of beautiful mosaics (see panoramic view) in the ornate hall told the story of the evolution of animal life in Nebraska, beginning with primitive life forms -- from when Nebraska was part of a great inland sea -- and evolving into insects, reptiles, dinosaurs, birds and mammals.

It was a roughly chronological artistic rendering of the 500 million-year evolution of animal life as revealed by the state's fossil record. And one that, when laid out in the 1920s, was cutting edge in its scientific detail and insight.

"It's really the story of life in Nebraska from the dawn of time,'' said Monks, 33. "And it's scientifically and artistically gorgeous. It's absolutely unique. I can't think of a place in the world where science and art go hand in hand like this."

In the halls of the Capitol, Monks had unearthed a treasure.

Bob Ripley, Capitol historian and preservationist, knew the rotunda floor was a representation of prehistoric animal life in Nebraska. But even he didn't appreciate the scientific basis of its renderings and the beauty of the way the mosaics are organized.

For this treasure, Monks said, Nebraskans can thank Erwin Barbour, a University of Nebraska professor who consulted on the project more than 80 years ago.

One of the foremost paleontologists of his day, Barbour is known here as the father of Morrill Hall, the University of Nebraska museum that is home to a world-class fossil collection.

Monks has prepared a series of explanatory panels that went on display in the Capitol rotunda Monday. Eventually, Monk's research may be turned into a brochure explaining the natural history mosaic.

In Britain, Nebraska's prowess in football means nothing, Monks said. In fact, the "football" his countrymen care about is an entirely different game.

But he was familiar with Nebraska for two reasons: its fossil collection and a Capitol building that is among the most unusual public buildings in the world.

While visiting a cousin who lives in Lincoln five years ago, he decided to take a Capitol tour. As he walked into the rotunda, the very first mosaic he encountered was of an ammonite, a prehistoric shelled octopus.

Monks had written his doctoral thesis on the long-extinct creature. In the small and obscure world of paleontology -- the science of studying the past through the fossil record -- it's hard to fathom what a coincidence that encounter was.

"Only four people read that paper, and two of them are dead," Monk said. "And then I walk in and see my baby on the floor."

He studied the other mosaics and quickly realized their genius. His fascination with the display is one reason he decided to take a sabbatical to study at the university in Lincoln over the past two years.

He learned that Hartley Burr Alexander, the thematic designer of the Capitol, had the original idea to devote the rotunda floor to a natural history mosaic.

Alexander hired noted mosaicist Hildreth Meiere for the work, but they needed someone to provide the detail. It just so happened that one of the world's foremost paleontologists was working down the street.

"There was a lot of magic in the timing," Monk said.

What Alexander, Meiere and Barbour created became a marriage of science and symbolism.

At the center is a large circle with a representation of Mother Nature, with four circles surrounding it representing the four classical elements: earth, air, fire and water.

Animal life revealed by Nebraska's fossil record is presented on a decorative ribbon that weaves among the four element circles, encircling each one. All the animals are depicted in movement and headed in the same direction, suggesting the progression of time.

Around the water circle are depictions of the animals that first inhabited Nebraska 500 million years ago, when it was a great sea. The presentation begins with simple invertebrates and evolves into ancient fish.

The fire circle presents animals that inhabited land after the sea's retreat, starting with primitive insects, then amphibians, reptiles and dinosaurs.

The air circle represents the evolution of flying animals from dinosaurs to the birds of today.

On the earth circle is the evolution of land mammals, beginning with a giant armadillo and a meat-eating pig that were among the first mammals in Nebraska 60 million years ago.

Follow the entire ribbon from the starfish that begins the water circle through to the woolly mammoth that completes the earth circle, and you've traced more than 400 million years of animal evolution, Monks said.

It's appropriate that the mammoth is the final animal represented, Monks said. The now-extinct animal most likely was hunted by the first Native Americans to inhabit the state.

"That's where the human story takes over," Monks said.