Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history.

“PrehiStories”: How My Mosasaur Rhymes Inspired a Children’s Book

We have a family poem—yes, you read that right. When I was itty-bitty, my dad would come in to wake me up, chiming a poem. (I just learned this poem was a somewhat altered version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Time to Rise.”) Dad’s take went like this:

Birdie with a yellow bill,
Hopped upon my window sill,
Cocked his shining little head,
“Get up you sleepy head!”

Over the years, my family added new and different verses to the poem, depending on the situation. For instance, during one winter cold snap, where many days fell below zero degrees, it went like this:

Birdie with a yellow bill,
Frozen to my window sill,
Can’t cock his shining little head,
Oh my gosh, I think he’s dead!

Thus rhyming, verse, and alliteration were very important methods of communication in my family—and the habit has stuck with me over the years. During the summer of 2018, while conducting the Pembina Gorge Fossil Dig, inspiration struck. We had been excavating a partial skeleton of a mosasaur (a type of marine reptile you can view on display at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum) and were taking a dinner break. Sitting around the table with friends and colleagues, I began coming up with mosasaur rhymes. I struck on a fun rhythm—a couplet with 10 beats per measure.

Sit all around, and I’ll tell you a tale:
Meet our friend Mosasaur, big as a whale!

Well, that was a fun intro! I wondered how much I could write about mosasaurs before running out of ideas and giving up? The evening stretched on, and I bounced ideas off of Clint Boyd, senior paleontologist with the North Dakota Geological Survey, and fossil preparator Trissa Ford, who were also on the dig with me. By the end, we had figured out most of a book filled with an array of mosasaur facts. The mosasaur was not a dinosaur. It lived in the water. Some were big; some were small. They had different diets, had live births, and breathed air. The list kept going, and it was fun to read, so my bosses with the North Dakota Geological Survey decided I should make a children’s book, illustrate it in a fun way, make it relatable to kids, and include a few extra fact bubbles to fill in some of the complex ideas.

A storyboard with 15 boxes and sketches in 11 of them. The sketches go through a mososaur story.

This is the start of my storyboard layout, where I played around with design and action.

Storyboard of four sketches. The first is the head of a lizard looking creature. The second is a plate with a fish and squid on it. Silverware sit around the plate. The third is the skull of a mososaur. The forth is a mososaur wearing a crown and holding a trident while he he peeks out of the water with some mountains and palm trees in the background.

These are more refined storyboard sketches, before inking and watercolors have been added.

Four storyboard drawings showing the progression of finalizing a drawing from less detailed to finished piece. The drawing is of a white plate with a light green colored fish and a pink and purple squid on it and gold silverware around the plate.

Before the storyboard got too far, I needed to figure out the feel for the book. I took a page I knew I wanted to use, drew it up four times, and experimented with pencils, ink, shading, and color.

After sketching some test runs, I settled on an ink-and-watercolor style. Not too much detail, but not too little either. All were done with bright colors. The next few weeks were spent painting, painting, painting! My storyboard was printed and taped to my desk—as I finished one page, the storyboard would get a nice big X over the image. It was very satisfying to see the to-do list shrink and the ready-to-scan pile grow.

Painting of an underwater scene where a blue and white creature is eating a green colored fish and a green and white creature is eating a pink and tan squid. Only the heads of the creatures are shown.

A fully painted page.

Once everything was painted and scanned, I had to put the images, text, and facts together in the computer. To be honest, this fiddling, placing, and tweaking probably took more time than the writing and painting. However, I am pleased with the result. Coming up with a title for the project was also fun. Since it’s a prehistoric setting about a mosasaur, and  “-storic” sounds pretty close to “story,” what if we made it a “PrehiStory”? But wait! What if we make up other stories in the future? Then it could be: “PrehiStories”!

Painting of an underwater scene where a green fish and a blue fish are looking at a large purple and blue creature with puffed out cheeks. Text on the painitng reads Fish come with gills to breath underwater, A mosasaur lung breathes air like an otter.

And finally, here is the painted page with text overlay.

Thus was born, “PrehiStories: Mosasaur.” If you’d like to pick up your own copy, they’re available at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum gift shop.

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Here is a bonus bird verse from my childhood. My dad had gone boating, and while hopping out of the craft, injured his arm quite badly, which inspired the following rhyme:

Birdie with a yellow beak,
Caught his wing upon a cleat
Turned his head to take a peek,
“Oh my gosh I’ve sprung a leak!”

Adventures in Archaeology Collections: Scattered Village Ceramics, Paleo Points, and an Archaic Donation

A variety of things are always happening in North Dakota’s archaeology collections. Here are just three highlights from the past few months.

In November, I went with several other staff to help deinstall the Scattered Village display at the Mandan Public Library. Scattered Village (32MO31) was a Mandan village. Part of the current city of Mandan is now located on top of this archaeological site. Some of the village was excavated during street work in the 1990s, and the artifacts on display are from that project. The ceramics are a lot of fun to look at up close. For instance, there is an animal effigy on this large pot fragment.

A dark brown piece of broken pottery with horizontal lines at the top and angled lines throughout the rest of it.

A reconstructed straight rim pot with an animal effigy from Scattered Village (32MO31). SHSND AHP 99.10.V9.302.2740

This vessel fragment below is elaborately decorated—you can see the marks from the paddle used to shape the vessel on the lower part, while the top part is decorated with cord-and-tool impressions.

A dark brown piece of broken pottery with thin horizontal lines surrounding thicker vertical lines at the top

A reconstructed Knife River ware rim with cord-and-tool impressions from Scattered Village (32MO31). SHSND AHP 99.10.V2.278.2935

I also can’t help but like the tiny face on this rim sherd pictured below.

A close up of the top of a piece of broken pottery. It is dark brown with angled lines and a face.

Detail of a face-like effigy on a Le Beau ware rim from Scattered Village (32MO31). SHSND AHP 99.10.V6.256.2932

Another highlight was a donation of Paleoindian projectile points from a site in McLean County (32ML1350). The points in this collection are around 9,000 years old. They are very finely made, and the edges are still rather sharp. This kind of point is called an Eden point; it is made from Knife River flint.

An amber and brown colored projectile point

An Eden projectile point, made of Knife River flint, from 32ML1350. SHSND AHP 2020A.3.47

This Eden point, below, is made from porcellanite.

A tan colored projectile point with a dark brown section spanning the width of it in the upper middle portion

A porcellanite Eden projectile point from the McLean County site (32ML1350). SHSND AHP 2020A.3.44

This is a Scottsbluff projectile point. It is also made from Knife River flint.

A dark brown projectile point that looks quite short

A Scottsbluff projectile point made of Knife River flint from 32ML1350. SHSND AHP 2020A.3.41

Another fascinating donation came from southeastern North Dakota. We were excited to receive it since we don’t have many collections from that part of the state. It includes several large trays of projectile points, drills, and other objects.

A dark gray drill made out of stone and a tanish colored point that looks similar to a long tooth

This copper point and stone drill are from southeastern North Dakota. SHSND AHP Maercklein Collection

Many of the points, including the one above, are from the Archaic period, which lasted from approximately 5500 B.C. to 400 B.C.

Six projectile points are lined up in a row. The first three are similar in height with the next two being taller and the last one shorter. The colors in order of the points are gray, tan, tan, tan and gray, tan and gray, and gray.

Here are a few of the many projectile points from this donation. We so appreciate the generosity of these donors. SHSND AHP Maercklein Collection