Bone Idol:
My Life in Time, A Paleontological Memoir

By Arthur Burleigh Chaplin, PhD

Book review by Geoffrey Notkin



Arthur Burleigh Chaplin, always known as “Burley” to his few friends, was perhaps the most accomplished, controversial, and certainly the longest-lived paleontologist of his generation. His long-awaited autobiography will finally see print this month.

Born in Dog’s End, London in 1899 — the same year that his future hero O.C. Marsh died — Burley was the youngest of eleven children. He was a pale and sickly boy, prone to insomnia and gout, but possessed of a keen intelligence and fascinated by all living things, especially the few hardy fish that survived the filthy waters of the nearby River Thames. Burley’s father, an insensitive and often violent man, worked as a tugboat captain on the Thames and regularly brought the boy, or “that tyke Arthur” as he called his youngest son, aboard to scrub the decks and work part-time as a cabin boy. Burley’s father once caught the young boy sitting at the tug’s stern, entranced by a dead halibut. Burley’s father beat him savagely with the flat fish, shouting over and over, “There ain’t no time fer lookin’ at fish scales on this man’s boat!”

Burley’s older cousin was a child actor on the London stage, and though separated by a ten-year age gap Burley and Charles became close friends. Encouraged by his cousin, Burley took a number of small parts in London theatrical productions and found he had a natural affinity for acting. Burley’s cousin and childhood friend would soon become known to the entire world as Charlie Chaplin.

By the time Burley was twelve, relations with his father had become intolerable. Chaplin senior despised the theatre and had forbidden his son “to prance about on the stage of the Lyceum Ballroom like a complete prat.” Impatient with Burley’s delicate disposition, and believing that a life at sea would cure the child of his maladies — as well as his love of acting and natural history — Burley’s father enlisted him as a cabin boy with the White Star passenger line. Burley worked on the ocean liners R.M.S. Oceanic and the R.M.S. Republic, before being posted to the pride of the White Star fleet — the R.M.S. Titanic. Burley was aboard the great ship when it left Southampton on April 10, 1912 on its only voyage.

One of the passengers upon whom Burley waited was an American ichthyologist, Samuel Ambercourt Johnson, escorting a vast collection of stuffed British fish bound for the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. Johnson, a gentle and thoughtful man, immediately befriended Burley who spent what little free time he had examining the ichthyologist’s specimens — a daily occurrence which Johnson fondly referred to as “my lunch with Burley.” Both Johnson and Burley were among the 705 fortunate souls who survived the wreck of the Titanic, though the fish specimens were lost. Impressed by the boy’s intelligence and wit, and taking pity on a young and destitute survivor, Johnson secured for Burley the position of Third Junior Cleaner at the AMNH in New York.

A year later, in 1913, Burley’s cousin Charlie was on the rise to stardom and he toured America where he was discovered by noted director Mack Sennett. The cousins were briefly reunited in the United States, and Burley had a small uncredited part in Chaplin’s 1915 film The Pawnshop. Burley enjoyed his single movie-making experience, but his heart was altogether with the AMNH, and that is where he remained for the next ten years: studying, learning, and working his way up to the position of Second Associate Curator of Paleontology. He read avidly and constantly, and most frequently the works of O.C. Marsh, the late, great paleontologist from Yale University. It was said that Burley could not go to sleep without a copy of Marsh’s 1891 paper, “The Restoration of Stegosaurus” in his room.

During his time at the AMNH Burley first met Roy Chapman Andrews and persuaded (or “bullied” as Andrews would later say) the well-known adventurer into taking him across the Gobi Desert on the first Central Asiatic Expedition of 1922. Now 23, Burley had outgrown his childhood frailties, gained an extensive knowledge of paleontology, and was hungry to see the world.

Braving 110-degree temperatures, and carrying out a taxing assignment to care for a foul-smelling and short-tempered camel named Hamadaa, Burley succeeded in being the second expedition member (after Andrews) to discover a new fossil species. When the expedition ended, months later, Burley chose to remain for a time in the east, then worked his way aboard a steamer to North Africa where he freelanced as a desert guide for wealthy European travelers — a position which held few responsibilities, but afforded many opportunities to collect marine fossils in the Atlas Mountains.

Returning to the U.S. in 1929 Burley, won a scholarship to Yale and later received his doctorate in paleontology there under Professor J. Mided, whom he described as “one of the few decent men I ever met.” Burley’s post-graduate work involved re-cataloging and curating Marsh’s vertebrate collection and Burley became the foremost authority of his time on the dinosaur Triceratops. Less interested in classroom duties than digging for fossils, Burley took every opportunity to escape into field work. In 1932, during an expedition to Newfoundland, he witnessed Amelia Earheart take off in a Lockheed Vega on her solo flight across the Atlantic. That historic moment ignited in Burley a fascination with aviation. He began flying lessons almost immediately and acquired his first aircraft in 1935. In 1940, exasperated by America’s hesitation to enter the Second World War, Burley sailed to England — the first time he’d set foot on English soil since embarking upon the Titanic 28 years earlier — enlisted with 133 Squadron, and became one of 244 American volunteers to fly combat missions during the Battle of Britain.

Burley’s skill as a pilot was not the only card up his sleeve — his extensive first-hand experience in North Africa and the Gobi made him a valuable military intelligence resource. In 1941 he was recruited by the Special Air Service and served under Guy Prendergast in the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) — a band of tough self-reliant men who operated in armed Chevrolet trucks far behind enemy lines during the North African Campaign and acted, “as scouts and brigands, blowing up Nazi fuel dumps and anything else we could find, and feeding intelligence back to British military headquarters. And, of course, I did a bit of looking around for fossils when nobody was watching.”

Much to the irritation of his squad commander, Lieutenant Levette, Burley habitually prowled about the perimeter of the LRDG’s deep-desert campsites, collecting rock samples and making sketches of geological features. On one such occasion, Burley was stunned to discover a spectacular theropod fossil, recently uncovered by the wind, about a half-mile from camp. Hard at work excavating the skull, he barely noticed when the patrol was set upon by a superior enemy force. Under heavy fire, Burley ran to the nearest LRDG truck, carrying the skull which he hid under a tarpaulin. He would likely have gotten away with the treasure had Levette not come upon it while frantically searching for ammunition. Burley is reported to have said, “This fossil will be left behind only if I too am left behind, and I would have to be very, very dead indeed for that to happen.” Burley relented and took the fossil out of the truck . . . but only at gunpoint.

In Burley’s description of the moment, his great love of fossils is at its most evident:

“We raced out across the flat, hard sand, with that ignoramus Levette and his oafish driver doing their rabid best to reach full speed instantaneously, as the shroud of dusk descended slovenly across the arid wasteland around us. A few Nazi tracers shrieked past our lorries, rocketing insanely toward some unknown point in the darkness. Careening into the Saharan night I peered intensely out of the back of our vehicle, and caught a last glimpse of my magnificent skull: lost, ignominious and forlorn; its glorious buff and ivory features reflecting into my desperate eyes the very last vestiges of both light and reason. I determined at that moment that I should return to find it immediately once the war was over, and return at absolutely any cost. But, alas, it was one promise to myself that I would never be allowed to keep. The final image of that stupendous fossil head, nearly complete and formed as it was like a monstrous greyhound, with those elegant, tapered olive-shaped eye sockets and berserker teeth, disappearing all-too-rapidly into the growing distance has never left me. That fossil is, or was, I do still most determinedly maintain, of a species that remains otherwise unknown and undescribed by science to this day, and the fact that it was abandoned so brashly, rudely, and uselessly on a pile of North African desert detritus has haunted me all my life.”

Burley was severely reprimanded once the patrol returned to Cairo. Removed from active duty, he was shipped back to London (along with seventeen crates and four steamer trunks full of ammonites and mosasaur fragments from the Khourigba plateau in Morocco). Between 1941 and 1945 Burley worked for the Ministry of Defence (U.K.) and provided vital intelligence on the desert war to the Special Operations Executive, and the top secret installation at Bletchley Park.

After the war Burley returned to the United States where his old friend and colleague Professor Mided offered him a teaching position in the paleontology department of Yale University. Delighted, at first, to be reunited with the academic home of his hero O.C. Marsh, Burley soon realized he’d made a mistake:

“And so I returned once again to the drab and dreary halls of learning, where the mighty science of paleontology finds itself crammed into squalid and sequestered corner nooks of laboratories, glass cabinets, reading rooms, and — in at least two occurrences of my own specific personal knowledge — broom cupboards. Not more than three days had elapsed when a gargantuan realization — equivalent I should very well say to the mass of a pregnant Diplodocus — dropped upon my sunburned cranium with a tremendous force, and as if from a very great height. I saw with the clarity of a Pterodactyl’s best eye that eternal banishment within the corridors of a university, no matter how respectable an establishment it may be, was altogether too severe a sentence for a man born, as I was, to bombard the blasted wastes with my rock hammer and compass, and to exhaust from those wastes every last bit of scientific knowledge.”

Burley resigned his professorship, though he maintained close ties with Yale, and indeed that institution helped fund several of his later expeditions, some of which were both controversial and dangerous. During the Cold War, for example, Burley and two Irish engineers whom he had befriended in a Dublin pub, made their way secretly into Russia, recovered more than twenty exquisite mammoth tusks from the Siberian tundra, and smuggled them out of the country, duct-taped to the bottom of cheap Lada cars bound by sea for Cuba.

During the 1950s and 1960s Burley became ever more frustrated with the strictures of academia and participated frequently in commercial fossil collecting ventures. This caused a rift between him and many of his former colleagues, who believed that the buying and selling of fossils was even worse than communism. Burley dismissed his critics as “a bunch of bitter old women who can’t find their own fossils.”

Burley continued to lead expeditions well into his sixties, but in 1967, after being run over by an 11-ton earthmover he retired from active field work. Still a bachelor at 68, Burley moved to San Francisco with his two cats, Dopamine and Nematode, and — seemingly overnight — became a fixture on the Haight-Ashbury scene and a favorite of the effervescent hippie culture. The brightly-dressed wide-eyed dopers were fascinated by the cantankerous but energetic “Dinosaur Man,” who could always be counted on for hair-raising tales of his adventures in Africa, Europe, or Mongolia.

In the late 1980s Burley once again hit the headlines when he humiliated the Reverend Doctor Oswald O. Butcher, Jr. with a brutal diatribe against creationism during a televised debate on evolution. Burley annihilated the Reverend’s own personal doctrine of “The Newest Creation” which claimed that the world was, in fact, only nine years old.

Burley writes:

“I challenged [Butcher] to kindly explain how the Earth could be a scant nine years old, when the man himself was obviously at least sixty years of age and had — by all accounts — lived on this planet for the majority of that time. However, I quickly realized that my query could not lead to proof positive of Earth’s true age, as Butcher’s measurable mental age had barely begun to approach that of a child of nine years. Butcher was so loathsome a toady, that I was compelled to tell him to his face that he, himself, was plain proof of the total non-existence of God and the ubiquitous triumph of evolution. No god, angry or otherwise, could have intentionally created such a detestable individual. Butcher could have been brought into existence only by the most relentless and thoughtless processes in the toilet of evolution.”

When he turned 90, Burley finally began work on his memoirs. He also authored numerous papers on obscure invertebrate marine fossils (one of his great passions), and published several science fiction novels. Intended initially as a film script, Burley’s autobiography became his true magnum opus and he worked on it — with considerable procrastination — for more than a decade.

Burley attributed his longevity and excellent health to a copious daily intake of scrumpy, “a noxious by-product of apples, strong enough to strip the paint off a bicycle, and sometimes misidentified by the proletariat as hard cider.”

Arthur Burleigh Chaplin, PhD., passed away quietly in his sleep at the age of 102, at his final home in Jerome, Arizona. He was buried, according to his own detailed instructions, on Mexico’s Baja peninsula in, “the most remote spot a drunken undertaker can find, so I may never again be irritated by the prattling of priests and ‘educated’ men.”


Bone Idol: My Life in Time, A Paleontological Memoir
By Arthur Burleigh Chaplin is published posthumously by Hodder and Stoughton,
London, April 1, 2005.
897 pages, hardback, with 32 pages of black and white illustrations. Price: $34.95.