Anna understood entirely why the new concept of evolution seemed unimaginable. For centuries the broad consensus had been that God had personally created every animal and plant and that the mouse and the cat, the beech and the maple were no more related than the desert and the firmament or the sun and the dew on the grass. Everything was God's work and one creature couldn't simply evolve into another, nor could animals and plants become extinct unless it was God's wish to remove the species in question from production. As far as birds were concerned, it therefore didn't follow that the sparrow was related to the starling, the flamingo, the shearwater, or any other bird, or that birds as a group were related to each other or to dinosaurs or reptiles or any other animal. They had been put on Earth, aerodynamic and fully developed, by God. Voilà. The theory of evolution broke completely with the doctrine that the Earth and all its organisms had been created by one divine being, and this was a huge challenge: how could people suddenly accept that evolution happened by itself, without God's influence, just like that?
The dream continued. The sun was now high above Solnhofen. After a quick consultation about today's tasks and a cup of coffee as black as tar, they all got to work. Anna's area was a gentle slope behind the rest of the team, and she had only to raise her head to see where the others were and what they were doing. The lithographic limestone slab spread out beneath her like a huge blackboard. She scraped, eased away a couple of layers, brushed sand and soil aside, coaxed the earth; she took off her jacket and pushed up her sleeves. An isolated gust of wind from the south forced her to close her eyes to avoid the dust. When she opened them again and looked down, she saw the fossil. The wind had removed nearly all the excess material, and though another two layers needed to be removed before the creature would lie fully revealed, there was no mistaking it. Beneath her, bathed in the light from a yellow sun, lay Archaeopteryx Lithographica, one of the world's most precious fossils. It was slightly smaller than a present-day hen and had one wing beautifully unfurled. In this respect the dream was a bit of a cheat, she thought, because she instantly knew what she had discovered. She recognized the small bird from hundreds of photos; only two weeks ago, in the vertebrate collection at the Natural History Museum, she had been studying the impressionwhich the Germans had reluctantly allowed a Danish paleontologist to makeof the Berlin Specimen, as Archaeopteryx Lithographica was known. She recognized the flight feathers, which lay like perfectly unfurled lamella against the dark background, she saw the relatively large tail feather, the wondrously faultless location of the rear and front limbs and the arched position of its flawlessly formed skull, which made this specimen superior to anything else discovered so far. In 1861, the newly discovered London Specimen had been sold to the British Natural History Museum for £700. Now Anna had uncovered one of the ten most beautiful and significant fossils in the world: the Berlin Specimen.
Her instinctive reaction was to punch the air and cry out in triumph to von Molsen, who was standing some distance away in deep thought, holding his pipe, but what she needed now was a plan. Anna had to beckon von Molsen in a manner that made it clear she had stumbled across something extraordinary, while simultaneously sounding sufficiently vague in her conclusion so von Molsen wouldn't get the impression that she already knew what she had found. That would surely make him suspicious.
Von Molsen turned around instantly when she called him and came toward her with reverence. When he reached her, he knelt down by the excavation and stared for a long time at the fossilized animal that was emerging. Carefully, he worked on the last two layers of the limestone sediment, whereupon, with great awe, he traced the perfect body of the small bird with his finger. Anna knew that the bird was 150 million years old.
Excerpted from The Dinosaur Feather by S J Gazan. Copyright © 2013 by S J Gazan. Excerpted by permission of Quercus. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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