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Behind the Scenes

Reconstructing Ancient Landscapes

Since there are no time machines, the closest we can get to traveling back in time is to reconstruct past landscapes based on evidence from fossils and rock layers. Such evidence provides information on the plants, animals, environmental factors, and topography that were present at a particular location during a specific period of time.

Reconstructing past landscapes requires the creativity, skills, and expertise of both scientists and artists. The process starts by identifying a time and a place, for example Denver, Colorado, 65 million years ago. A paleontologist locates and excavates 65 million-year-old fossils from sites in the Denver area, gathering the raw material for the painting. A geologist studies the rock layers and interprets the topography of the ancient land.

Using modern plants and animals as reference points, the paleontologist, often with the help of a scientific illustrator, makes sketches of individual fossils and what the organisms may have looked like when alive. These elements are added to the artist’s menu of landscape elements, and soon the components of an ancient ecosystem are gathered. Then the artist makes an initial sketch to develop the composition of the painting and the look of the plants and animals. The scientist gives critical feedback, and the artist begins to paint. In a back-and-forth manner, a painting emerges that is as scientifically accurate as possible.

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Meet the Scientists

Kirk Johnson

Kirk Johnson is curator of paleontology and chair of the Department of Earth Sciences at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He studies fossil plants and is endlessly amazed that everybody else doesn't.

Bob Raynolds

Bob Raynolds is a consulting geologist and research associate at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He is passionate and poetic about the ability of geology to portray past worlds.

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Meet the Artists

Donna Braginetz Donna Braginetz is known for her precise renderings of dinosaurs and other ancient life. She painted the first of the Ancient Denvers landscapes—a reconstruction of the site of Denver International Airport (DIA) as it looked 65 million years ago. The DIA painting and the public's response to it were the inspiration for expanding the Ancient Denvers project to include thirteen additional landscapes, including the one pictured here.
Gary Staab Gary Staab is a well-known sculptor and painter of prehistoric animals. His work has appeared on the cover of Natural History magazine. Gary is a former employee of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where he created a number of sculptures for the Prehistoric Journey exhibition.
Jan Vriesen Jan Vriesen is a world-renowned painter and muralist. He is best known for painting murals that form the backdrops of museum dioramas. At the Museum, Jan's work can be seen both in the temporary Ancient Denvers exhibition, as well as in the Kansas Coastline diorama of the permanent Prehistoric Journey exhibition.

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