Dinosaurs are having a big year. Jurassic Park is in the cinema. David Attenborough’s Prehistoric Planet is on Apple TV+. Next month, Stephen Fry will present a Channel 5 series in which he is transported 180 million years back in time (insert your own “if only” jokes here), and Sotheby’s will sell a T-Rex skull called Maximus for an estimated $20 million.
All these things are expensive. Arriving on a more modest budget is Into Dinosaur Valley with Dan Snow (Channel 5). Snow started out as a military historian but has carved out a healthy career covering everything, from Tutankhamun and the Terracotta Warriors to 1066 and the Vikings. He’s pretty good at it too, making accessible programmes without treating the audience like idiots. And he’s a likeable presence who hasn’t disappeared up his own fundament.
This programme focused on the great 19th-century “dino rush” in which explorers flocked to the American West in search of prehistoric treasures. And, specifically, the “Bone Wars” between rival palaeontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope.
It was a neat mix of history and CGI T-Rexes. Snow followed in the footsteps of Marsh and Cope, attempting to give us a sense of the conditions in which the two men and their teams set to work. “I’m wilting and it’s my first day. They did it for months on end,” said Snow, after a couple of hours in the baking heat.
Between them, Cope and Marsh discovered more than 130 new species of dinosaur, including the triceratops, brontosaurus and diplodocus (pronounced here as diplo-doh-cus by Snow, and dip-lod-ocus by a palaeontologist, the latter favoured by the scientific community). Marsh found the remains of a pterodactyl and stegosaurus. Cope found the vertebrae of a plesiosaur but his efforts to reconstruct it were ridiculed by Marsh, who said Cope had put the head on the wrong end.
Neither of them discovered the famous Dippy (a cast of which is now the Natural History Museum’s star attraction). This part of the world was so rich in dinosaur fossils that a railroad worker called William Reed stumbled across a gigantic thigh bone in Como Bluff, Wyoming. He advertised it in the newspaper – “Most Colossal Animal Ever on Earth Just Found Out West” – and the story caught the eye of industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who financed a dig of the area. Snow told us at the beginning of the show that Dippy was the first dinosaur he ever saw as a child, so its appearance here wrapped things up nicely.