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Virtual access to fossil and archival material from the German Tendaguru Expedition (1909-1913)

Dysalotosaurus lettowvorbecki skeleton in exhibition

The extensive, globally relevant research collection of the MfN can be described as an archive of knowledge for answering questions about the past, present, and future. At the same time, however, the history of the institution and the collection is inextricably linked with the history of colonialism. The project  “Research and Responsibility: Virtual access to integrated fossil and archival material from the German Tendaguru Expedition (1909-1913)” is part of the Museum’s efforts to create transparency and accessibility to collections from colonial contexts and to develop international cooperation with partners in the regions of origin of the objects.

The collection of fossil vertebrates and related written and photographic material that the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin (MfN) holds from the German Tendaguru Expedition (GTE) (1909-1913) can be regarded in equal measure as part of the world cultural and natural heritage. The core of the collection is formed by the 225 tons of dinosaur material, accounting for approximately 5000 single bones plus 5 skeletal mounts of different dinosaurs. The material was excavated in an area that spans around 80 square km around the Tendaguru, a landmark hill near the coastal town Lindi in southern Tanzania. The fossil bearing strata of the so-called Tendaguru Formation are dated to the Late Jurassic (Kimmeridgian-Tithonian), and are therefore between 157 and 145 MA old. In addition to the fossils themselves, the material of the GTE at the MfN comprises an extensive documentation of the excavations, which were carried out under colonial conditions, and related documentation of later periods in Germany. The archived photographs, correspondences, administrative files, account books, diaries, drawings and the like are stored in the Historical Image and Document Collections (HBSB, Historische Bild- und Schriftgutsammlungen Berlin) and provide an indispensable source for multidisciplinary research.

What makes the Tendaguru fossils specifically fascinating and complex objects is not only their outstanding palaeontological but also their historic significance. They were excavated between 1909 and 1913 in the then colony of German East Africa, a region in modern-day Tanzania. In this respect, the fossils from Tendaguru are paradigmatic colonial objects, evidencing the more often than not violent extractivism of colonial collecting practices. For a couple of decades now the fossils from Tendaguru have not only been part of restitution claims by Tanzanian researchers, politicians and publics, but are also in the center of  critical debates and investigations of the  colonial history of natural history collections, of science and of museums. We aim to create a digital collection that is globally accessible for scientists and corresponds to the FAIR data principles of the European Commission Expert Group on FAIR Data principles. Making the data available worldwide will serve as a resource for different communities of all countries to develop their own research approaches or use the data for publicity for variable purposes, and will support everyone in their research/approach, thereby promoting equal chances in science and humanities research. 

Objectives of the project

The contested past of the Tendaguru collection, but also its high popularity and the great importance for the sciences and the humanities, is contrasted by the fact that the processing of all materials of the entire Tendaruru expedition has so far only been carried out in rudimentary form and is primarily guided by individual scientific interests. The current patchy state of digitization of the paleontological and historical Tendaguru materials does not do justice to the outstanding importance of the collections for natural and social science research, which is increasingly based on comprehensive digital resources. The overall goal of this and future projects is to make the collection globally and interdisciplinarily accessible by combining all digital contents (object digital models, data, images and documents, archival materials, results, publications) of the GTE in one data platform, make them jointly researchable and usable for specific target groups across all object groups, and allow linking an export of data to other specific databases. Through the process of this project, workflows and models for suitable methods of 3D digitization of larger collections of fossil vertebrates will be established, and procedures for integrating and making digitally available research objects from colonial contexts are assessed. The pilot project will serve as a first part for a comprehensive collection exploitation, and focus on material of the iconic sauropod Giraffatitan brancai and the small ornithopod Dysalotosaurus lettowvorbecki that includes slightly more than 1100 bones. 

Giraffatitan brancai (pictured below) is the most popular dinosaur from the Tendaguru expedition and its skeleton forms the centerpiece of the main dinosaur exhibition at the MfN. Giraffatitan belongs to the sauropod dinosaurs, the largest land-living vertebrates ever. It was a ca 23 m long and more than 13 m high  plant-eating dinosaur with a remarkably long neck and a small head, columnar limbs and a weight up to 38 metric tons. Dysalotosaurus lettowvorbecki (see image above) is the smallest dinosaur from the Tendaguru region. It was a small, plant-eating and bipedal bird-hipped dinosaur and its fossils were found in huge quantities at the Tendaguru. This dinosaur is also historically significant, as colonial history immortalised in the name of this species. The species was named after Major General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, commander of the German colonial army in German East Africa during the First World War. The cruel and inhumane warfare under his command claimed many African victims. After the First World War, Lettow-Vorbeck demanded the return of the German colonies. 

Giraffatitan brancai

Two main goals form the basis of initial project:

I. Applying different methods to capture 3D surface models from dinosaurs of the GTE and devise unified quality criteria for 3D digitization, devising a workflow from digitizing to databasing

A workflow for the capture of 3D geometries from different fossil digitization objects (varying in terms of size, surface complexity and color) has to be devised, focussing on the aim to create high quality 3D models of each specimen. A suite of different techniques for 3D digitization, in particular photogrammetry and surface laser scanning for objects larger than 10 cm will be used. Specimens smaller than 10 cm will be digitized with macrophotography and focus stacking, testing the suitability of this method in terms of the quality of the created meshes. All digital objects derived from one of these techniques will be assessed with regard to the overall quality criteria for 3D models. The workflow includes also the steps from generating 3D models to their storage in the respective database. The generated 3D models will be included within a digital specimen network (DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biac060) of its correspondent physical specimen and have to be assessed for long time storage and user-friendly formats.

II. Data transfer and accessibility - linking historical documents with fossils in a data portal

The project aims at developing concepts, models and workflows to link the historical documents with the fossil objects and their digital representation. For this objective, digital indexing of archival data related to Giraffatitan and Dysalotosaurus is necessary. The best research environment, which allows displaying all available information and thereby providing a causal nexus for all available information concerning the GTE, as well as making the data accessible for different communities and providing easy access of all types of data, needs to be assessed here. Part of this objective is also to follow up on current debates on colonial museum objects by answering fundamental questions about making them accessible, such as the language used, the integration of local perspectives and epistemologies, the hierarchisation of knowledge, and the translation into non-European languages.

page from sketch book of Tendaguru expedition
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