Egypt shares its treasures

Behind the June 1 announcement of giant dinosaur bones discovered by two Penn doctoral students is a story of Egyptian connections, kids who were dreamers, and faculty with the goods.

We’ll start with the bones, which Penn Ph.D. Josh Smith (Gr’01) and doctoral student Matt LaManna quarried in Egypt in 2000. The bones belong to a gargantuan new genus of plant-eater, Paralatitan. Picture a four-legged creature taking up most of College Green at 80 to 100 feet long and weighing 60 to 70 tons. The genus might have been the largest dinosaur to walk the earth.

The story of the dinosaur’s discovery is also the story of students who came to Penn to study under dinosaur hunter Peter Dodson, a professor of anatomy in animal biology in the School of Veterinary Medicine and of geology. “Peter is the reason the kids are here,” said Geology Professor Bob Giegengack. “There’s only four or five places on the continent where you can go to do dinosaurs.”

Dodson may have brought the kids to Penn, but Giegengack is who got them to Egypt. Without his connections, Smith and LaManna’s dig might never have happened.

Giegengack began his love affair with Egypt when, as a Yale graduate student, he signed on to a project in Egypt to save Nubian treasures before the Aswan High Dam flooded them.

“It was hot; it was crowded; it was dirty; it was noisy; it was very difficult to get anything done with the government agency I was working with,” Giegengack said. “But it didn’t take long to realize these were the nicest people in the world.”

Take the time he and a German researcher happened on a strip of tarmac in the middle of the desert. The road led to a circle with a hatch in the center — a missile silo. “These Egyptian soldiers with machine guns came boiling out of the hatch.” The German was so scared he backed his car into Giegengack’s. “‘Please, drink tea,’” said the soldiers, thrilled to have company in the middle of the desert.

Egypt gave Geigengack another way to look at life and what mattered. “It’s my annual reality dose, when I realize you can be a perfectly happy person on an income of $275 a year, under the right circumstances.” He estimates he has been back to Egypt about 35 times over 40 years, studying climactic changes in the Sahara.

Back to the graduate students. Where, they wondered, were they likely to make a really big find and not step on anyone else’s toes? “Paleontology is competitive and territorial,” said Smith.

The place that fit the bill was in Egypt — the Bahariya Oasis, which had produced exotic dinosaur bones that were then destroyed by Allied bombing of Germany in World War II.

The trick was to get into Egypt and then get permission to take out the bones — permission the Egyptians and most countries protecting their national treasures are loath to grant.

Smith, whom LaManna described as “the one who believed in the idea in the first place,” also was the one who had the persistence to make it all happen.

Smith hitched a ride to Egypt in February 1999 with a geological expedition of Giegengack and then-geology graduate student Jen Smith, who was and still is Josh’s girlfriend.

Then Giegengack’s friend Bahay Issawi opened to Josh Smith his personal library, which contained an English translation from German of Ernst Stromer’s paper describing where he had made his famous discovery of dinosaur bones.

Stromer’s geographical coordinates proved inaccurate, but they led Smith to the site that eventually produced the skeleton that made the news. “We suspected we were in the wrong place [for Stromer’s quarry],” Smith said. “We got back in the Land Cruiser, and I was hanging my head out the window, looking for stuff. We were going 45 miles per hour screaming across the sand. Out of the side of my eye, I saw one bone on the ground, part of a limb bone broken in three pieces.”

Back in Philadelphia, Giegengack arranged an unusual contract with the Egyptian Geological Survey and Mining Authority, whose then-chairman, Mohammed Hinnawi, is a friend of Giegengack’s. “The agreement allows us to bring scientific specimens out of Egypt for study in the U.S.,” Giegengack said.

He wished that the Egyptians had gotten more credit for all they work they did, including all the members of EGSMA and the three Egyptians — paleontologist Yousry Attia, Medhat Abdelghani, and Yasser Abdelrazek — who ultimately worked on the team of 12 that quarried Paralatitan.

Giegangack said, “It’s an endorsement of what we do as a department, that these guys came to Penn and felt that free to follow their curiosity wherever it led. They were prepared and, when the opportunity was there, they seized it.”

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Originally published on August 30, 2001