Dinosaur footprint sites, South Korea

It is not every day that you get an offer to be flown 1/3 of the way around the world to a conference and field trip but that is what the Koreans offered me in December! So mid April I found myself on a jet plane bound for Seoul (Incheon International) with connecting flight to Jinju in the south. It was a tough job but someone had to do it and it was not without risks; anyone looking at the schedule could so easily interpret it as a trip to witness the North Koreans launch their intercontinental ballistic missile!

The event was part of Gyeongnam Goseong Dinosaur International Conference 2012 which coincided with the Gyeongnam Goseong Dinosaur World Expo 2012; something akin to our Lyme Regis Fossil Festival but on steroids and then some…….! The sponsors of the trip were Goseong County Gyeongnam and the Korean Earth Science Society.

The Korean Peninsular is now famed for its early Cretaceous dinosaur trackways and they are spread around the southern and western area where they are faulted against both older metamorphic rocks and, in many places, contemporaneous Cretaceous volcanics.

The 2012 Dinosaur Expo was held in a small town no bigger than West Bay I would think but taking up a site about the size of a modest London park! There were lots of dinosaurs, life size, plastic, metal cast and even illuminated lanterns. There were several cinematic shows including the intriguingly titled 5D theatre. I have no idea how it works, but it works very well indeed. Sauropods extended their necks across the entire theatre and at one point a pliosaur bites a shark in half and it is possible to walk around the truncated animal to look inside the torn body cavity!

And then it was time to go and look at some real geology; trackways sites. We visited a couple of coastal sections with sauropod, theropod and ornithopod tracks and trackways. For good measure we also visited a famous section at a place called Gain-Ri with both sauropod and pterosaur footprints, the latter looking remarkably like a human footprint. This was one of the sites that the Creationists took as evidence for humans and dinosaurs walking together. Never mind that if you look closely you can see three claws rather than five toes. In other sites nearby we were shown large theropod prints, small sauropod trackways, a spectacular onithopod trackway and a curious track yet to be described, that might belong to a large lizard.

The natural exposures of the coast could not prepare one for the next day at Jinju inside of KyoungNam Science Education Center. Here, during the excavation for the education centre, they unearthed an extraordinary trackway site with souropods, theropods and birds complete with feeding tracks. Rather than carry on; a radical redesign of the building was undertaken and now the outcrop sits within a vast basement gallery along with its own museum! This is probably the most amazing site we visited; the distribution of trackways indicate an ancient shoreline with the dinosaurs in the shallow water and the birds feeding at the waters edge.

The next day was a return to the Goseong coast with its museum and some of the highest concentrations of fossil trackways in the World. By now we were getting used to the idea of what a ‘museum’ might be like in Korea and the Goseong Dinosaur Museum was no exception; constructed on a hill with a commanding view of the coast this was a vast and cavernous museum populated by casts of dinosaurs and a few real specimens selected from around the world. The surrounds were packed with life size and very authentic looking dinosaur models while a track led to the beach and the footprint sites consisting of sauropod (the long necked dinosaurs), ornithropod (things like Triceratops), and theropod (two legged carnivorous dinosaurs) tracks. One bay alone contained more than 750 prints.

Then it was time to decamp to the very south west corner of the peninsular and to visit the Haenam Site-Uhang-Ri site. Here, a wealth of trackways had been observed on the shoreline and excavation uncovered a massive sauropod trackway site, a pterosaur site and an intensely puddled bed consisting of a countless mass of footprints. The Koreans simply constructed three vast halls over the three sites and created the museum on the nearby hill top. The construction was aided by a scheme to dam the sea inlet to the site and convert a saltwater lagoon some 40km long into fresh water.

The landscape around this museum had been populated with massive life sized dinosaurs including Brachiosaurus, Triceratops, Allosaurus and many more. My one criticism is that these models were crammed together. Two sauropods walking together worked very well indeed, set some distance from the museum with the shoreline and water behind them, one got a real sense of both the environment they lived in and scale by slowly walking up to them. However the landscape was littered with park paraphernalia; picket fences, seats shelters, tracks etc and if there was one thing I would do it would be to remove all of this and revert to a barren landscape where the only scale is your. Similarly, why was there a carp pond? Surely one would allow this pond to drain so that the mud cracked. Where were the dinosaur footprints linking the models to the astounding sites just a few hundred metres away?

The only other criticism was that Korea has lots of footprints but hardly any body fossils. The museums are established around the track way sites but they make no connection between the model dinosaurs and the fossil track ways. Indeed, at Hageman Museum, a whole wall was dedicated to the bones that make up the feet of dinosaurs but there was no link to the sauropod, ornithopod and theropod trackways for which the country is so famous!

The Koreans were incredibly generous during our stay and I am most grateful to them for showcasing such astounding sites. The trade-off was a report on their ambition for World Heritage Site status and suggestions on their approach to education and interpretation. It is very hard, if not impossible to compare the Korean approach to our own but if only we had a fraction of the ambition and budget to emulate their approach both in terms of bricks and mortar and events such as the World Expo……. If only!

Richard Edmonds, Earth Science Manager.