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Creation  Volume 35Issue 2 Cover

Creation 35(2):41–43
April 2013

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Did Angkor really see a dinosaur?

Angkor-stegosaur-carving

Close-up of the ‘Angkor stegosaur’ carving. The trademark scales on the back have made it so easily recognizable that CMI speakers have never received another suggestion for what this animal could be other than a stegosaur.

and 

The September 2007 Creation magazine back page feature article ‘Angkor saw a Stegosaur?’ showed a stone carving on a temple of Angkor, Cambodia, (a. 1200 AD), depicting what looks like an artistic impression of a stegosaurian-type dinosaur.1 As such evidence clearly supports the biblical view of dinosaurs, it naturally provoked the ire of vocal atheists. Here are their objections:

“If it is a dinosaur, they carved it from fossils”

The plates along the back of the animal are unlike all the other decorative designs in the temple walls.

One objection is that the temple carvers may have carved the stegosaur from nearby fossils. However, it takes a lot of training and skill to accurately reconstruct from fossils what a dinosaur looked like.2 There is no evidence that such was available in Cambodian culture of the time. As one dinosaur researcher has noted, if there are reasonably accurate dinosaur depictions that pre-date modern advances in the science of fossil reconstruction, “then a tremendously powerful case can be made that dinosaurs were being depicted not from the bones, but from real-life encounters.”3

Moreover, no stegosaurian fossils have ever been reported in Cambodia. Therefore fossils are unlikely to have been the basis for the carving on the temple.

“The ‘stegosaurian plates’ are merely background decorations”

©iStockphoto.com/Vladmax

Angkor-temple

Road to the Angkor Wat temple.

Some objectors have pointed out that the water buffalo image immediately above the stegosaur on the temple wall has a decorative design carved above the animal. They therefore said that the supposed ‘plates’ along the back of the stegosaur are merely decorative background symbols also. The carving is thus some other kind of everyday animal standing in front of a flower symbol, or some other unknown ‘leafy’ ornamentation.

However, the plates along the back of the animal are unlike all the other decorative designs in the temple walls. The plates are also seen to hug the line of the back, and follow its curve exactly. The shape of the plates is quite similar to that of known fossil stegosaur plates. Furthermore, the creature’s plates have a noticeably higher relief than the background ornamentation seen immediately above the water buffalo.

“It doesn’t look much like a stegosaur!”

Angkor-stegosaur

The context of the ‘Angkor stegosaur’ shows that it is pictured with numerous animals known to the locals, such as a water buffalo (above the stegosaur).

Upon being asked what they think it is, the near-universal response is “Stegosaurus”.

Some objectors thought that the carving does not represent the known shape, or look, of typical stegosaurs. However, when a photograph is shown to audiences worldwide, upon being asked what they think it is, the near-universal response is “Stegosaurus”, with no other creature proposed to date in the experience of CMI speakers. Note, too, that the artist was most likely making only an approximate representation of what he or she had seen. I.e. it is a representation of a stylized, artistic impression of a living stegosaurian dino, rather than a ‘scientific’ one. We often see such ‘artistic licence’ in non-scientific artworks of all cultures, which nonetheless clearly show the main identifying characteristics of a creature (e.g. the tusks of an elephant). A writer commenting on one website, who identified himself as a native Cambodian, and who felt that the carving did indeed depict a stegosaur, wrote: “If you illustrate it scientifically, how can it be art? What about the theme of the wall?”

Nevertheless, the carver has taken the care to portray the stegosaur as standing up on the tips of its toes, as seen in the front leg. According to paleontologists this is actually how stegosaurs walked and stood, not with splayed-out toes as often seen in museum displays.

“It’s just an imaginary creature”

Some people thought that the carving is an imagined creature: it does not represent any real animal at all, like some of the other carvings at the Angkor temples. The artist supposedly imagined some fantastic creature that happened to look like a dinosaur. Of course, the problem with this is that the depiction is so easily recognizable as being dinosaurian, specifically stegosaurian. Moreover, most of the carvings depict real, everyday animals that must have been known to the artists who carved the images.

Conclusion

The simplest explanation is that the carving at Angkor is a stylized representation of a dinosaur of the Stegosauridae family. In other words it is an artist’s version of what the creature looked like, not a scientist’s version. However, the main elements for a stegosaurian dinosaur are clearly depicted: namely the strongly arched back and dinosaurian body, and, crucially, the plates along the back of the animal. No other creature known, fossil or living, has a row of such characteristic plates along its back.

Some have pointed to the carved image apparently lacking tail spines as being a problem, but there is known variation in size and number of tail spikes in Stegosauridae. And while the head is different to the typical stegosaurian reconstructions from fossils, the fact that the creature does not exactly match a modern reconstruction shows that it is not a modern forgery. Possibly it is a type of stegosaurid that has not yet been discovered by paleontologists in the fossil record.

This carving adds to the growing evidence of man having lived alongside dinosaurs in the past, right in line with what the Bible would indicate.4

Related Articles

Further Reading

References and notes

  1. Catchpoole, D., Angkor saw a Stegosaur? Creation 29(4):56, 2007; creation.com/angkor-saw-a-stegosaur. Return to text.
  2. Bell, P., Bishop Bell’s brass behemoths! Creation 25(4):40–44, 2003; creation.com/bishop-bells-brass-behemoths. Return to text.
  3. Nelson, V., Untold secrets of planet Earth: Dire Dragons, Untold Secrets of Planet Earth Publishing Company, Inc., www.UntoldSecretsofPlanetEarth.com, 2012, p. 19. Return to text.
  4. I.e. all creatures made during Creation Week, with some subsequently becoming extinct following the Fall/Curse. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments
Patrick G., United States, 23 June 2014

Evolutionists have often strongly criticized creationists suggesting this artwork to be a stegosaurus. The problem is that one of the first people to suggest this in print wasn't a creationist at all.

A photograph of this particular sculpture is found in the book “Angkor Cities and Temples” on page 215. The corresponding description of it is found on page 213:

"Roundels on pilasters on the south side of the west entrance are unusual in design. In particular, that at left shows an animal which bears striking resemblance to a stegosaurus."

The man who described it in this manner was Claude Jacques, a long standing member of the Ecole Francaise d’ Extreme Orient. He lived in Cambodia for nine years where he taught Khmer history at the Archaeology Department of Phnom Penh. By reading his other comments throughout the book, it is obvious he was an old earth evolutionist. His credentials and time in the region should make him an expert in anyone's mind. Yet he still saw this artwork as resembling the extinct dinosaur more than any other animal found in this area.

Anyone who wants criticize this carving being interpreted as a stegosaurus should start by criticizing this man first.

Steven T., United States, 23 June 2014

First, note that the plates are the only feature of the animal that distinctly resembles a stegosaur (and even so, they're not the right shape, if known fossils are anything to go by -- too square or tombstone-shaped, rather than spearhead-shaped). The tail spikes are missing (and the tail is too short, but that could be artistic license), the head is much too large, and the head bears what are either large external ears or horns -- the first is unlikely on a reptile and the second is unattested by any stegosaur fossil. It has been pointed out that except for the plates, the animal depicted looks more like a mountain horned lizard (which has very modest back spikes) than a stegosaur or indeed any other dinosaur (i.e. it looks at least as much like an animal known to exist in the area as one not known to).

Perhaps, though, the animal was based on traveler's tales from China, where stegosaur fossils have been found, and looks only a little like a stegosaur because it was based on incomplete and second-hand information. I note, vis a vis Patrick G.'s comments, that Claude Jacques was an expert on Cambodian history and archaeology; unless he dug up some Cambodian king's pet stegosaur, however, he does not appear to have been an expert on dinosaurs or stegosaur anatomy (would you ask Robert Bakker about ancient Cambodian kings?).

If it were a real, recently-living stegosaur, this would not imply that it was any Mesozoic species of stegosaur (just as modern coelancanths do not belong to any of their various mesozoic species in that order), or that humans lived alongside Mesozoic stegosaurs. But I suspect it was a modern lizard rather than a dinosaur.

Jonathan O'Brien responds

The Angkor carving shows an animal with legs directly beneath the body. This is a feature of dinosaurs. Lizards, such as the one you mention, have legs that come out to the side before reaching down to the ground. Also, in my opinion the animal just doesn't have the look of a lizard. Compared with animals seen around today, it has more resemblance to something along the lines of a rhino (though clearly it isn't a rhinoceros).

The carver was giving a quick impression, conveying the essence of the animal, not a dry scientific report. It's the same today when artists or animators for light-hearted cartoons might choose not to draw scientifically-correct stegosaur plates, but just draw simple half-moon shapes. Stegosaur tail spikes varied a lot in size, and grew out to the sides, not sticking up in the air, so in side view on a tiny carving an artist might not bother to carve them. Again, it comes down to simple art.

The head is very large, and doesn't look like a typical stegosaur's in proportion, but it still looks like a dinosaur-like head. Juvenile animals can have much bigger heads in proportion to the body so one possibility is that the artist saw a very young dinosaur. Lumps, bumps and horn-like features sticking out of the head, some of which may have been of softer tissue that wasn't preserved in fossils, seem to be common in old depictions of dragons, and we see dragons as being artistic depictions of dinosaurs. There is much that science still doesn't know regarding what dinosaurs actually looked like when alive.

Regarding the Mesozoic, we believe that the long-age geologic time scale, based philosophically on Darwinism and not on empirical science, is incorrect. If the carving depicts a dinosaur, it represents an animal that was a descendant of animals that came off Noah's Ark. In other words, the people who built the temple saw a post-Flood dinosaur that later became extinct. If stegosaurs once existed in post-Flood Cambodia, when they died their remains rotted away on the surface of the ground and were not fossilized. In the Flood, fossilized dinosaur remains were preserved because of the unique geological conditions present at that catastrophic time.

Cowboy Bob S., United States, 23 June 2014

One manipulative tactic of mockers is to put us on the defensive. They will ask questions that are based on undisclosed assertions (such as, "What about annual tree rings?" asserts that tree rings are indeed annual, and ignores that trees can have multiple rings or skip a year). There are several of those here.

I want to pick on a certain one that really caught my attention. In this case, the statement, "It doesn’t look much like a stegosaur" implies that the speaker knows what a stegosaur *really* looks like. How do you know? From artists' reconstructions? The one that made the carving may very well have been carving from personal experience.

D. G., Australia, 23 June 2014

I recall seeing a TV progam on cable, many years ago, that discussed that mythical monsters may have been a confusion resulting from misinterpretation of the fossils that had been seen i ancient times. The example was given of cyclops single eye being a misinterpretation of an absent horn like structure in the remains of a skull. Unfortunately I can't recall any details, but others might know of the program that I have in mind.

Shaun Doyle responds

However, as stated in the article, this explanation does seem to work well with this example because nothing resembling a stegosaur fossil, or anything that could be mistaken as such, has ever been found in this region.

George J., Canada, 23 June 2014

Re: the line, "Some have pointed to the carved image apparently lacking tail spines as being a problem,": Anyone who looks at a modern reconstruction of a stegosaur will see that the tails spines are too far back on the creature to be shown on a depiction with a main body of the size shown. The artist would have had to make the main body smaller if the whole tail were to be included, or coiled it around in front or behind. but what would be the point of such effort? It would have destroyed the simplicity of what he was trying to depict and added nothing to the overall message. In spite of the artistic license, the creature is still recognizable as a type of stegosaur, the same way that an elephant without tusks can still be recognized as an elephant. There is nothing else even close to it.

Narindra R., Madagascar, 23 June 2014

I thought someone would object "Well, stegosaurs may have survived 65 million years" :)

Christian R., United States, 23 June 2014

I bet most evolutionists base their opinion of this stegosaur portrait on pictures and haven't seen it in person. It's obviously a stegosaur!

N. O., Sweden, 23 June 2014

It would be nice to make a stronger case for this figure as a kind of stegosaur. But being surronded by carvings of "real, everyday animals that must have been known to the artists", does not mean this "dino-carving" is a real creature. Charles XII (king of Sweden 1697-1718) drew animals in his childhood--real animals such as moose, snake, crocodile--and unicorns. Thus, I do not think the argument of being associated with known creatures necessarily makes our "dino-carving" more credible.

Jonathan O'Brien responds

On the other hand, a unicorn was thought to be basically a horse or goat, a real, known animal, with a mythical feature (the horn) added. So perhaps what is depicted in the carving is based on a real dinosaur. There is no definite proof or watertight argument that what we see in the carving is a stegosaur. We can only offer suggestions for what it certainly looks like, and discuss the possibilities if it really depicts what it seems to depict.

Caleb L., United States, 23 June 2014

With all due respect, I believe that as creationists, we should change our reason using this carving in our publications, for the sake of testing all things and holding fast to what is good. I think this carving is more likely an aardvark.

The three reasons I have for thinking this are as follows:

1. As noted in the article, a pattern similar to the one on the back of the creature is also on the back of the creature above it. However, this is not the only other place in which this pattern is used. It is also used on the back of the creature below it, in an almost identical style. A similar pattern is also seen along the edges of the circles that frame each creature on the carving. I don't think that this is a coincidence.

2. The creature in the carving appears to be facing forward at a slight angle, as seen by the fact that both "ears" are seen. The author of the article argues that the tight relationship between the curve of the back and the plates confirms the dinosaurian interpretation, but the fact that the creature is turned at an angle presents a problem. Two sets of the plates should be shown, and the plates should be turned slightly.

3. The creature's back arch, size of "ears", length and placement of tail, and length of legs match what would be expected of an aardvark.

4. The tail of the creature looks like that of an older Stegosaurus model, with the tail hanging down. Modern models, including the one at the Creation Museum, which are based on current research, show Stegosaurus with a tail that extends away from the body.

However, this still confirms the creation model, since it indicates that aardvarks once lived in Cambodia and surrounding regions. This shows both widespread migration and extinction after the Flood.

For Christ and for truth,

Caleb

Jonathan O'Brien responds

Thanks for your interesting comment. In my first draft of the article I went into the artistic reasons why the decorative designs around the borders of the other animal carvings are not at all similar to the 'plates' depicted on the back of the animal in question. I was going to have illustrations drawn that would show this in detail. If it's of any relevance, I have a background in art, and several members of my family are visual artists, for what it's worth. However, since the article was already quite detailed and long, it was decided to eliminate this part of the argument. I'm convinced that there is no comparison between the decorative symbols you mention, and the plates along the animal's back. They are completely different in appearance. The decorative design is consistently the same wherever it appears and has a different, much more complex shape. The 'plates' on the animal's back are a simple, flat design that look like Stegosaur plates. Nothing else exactly like them appears anywhere else on the other carvings, that I can see.

As for it being an aardvark ... I remember when researching this article that I considered the possibility that the animal depicted was an aardvark. Well, let each viewer be the judge. That's as close as anyone can get to the truth in this case. We are not stating that it is definitely a dinosaur. To me, it looks like a dinosaur, not an aardvark. An aardvark has a long snout with a protuberance on the end of it, like a pig but much more elongated. And of course it has no plates along the back ... as a Stegosaur does. The 'ears' are certainly intriguing, but this alone doesn't confirm that it's an aardvark. Some stegosaurs apparently had spikes coming out near the shoulders, in the region of the head - and this might be what is seen in the carving. And as the text states, this might be an artistic depiction of a stegosaur as yet unknown to science. Granted, the tail does look similar to an aardvark's, but it also looks like a Stegosaur's tail as well. I don't agree with you about the angles. I see no evidence for this. Artistically, the animal is depicted straight from the side. The fact that the animal doesn't look like a modern depiction of a stegosaur, as scientifically drawn from fossil reconstructions, shows that it is probably not a modern forgery. It doesn't look like any 'typical' dinosaur picture from any dinosaur book I've seen. And yet, it looks very much a dinosaur to me.

Jerry B., United States, 24 June 2014

Another thought about Georges comment (I noticed the same thing) is that perhaps the snake border was carved first, so in order to make the stegosaurus larger and fullfill the entire circular shape, the end of the tail was taken out...as well as not necessary to portray that this was indeed a stegosaurus. Theres no real room for spikes anyway. They would have disrupted the flow of the carving.

Jack M., United Kingdom, 24 June 2014

Is the point you're making here that stegosauruses were around as recently as 1200AD?

Shaun Doyle responds

That is certainly a possible conclusion from this article.

Mike R., United States, 24 June 2014

It appears those that deny this from the view that is not an exact replication need to not only draw a picture of a fox but to carve one out of stone using ancient tools and see if everyone recognizes the fox from a Terrier or dog. This is an excellent carving of a dinosaur and a specific kind!

John B., United Kingdom, 24 June 2014

I have often wondered about this carving, and whilst I am a fervent Biblical Creationist, I am not so sure about the depiction of this animal as being a Stegosaurus. The head, for one thing, is far too large, as the Stegosaur only had a very small head, the size of a modern day dog. It also had around a dozen plates on its back and apparently unmistakeable spikes on its tail end. Also, according to the carving, it appears that there are horns coming from the large heavy head. It reminds me of a rhino, except for the plates on its back, which may or may not have been carved by a hoaxer in recent decades. The head is the thing that kills the notion that it is a stegosaur, as well as the very low number of plates on its back. If Stegasaur lived during the time this temple was built, where are the remains. Elephant bones are found after centuries of burial, surely there would be evidence of recent bones hanging around to be found, especially if this creature was common enough to be depicted as are the other animals carved on the walls of this temple. I think that we should err on the side of caution with this "evidence", and not be caught out and seen in the same light as those who "claim" to have evidence of alien technology and the like. I think it likely that the plates were carved more recently from the rock above the back of the "stegosaur". Do you think I am mistaken? Great work CMI on other counts, despite my skeptism in this case.

Jonathan O'Brien responds

Some of your points are addressed elsewhere in the responses to comments, so to save space I won't repeat them. The plates could have been carved later, during an alteration, but artistically I think this unlikely as the original carver would have carved the animal with high relief, requiring featureless background to be much deeper cut than the image (as seen underneath, in the region of the belly and legs), thereby leaving no rock to be later altered in a modern alteration.

If the stegosaurian plates are a modern forgery carved from original 'leafy' ornamentation, there isn't room in the space above the animal to fit the complex 'leafy' shapes seen in the other carvings. In the water buffalo carving immediately above the one in question, and also the one immediately below, there is much more space between the animals and the circular, snake-like border. Notice the very neat and natural look to the composition of the image of the dinosaur carving. The back plates fit really well within the design and don't look forced into the composition. It looks like an original, unaltered design. Like you, I think the carving depicts an animal something along the lines of a rhino, in general impression of body size and type (but of course it's not a rhino).

Another possibility is a Chameleon, but the legs look completely wrong, the head doesn't quite look right, and then there are the plates on the back to consider. The carving seems to depict a heavy, muscle-bound ground-dwelling beast, not a lithe tree-dwelling lizard-like animal.

Animal bones in today's world inevitably completely break down in just a few years. I've done years of field work in remote areas, covering a lot of territory on foot, on horseback, and in vehicles, and it is very rare to see any bone remains of animals (including largish animals like cattle and horses) on the ground. If bones are found, they are usually no more than a few weeks old, or a few months at the most. In extreme cases, maybe a few years old in very dry, parched areas but no more than that, and in very degraded condition. The bones literally rot away to nothing. Big elephant bones would last longer, but in general bones do not normally fossilize today. Fossilization requires special conditions, such as rapid burial with presence of mineral-rich fluids 'percolating' through the ground. If buried stegosaur bones were found today they would inevitably be declared by long-agers to be millions of years old, whether petrified or not. The Hell Creek dinosaur bones still smell, for instance. See 'Schweitzer's Dangerous Discovery'.

John B., United Kingdom, 27 June 2014

Hi Jonathan,

You don't have to publish this response, as I just wanted to thank you for your original response to me, following my comment. You are, of course, completely correct, in what you say, and there are points you mentioned I hadn't considered, so thank you for that.

Kind regards

John

Jerry B., United States, 1 July 2014

Could the "horns" depicted on the head be made of keratin. If you view a rhino skull, there is really no indication there were horns there. I don't have the credentials to further this discussion, but would like to hear a good explanation if there is one. Could we have represented the stegosaurus incorrectly when recreating the skeleton into its modern look shown in books. And this carving is more accurate than we think.

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