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Compared to most dig sites, our camp was like a Four Seasons Hotel. It had a utility truck with solar panels for charging electronics, propane grill, mess hall, outhouse, satellite phone, a beer cave sunk into the hillside, and we could park just feet from where we camped. Waugh Quarry is rare in that it isn't in the middle of a hot-as-Hell desert where wind erosion, seismic activity and time have scraped away millennia of dirt to expose fossils. It's in a forest, near a river, with plenty of access to shade (plus a bar with a pool table in nearby Hulett).
After haphazardly pitching our newly purchased tents (and making short/terrible work of it), our band of about thirty diggers hiked over the hill to the rock quarry. Over years of imagining dinosaur digs, I pictured myself—dusty button up, blue jeans, and Indiana Jones fedora perched against the blistering sun—simply brushing off 100% complete fossils like in the opening scene of Jurassic Park. Reality was much more practical, and back-breakingly difficult. Due to the rough winter weather in Wyoming, at the end of each digging season the bones are protected with tarpaulins, reburied and flagged. The following year is like Christmas morning as the new diggers are guaranteed to at least find the bones hidden last year. That was us Day One: dogs digging up the bones they’d buried in the back yard.
As we carefully unwrapped our fossilized presents, the (real) paleontologists explained how these bones arrived here, and how we could extract them without destroying priceless history. When organisms die, all organic matter decays leaving nothing behind, but when conditions are just right fossilization can occur—freezing, compression, entrapment in amber, or, the most common, permineralization (petrification). If a dead organism is quickly buried, preserving it from erosional and predatory elements, mineral-rich groundwater will fill the empty spaces within its bones which originally contained liquid or gas. These minerals then crystalize into rigid structures. Over millions of years, the bones are replaced little by little with minerals and protected overhead by sediment to keep the organism’s skeleton, structure or features intact.
In order to safely remove these fossils from the earth, the paleontologists taught us to apply layers of force. Start big, finish small.
First, use a backhoe to roughly scrape away layers of dirt (in the old days they used dynamite). Rocks break apart when impacted by the metal backhoe, but the much harder fossils do not. Paleontologists listen for a PING! indicating when a bone has been struck. Black bone protruding through beige dirt is what everyone hopes to see—the first sign of a fossil.
Second, shovels and picks are employed to work the area around the initial find, following the skeleton like a roadmap. This is where we first witnessed the incredible CSI-like ability of paleontologists to know the exact bone from the precise species only seconds after seeing it. If it’s a rib bone, search laterally for the neck and abdomen. If it’s a toe bone, search upward to uncover the rest of the skeleton. If it’s a tooth, be excited as the skull could be nearby! That…was impressive. Hell, we could hardly set up our own tents.
Third, once enough of the bone is uncovered, move down to digging knives and x-acto blades. These chip away at the clay formed around the bone which is known as the “matrix.” This was how we worked the majority of the time, carefully slicing away rock, dirt and sand for hours on end. Not quite how I imagined the glories of dinosaur digs, but somehow more rewarding.
Fourth, brushes sweep away dust and pebbles in order to clean the bone.
Fifth, if any fossils have cracks or are porous, quick-setting glue is poured into them to hold the brittle bone structure together.
The goal is to uncover as much of the fossil as possible from above while leaving a "pedestal" of rock beneath to support it. Unlike in the movies, the bones aren't fully extracted right there on the spot. That would be like doing an autopsy at the murder scene. Instead, the bones are partially uncovered then cut out of ground from below like a big rock bed. This keeps the bones in position and minimizes the possibility of further damage. Back in the lab, technicians use precise instruments for final extraction and cleaning.
The last step requires casting the bones to make molds. The originals are stored in the Black Hills Institute’s vault, while duplicates are made for study or sale.
To aid in our fossil hunt, several geologists accompanied the dig not only to study local rock composition, but also to act as prehistoric dousers. They explained that certain types of dirt and rock indicated that, long ago, a river flowed through this hillside. Rivers are where dinosaurs drank, and often, where carnivores hunted. Dinosaurs may have been attacked, drowned, then instantly buried by mud which is an ideal condition for fossilization. We found several theropod and sauropod specimens right where they predicted—these guys were truly PCSI: Prehistoric Crime Scene Investigators.
Several years before, BHI paleontologists found a curious T-Rex skeleton, mostly whole except for its tail. Initially, they concluded that another dinosaur had torn off its tail during a confrontation and it had bled to death. They soon discovered that wasn't the case: this dapper dino had survived the attack and, without having its tail to aid balance, learned to stand almost perfectly upright. It was nicknamed "The Gentleman Rex." Days later on the dig, a prehistoric crocodile was discovered with the bones of a T-Rex tail in its stomach and fatal wounds along its neck. Apparently, prehistoric justice was served. Case closed.
Though these animals died ages ago, modern paleontologists can discern a surprising amount of information from the bones: what species they were, how long they had been dead, why they had died, and, amazing but true, if they had infections, diseases, arthritis or numerous other ailments. Every dinosaur fossil we unearthed came laced with endless scars and bone-breaks leading to my favorite quote of the trip from one of the paleontologists: “These guys must’ve fought all the time.”
Yes. Prehistoric times were non-stop dinosaur battles. That’s what I’d been waiting to hear since I was five.
To be continued...