In the previous post, Ronald Richards discussed the current mammoth and mastodon exhibit at the Indiana State Museum. In this post, he described what it is like to excavate fossils in that state.
Ronald Richards’ self-described “obsession” with fossils began when he was ten.
This interest only intensified when—at age 12—he discovered scientific books on the subject. He found his first bone in a cave when he was 16; he published his first paper as an undergraduate.
And when he arrived at the Indiana State Museum, he took an interest in the fossils within its collection that had yet to be studied, publishing a paper of his research. This was when he began to focus on proboscideans: the mammalian group to which mammoths and mastodons belong.
Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons has enabled Ron and his team at the museum to share extensive knowledge of these extinct animals with visitors.
He summarized the three main points of this exhibit about Indiana proboscideans: “They’re everywhere, we’ve dug them, and it’s fun science.”
Ron noted that the fact that people from the State Museum actively excavate fossils is a surprise to many visitors.
“I’d say we’ve salvaged or had a full dig—and most of it’s a full dig—on 16 sites in all different parts of Indiana,” he explained. “Most are northern Indiana. That’s the formerly glaciated area, where the glaciers stagnated. They left behind all these blocks of ice, and they melted. All these former glacial lakes fill up with sediment and mud and plant vegetation and bones of mastodons! And so up north we have a lot more complete skeletons.”
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Image of Bothwell mastodon dig, 2005.]
“There is a lot of science going on. We’re still dealing with site preservation: you know, interpretation, cataloging, trying to get profiles, dates and all that.”
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Close-up of Bothwell mastodon jaw, 2005. Water is sprayed on the fossils to prevent them from drying out.]
Excavating fossils is not an easy process, nor is it something one can plan in advance. Many of the fossils excavated by the museum were found by members of the public, digging for peat moss, for example, or when building a pond on private property.
“My general rule to the landowner is: we’re not going to lay one shovel in the ground until we determine ownership,” Ron said.
“We can’t help a private land owner solve their problem on public funds,” he explained further. “We can do it if we get the skeleton. If we can handle it, we can dig it. We cannot dig it and have them get the skeleton. That would be a misuse of public funds.”
“So, we always have a deed-of-gift before we go in and understand that everything we find—all remains, all samples and this and that—will be donated to the state museum or sold for a certain amount. And we’ve had to do that a couple times. There’s always a written agreement.”
Confusion amongst the general public remains constant about bones found within Indiana. The truth is that, while there are strict rules in place for archaeological artifacts, there are none for those related to paleontology.
“[Archaeological laws are] very tough in Indiana. If a person were to go and systematically try to dig up an archaeological site–even on their own property to recover those artifacts–they are in big trouble,” said Ron. “The conservation officers can move anywhere in the state of Indiana. They don’t even need to have permits. They can come onto your property, and they can investigate.”
Not so with fossils. And as such, if a person finds any on their land, it is within their rights to attempt to sell it.
“We try to get people NOT to sell them on eBay, bone-by-bone, to the highest bidder,” Ron continued, “because it’s part of our heritage. But [fossils are] still not protected by law.”
Remarkably, about 85% of the fossils in the Indiana State Museum were donated.
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Notice the orange tint of this mastodon humerus. This color indicates a fresh bone, pictured right after uncovering it. Bones change color from the moment they are excavated. Benedict mastodon, 2008.]
Some might equate digging for fossils with dry, hard rock. But this is not always the case, and certainly not in Indiana.
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Lewis mastodon dig, 2006.]
Unlike excavations in the drier Western regions of the country, digging in Indiana means one will need to de-water the site. In other words, the appropriate type of pumps are necessary to remove the water, another pit needs to be dug in order to contain that water, a substantial amount of gas needs to be purchased to run those pumps, and volunteer diggers can expect to work in wet and muddy conditions.
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum.]
Ron explained that he will try to encourage a landowner to enable them to dig in the drier months of the year, but it is not always possible.
Describing digs in either April or October, he noted that “you’ve got people in water screens all day with big fire hoses, and they’re soaking wet. That’s not the time to be cold. We’ve screened with icicles hanging off of our raincoats.”
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Here, volunteers skim the surface with their shovels a few inches at a time. Removed soil is screened for small remains. When a large bone is found, excavators stop shoveling and get down on their knees with their trowels. Day mastodon dig, 2006.]
“I don’t enjoy the process,” Ron admitted, referring to organizing and leading a dig site. “Anybody on the dig that doesn’t have to run it, does.”
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Benedict mastodon spine, 2008.]
“It’s one of the most stressful things you can do. You have to let go what you’re doing if you can, do the dig while all the same deadlines are still backing up at the museum. Everybody needs other things from you, so it’s a highly stressful time usually before we launch [a dig].”
“When we’re there, it’s not bad.”
“But when you get back,” he said, “it’s horrible.” And then chuckled.
“I feel we really do some satisfying things, we do some important things, but I don’t have time to have fun doing it. It’s a rare moment, you know, usually at the end of the dig, [when] I can finally relax, and say, ‘Wow, we did it.’”
“So it’s satisfaction. Great satisfaction. But it doesn’t seem to be a fun thing.”
The number of fossils collected, the new facility in which they are stored at the Indiana State Museum, and the way in which they are preserved impressed neighboring paleontologists Dr. Chris Widga and Dr. Jeffrey Saunders of the Illinois State Museum. They visited as part of a research project regarding proboscideans and extinction within the Midwest.
Dr. Widga outlines that research in his first blog post about it on Backyard Paleo:
“We started a project in 2011 to better understand 1) when mammoths and mastodonts went extinct, and 2) the ecological mechanisms that might have played a major role in how they went extinct. The major foundation of this project is a museum-by-museum survey of mammoths and mastodonts in collections from nine states and one province (MN, WI, IA, MO, IL, IN, OH, KY, MI, and ON). Over the last 2.5 years, we’ve documented mammoths and mastodonts from 576 localities.”
Dr. Widga and Dr. Saunders anticipated a relatively short visit, but the depth of the Indiana collection caused them to stay longer.
“We’re not really driving a lot of research,” explained Ron of the Indiana State Museum, “but we’re driving some of the best collections.”
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Ob-139C 71.3.226 Anderson A]
“I really just have to do the best job with discovery and preservation in Indiana and get general site reports out, with dates and all that, so we can really document it,” he said. “Basically it’s like a crime lab! You have the crime, and you have to gather all the evidence you’re going to need. They didn’t know 50 years ago that they needed to save samples for DNA, you see? But I know that.”
He alluded to possible future scientific improvements in paleontology, and how the samples he preserves now might be able to help new generations of scientists learn more.
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Ob-139D 71.3.226 Anderson B]
“So my focus is doing a good job, with documenting and preserving and interpreting, what we’ve found in Indiana.”
“And the bigger high-level stuff,” he concluded, “that’s for the people like Dan Fisher.”
Indiana State Museum: http://www.indianamuseum.org/
Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons: now through August 17th, 2014 in Indianapolis! http://www.indianamuseum.org/exhibits/details/id/278
You can read more about Dr. Widga’s and Dr. Saunder’s project here: http://backyardpaleo.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/midwestern-mammoths-and-mastodonts-the-m-cubed-project/
Once again, a Mammuthus-Columbi-sized THANK YOU to Ron Richards. His generosity, his time, and his enthusiasm were wonderful. What a great honor and pleasure speaking with him!