The Adventure Of The Excavation

What’s it like on a dinosaur dig? Here’s a sample – from a very special T. rex discovery (the “Wankel T. rex” now exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History)

Jordan, Montana, 1991

I got news of the latest Museum of the Rockies dig, as I had in summers past, in a letter with a very rough pencil-drawn map from paleontologist Jack Horner, whose many talents do not include cartography or penmanship. But I got the gist of the chicken scratches. Take the highway to the ranch, then a couple of turns on washboard dirt roads and across cattle grids, around ruts and inside fence openings until the huddle of tents and teepees appears.

As is the case for digs in Montana, this excavation took place in the exact middle of nowhere. Dry grazing land, reservoirs, and dusty badlands. We were in prime dinosaur-hunting land, the famed Hell Creek Basin, where T. rex and many other dinosaurs were first uncovered a century ago. The striped hillsides are the remnants of land 65 million years old, the very end of dinosaur times. Iridium, the rare radioactive element brought to Earth by the dino-killing asteroid, is concentrated in one of these layer-cake stripes.

Three flights and a long drive had gotten me from the East Coast to the border of South Dakota, somewhere between Circle and Jordan, two towns you could miss with a long sneeze as you whizzed past at triple digit speed (the fine for speeding in Montana was then $5).

We did a lot in two weeks at the site, the ten of us diggers – grad students, nurses and doctors with anatomical knowledge and interest, and a few wealthy donors. Horner rarely took volunteers. He threw out all first-time inquiries. If the applicants wrote back he reconsidered. All of us had dug before.

We drank a lot of Rainier beer. (I don’t drink, which both unfathomable and abhorrent). Ate a lot of stew. Played a lot of horseshoes. Dug, and used, many latrine holes. Huddled in our tents as they shredded in hail storms. Fried in the sun. Watched brilliant sunsets and spectacular night skies. Once a week, redolent and unshaven, we made it into town for showers, clothes-washing, bar beer and “fresh” food (Montana’s idea of a vegetable is a tater tot).

Mostly we worked. Dawn to 9 p.m. dusk. Laborious work, but far from dangerous, though one digger overturned a rock to find a rattlesnake, which soon found her ankle. Her foot was blue and twice its size by the time others got her to the hospital.

With jackhammers and picks we’d removed 12 tons of sandstone overburden, creating a giant cavity in a molar-shaped hillside in the Eastern Montana badlands. In that hole we’d come upon a nearly 40-foot long skeleton, still largely articulated, the most complete T. rex yet found.

Having reached the fossil layer, we then switched to awls and screwdrivers. We’d carefully “pedestaled” the bones, leaving rock matrix around all of it, and a platform of rock below. We’d soaked the crumbly bones in penetrating liquid preservative to harden them. We’d mapped every bone found, searched for pollen, fossil plants and other dinosaur bones in the quarry so paleo-detectives could later piece together the ancient environment and circumstances of the T.rex’s death and burial. We’d layered toilet paper over sections of the skeleton so the bones wouldn’t stick to their protective “jackets” of burlap strips soaked in plaster-of-Paris. (Power tools and better glues aside, excavating a dinosaur has been the same messy, labor-intensive process for more than a century).

In a fortnight we’d done all that we should. The fossil bundles were ready for the bulldozer, and even a government helicopter, to load onto flatbed trucks which would haul them across the state.

It would take half a dozen Museum of the Rockies technicians, armed with acid baths and pneumatic pens, three years to finish cleaning what we’d unearthed.

It’s one thing to dig up a T. rex, another to find a place to clean it. The heaviest of the fossil bundles, six feet around, which held the animal’s hips, weighed more than two tons. It might fit, barely, through the museum doors. But once in, it was likely to fall through the floor. So preparation began in the museum’s garage and continued for months until the bones could be separated into elements light enough to bring inside.

The Museum of the Rockies’ then-director, paleontologist Jack Horner, was a genius at finding fossils. But not at excavating them. He had little interest in the process and his dig crew was happy to have him elsewhere, as, with a chisel he was considered a danger to dinosaurs. Once the bones were prepared, Horner and his graduate students would study the bones in microscopic detail.

For the moment, however, as the flatbed lumbered away, we knew only that we’d done right by “Wankel,” the T. rex named for sturdy, cheerful young rancher Kathy Wankel who found the first remains of the dinosaur.

The custom of nicknaming dinosaurs for their finders, or in the peculiar case of T. rex “Duffy,” the finder’s attorney, was adopted after the skeleton that supplanted “Wankel” as the best preserved of all T. rexes, “Sue,” was uncovered a few summers later. “Sue” was named for its discoverer – amber collector, scuba diver and then-paleontologist’s girlfriend, Sue Hendrickson. As I have mentioned elsewhere, and no one else has the bad taste to note, Sue had taken a stroll away from where her beau, commercial fossil collector Peter Larson, and his crew were digging duckbill bones. Her need for privacy was basic. She had to pee. Upon completion of her mission, Sue looked down. She was squatting over the best T. rex skull ever found.

Kathy Wankel’s discovery was just as lucky, and considerably less embarrassing to relate. On the long walk home from fishing with her young sons, Kathy had spotted an oddly-shaped fist-sized chunk atop a hill. She had the presence of mind and enterprise to drive the bone 300 miles to Jack Horner’s lab.

Shown the find, Horner did a fast bit of detective work. He knew immediately from its locale, its color, and its texture that this was bone, specifically dinosaur bone. It was hollow, and among dinosaurs, only meat-eater bones are. From its shape it was clearly a piece of a forearm thick enough that it could only have come from one particular local predator. In his short-winded way, Horner drily let Kathy know what she had found.

“It’s the forearm of a T. rex. First one ever found. Maybe there’s more there. I gotta go see.”

Defying all odds, “Wankel” was indeed inside the hill. The rarity of dinosaurs comes down to just one key fact. No one knows where they are. Most distintegrated long ago. Very special circumstances are required to make a fossil; circumstances under which sand or soil cover remains before they can decay, and do so in a manner so gentle as to keep the skeleton intact. (In other words, “if you want to become a fossil you have to die in the right place,” as I put it the only time I went off script in a NOVA documentary I hosted about the “Wankel” T. rex).

Finding the few bodies that happen to fossilize is an even chancier proposition. Layers of deposition long ago covered over the bones, and it takes movement within the Earth, and an eroding environment, like deserts and badlands, to bring ancient rock to the surface. If the rock is from land, and the land is from dinosaur time, and the land has dinosaur fossils, and the fossils have not now been exposed more than the few years it takes to turn them to dust, and you find one bone above ground that leads you a skeleton protected below the surface, then you might find a dinosaur skeleton. Small wonder then that 8 in 10 fossil finds are made by amateurs.

Geological analysis shows only where a rock formation from one time or another is to be found. And those formations can stretch thousands of miles. Beyond that, paleontologists don’t have much clearer an idea where to find a dinosaur than anyone else does.

That’s just how it is with T. rex. We know about 30 T. rex skeletons more than half complete, (though none more complete than Sue’s 90%) and many more fragments found from Alberta to New Mexico, ranging from a 3-pound T. rex turd fossil in Saskatchewan to banana-sized serrated teeth found in a Denver housing development.

Compared to most dinosaurs, all those finds are enough to make T. rex a relative dime-a-dozen creature compared to most dinosaurs (though “Sue” was auctioned at Sotheby’s for $9 million). The lion’s share of the T. rex finds, were just as accidental as “Wankel” and “Sue,” even when paleontologists did the finding. To wit, paleontologist Phil Currie, the world’s leading expert on tyrannosaurs, found one when when he dropped his camera in the Alberta badlands. It rolled down the hillside, coming to rest atop a small promontory. The “promontory” was the head of a T. rex.

Not that a systematic search for fossils can’t work – once you know where to look. Paleontologist Jack Horner mounted the only pre-meditated hunt for T. rex in the mid-2000’s. Funding it all was exuberant dinosaur collector, the ex-Microsoft technology czar, patent wheeler-dealer, and best-selling experimental chef Nathan Mhyrvold. Horner’s team exhaustively surveyed the most fossil-productive T. rex neighborhood of all, the Hell Creek Formation of eastern Montana and adjoining Colorado and the Dakotas. They found 8 T. rexes in two summers.

Goes to show you. Rare though dead dinosaur discoveries are, there are a lot more out there. You just need to walk around their neighborhood with your head down. When you find something, be prepared to dig.