Excavation Journal

May 3, 2001: Bones, Brooms, and Paintbrushes

The sky looked clear as I peeked out my window early this morning, and I was happy to think that our video shooting schedule would probably not be delayed again. The weather forecast was unrevealing – 40 percent chance of showers, or snow in higher elevations (that would be us), all day, with a low pressure system sort of just hanging around all of Utah, temperatures much below normal for early May. To me, 40 percent chance of showers meant 60 percent clear, so I was ready to go. We (Alma, Art, Kelly and I) loaded up our equipment (Two Betacam camcorders, tripods, tapes , batteries, extra still cameras, and all the associated accessories)

Barry Albright (at right) being interviewed. He is sitting at the excavation site. Camera Crew Alma Lively and Kelly Rigby are being directed by Art Ferraro. I'm holding the cue cards.

and headed toward the dig site at about 8 a.m. We were to meet the paleontologists, David Gillette, Barry Albright and Alan Titus at the site. Alan was bringing several students from nearby Kanab High School to conduct interviews about the work.

It takes about an hour to drive from Tropic, where we were staying, to the site, mostly over dirt roads, some pretty rugged. Then it's another 20-minute walk. Vehicle access is restricted about a mile from the site so we hiked all of our gear in. Luckily, the path to the site is fairly flat. (There is a lot of flat land on top of the plateau.)

The vehicles are restricted because the area is being studied, but I am convinced that having to hike a mile to the site made the first view of the bones that much more impressive. It was as if you could imagine what it might be like to suddenly come upon a dinosaur fossil on a hiking trip on the Plateau.

But it did not take any imagination at all to discern what I was looking at – the bones are perfectly laid out in the form of a very large tail. Although most of the rest of the animal is missing, this tail represents the most articulated dinosaur fossil ever found in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Every bone is there, and some tendons are even preserved--a rare find.

Scientists use simple tools in the early stages of excavation.

Dr. Gillette explained that although there are many dinosaur (and other) fossils on the Plateau, most are found in pieces scattered about. It is very rare in any area to find dinosaur bones joined together as if the animal were still alive. Yet that is what has been found here.

And while dinosaur tracks are rather common, fully articulated dinosaur specimens are still rare and can give scientists much information about the animal and its ancient natural history.

Looking closely, I noticed that each vertebra had been numbered. Barry said that preparing detailed site maps, keeping careful records in field journals, and numbering the pieces would help them put the animal back together once it has been taken apart and transported to the lab. The bones will be studied at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff.

I also noticed the tools they were using looked like everyday household tools --– whisk brooms, paint brushes, dust pans, etc . I asked if there were any special tools used in excavations. Merle said at this point, simple household tools were used. He explained that cleaning the bones and the rock around the bones is very important to make sure you can see where all the bones are because it is very easy to miss a piece of bone embedded in the rock if you are not careful. Small brooms and paintbrushes are good tools for this.

Barry described some of the specialized tools used in the lab, including tools using compressed air, and certain dental tools, when they get into more detailed work. These will be illustrated at the paleo labs of the Museum of Northern Arizona during our live broadcast in October.

The students arrived and as soon as they settled into their roles as "reporters," a storm began brewing on the horizon, still pretty far away. The weather is something to watch closely because of flash flooding. Another hazard is the dirt road. In a very short time, these roads can become so slippery in rain and snow they are impassable. The paleontologists, who spend many months in the field, tell me that they always are prepared to spend the night whenever they go in the Monument, because they just might be stranded, any time of the year.

The students spent time learning about the excavation progress so far, and then conducted interviews. The weather patterns became very erratic – sunny one moment, snowing the next. Blue sky, black sky. We laughed at the challenge of editing all the tape together when the background scenes were changing from summer to winter within minutes. We decided that this would serve as an excellent introduction to the conditions our paleontologists and other field personnel face every day on their jobs.

The paleontologists did not get more excavation completed because by that time, the sky was dark and it was clear that we needed to get back to town – now or never. We had stretched our luck about as far as we felt comfortable, and when the heavy snow began falling, we protected the exposed site, packed all of our gear and trash, and walked just about as fast as we could--considering the weight we were carrying – to the cars a mile away.

The snow curtailed excavation progress today. Here we are on our way back to the vehicles.

On the drive back, we alternated between snow, rain, and sun, but mostly wet snow. This pattern continued throughout the day.

Unfortunately, our plan to document an entire excavation in seven days did not work out. There is still much work to be done, and excavation work will not continue until Tuesday due to unexpected schedule changes. So our crew has decided to head home for now. We will continue to document progress and photograph the excavation in stages. We will report back with photos and descriptions as this project unfolds. Thanks for reading so far!