Kneeling against a large mound of sandy dirt, sweat rilling down my face and my hammer and awl set aside, I used my fingers to remove a few chunks of dirt. As the soil shattered, I recognized the telltale chocolate brown of dinosaur bone, come to light for the first time in 65 million years. I was the first person ever to see it.
“Ut oh,” I muttered, words that stopped my six person group cold and summoned our paleontologist guide in Alberta’s Dinosaur Provincial Park. I had broken the bone in its unearthing.
My family and I had signed up for Dinosaur Park’s first Guided Excavation Program. For a weekend we would live every dinosaur-crazy fantasy, working as paleontologists’ assistants while excavating bones, likely including fossils from theropod (bipedal hollow-boned carvinores that included Tyrannosaurus rex and were the ancestors of birds), ceratopsian (horned dinosaur) and hadrosaur (duck-billed dinosaur). We would also prospect for fossils and separate microfossils under the microscope.
Dinosaur Provincial Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best places in the world to study dinosaur fossils. The topography and climate 75 – 65 million years ago were very different from those today. The area was a coastal plane with subtropical climate. Rivers provided fresh water for a low, swampy, lush environment in which dinosaurs thrived.
Numerous dinosaurs of widely varying species lived and died in this area. During the latter days of the Cretaceous Period (144 to 65 million years ago) frequent flooding likely killed the animals in large numbers. Flowing water deposited sediment that quickly buried the bodies, and over time minerals from the water replaced the bone and created fossils.
Dinosaur Park is two hours East of Calgary along Highway 1, the nation’s main East-West highway. In late July the fields were verdant and lush under a wide open forget-me-not sky. Canola turned large vistas sun-yellow.
We stopped for dinner at the Patricia Hotel, an untouched 1915 cowboy watering hole in Patricia, a town so small the Hotel doesn’t use a street address. The hotel’s gritty sun-scorched exterior reminded me of the Australian outback. Our family were the only nonlocals. Five men companionably drinking at an ancient table nodded when we entered. As I grilled our food, a forbidding looking mountain man with unkempt beard and scraggly long white braided hair approached. Backed against the fire, I quailed. But a moment later his grizzled face was transformed by a mile wide grin and twinkling eyes; abashed I wished I could have sat for the evening and swapped stories.
The terrain is unearthly, with serrated hills, treacherous coulees and sinkholes, and hoodoos wrinkled with numerous water-created vertical rills. This erosion-created landscape whose exposed vertical walls extend down into dinosaur time forms a perfect fossil environment in which bones jut out from the soil.
Minutes after leaving Patricia the Badlands appear suddenly as gigantic clawmarks gouged into the earth. Abruptly the green staid farmlands become ripped and twisted into gray and beige colored gullies and cliffs within the writhing land.
Ten minutes after leaving the Hotel we arrived at Dinosaur Park Headquarters. The young man at the front desk had a warning. Flooding two weeks earlier had turned the Park’s trickling creek into a raging torrent that had washed out parts of the loop road and stranded 300 campers who watched their belongings rush away. The floods had also launched a pestilence of mosquitos.
As we walked through the land, fossil bones of all sizes, bleached white from oxidation and weakened from the blasting of sun, wind, and sand, were everywhere, some fully uncovered, some still encased. Femurs, ribs, vertebrae, skulls, jaws, teeth, all recollected the enormous denizens that had walked the land.
Saturday was dedicated to excavating Bonebed 30, a mound with jumbled up dinosaur bones. We would carry water, lunch, tools, bug spray, mosquito shirts and a portable NASA-designed toilet, and be out all day. The temperature was 108°F. I secretly fantasized about the fossil bones I would uncover.
We took positions around the mound, and received a tool kit. The goal was to excavate the mound in accordance with the rigorous scientific protocols paleontologists use today. We were admonished us not to remove any element because “95% of the data comes before you remove it.”
Each of us adopted our own strategy and techniques. My fifth grade daughter excavated a visible tooth using a dental pick. She spent hours taking off a few millimeters of sediment. I mined the middle of the mound, removing sediment with my awl and, when that proved unproductive, going after an exposed bone. The work was slow and painstaking. My husband, allergic to minutia from his professor career, went after volume–overburden removal using hammer and chisel. His turned out to be the most successful strategy—he found five chocolate brown bones that day, of which he broke only two.
After dinner we used a microscope to separate microfossils from debris from a bag of material collected in 1972, using tweezers to pull out tiny bones, jaws, ribs, fish scales and other fossils.
On Sunday morning we would prospect for bones ourselves. Our now-trained eyes could identify numerous bones all around us. There were huge eroding white bones many feet long partially exposed, tiny bones everywhere underfoot, bones sticking out of the hillsides willy nilly, and rivulets of material in the gullies that included innumerable small fossil elements. I wandered entranced for an hour, feeling like Indiana Jones.
Our guide led a class on mapping to millimeter accuracy. With much circumstance our daughter exultantly removed the tooth she’d been uncovering all weekend. After mapping its position and drawing it in-situ, she stored it away, carefully labeled, ready for accessioning. It was a shining moment for a budding paleontologist.
That afternoon, our last digging, I was becoming impatient. Hours of using my dental pick on an exposed bone wasn’t getting me anywhere. Grabbing my hammer and chisel, I started manhandling overburden. Still nothing. Finally I took my awl and quarried horizontally in the mound’s lower layers. Slightly moist from overnight rain, the overburden fractured. I used my fingers to investigate.
Finally! A three inch long chocolate-colored bone fragment! Unfortunately, much of it was in fragments. The fossil, weaker than the surrounding sediment, had broken first.
The guide bounded over, reversible glue in hand, and meticulously reassembled the fractured pieces into a lovely tubular bone fragment which she reinserted into its original location and glued in place. She congratulated me on my find. Bubbling and positive, she reassured me that I had advanced science in finding the piece and not destroying it or its housing. Later it would be mapped, extricated, removed and accessioned into the collection of the Royal Tyrell Museum, Canada’s leading Dinosaur Museum and Research Institute.
I had unearthed a dinosaur bone buried 65 million years. Clumsy-handed, I had broken it.
It didn’t matter.
Most importantly. I had wandered a virulent land of scorching heat, biblical pests and violent floods. I had looked back tens of millions of years to a time before time.
Just like the gigantic creatures, long dead, we had sought, I had walked there.