Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Monday, June 02, 2008

The excavation

As we drove out to the site on Saturday, our supervisor told stories of excavations past. Four-hundred-pound plaster casts of bones being hauled for miles out of the wilderness, workers rotating around the skeleton so no one had to spend too long in the heaviest corner. Researchers using the last of their water not to drink, but to prepare more plaster to cover the final bones. The crew in Mongolia who ran out of burlap and began using their clothes to cover the last finds. It's good to know where the priorities are in this field.
The hope that we'd dig in and find a full skeleton beneath the previously discovered armor plates was balanced by the hope that we wouldn't find a full skeleton. Something that complete would take two weeks to excavate. It would be an exciting and significant find, but it'd also take a chunk out of the time we had to do the work that'd already been planned for the summer.
As we approached the site, our supervisor stopped in his tracks. He thought the area looked like a good place to find fossils. And it was in fact where we had found the fossils. I asked, "What makes this look like a good site to you?" and he said, "I don't know," which made me laugh. In the end, we didn't find much more than the scutes. The bright spot was that one of the scutes was nearly complete and in good condition for a Triassic-age bone.
We dug around the bones with awls and coated them with clear glue to lessen the chance of their breaking up. A moat was dug around the bones to put them on little pedestals of rock. Then it was time for the plaster. Toilet paper was placed over the bone and wetted to make it stay, and then plaster bandages were soaked in water and layered over the toilet paper and the rock surrounding the fossil. No plaster was allowed to touch the fossil. The pedestal was also wrapped, including a little lip that was dug slightly underneath. When the plaster hardened, the pedestal was chiseled under and the whole plaster cast flipped, leaving a nice package that the preparators could dig into and remove the bone in the lab.
This took most of the day. It was good work for an intern because there was plenty of opportunity for conversation as we dug around the bones, and that leaves time for me to think up questions to ask. I wasn't given a great deal of detail on what I'd be doing this summer before I got here, but I didn't expect I'd be working side-by-side with my supervisor, who has something like ten years' exerperience in the field. The other paleontologist on the team is a new PhD and it's good for me to listen to their conversations.
Some of you haven't had the chance to ask me the inevitable question, so the answer is, no, I don't want to be a paleontologist. No, dinosaurs aren't what I'm into. I don't dislike them. But I haven't found an area I'd really want to go into yet, so why not spend a summer doing something interesting? In gorgeous country, I might add. And why not learn everything I can about it? I may never do anything with paleontology again. But there's no reason to hang back all summer as if I may never do anything with paleontology again. So I intend to do as much and learn as much as I can.
We carried the plaster jackets back to the car and later dropped them off at the prep lab. That evening I went for a little walk in the wilderness area here, hoping to see some wildlife, but the only thing I saw was a funny beetle.
Yesterday Katie and I went to Flagstaff for some shopping and sight-seeing. Flagstaff has an attractive downtown with as much bike as car traffic, the peacefulness of which is shattered only by a screaming cacophony of train whistles every five minutes or so. Katie says that every train that goes at west goes through Flagstaff and this is not entirely unbelievable. Great long trains of double-stacked container cars pulled by three or four engines. I love to see trains and I like to imagine all the things being shipped on them that are not being shipped by trucks. But my god, the noise.
Katie was determined to find an authentic Mexican restaurant, but with luck against us we ended up settling on Thai. For some reason there are four Thai restaurants in the downtown area. I am thinking Flagstaff has a Thai population of some kind. We were asked how hot we'd like our meals to be, on a scale of 1 to 5, and I chose 3, thinking, you know, medium, like medium salsa, which is usually a hair too mild for me. But the 3 I received was more like the 4 or 5 of my imagination. The terrible part was that the food was exceedingly good. I didn't want to stop eating. But my tongue and lips were in searing pain. O delicious food of death!
We went to the Museum of Northern Arizona, which was small but very classy. I would recommend it to anyone passing through Flagstaff. And then we headed back home.
This week I am doing mapping with Katie and will also be exploring some of the newly acquired land here. On the weekend I will be going to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, site of one of the most famous death assemblages of the Triassic, with hundreds of dinosaur skeletons. And to sign off, here is a pic from my evening hike the other night.

1 comment:

Weary Hag said...

J it's so nice to read your updates.
Oh yes. Flagstaff. Know it well. I spent a year there one night.

If anyone ever asked me what I thought of Flagstaff, I'd say... GREAT little town if a little old fashioned ... oh, and there are trains. Trains everywhere.

I have about six pictures of Flagstaff, three of which have trains or parts of trains in the background.

I don't think I asked if you wanted to be a paleontologist... I think I already assumed years ago that you clearly wish to be a clockmaker. Who wouldn't have figured that?