Prehistoric Museum marks 25th anniversary of mammoth discovery
Despite the fact that the USU Eastern Museum's Columbian Mammoth is more than 11,000 years old, he celebrated his 25th birthday last Friday night with the people responsible for his excavation and care.
Prehistoric Museum Curator of Archaeology Dr. Tim Riley led the evening's celebration by unveiling several new exhibits before taking a trip down memory lane. During the event put on by the college and the Castle Valley Archaeology Society, attendees were treated with the original video of the mammoth's discovery and excavation as well as a presentation which detailed the specimen's life, death, discovery, display and future.
Discovery, Extraction and Display
On Aug. 8, 1988, as Nielson Construction worked to stabilize the Huntington North Dam, Chris Nielson unknowingly began digging in the remnants of a Pleistocene Lake or peat bog.
Moving through, he came into contact with a large object which he initially thought was a tree. Upon further examination, it became clear to Nielson that this tree was in fact a bone, more specifically the humerus bone of a Columbian Mammoth.
"When I pulled out the object, I kept thinking something was off," said Nielson, who spoke to the crowd following Riley's presentation. "I went over and tapped on the bone and noticed the marrow. At that point, our crew stopped what we were doing and started making some calls."
Dr. David Gillette, who was Utah's State Paleontologist at the time, came to the Castle Country immediately to oversee further excavation. As Gillette and Museum Director Don Burge looked on Nielson dug out the animal's skull, providing evidence that this was most likely a nearly complete skeleton.
It is important to note that complete or even nearly complete can be relative terms. The researchers located 117 bones. A complete Mammoth consists of 312 bones but mostly what is missing from the Huntington specimen consists of the multitude of bones located in the feet.
Being about 9,000 feet above sea level, the specimen was originally identified as a mastodon. However, once the teeth were examined it became clear that this was indeed a Columbian Mammoth.
Columbian Mammoths are nearly three times the size of their more famous cousins the Woolly Mammoth and look quite a bit like an elephant.
"They decided they very carefully needed to excavate this remarkable specimen and that they needed to do it fast," said Riley. "I was amazed to find that this massive undertaking was completed in only five days."
According to Riley, the hurried pace was largely driven by the state of preservation the specimen exhibited. Because the bones had been encased in the remnants of this Pleistocene Lake, the bones were still "green," and not fossilized.
"By green bone, I mean that this bone had not dried out. It was water logged and basically refrigerated in very cold wet sediments," explained Riley.
Workers at the site continually watered the bones, covered them in wet burlap or plastered them to keep the mammoth from drying too quickly. The anaerobic conditions also kept bacteria from destroying the remains, which also included conifer needles.
To demonstrate just how well this mammoth was preserved, a certain amount of late large intestinal material or "dung" was intact. DNA and Mitochondrial DNA specimens have also been taken from the mammoth. This allowed scientists to examine some of the plant and insect matter associated with the animal's stomach contents
The delicate condition of the bones forced volunteers and engineers to basically excavate the majority of the massive creature by hand. Hauling the pieces away with the help of a backhoe crane and a Chevy truck.
Approximately 15 to 20 individuals worked on the excavation at once making this a truly unique community experience.
Another factor that pushed the excavation was the fact that those working on the Huntington Dam wanted to get their crews back on the job.
Other specimens were found in the same area as the mammoth including the mandible of a Short Faced Bear, which was recovered around the same time but handed over later. Also a lanceolate projectile point was also found in the area. While this may not be directly associated with the mammoth, it does show that people were living near this area near the end of the Pleistocene, said Riley.
Once the mammoth was recovered, the major question became, where should the specimen go? As the find received national and international attention, multiple museums wanted the giant creature. The mammoth is owned by the U.S. Forest Service. It was discovered on USFS land, but they quickly realized that they neither had the man power or resources to display the specimen.
They sent out a request for bid and finally decided that the College of Eastern Utah's Prehistoric Museum would display the find.
"This was a big deal for our museum," explained Riley. "The conditions for display were that the site had to become accredited and become a federally-sanctioned repository. We have a much larger collection today because of what happened with this mammoth."
While many think that the mammoth's bones actually rest on the display floor of the museum, what patrons see is only a cast. The actual tissue is kept in a climate-controlled area below the Western Instructional Building on the USU Eastern Campus.
The initial molds for the erected mammoth were made at the Museum of Natural History at the University of Utah and then additional molds were sent to other locations including Tokyo, Japan, Alberta, Canada and to multiple museums in Utah.
Editor's Note: This is the first in a two part series detailing the impact this find has had and will continue to have on the USU Eastern Prehistoric Museum and the Castle Country Community.