|Bill Yensen works with an air powered chisel around some Camarasaurus bones in the Price River Quarry II as other team members inspect and evaluate some fossils behind him in a lower section of the dig.|
Price is probably one of the premier places in the world for a paleontologist to live. There are not only a significant number of fossils to dig up around the local area, but the items are relatively easy to get to as well.
"Yeah we have a lot of people in the field jealous of us," commented John Bird, a paleontologist at College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum. "I am at conventions or on the phone with people in my profession and I tell them I can just drive 45 minutes to the dig we are presently working on and they go crazy."
That's because most field work on prehistoric fossils is done by professionals far away from home. The palenotologists must live out in remote areas for weeks, then return to the home base hoping they have everything they need to complete the projects and studies.
"We're pretty lucky," pointed out Bird. "We can come out here and work and go home every night. Most people doing this can't do that."
The other advantage is that, in many areas where the museum has set up other quarries, the crews can drive directly to where the fossils are located.
In a few sites, the crews have to hike into the digs. But in most locations, the heavy materials do not have to be carried very far to load the items into a vehicle to transport the finds back to the lab. That not only makes the work easier, it also makes for better preservation of the fossils.
Many fossils break up when the materials are removed from the ground. Therefore, the fossils must be encased in a protective "jacket" which is a mixture of wet toilet paper that is wrapped around the items first and then burlap mixed with plaster of paris that can dry in as little as a couple of hours or as much as 24.
"It just depends on how warm the day is," explained Clark Warren, longtime volunteer at the museum, as he worked with another volunteer Marvin Evans at the Price River II quarry last Friday morning.
"The problem is that sometimes untrained people rip these out of the ground," noted Bird. "When they do that they not only loose pieces of the bones they also take them out of their environment which tells a trained palaeontologist a lot about the animal that produced them."
It wasn't warm last Friday, but the crew members were confident the fossils they were encasing that morning would be ready to be loaded that afternoon for the trip back to the museum.
Price River II sits along side another quarry discovered years ago. The present dig has been under development for about 10 years and is subject to continual work by CEU personnel and local volunteers as well as others from outside the area who come to eastern Utah to get experience.
"A couple of weeks ago, we had some volunteers here from the Chicago Field Museum," explained Bird as he was gluing a piece of fossil with a product known as Paleobond, a kind of super glue for dinosaur bones. "They liked the fact this was so close to a town, too."
Fossils seldom come out of the ground without breaking up in some way. Bird said he likes to glue all the pieces in the field that he can, especially the small ones. Otherwise, it is more confusing when the fossils get back to the lab.
In many ways, it is amazing that the fossils the crews extract from the earth look as good. All the ones the team was working on Friday morning are around 100 million years old and have mostly turned to stone that is alligatored with cracks.
"I had someone out here once that said to me, 'Gee, those bones aren't in very good shape,'" explained Bird. "I just looked at them and asked them what they thought their bones might look like in 100 million years. These are actually in very good shape."
For the untrained eye many deposits of fossils are hard to see as anything but rock. That is why some areas that have been explored and used by people for years suddenly yield dinosaur remains never noticed before. It often takes a trained eye to spot the fossils in the rock.
"Here's the vertebrae and that looks like a rib," pointed out Warren as he went over one of the formations in the lower part of the quarry. To an untrained observer, the lumps sitting on the bottom of the quarry would look like a bunch of rock.
But higher up in another level of the quarry, the team uncovered fossils that look like something the Flintstones family pet, Dino, would chew on. There were two large femur bones, well defined yet largely turned to rock.
Bill Yensen, a volunteer from St. George, was working with a power chisel brought to life by a portable compressor to remove the surrounding material. Power equipment makes the extraction of the fossils easier.
"This stuff that encases the fossils is almost rubber like," said Bird as he leaned down to study a piece of the fossil that had broken off. "If you try and rip it up with a regular pick, the tool just bounces back at you. This power equipment really makes the difference in getting the fossils out of the dirt and to the lab."
The two bones are apparently from a camarasaurus that lived in the middle to the end of the Cretaceous Period which ran from 130 million B.C. to 65 million B.C. It was at the end of this period that the famous Tyrannosaurus Rex roamed the earth and it was also when the dinosaurs disappeared from the planet.
While the quarry at this point is being worked at two levels, the fossils in both are from the same basic age.
"Sometimes the levels vary, but are still in the same time period," stated Bird. "It's hard to tell why, but earth movement and other factors can change the level of bones that fell on the ground about the same time."
But this quarry is not just any fossil dig, as if any of them aren't special in their own way. This dig is rewriting the history and science books on the Cretaceous period.
"These animals were not thought to exist in North America during the time period we are presently working on," stated Bird. "But here they are. Everyone thought they only existed farther south. This dig is changing what most professionals have thought about this period in this part of the world."
The age of fossils is told in a number of ways, but a great deal can be told by the rock layer the fossils appear in.
"We have a sedimentologist working on this right now," stated Bird.
One of the fallacies many people have is that when fossil diggers find bones they are all laid out as if the animal just laid down and went to sleep. But bones are seldom found in "articulated" shape. Most are bent over, folded under and are often seemingly thrown to the wind.
"Unless the animal died and was covered over very quickly the bones usually got scattered all over the place," says Bird. "Scavengers and just the natural environment seldom allowed carcasses to just lie in a spot until they were hidden from view."
The truth is that a full skeleton of a single large animal is seldom found. Most fully assembled dinosaurs are a conglomeration of a number of different animals of the same kind.
But while the fossils are largely rock, some of their original qualities, beside shape, still exist. As Bird was putting together a fossil that had broken up, he pulled out a small plant root that had penetrated one of the cracks in the fossil.
"See that," he said as he held up the deep brown strand that almost looked like angel hair pasta. "The plants love to penetrate these fossils even though they are so old. That is because there are a number of nutrients left in the fossil from the original bones, particularly phosphates."
In the quarry below, Warren and Evans have just about encased a fossil rib in the plaster of paris jacket.
"We need a little more plaster on this side," Warren points out. Evans dips another strip of burlap in a bowl and they both set the sticky clothe on the side where Warren pointed to the thin spot.
Once the plaster dries, the rib will be bagged in plastic and loaded into a transport vehicle.
Meanwhile Arlene Yensen works right next to them trying to outline another set of fossils by making a ridge in the dirt and rock around them.
The idea of digging up ancient fossils may seem to be a helter skelter kind of operation to many people, but it isn't at all. Everything on a site is mapped out on a chart, so that information can be used later to keep track of all the fossils extracted.
"Every quarry is different, not only in layout but in how we have to approach the recovery," explained Bird. "And we never take off the kid gloves. All quarries must be treated with care."
Probably one of the most interesting things about the whole field of paleontology is that the profession is able to garner so much help from unpaid labor to get things done. It is not just a local phenomenon, but is true in fossil hunting field all over the world.
Why would people work out in the hot sun or on a cold day, picking and digging sometimes with the smallest of tools, to remove a bunch of rock from the earth that often has no semblance to any creatures alive today? Warren had one good answer, certainly not the only one, but a good one.
"It's just kind of neat," stated Warren. "We get to touch the remains of an ancient world that has never been touched by human hands."