Delicate dance with a dinosaur
April 10, 2014
BOZEMAN, Montana - It plays like a dance...
Open the crate, photograph the contents of the crate, inspect the fossil, document its condition... 1,2,3,4... 1,2,3,4
When a crate is opened, sometimes the first thing to see is a bunch of boxes, sometimes it's packing paper, foam wrap or plaster. Each box inside the crate is labeled to identify what body part is inside. Then, the box, the plaster, and the paper are opened.
There are dozens of elements within the collection including pieces that are at least 5 feet long and take up the length of an entire crate and pieces that are smaller than 5 centimeters, wrapped in foil and paper and stored in sealed plastic bags.
Following a checklist that identifies the crate, the box, the body part, and the bone piece; the team photographs and inspects the condition of each fossilized bone.
The specimen that is the focus of this delicate dance is identified as MOR 555, or Museum of the Rockies fossil specimen number 555, but is known to Montana and many as the Wankel T.rex and will soon be known to the world as "The Nation's T.rex."
In collaboration with the Museum of the Rockies, in Bozeman, Mont., the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District entered an agreement to loan one of its two Tyrannosaurs Rex specimens to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History for 50 years.
This process marks the final task before Wankel T-Rex embarks on its journey to Washington D.C.
The official send-off at the Museum of the Rockies will follow three days of unpacking, inspecting and repacking the collection following a process the team refers to as condition reporting. The team is documenting a precise inventory of each bone and bone fragment, including a tiny arm, which was the first complete forelimb found with a T.rex and the fossils that launched the journey of the Wankel T.rex.
Pat Leiggi, Director of Exhibits and Administrative Director of Paleontology for the Museum of the Rockies, was the crew chief for excavating the Wankel T.rex from the shores of the Fort Peck Reservoir in the Nelson Creek Recreation area in Montana in 1990.
Reflecting on his first encounter with Kathy Wankel and her husband, in 1988, he said he remembered it was during lunch. Wankel showed him what she had found and he was pretty excited and felt pretty confident it was something special.
Since April 7, Leiggi, along with Carrie Ancell, Senior Preparator of Paleontology; and Bob Harmon, Chief Preparator of Paleontology - all with the Museum of the Rockies - who worked together on the original excavation of the Wankel T.rex have been reminiscing about the summer of 1990 when they worked with teams from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge to excavate what, at the time, was the most complete and one of the largest T.rex specimens ever found.
Also performing condition reporting with the original dig team are Brian Baziak, a preparator of paleontology for the Museum of the Rockies; Becky Kaczkowski, Winterthur Conservation Fellow from the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History; Cathy Van Arsdale, a physical anthropologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District, Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections (MCX-CMAC); and Gail Celmer, Chief of the Cultural Resources Program for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Northwestern Division.
While USACE is actually the "owner" of the Wankel T.rex and Peck's Rex specimens Van Arsdale points out that the Corps is a steward of the lands placed in its trust and has a responsibility to ensure the proper care and treatment of discoveries such as the Wankel T.rex. Of course, the Corps isn't exactly in the business of excavating, preserving, studying, displaying or storing fossils.
The Museum of the Rockies is designated as a Federal repository for fossils, which means that when fossils are discovered on Federal lands, they may be placed within the collections at the Museum of the Rockies where they can be studied and perhaps advance the research taking place through Montana State University and led by professionals such as Leiggi and Jack Horner, Curator of Paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies and a Regent's Professor at Montana State University. Horner is regarded as one of the world's foremost paleontologists and noted for fieldwork and research concerning dinosaur growth and behavior. He is also well known for his work as the technical advisor for the Jurassic Park movies and the inspiration for the movie's lead character, Dr. Alan Grant.
When the discovery was brought to the Museum of the Rockies, Horner, Leiggi and their team knew and followed the proper protocols for gaining a permit to excavate on Federal land. Since the discovery of the Wankel T.rex, a more formal partnership between the museum and the Corps has evolved and the museum continues to serve as a paleontological expert for the variety of fossils located around Fort Peck Lake and under the care of the USACE.
When the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, the Museum of the Rockies and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began the process of establishing the agreement, which would enable the USACE to place the Wankel T.rex specimen on loan to the Smithsonian for 50 years, the Corps looked to its Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections in the St. Louis District to lead up the USACE condition reporting process.
Dr. Sonny Trimble, MCX-CMAC Director, and Van Arsdale, a physical anthropologist, with the Center, work with a number of agencies to establish agreements to help preserve and protect items of historical significance and, when possible, make them available for the public good.
For Van Arsdale, this is the first dinosaur fossil she has worked with. She says its size has really made an impression on her. "The T.rex is enormous, powerful and intimidating. The size of a single vertebra is very impressive," said Van Arsdale.
"Sometimes you don't know exactly what you have," said Van Arsdale. One of the items in a plastic bag was identified as simply a bone fragment.
"In this line of work you never make assumptions," said Leiggi. "The fossils aren't usually found all in one piece. They are delicate and break apart. Sometimes you have all the pieces of the puzzle, sometimes you don't, and sometimes, we just identify the item as a fragment."
Kaczkowski takes notes about how items are packed, unpacked, and what her team at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History will see when they unbox the specimen and perform another condition report in Washington D.C.
Van Arsdale is more frequently involved with the inventory of human remains and artifacts discovered on USACE lands.
"We have a very specific process that we follow when discoveries occur on Corps lands," said Van Arsdale. The Corps works to fulfill obligations to preserve and protect trust resources, comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), National Historic Preservation Act, the Archeological Resources Protection Act and ensures reasonable access to sacred sites and to repatriate remains and artifacts to their respective Tribes.
Next to the Smithsonian, the USACE is the largest holder of archaeological artifacts with items that fill a minimum of 50,000 cubic feet of space, and more than 3,000 linear feet of records. Our collections are in more than 165 museums nationwide. These artifacts and records are in the trust of the Corps and are managed through the Center.
Van Arsdale said the Center oversees Corps compliance for NAGPRA and regulations regarding archaeological curation.
Fossils in the Museum of the Rockies' Federal repository collection belong to various Federal agencies including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Agreements with repositories such as the one with the Museum of the Rockies and Montana State University allow the items to be placed within collections, permitting scientists to evaluate and study the items, and protect and preserve them. While many fossils are on display at the museum, many more are in storage and being studied behind the scenes.
One of the more frequent questions Van Arsdale has been asked is how many bones are there? She said the specific number hasn't been determined yet because the inventory hasn't been completed. There are many small fragments of bone, fossils of other animals, and samples of soil and plant materials that were excavated with the Wankel fossil.
The entire collection is being shipped in 16 crates that were originally used to ship Peck's Rex, the "other" USACE T.rex specimen from eastern Montana to the Museum of the Rockies. The museum intends to put Peck's Rex on display sometime next year.
Another question, what happens after the 50 year loan ends? "The specimen will return to Montana and the Museum of the Rockies," said Van Arsdale.
With the condition reporting complete, crews will begin loading the crates for the cross country trip that will begin on April 11, following a send off celebration honoring members of the original dig team including Kathy Wankel who found the specimen.
The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History will receive the specimen and another team will repeat the condition reporting process to ensure the specimen wasn't damaged in transit.
The Smithsonian will also host a number of events, beginning April 15, to welcome the Nation's T.rex to the Nation's Capital.