Extreme Excavations: Alaska & Australia
Alaska Part 1: Digging in to the Tundra
By Sonya Senkowsky
Editor, Alaska Science Outreach
SUMMER 2002 / NORTH SLOPE, ALASKA One of my first days volunteering to dig dinosaurs from a remote spot on the tundra, I find myself high above the Colville River, crawling up the side of a steep, crumbling bluff.
The dig site, it turns out, is nearly 500 feet from the river all of it uphill.
Our small team of six digs in as we learn our new daily commute. In places, dried mud crumbles beneath our touch. In others, it gives way to boot-suckingly fresh muck. I imagine slipping and falling into the river surging below. My progress is cautious, slow.
Shortly before 10 a.m., we reach the top of the bluff, and are rewarded with a rapturous view: The Colville slices deeply through the tundra, leaving behind a corrugated pattern of steep, eroding bluffs like the one we just climbed. Spread behind us is an endless expanse of tundra. We’re gasping for air and sucking down water, exhausted but expedition leader Tony Fiorillo, 44, is exhilarated.
“Welcome to the northernmost horned-dinosaur bone bed in the world,” he announces. “Actually, that’s not true,” he corrects with a grin, “-there’s another one around the corner.”
He’s practically giddy.
Curator of Earth Sciences at the Dallas Museum of Natural History, Tony has brought us here as part of a joint expedition with the University of Alaska Museum to extract the bones of a horned dinosaur first uncovered here several years ago. At minimum, we’re here to take out a skull. Our task will be especially difficult because at least part of the time, we’ll be digging in permafrost, or permanently frozen ground. At best, we could leave with a full skeleton the most complete of its kind found in the Arctic. Before leaving Fairbanks, Fiorillo troupes us to an exhibit at the Fairbanks museum to show us what we’re after.
This pachyrhinosaurus skull, extracted from a site in Canada, is impressive by its size alone. The skull alone is about four feet long the animals were larger than today’s African rhino, and adult skulls can reach up to six feet the back of its head encircled by a thick frill. Its most distinguishing feature: a nose terminating in a distinctive horn-like bump, known as a “boss.”
It’s been 70 million years since this animal was alive. If it returned, however, it would likely feel out of place on the tundra.
The Earth, and the Arctic, was a lot different back then.
Although the Arctic Plate, the part of the earth’s crust on which the North Slope site sits, was actually located even farther north during the late Cretaceous than it is now, fossil evidence shows that the weather was temperate, supporting evergreen forests with a flowering understory. Although it wasn’t as cold as the Arctic is now, its weather would have been similar to that in other parts of Alaska. Our pachyrhinosaur would have known dark, cold and frost, but wouldn’t have recognized the Colville at all; the young river did not exist.
This part of the Alaska Arctic is remote, difficult to reach even with modern conveniences, so excavations here are rare. For the past five years, Tony has been one of very few from outside Alaska who has tried to extract its secrets.
“If I don’t leave the North Slope for the rest of my career,” he tells me, “I’d be content.”
Including Tony and myself, there are six team members: Louis Jacobs and Kent Newman,. from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where Louis is a professor and director of SMU’s Shuler Museum of Paleontology and Kent is chief preparator. Then there are the youngest members of the team: Jacob’s graduate student, Pete Rose, and University of Alaska Fairbanks undergraduate Aaron Hawkins, both 23.
The morning before, we’d risen to a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call to meet Army helicopters at Ft. Wainwright. There, soldiers from Ft. Wainwright’s helicopter Company B, 4th Battalion, 123rd Aviation who were using the trip to augment their Arctic training had loaded us onto heavy-lifting Chinook helicopters for our journey above the Arctic Circle and across the Brooks Range to our camp, between 69 and 70 degrees north latitude.
Somehow, being dropped off by the monstrous chopper makes our destination seem less remote than it is. In fact, the closest villages are miles away and reachable only by boat. A second camp, led by University of Alaska Museum curator Roland Gangloff, is also on the Slope, excavating at the famously fossil-rich Liscomb site, but they are miles downriver. Even by helicopter, Fairbanks is four to six hours away, depending on weather. For practical purposes, we are on our own.
TEARING INTO THE TUNDRA
We have a way to go before the site begins to look like a paleontologists’ “quarry.” The first order of business is to remove the overburden vegetation and earth. Somewhere under there is the skull, already safely jacketed by the previous team with a layer of plaster. Our job is to uncover and remove it and then to continue the excavation, removing as much of the rest of the fossilized skeleton as we can.
It will be a race.
For one thing, we are limited by the mating season of the peregrine falcons that nest nearby. To limit the impact on the birds, says Fiorillo, the Bureau of Land Management has limited excavation time to two weeks. After that, it will be two years before he’s allowed back.
Tony worries about what he must leave behind in the interim.
“If we don’t take this thing out,” says Fiorillo, indicating the crumbling bluff, “gravity is going to do it for us.”
Another complication becomes clear shortly after we unearth the plaster-covered skull. Jacobs surveys the steep, 75-foot climb above us to the tundra, which is as close as the Chinooks will be able to get. Then he looks back at the jacket, which he estimates at several hundred pounds.
“How in the hell are we going to get this thing out?”
For most of the first week, worries are muted by days of sunny, short-sleeve weather. Our repeated slogs up the slope begin to create footholds. Our worst problem is the lack of a good breeze and a squadron of mosquitoes that seems to multiply as we dig.
We pull down shrub-sized trees and take shovels and pickaxe to the overburden. Finally, the fossilized bones shiny fragments with a distinctive grain begin to appear and we start more delicate work. Tony advises me in the proper use of the smaller tools, including an icepick: Gently poke a series of holes a few millimeters in depth in an even “shelf” across the site. The idea is to gently probe down to the hard fossil without damaging it. Brush away the loosened soil. Repeat.
I begin to know my square-foot or so of workspace intimately, and I develop an appreciation for the banter of longtime fieldwork partners Louis and Kent. Louis gives impromptu lectures on everything from dinosaur jaws to orchids, and Kent discusses Steinbeck and occasionally bursts into song. After eight or so hours, we climb back down the bluff, take a boat ride to camp, have dinner, then go to sleep and do it all again.
The pace is tiring. I’d intended to journal daily, but instead fall straight to sleep, making entries only every other night. On Wednesday, Kent slips and turns his knee while coming down from the bluff, aggravating an old injury and reminding us all of the short distance between success and catastrophe. Thursday, he stays in camp.
Aaron and Pete are proving themselves to be workhorses, and Aaron has made an important find: He has uncovered two occipital condyles, distinctive spherical bones that look like balls. These ball joints, from the end of the horned dinosaur’s spine, were what supported their weighty skulls. The sizes of the condyles can tell the animals’ age and size. Most importantly, each one we find means another skull lies beneath our feet.
By Thursday, we start plastering, a process that involves using stagnant tundra water to mix plaster with our bare arms, then encasing our bone finds in plaster-soaked burlap strips. The finished product is called a “jacket,” and it protects the fossils while keeping them in place just as they were found. After the plaster dries, we roll each jacket out of the ground, cover the bottom and remove it to allow more work on the quarry.
Soon the paleontologists begin to question the methodical approach. Much of the bone is so fragile that it deteriorates at the touch of a brush. The rest is embedded in hard rock, and we’ve already discovered many pieces only after they’ve been hacked by pickaxes.
By Saturday, we are practically on top of one another, each person’s careful excavation threatening to bury the work of another.
“I would describe this as a bone pavement, says Tony. “You could walk across this bone bed and not touch the ground.” In bone density, he says, the find already rivals the famous Liscomb bed downriver.
“That was the coolest site on the Slope,” he says. “This one is now.”
Tony changes the plan: We will stop our detail work. Instead of returning with the skull found several years ago, we’re going to make a new jacket and try to encompass as large a sample of this logjam as we can manage. Tony wants to show the world the wealth of fossils found in this unusually bone-dense site. We prepare for an early morning.
WATCH FOR PART 2: “A GRIZZLY VISITS, OUR LUCK CHANGES,” COMING APRIL 21. **NOW POSTED**
Sonya Senkowsky is a freelance science writer and editor of Alaska Science Outreach. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this story first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Heartland Magazine in August 2002.