Building a Mastodon

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When Mike Smith arrived at the Indiana State Museum before the new building opened in 2002, he had no idea just how extensive his skill at exhibit design would become. In addition to his museum work, Smith held studio space at the Stutz Building for nearly 10 years as an abstract steel sculptor. Turns out, his background in fine arts was to be put to the test!

Today, Mike Smith is one of an elite group of people in the world to have mounted the real-bone skeleton of a three-ton mastodon; a real Ice Age giant. His background in welding and steelwork was the perfect combination to take on the project of mounting the 292 bones that make up this mammal.

Prior to Smith’s arrival at the museum, huge bones were discovered in the muck of a peat farm in northern Indiana. It was 1998 and, once the Buesching family realized what they had, the mastodon bones were carefully removed by a team from Indiana University-Purdue University Ft. Wayne, and eventually brought to the Indiana State Museum. Incredibly, more than 80 percent of the skeleton was recovered. A radiocarbon date showed the mastodon, named “Fred” in honor of the senior Buesching, to be 13,020 to 13,760 years old.

Ron Richards, the museum’s Chief Curator for Science and Technology is excited about the mastodon, and is finally able to recover from what he refers to as “separation anxiety” following the 1933 loss of a major find.

Richards explained how then-curator Vern Patty responded to a ‘mastodon call’ in northern Indiana. The skeleton was excavated and brought back to the museum, but then the owner contested rights to it, took the matter to court and won, eventually selling the Indiana mastodon to the Denver Science Museum, where it still resides.

“All these years of working in the field and we had nothing complete like this to show for it … until now,” said Richards.

Another issue museums often face, Richards says, is that key parts of a skeleton are often missing or in bad shape. The head, for example, can be broken by heavy equipment when it is initially found in a farmer’s field, etc. Then, when the mount is made, a museum might ‘borrow parts,’ turning mounts into a composite of several animals.

The Buesching mastodon is thus a prized specimen because more than 80 percent of it is real bone from a single beast, not casts like the majority of mounted specimens you see at many museums. Richards adds that Fred is a work of art, with gently curving steel supports and each bone of the spinal column mounted “like a gemstone.”

While it was decidedly less expensive to mount the mammal in-house at the Indiana State Museum, this was an unusual course of action, and dollars still had to be raised to pay for preservation and mounting. In response, museum leadership launched the creative “Buy-A-Bone” campaign allowing the public to sponsor individual bones or give them as gifts. In return, sponsors received an actual bone fragment from one of the museum’s many digs, and a certificate of authenticity from chief curator Richards. Support has come from a wide cross section. For example, one of the bones was sponsored by an elementary school “penny drive”; the assembly process received a financial boost from a grant by the LDI 100th Anniversary Celebration Cultural Partnership.

Now that Fred is complete and in place in the museum’s Nina Mason Pulliam gallery, the soft-spoken Smith is “mostly relieved,” he says, “and somewhat proud, but also thankful for the help from several staff members.” His family and friends are bragging about him on social media. And while Smith took a brief moment to bask in the glow of success, he quickly moved on to work on other museum exhibits.

Meanwhile, Fred stands proudly, awaiting the November opening of Indiana’s Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons which explores how the Indiana State Museum has excavated more such burial sites than any other institution in the state. The bones reveal what the museum learned about their lives and their deaths in Indiana, some 13,000 years ago.

**For timed-release video of a portion of the mounting process, please visit our YouTube page:

Day 4 of a 17-day Dig, Year 23

It takes a certain amount of passion to go back to the cave, year after year, digging out bucket after bucket … filling them up, pushing them out, screening them, packing them up for transport back to the museum, then studying them again under the microscope.

But that’s what Ron Richards and his crew have done for 23 years now … all from a limestone cave deep in the forest of southern Indiana. Dr. Carl Sagan once said, “You have to know the past to understand the present.” As the museum learns more about the Ice Age animals found inside this cave, it will give us a better glimpse into history of the land we now call Indiana. It is fascinating work!

Here’s my glimpse into what a cave dig looks like a la Indiana State Museum …

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

‘Diggin’ Up Bones’ and other Famous Songs

Cave digging is exhausting. That’s just one of the things I learned today, on my first paleontological dig with museum staffers and other volunteers. We’re in southern Indiana, clearing out a cave, on an expedition that has been repeated nearly every summer for 23 years.  Hauling 60 to 70 giant buckets full of rocks and mud uphill for a few hours is a workout! And my shower tonight ranks up there with the best showers of all time; dirt and sweat and mud had permeated every crevice of my body! When you can actually smell your own self, you KNOW you need a shower! And luckily the tick I found had not yet fully attached itself … 

Some other things I learned: helmets are a very important piece of caving equipment. As I hauled those buckets to the mouth of the cave, I probably hit my head on solid rock approximatedly 24 times. And its a good thing I’m not as terrified of spiders as my sister and my daughter, because I was definitely sharing quarters with at least a dozen big juicy ones (as long as they stayed on their side of the wall, I was okay with them being there).

Balance: this is a surprisingly important skill when you’re climbing uneven hills and when you’re teetering on rock, trying to heave a heavy bucket onto a metal roller system to get it out of the cave. I was not keen on slipping and falling face first into the mud! 

So about the music … do you ever get some song stuck in your head? Well, when you’re in a group of people, its really not nice to push that song upon the others, because then THEY get it stuck in THEIR head! First it was the old country song “Diggin’ Up Bones,” then it suddenly became  Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi,” since my husband and I are the resident “paparazzi” on this dig. Speaking of which … here are some photos …

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

Finishing up at Yankeetown

Written by Michele Greenan, Natural History Collections Manager 

Although our dig is winding to a close, the work-pace picks up 10-fold! As with all digs, you end up finding all kinds of stuff at the end. It is one thing you can truly count on as an archaeologist. Working on the riverbank, Kara and I spent the day collecting various soil samples from each layer of the bank. It was particularly funny because Kara — our trusty registrar — thought she was coming out into the field to get away from paperwork. Ha!

Our goal at the riverbank was to bring together various points of research to get a good idea what the environment may have been like throughout prehistory (throughout the history of the banks development). We had all kinds of folks out to help, including geologists and soil scientists. The red and white pins were laid by geologist Ron Counts and mark general areas where we took soil samples. The small pegs at center are where we took our samples for pollen analysis. We were also able to take C/14 samples from some areas up the bank. All of these lines of evidence will hopefully help us reconstruct what this environment may have been like prehistorically.

Landside, the field school was making tremendous headway uncovering feature after feature. Burned posts in place, large pit features (maybe trash/food preparation?), burned soil, a cache of corn … everything indicating a thriving Yankeetown occupation at this location. Students map, photograph and excavate each feature and then screen the excavated soil for artifacts.

Don’t these pictures scream “I love archaeology!”

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

Archaeology saves (turtle) lives!

Written by Kara Vetter, Registrar

Even in the field, a registrar can't get away from paperwork!

5 a.m. came too early today, especially for a night owl like me. We left the hotel and headed for the site around 6 a.m. with ominous rain clouds in the distance. During a quick necessities trip to Wal-mart, I wondered if the dry weather luck would hold out. As we arrived, the sky grew even darker and thunder could be heard in the distance. Comments flew between Michele, Amy and me as to whether the rain would hold off. After prepping our gear we descended, very slowly I might add, down the ladder. I got my “wet muck/mud sea legs” under me and got to work. Michele graded the bank face with a trowel high up the ladder while Amy and I created a secondary profile for photography later in the week. If you ever have the job of clearing away the debris beneath someone who is grading make sure you keep your mouth closed. Dirt — no matter where it’s from — tastes awful! With Amy wielding the camp shovel and I the small pick axe, away we dug for about an hour until the sudden crack of thunder warned us to scramble back up the ladder before the rain set in. At the top, we met the unofficial mascot for this dig, Widgee! He’s an adorable little dog, some kind of terrier we think, who belongs to Indiana University professor Dr. Susan Alt. He scampered around, being as doggily cute as possible while I met IU archaeologists Liz and Mara.

Scrapped for the moment, we headed back to Wal-mart for distilled water and beef jerky! The water was for later testing and the jerky was for us hard-working state employees … thanks Amy!

About a half hour later, we went back to the site and resumed digging and grading. But not before we channeled our Curator of Agriculture, Industry and Technology (and known turtle aficionado), Todd Stockwell, by saving a large turtle from the middle of the road … good deed for the day, check! A break for lunch was interrupted with more rain. Soggy PB&Js are a sad thing indeed. After the rain slowed, we braved the weather and assisted Michele as she lined up the grid so we could map out the archaeological and geological features. I even got to prove my upper body strength by pulling a large stake from the ground so we could secure the measuring tape. Just call me Kara “The Hoss Lady” Vetter …ha! After being pelted with wind and various types of rain, Michele called it quits at 1:30 p.m. The weather was just too erratic and making the riverbank too unstable for further work and Michele said that we looked like a miserable lot and took pity on us. On the ride back to the hotel, we saved yet another turtle — this time a box turtle. Two good deeds for the day!

So, my first day of archaeology work didn’t go as smoothly as planned but at least I have some dirt under my nails and light farmer tan to prove I did something, not to mention helping to defend road-crossing turtles everywhere. Here’s hoping tomorrow goes better and that I am able to take notes and map while Michele describes features to me at the same time. Fingers crossed!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

Doing the dirty … work

Written by Amy Sciutto, Collections Management Intermittent

I realized today that 5 a.m. is way too early for anybody to be awake. I came to this realization when the alarm clock, the courtesy wake-up call from the hotel and Michele’s cell phone alarm all went off at 5 a.m. Awesome. I then realized that 6 a.m. is way too early for anybody to try to work. I came to this realization when I tried to pee in the field, and happened to pee all over myself. Awesome. It was at this point in the day that I also realized that I was in for one dirty day. Little did I know just how dirty I was going to get. After I peed on myself, Michele laughed at me, and on we went, excavating away.

The first thing we did was try to figure out how to use a ladder. You would think that two highly-educated people would easily be able to figure out a ladder, well think again. It was like the blind leading the deaf. The darn ladder was folded in half and then once unfolded it continued to extend from every angle. Once the ladder could no longer be unfolded, and folded and extended and retracted, we haphazardly placed the ladder against the cliff that we were working on, said our prayers, and repelled to our destiny.

Around 7:30 a.m., the Field School from IU got to the site and began their work. By this time Michele had already began to excavate her feature while I was on water screening duty. If you want a fun task on a dig, water screening is perfect for you. I was responsible for dumping buckets of dirt onto a screen, then dumping water on the dirt, in the hopes of finding artifacts. What I discovered, however, was that when you mix dirt with water, you get a mess. Now I do want some things to be a surprise for when you go on a dig and get to do some water screening for yourself, but I will tell you that a sunburn, soaking wet shoes and socks, and bending over until you forget how to stand lead to an immense hatred for your life. But believe it or not, there are rewards for doing such a labor intensive job.

After lunch I found myself peeing all over myself again, but this time I was covered with Michele’s boots, so the joke is on her! That’s what she gets for laughing so hard, and not teaching me proper techniques for keeping dry when nature calls. After I laughed to myself, we went back to work. By this point we had finished excavating the feature on the cliff, and we had bagged all the artifacts to take with us. The next task was simple: to cut back the bank. If you thought water screening sounded fun, oh boy are you in for a treat. I stood on a 6-inch ledge with a pick-ax and had to pick away the face of the cliff. I was nervous at first because our rickety ladder was attached to the cliff I was ordered to pick at, but Michele reassured me that in the worst case scenario we could swim across the Ohio River to the Kentucky side, and easily make our way back to civilization. We picked away until our hands were calloused and bleeding, then called it a day. If I am able to walk tomorrow, I assume we will continue picking away at the face, in order to take samples, and all that jazz.

We gathered up our tools, ascended the stairway to heaven, also known as our trusty ladder, and went home for the night.

Now, I have to go wrestle the alarms out of Michele’s hands before she does something crazy again!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

A most excellent find!

Written by Michele Greenan, Natural History Collections Manager

These students are working on a burned post.

A very interesting day to say the least! The trench has really started to show its true colors with features galore! A feature – generally speaking in archaeological terms – is the non-portable cultural evidence. It’s something that, if you take it, you destroy it (so you can’t really take it ‘as is’). Like, for example, evidence that a structure once stood at a particular spot but was later burned down. We see changes in soil and lots and lots of burned soil that form a nice square (in this case) pattern. We found evidence of a structure in 2008, and we have another one now! There are plenty of other things going on, too. There is a line of burned posts in place. We can kinda assume an association between the structures (or, structures in general) and the posts, but not really. We just don’t yet know.

This picture says it all … The sheer joy of doing archaeology and knowing you’re the first one to touch something after it was last held some 800 to 900 years ago. Here, a field school student shows us her find … a chunky stone. In the picture, you can barely see that the stone has been shaped to a perfect round, disk shape. The center of both sides is concave. These stones were used in playing a particular game of the same name. The collections of the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites has some beautiful examples of chunky stones, but most lack good provenience. This is a most excellent artifact!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

A very good day!

Written by Michele Greenan, Natural History Collections Manager

It was a great day to dig! We started a bit later because the storms were brewing in the area. Our site is in the middle of a very large field and any hint of lightning will send us flying outta the site – so we tend to be very cautious. But the rain moved by and the day went along very well – with nice cloudy cover and a pretty darn good breeze. It was a nice little break from those scorchers we had been dealing with.

Digging the riverbank is cumbersome, but this year I’ve got some serious help! In the top picture, we have crew digging a platform from which to work. Sometimes you have to dig standing like Charlie Chaplin – minus the cane, add the pick, but in this instance, they were able to build a nice platform. To his left is a nice big feature that had lots of artifacts in it. As excavation takes place at the feature, crew grabs the full buckets and water screens down by the river (bottom picture).

Back at the trench, the crew continued to reveal a structure and features, which are now starting to really take shape (I will have a picture this for the next post).

We ended the day a bit early. The storms started to kick up again and we played it safe and left. That’s it until next time!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

The Crew Arrives!

Written by Michele Greenan, Natural History Collections Manager

The Yankeetown field crew arrived … shovels in hand, sunscreen a-plenty and ready for hard work. But I figured they would be, since they came highly recommended by the Taswell Community Center.

OK, they aren’t from Taswell, but I think that might be OK. The crew that joined the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites field season is from Indiana University Professor Susan Alt. They had been working at another Yankeetown Site and thankfully had agreed to join the museum for two weeks. In 2008, we found evidence of a possible house that had been burned. One of our goals for this year was to try and find more evidence of structures and associated features. Our other goal was to attack the riverbank and get good profiles while excavating riverbank features that were eroding out of the bank.

The IU field crew attacked goal #1. As you may have read from last week, Gaby and I placed a location marker on the site based on another marker that we use as our permanent datum (like a permanent pivot point from which all measurements are referred). The IU field crew immediately began cleaning out the trench that the back-hoe had left.

By the end of the day, interesting things were starting to appear in the floor of the trench. House floor? Pit features? Both? We shall soon see! At the riverbank, a crew from IU and I had located some excellent features and had begun the tedious task of excavating those features. At the end of the day, we were mid-dig on a great pit feature that was yielding good amounts of ceramics. The feature was expanding into the bank, so we didn’t get to finish — but it gives us something to look forward to first thing in the morning!

Until next time!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

Chief Curator Steps Out of the Corn

Take a couple of minutes and shoot over to YouTube to see the new video that the museum’s own Leslie Lorance just created about the mastadont dig this summer, up near Culver, Indiana.   If you think that scientists are just a bunch of fuddy-duddies, well, this video should help to change your mind 🙂  Here‘s the link.