Building a Mastodon

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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:

42,000 Years Old!

by Chuck Smith,  Marketing Graphic Artist

When I was young, my dream of being an archaeologist or paleontologist was a close second to an artistic profession. After graduating, I became a full time graphic designer at the Indiana State Museum. I didn’t think it got any better than creating art for Indiana’s #1 place for science and culture, but I was wrong. For the past couple of years, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a few days on the Megenity Cave dig with other museum professionals searching for ancient bones and tools. 

Today is my first full day back in Indianapolis after three days in the cave and I still cannot believe how exciting the trip was. After only five minutes of digging on Day 2, I made my first real discovery! The hope of finding something special sometimes makes your mind turn every little piece of mud into a bone or rock into an arrowhead, but I knew right away that it wasn’t my imagination this time (or ‘bone fever’ as they call it). Something truly awesome had appeared on my shovel. I whipped off some dirt, held it up for a better look and realized that I had found a peccary jaw which I would later learn dates back between 35,000 and 42,000 years!

The digging and time spent with colleges and friends always makes for a great time, but experiencing the magic of unearthing something like this has made for a day that I‘ll never forget.

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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 …

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