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Episode 4: How Do We Dig up Fossils?


Welcome back to the New Jersey State Museum’s Ask the Experts Video Learning Library, where we’re digging into some of the most common questions people ask paleontologists about what we do and how we do it.

So far we’ve shown you how and where we find fossils and how to be sure that they really are fossils and not just some rock or bones from modern animals. But now that we’ve found a really good site, how do we get those bones out of the ground safely? What kinds of tools do we use? Well, let’s dig into these questions right now . . . it’s time to get our hands dirty!

Here we’ve got a site with definite fossils still in the ground. Now what? Well, we can’t just start blasting away with picks and shovels because we don’t know yet how many bones are in this area, or how far spread out they might be. So, that’s what we have to figure out next.  The idea here is to gently expose only enough of the bones to give us a good idea of exactly where they are, and to get a better idea of just how big the area is that we’ll be excavating.

This is a delicate process. We’re just using a few small tools that let us get the job done in a slow and methodical way. Tools like knives, screwdrivers, awls, and even small, soft paint brushes.  And we don’t want to completely uncover the bones, either. The rock actually helps to protect the fossils throughout the excavation process and while transporting them back to the lab. 

With the fossils now exposed, we can begin to map them as they’re lying in the ground, and start planning the actual excavation.  We have to start thinking about things like which bones we should take out first, what hazards may affect the process, and even where to put the extra dirt.

Mapping the bones and taking other field notes is always a very important part of the process. Those maps and notes can be a huge help to us later on in the lab when we’re trying to clean the bones and put them back together. And just as importantly, all of this information can help us to learn so much more about this animal and its life. We can learn about things like how the animal died, and how it lived.  Did it live in herds, or did it live most of the year alone?  What did it eat?  Did it live in a desert, or in a tropical environment? Notes we take now about the bones, how they’re lying, and the rocks surrounding them, can help us answer these questions, and so much more.

Now that we know exactly where the bones are in the ground, we’ve mapped them and taken all the notes we need, it’s finally time to start the excavation process. But, we better start digging into that next time. For now, thanks for joining us, and keep digging!