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Episode 6: How Do We Get The Bones Back Safely?


Welcome back to the beautiful Big Horn Basin and 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 you’ve seen how we find fossils and how we excavate them.

The last time you joined us, we were jacketing the fossils to protect them for the long and bumpy journey back to the lab. These jackets are really hard, and in most situations they are all the protection the fossils need to keep them safe. 

We’ve got a lot of bones and jackets this year, but how in the world are we going to get them from down here in the bottom of this canyon, to way up there, top of those cliffs where our trucks are waiting?  And how in the world do we get them from here in the field in Montana all the way back to our labs in New Jersey and Philadelphia? Well, we better start figuring out those questions right now.

Every year we find fossils in different places. Sometimes those places are not exactly ideal. This year, the fossils we’re excavating are at the head of a box canyon, surrounded on three sides by cliffs hundreds of feet high. The first thing we have to do is figure out how we’re going to get those jackets from way down there, to way… up...there, since there is no way our trucks are getting any closer than they already are. It usually isn’t this difficult, so we’re going to have to think outside the box this time. 

We have some small jackets that we can carry out, either in our hands, or strapped to backpacks. Jackets a little bit bigger sometimes can be rolled onto a tarp and carried out by several members of our team. Bigger and heavier jackets sometimes can be strapped to our cart to be pulled out, but even with the wheels this is pretty rough and steep terrain, and if that cart gets away from us this could get dangerous, fast. Sometimes we’ve been really lucky and have been able to slide the jackets downhill right into our trucks.  But there’s no way we can get our trucks down here, and even if we did, we’ve got some really big jackets this year. Some of these jackets weigh hundreds of pounds, and there’s absolutely no way we’re carrying them up there!  We’re going to have to call for reinforcements. 

In the old days, the jackets would be hauled by horse-drawn carriages and wagons, and then maybe trains or even ships, back to the labs, which at that time were usually in big, eastern U.S. cities like New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and New Haven Connecticut. Their journeys were long and dangerous, often taking weeks, or even months, to complete. Thanks to modern technology and infrastructure, though, we can make that same trip in 3 or 4 days. 

For us, it starts by carefully loading the jackets onto off-road vehicles to transport them over the rough desert landscape, across a muddy stream, and then up a very long and steep, washed-out path. Once at the top, we’ll load them, along with all of our tools and equipment, onto a large moving van for the long drive all the way back across the country.

With all of the jackets loaded and secure, we’re finally ready to head back home.  After lying motionless in their graves for almost 70 million years, these dinosaurs are moving again.  In a few days, after traveling almost 2,500 miles East, they will arrive at the fossil preparation labs at the New Jersey State Museum and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. But then what?  How do we get those bones out of the jackets and the rock, and go from this… to this?

We’ll dig into that next time.  Until then, thanks for joining us, and keep digging!