T Rex Discoverer Kathy

WANKEL, HER HUSBAND, TOM, AND THEIR KIDS CAME OUT TO HELP US EXCAVATE.

happy to see them all, especially if it means folks haven't dug any farther and have left that job to us. I know it's hard to resist the urge to dig up buried treasure once you've found it, but there's a lot of information lost and fossils ruined by amateur bone-hunters who insist on excavating fossils themselves.

Kathy showed the few bones she'd dug to me and Pat Leiggi, my longtime field crew chief. Right away I could tell Kathy had found the shoulder and arm of T. rex, even though no one had ever found those parts of the animal before. I was pretty excited myself, though I'm so low keyed, folks say they can't tell the difference on me. And maybe I didn't hop up and down because I realized the amount of work that would be involved to get the rest of the animal, in the off chance more of T. rex was out there.

I knew what Kathy had brought me belonged to the arm of a T. rex because I had some important clues. The badlands Kathy was looking in belonged to the Hell Creek Formation. That's rock from T. rex's time, 67 to 65 million years ago. And the Hell Creek Formation is the source of most of the world's good T. rex skeletons.

Also, the bones Kathy found were hollow. Like birds, meat-eating dinosuars had air cavities in their bones. But by their shape and size and age these bones could belong to only one animal—T. rex.

We told the Wankels what we thought they'd found and asked them to keep it under their hat. Tom Wankel said he'd have to get a bigger hat. But they kept their big secret well, for more than a year.

I didn't have time to get out to the site right away, but Pat Leiggi did, as soon as the weather got warm. That wasn't until May of 1989- Meanwhile I gave the T. rex upper arm bone to two former Museum of the Rockies workers who know a lot about how to interpret dinosaur anatomy and movement from bones: Matt Smith, a sculptor and preparator, and Ken Carpenter, an exhibit designer and researcher.

Pat took Ken and Matt with him when he went out to the Wankels' site in May of 1989. By then it wasn't an

ABOVE: MATT SMITH, SHELLEY MCKAMEY, AND BOB HARMON ARE DOING SOME PRELIMINARY EXCAVATION AND MAPPING OF T. REX BONES IN 1989. THE STRING GRID IS USED TO PLOT WHERE THE BONES WERE FOUND.

island any more. The reservoir had receded far enough that the T. rex site was now a flat-topped hill a quarter-mile inland from the shore. They scraped around a bit with pickaxes in soft sandstone at the top of the hill, and Matt saw something he thought was the boot of a pubis, the broad bottom of one of the bones of the pelvis. Pat told him to cover it up. When they got back to the museum Pat said this was something we should go after, and I asked him to head up the dig the next year. I needed Pat to oversee digs already scheduled for that summer. And I knew he, not I, would be the best one to run a T. rex excavation. With a laboratory to manage, papers to write, and prospecting for new sites on my schedule, I knew I'd never be able to organize it. Besides, nobody knows more about how to handle the logistics of a dig than Pat.

Pat's still a young guy, just hitting forty, but we go way back. He was my first employee, cleaning fossils for me

ABOVE: MATT SMITH, SHELLEY MCKAMEY, AND BOB HARMON ARE DOING SOME PRELIMINARY EXCAVATION AND MAPPING OF T. REX BONES IN 1989. THE STRING GRID IS USED TO PLOT WHERE THE BONES WERE FOUND.

RIGHT: ALLISON GENTRY IS APPLYING A PLASTER JACKET OVER THE PARTIALLY EXPOSED RIBS OF KATHY WANKEL'S T. REX IN THE FALL OF 1989 TO PROTECT THEM UNTIL WE RETURN TO EXCAVATE THE WHOLE SKELETON THE NEXT JUNE.

MY CREW CHIEF AND LONGTIME ASSISTANT, PAT LEIGGI, RAN THE WANKEL T. REX DIG EXPERTLY.

when I was a researcher at Princeton University in 1980. (I started at Princeton as a preparator myself in 1975.) Then Pat worked as a preparator for Ken Carpenter at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Now Pat works for me at the Museum of the Rockies. And for a while until he became a preparator at the Denver Museum of Natural History, Ken Carpenter worked for Pat at the Museum of the Rockies. It's a small world.

In September of 1989, as soon as the summer's work was over and before the ground froze, Pat went back to the T. rex site with Matt Smith; Carrie Ancell, the museum's senior preparator; and Bob Harmon, museum preparator and jack-of-all-trades. They had to walk about two miles to get there, carrying generator, jackhammer, water, and food. They had less than a week to explore, but right away they knew they were onto something big. They found two-thirds of the pubis, a skull, and a right leg beside it. They really got excited when Pat probed around and hit a vertebra. He went to the side of it and came on another. He scraped

I FOUND BOB HARMON DOING WHAT I DO, WALKING AROUND

MONTANA LOOKING FOR DINOSAURS. HE'S PROVED AN EXPERT FOSSIL PREPARATOR AND FIELD WORKER.

at the other side and found one more. When Pat came on those vertebrae, he says he felt "like a kid in a candy store." His find meant these backbones were still articulated, buried in place, and that there was a good chance a whole T. rex lay in this hill.

Pat knew he didn't have the time and the work force to get this T. rex out right away. So they covered the bones with a thin plastered burlap cast, trenched around them to drain off water in case of rain, covered the site with dirt for the winter, and asked Jim Alphonso, assistant manager of the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, to look after it.

To excavate the T. rex the next spring, Pat had to begin that winter by getting the necessary permission from Jim's bosses, the owners of the T. rexsite. Wankel's Island (as we call the site) and the land and water for miles around it are part of the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, the CMR, a federally owned, Department of mterior-administered hunk of badlands and flatland. The CMR is open for grazing cattle and recreational use. You need what's called an antiquities permit to excavate on federal land, so early in 1990 Pat

I FOUND BOB HARMON DOING WHAT I DO, WALKING AROUND

MONTANA LOOKING FOR DINOSAURS. HE'S PROVED AN EXPERT FOSSIL PREPARATOR AND FIELD WORKER.

Wankel Rex

went to see Roy Snyder and Phil Sheffield of the Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Peck, about seventy miles away from Wankel's Island. They talked it over with John Foster and Bill Haglan of the CMR, and Pat said they were all "unbelievably cooperative. They asked what I needed. I said, 'A road would be nice,' and they said they'd make us one."

For months after that Pat talked to Jim Alphonso about the road. It was a good couple of miles across rocky ground and a nearly dry arm of the Fort Peck Reservoir to the hill where T. rex lay. It wasn't easy to figure out where to put the road. Pat finally came up with the idea of going straight through a dry creek bed.

With a bulldozer the Corps cut us a great road, across a cow pasture and a little washout below the reservoir (the CMR put a combination lock on the fence), then winding along the badland hillsides right up to the site. Pat set aside June and readied a crew and equipment to get T. rex out inside of a month. At last, we were ready to dig.

When Pat allowed a month to dig the whole T. rex out, he had to consider notjust the mechanics of getting the T. rex out of the ground, but the availability of the Army Corps of Engineers and its equipment and all the other volunteers who were helping us out, media, money, and weather.

But thanks to good planning from Pat and good weather, the excavation went like clockwork. Pat, Bob, and Allison Gentry, another of the museum's top preparators, arrived on June 4 to pull off the protective winterjacket and the brush they'd put over it to hide the site. A few days later the rest of us turned up and started our six-day a week schedule (Sundays were reserved for the hour drive to Jordan for a visit to a shower, laundry, and supermarket).

Pat had put a dozen of our top diggers on the T. rex excavation. It was the best, most experienced field crew in the world.

Pat's crew chief for the T. rex dig was Bob Harmon. I didn't recruit Bob, I captured him. We were prospect ing at one of our sites on the Two Medicine River in western Montana one summer morning when we came on someone out looking for fossils. I wanted to know what the heck he was doing there, but I was pretty respectful. Bob's a serious-looking guy and he owns a serious-looking gun.

Turns out Bob was just driving and walking around looking for fossils. And he was pretty darn good at finding them. I put him to work digging for us, and he's found all kinds of great stuff for the museum, from dinosaur skeletons to nests. Bob's strong too, and he knows how to handle a six-foot prybar or a sixty-five-pound jackhammer. We had others from the museum out working too: Carrie, Allison, doctoral student Dave Varricchio, Matt, Bea Taylor (a trustee of the museum who is also one of our best preparators and a decade-long fieldworker), and the museum's public relations director, Shelley McKamey. We also used some of the top volunteers we've had from past digs, many of whom are not scientists. Brad McMullen, for example, is a physician who had worked in the field the year before and was so good we asked him to take a working vacation and help us with T. rex.

We have to rely on volunteer help. We can't afford to pay for the work force we use, and our entire budget for excavating T. rex was only $5,000. We get lots of requests every summer from people who want to come and spend a few days digging dinosaurs. It's hard to tell from a letter who's going to be good at it. So I throw all the letters out. I'm not so great about answering letters anyway. If they write back, and let me know they wrote before, then I pay attention. I figure they must really be interested to write twice, or more.

TOP RIGHT: WITH PRY BARS AND SORE

BACKS, THE CREW IS HACKING AWAY TONS OF SANDSTONE OVERBURDEN TO GET NEAR THE WANKEL T. REX FOSSILS.

BOTTOM: BOB HARMON IS THINKING OVER WHAT PART OF THE WANKEL T. REX HE'LL EXPOSE NEXT. T. REX RIBS LIE TO HIS LEFT.

Wankel Rex

Some of those who come out turn out to be great diggers. They learn the techniques—like scraping gen-dy around the bone with the awl, even a toothbrush sometimes, never digging into the ground, and squeezing on the "Vinac," the clear liquid that hardens the bone as it's exposed. Or how to "jacket" a bone. You've got to mix the plaster to the right consistency so it spreads easily onto the bandages and over the paper towels separating it from the bone and matrix and then dries fast and hard. You've got to "pedestal" the bone, digging way under it before you turn it over to jacket the bottom side.

It's not brain surgery, but you'd be surprised how many people screw up at digging fossils. You need a soft touch and good eye. Most of all you've got to be patient. You never know what it is you've got, and you've got only one chance at digging it out of the ground. Even with the best of intentions, untrained amateurs can damage an important specimen. We would never have known about this T. rex if Kathy Wankel hadn't brought us the arm bones. But those bones would have been in better shape today if she'd left them in the ground, and let us take them out. (Of course it might have been harder then to convince us to come out and look at them.) And Kathy was as careful as any amateur could be in her digging.

Some professional paleontologists never get the hang of digging fossils either. Roy Chapman Andrews, the great American Museum of Natural History adventurer of the 1920s, was so bad at digging bones that researchers at the museum still refer to a damaged specimen as "RCA'ed" in his honor.

To excavate something as rare and important as a complete T. rex we wanted only our best diggers. We also knew we needed the job done pretty quickly. Our resources were limited, and the crew already had a full summer of fieldwork ahead, digging up sites I and others had prospected the year before. I had some potential duckbilled and horned dinosaur sites in the Two Medicine Formation of western Montana I was itching to look at as early as possible that field season.

Our crew had to be more than talented. They needed to be in good physical shape. Digging dinosaurs can be back breaking, literally. By and large we don't have many injuries on the job. But Pat has chronic back trouble from lifting rocks to get at bones in the field. Vicki Clouse, one of our student helpers on the T. rex dig, broke a bone in her foot when something heavy landed on it. She had to quit work. In the past, dinosaur diggers have even been killed, crushed by falling rocks or equipment. Aside from Vicki's injury, the worst incident we've had at a site was a ratdesnake bite in the ankle that laid up Carrie in the summer of 1992. Still, digging dinosaurs is safer than the long drives between sites we often make on back roads at late hours. A crash on one of those drives is what killed my first excavation partner and best friend, Bob Makela, several years ago.

Pat didn't dig a single bone out at the T. rex site himself. Not that he was protecting his bad back—he ran the jackhammer and pushed the crowbar enough to screw up his back worse than ever. But he was busy supervising the rest of the crew and all the equipment, devising seat-of-the-pants strategies for taking each group of bones out as they were uncovered.

Good as the road was, it was only one lane, and rain, wind, and all the vehicle traffic pretty soon made for teeth-rattling ruts and rough spots. In the rain the crushed shale got so slippery, four-wheel-drive vehicles just slid right off.

The condition of the road, the cooperation of the folks in the area, and the padlocked fence were enough to keep out most uninvited visitors. We did get one nervy guy who was driving cross-country from Vermont, heard about our dig, and kept asking people around Jordan until one of them told him where to go. Instead of tossing him out, we showed him around the dig. I figured if it meant that much to him to see it, he ought to have that chance.

We did have a lot of media people to contend with, and that was sometimes Pat's biggest headache. We

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Responses

  • sian
    How to excavate dinosuars site?
    8 years ago
  • Elio
    How did people dig the trex out?
    7 years ago

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