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Home > Dig It! > The Unscientific Method

PALEO-BITES: The ‘Unscientific’ Method for Digging Dinosaur Bones

Movies, documentaries and reality shows do not always show the real world of digging for dinosaur bones. The picture they present is that you just walk around, use a small brush and find a complete bone or even an entire dinosaur. If only! It is very hard work to find and excavate a dinosaur bone.

Our digsite is within the Morrison Formation located on a private ranch in Big Horn County, Wyoming. The rocks (and dinosaurs) there are Jurassic in age (144-200 million years) and include large plant-eating sauropods like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus and Apatosaurus; meat-eating dinosaurs such as Allosaurus, Torvosaurus and Ceratosaurus; and smaller plant-eaters like Camptosaurus and Dryosaurus. Along with the scientific knowledge of knowing where to dig and what you may find, you sometimes need some luck.

The Power of THE RING

One of my most important field tools is a ring - an inexpensive, synthetic star sapphire that shows a beautiful star pattern in direct sunlight. This may seem strange, but it serves me well. Vacationers, rock hounds and especially children who come out to the digsite expect to immediately find a bone or even an entire dinosaur. Even after a brief introduction to the site and the methods used to find dinosaur bones, people can become very disappointed if they don’t find something in the first hour. The realization soon sinks in this is hard work and maybe more difficult than expected.

This is where THE RING comes into play. Throughout a dig day, I will be summoned by one of the frustrated diggers and asked: ‘I’m not finding any bones! Where should I dig?’ Although I can't see into the earth, I bring forth THE RING, which I have named The Eye of Sauron. I carefully scan the ground with it and then pick a spot that THE RING indicates as prime bone-bearing territory. Digging begins again and, to the person’s delight, often a bone or many bones are found. This is not a good scientific method but it’s an excellent psychological approach.

THE RING does not have the power to find dinosaur bones but it does have power to motivate people to keep digging. Since the digging area is a bone bed with many dinosaur bones randomly scattered throughout, THE RING has a good chance of ‘working’ if the diggers are motivated, patient and careful. All hail MORDOR!

Digging in HIND-SIGHT                                                                                                                    

Digging means long hours of sitting in the dirt and either jabbing into the rock with a knife or using a hammer and chisel, depending on the hardness of the bone-bearing layers. The normal method is to grab a cushion, try to find a comfortable sitting position and then dig into the small ledge or rock wall in front of you. But prehistoric treasures can be elusive and I've seen many diggers put down (or throw down) their digging tools, stand up and declare there is nothing to be found. This is when I employ the simple method I call ‘hind-sight’.

I ask them where they were digging and where they were sitting. After scanning the rock wall in front of them and seeing no missed bones, I begin digging right where they've been sitting. Most diggers opt for a comfortable sitting position where the rock is softer or easier to reach. ‘Hind-sight’ dictates that the least explored areas are the most difficult or uncomfortable to reach. And it’s harder to dig down while sitting rather than digging into a ledge in front of you. Since I know the bone bed may still continue a foot or more into the ground under where people sit, I begin digging there.

More often than not, this yields some great finds - and serious glares from the frustrated dino-diggers. While ‘hind-sight’ may not be a true scientific technique, it has been field tested and the ‘end’ results can be rewarding as well as amusing.


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