Digging Up Dinosaurs: A Trip With Raleigh’s Natural Science Museum
When I began volunteering at Museum of Natural Sciences, I never imagined I’d fulfill my lifelong dream of digging up dinosaur bones like a real Paleontologist.
I put my backpack down on the clumpy, weathered sand and took a few gulps of water from a big bottle. I tasted grit, shrugged, and drank some more. Dirt had a way of creeping into everything in eastern Utah, as if the Big Bad Wolf had huffed and puffed and blown down a sand castle the size of twelve Empire State Buildings.
I learned quickly while excavating dinosaurs that a certain amount of grit in your teeth was the spice of field cuisine. It was likely that two or three grains of that grit once belonged to a fossil, exposed too long to the harsh elements and worn to dust. Paleontology works with time, but also against it.
My first step towards realizing my dream was a long and cautious one–like Indiana Jones trusting that first blind step on the hidden stone bridge in The Last Crusade. My goal wasn’t quite as lofty or dire.
I wanted to volunteer at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and although I knew the Nature Research Center had labs and cool exhibits, I didn’t think I would even be able to get near the fossils.
They’re too delicate to just let a random enthusiast walk through the doors. Surely a person needed a P.H.D to even breathe in the presence of real, legitimate skull fragments of Acrocanthosaurus.
I went through a volunteer orientation and learned that there were openings in the Paleontology/Geology Lab. I was given a two-page handout describing the work they needed. “Fossil preparation requires patience and good hand-eye coordination,” it said, and my inner 8-year-old soared at the idea of handling dinosaur bones. I excitedly chatted a bit with the Volunteer Coordinator, Tullie Johnson.
“Have you picked two favorites yet?” she asked.
Tullie is a beloved woman around every nook and cranny of the Museum of Natural Sciences, and recently had a Volunteer Lounge dedicated to her decades of service–despite her insistence that it wasn’t necessary. She’s blunt, honest, and she told me flat out that I needed to pick two options, in case I didn’t get the opportunity I wanted. I picked a second, but I knew my heart was in the Paleo lab. I could feel it in my bones.
Playing With Fossils
I traded emails with Lisa Herzog, the Manager and Chief Preparator of the Paleo/Geo Lab. Browsing the specimens while I waited, I took note that lots of fragments were found nearby in Chatham and Durham counties. Fossil bone was visible everywhere, carefully labeled and widely scattered. I recognized that type of ad-hoc organization, it reminded me of my coffee table.
I met Lisa for the first time a few minutes later, and we chatted for a short while about my experiences, hobbies, interests, and goals. I mentioned a book I’d read about Sue, the famous Tyrannosaur specimen that was sold for 8.36 million, and she began telling me about her experiences with it and the Field Museum. I was blown away by the sudden reality of the science at work right in front of me.
“All right, let’s see what you can do.” Lisa said.
She told me to sit at a microscope, and handed me a small square box. The vertebra inside was about 4 cm in length, and some parts of it were soft and highly weathered. It was encased in clumpy, weathered sand, and I was given a small carbide needle to scrape it away. I spent an hour happily chiseling, scraping, and brushing. My biggest fear was pressing slightly too hard and reducing the fossil to fine, 95 million year old powder. I found out that day that fossil bone can be tougher than it looks, but I still had to use the utmost care.
Cleaning fossils was a challenge. I was hooked.
In the following months, I continued to work with dinosaurs on the third floor of the Nature Research Center, under the watchful grin of the T-Rex right outside. I traveled nearly an hour from my home in Durham every week to accept the privilege, and I went on to open up and work on another five fossils.
I got to know the Director of the Lab, Dr. Lindsay Zanno, a little better too. Last year Lindsay made headlines when she announced the discovery of Siats Meekerorum, right around the time I came in.
I was more than a little intimidated. Lindsay has a smart, veteran’s smile, and moves around the rough terrain of eastern Utah like a mountain lion.
In The Field
Only ten months after I picked up my first carbide needle, I found myself in the field. Lindsay, Lisa, Dr. Paul Brinkman, and graduate student Khai Button had all been working for over three weeks by that point, and I found myself weary after only three full days.
Digging up dinosaurs was every bit as difficult and time-consuming as I imagined. Every morning we would pack up food, water, and rock hammers. We’d walk about a half an hour or so to the site, uncover it, and start our work. Bones were everywhere, and every time we thought we found the outer limit, we’d just find more. We dug, hammered, swept, and carefully wrapped up specimens for removal and transport back to the lab. We worked until near sundown, every day.
I was smiling as I caught my breath under the canopy on that third day. I took off my sweaty hat, cracked a joke, and took a moment to really cherish why I had chosen to fly out into nowhere’s sandy oven. I came to fulfill a dream. I came to dig up dinosaurs. I came to, in some small way, add to the sum total of human knowledge. And although I didn’t discover any new species (I’ll leave that to Lindsay’s students), I left Utah energized and excited to get back to the lab and work on what I found.
I look forward to going back next year, If they’ll have me.