OSU students and Corvallis community given opportunity to uncover fossils

Riley Youngman

Elbows deep in a plastic teal tub full of muddy water, Wes Brown, a senior in bioresource research, pulls out piece of mammoth bone he has been carefully cleaning for the last ten minutes and holds it up to get a closer look.  Although Brown is unable to identify what exactly the bone is, he smiles as he inspects his discovery.

Like Brown, near one hundred students, professors and community members voyaged to a damp storage garage underneath the Reser Stadium stands Friday afternoon to help process the remaining piles of dirt containing bone.

Chris Foertsch, a graduate student in applied cultural anthropology, studies people in the present, but he jumped at the chance to help process the bones.  Although there were no human remains or artifacts found, Foertsch said these creatures existed alongside humans at one point.

“We’re not working with people here but we’re touching these creatures that used to walk around right here, right where we are,” Foertsch said.  “People used to see these creatures, maybe not this guy in particular, but they would see them and hunt them and taste them, tell stories and myths about them, so it is pretty magical to be touching this ancient creature that lived 10,000 years ago.”

Mike Full, a retired police officer who lives in McMinnville, assists with paleontological  digs and bone preservation as a hobby, and has gained a  positive reputation among local scientists and experts.  Full is assisting with the mammoth excavation and was present at the event Friday where he spent most of his time talking with students and community members about the process.

“The bones will stay in the water for as long as they can be,” Full said.  “This stuff has had several thousands of years to become saturated with water underground, so we can’t force any more water into it. It will dry in a matter of days in the wrong environment and turn to dust.”

Full then explained that the pieces will be examined, sorted and identified all while scientists work to piece the bones back together.  Full has worked in the past restoring skeletons belonging to mammoth, mastodon, bison andmany other prehistoric creatures.

“The bones will remain underwater until they are taken out and saturated with a water based polyurethane coating that will stabilize them and harden them enough to be able to work with,” Full said.

Although not a paleontologist by trade, Full collected fossils growing up, and after retiring as a police officer he began the Willamette Valley Pleistocene Project, in which he and local volunteers work alongside trained professionals to discover, study and preserve the prehistoric past.

Loren Davis, an associate professor at Oregon State University in anthropology, has been leading the efforts on campus excavating and processing the remains.

Davis teaches a Pacific Northwest prehistory class and has discussed extinct animals in lectures, and saw this dig as an excellent opportunity for students to obtain some hands on learning.

“This was actually the assignment for the week — students were to come out and learn some things about the past by helping to do this,” Davis said.

Davis was contacted when the discovery was made Monday afternoon, and he immediately surveyed the site.  After determining there were no human remains or artifacts, which are regulated under stricter state and federal laws, Davis was told he would have half a day to extract as much as he could from the stadium before he would be forced to leave so construction could continue.  

“All of this dirt was excavated on Tuesday.  On Monday I just came down and did an initial assessment of what was going on, and we all came to the conclusion that these were very large extinct animal bones,” Davis said.  “On Tuesday, we all got to work early in the morning then all day long exposing and taking out as intact stuff as we could, then using machines to take out big pieces of dirt.”

According to Davis, the excavated dirt was piled on the five yard line, out of the way of the construction crews, where it remained until Friday when it was brought up to the garage for processing. Although Davis used the event as an educational opportunity, he also saw it as a way to get necessary work done.

“Honestly we needed to process the dirt off of the five yard line, and we also needed to get the bone out of the dirt, so we thought what better opportunity would there be for students?  We get the help we need, they get great experience,” Davis said.

Davis is an archeologist by trade, so he focuses primarily on ancient people, but he said the connection between ancient creatures and humans is closer than one may think.  

“There is no archeology in these sediments but we can learn about the environments of the people of the past as well,” Davis said.

The event itself had volunteers work through the pile of mud and clay in tubs of water while looking for bones.  Students, professors and community members processed the piles of dirt for over three hours and primarily found smaller bone fragments.

According to Davis, the bones that have been found will now be taken to a lab where they will be restored and used for further research.

“We’re going to end up taking the bones to a lab where we are going to work to stabilize it, so we are going to use preservative chemicals,” Davis said.  “We’ll actually cure it to a better state so we can handle it, we can measure if needed, we can put things on display and so on.”

At this point in time, Davis knows that bison and possibly elk or camel remains have been found along with mammoth.   

“We have mammoth, that’s for sure.  We have bison, and we know that from some pieces of foot bone that were discovered,” Davis said.  “Then there is another bone that we found that is not like mammoth or bison, it is a smaller one so we think based on its size, it is probably camel or horse or elk.”

Davis had hoped to also discover remains of a Castoroides, more commonly known as a the giant beaver, but at this point in time he does not believe he has found anything.

“I didn’t hear that anything novel had come out today, but you never know.  There are a lot of things happening, we’re not seeing everything as it is happening right now. I wouldn’t be surprised though,” Davis said.  “We may actually find some smaller animals too.  Not all the animals have to be big ones.”

Davis said the bones are at least 10,000 years old, but an exact age will not be known until further testing is conducted.

“We are going to get some samples submitted for radiocarbon dating, and then we are going to know with a greater precision what the age is,” Davis said.

Because of the small amount of time Davis and his crew were allowed to work, he said that there were bones left in the ground.  Most notably, a large bone that went under the existing Valley Football Center could not be reached and still remains.  

Full explained that under different, more normal circumstances, a dig similar to this one would take weeks, even months,to complete and the large femur bone that was extracted would normally take three or four days to properly remove, compared to the few hours it took for crews to take the bone out of Reser.  In addition, Davis said bones were destroyed or damaged in the process because of the hurried nature of the removal.

OSU Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations Steve Clark has stated that construction has not been delayed and the Valley Football Expansion project will be completed on time, and there will be football in Reser come fall.

Davis and other archeologists believe that there are more bones in the area, including underneath the existing locker rooms and football field itself.  

Davis hopes this find is a sign of things to come for OSU.

“Only great things are ahead of us for OSU and OSU football.  The future is mammoth,” Davis said with a laugh.

Students have used this find as an opportunity to step outside of the classroom and experience the process of discovery and excavation first hand.

“When you think about it, except for in the zoo, we don’t really have big animals in the U.S,” said Janette Byrd, a graduate student in applied cultural anthropology.  “We have bears and creatures like that, but this finding reminds us that once humans were not the big man on campus.”

Morgan Montanez, a graduate student studying applied cultural anthropology claimed that going to a dig sites is often expensive and requires travelling out of country at times, so being able to participate in this process on campus is even more special.

“This is one of the few applied anthropology programs, so to get to literally apply what we are learning in our own backyard and not having to go far away is great,” Montanez said. “ It’s nice to step away from the theory and the books and get our hands dirty.”