During my great US trip in 2003 I visited many museums and spent a lot of time camping in the Rockies, Shoshone National Forest, Yellowstone, and many other places. The highlight, however, was volunteering at the dinosaur dig of the Sauriermuseum Aathal (SMA) near Shell, Wyoming.
At work at the SMA’s dinosaur dig in 2003. Photo taken by Dimitri Brosens. ‘Kirby’ Siber and Toni Fürst at top left.
The dig at that site had been going on roughly a decade. Initially ‘Kirby’ Siber had the famous Howe Quarry re-opened, from which the team pulled many good finds. The most beautiful example is the complete Diplodocus neck and skull “H.Q. 2”. Also from this quarry comes the composite Diplodocus “H.Q. 1”. Later, the team dug in other places nearby, and in 1991 they made their to that date most famous and important find: a nearly complete Allosaurus fragilis skeleton. It soon turned out that what they believed was private land (for which they had permission to dig on) was in fact public land, and the SMA had to hand over the beautiful theropod to the Museum of the Rockies, where preparation was completed. The specimen became famous under the nickname “Big Al” (catalog number MOR 693).
Big Al digsite near Shell. Note our tents in the background. Howe Quarry is just to the right of the tree to the right of the campsite.
Interestingly, when we got to the “Big Al” digsite in 2003, it had been bulldozed open. We found numerous extremely well preserved fragments of ?Allosaurus limb and other bones (femur shaft fragments were a dead giveaway, with their near-circular cross section and the thick wall). Apparently, an eminent paleontologist had a one-year digging permit and sent a bulldozer to open the digsite. The operator dug through some bone layer without noticing, and we were able to collect several buckets full of bones from the debris piles. We set them out for the excavators to collect, but nobody ever showed. A bit confusing, this entire episode, to say the least.
But there were many other opportunities nearby, and ‘Kirby’ and crew soon struck bone again. Finds include “Big Al 2” (more complete than “Big Al”), several stegosaurs, huge fossil tree trunks, an articulated Othniela, and much more sauropod material, among it the baby diplodocid(?) “Toni”.
When I left Yellowstone in 2003 to take my rental car back to Salt Lake City, I drove by the digsite to dump my luggage. The crew wasn’t there yet, and I had some trouble finding the site, but I know that they would arrive the same day. Soon, a dirty and bashed-up van going the other way along what counts as a gravel road out in the boonies stopped me – it was ‘Kirby’s’ daughters Jolanda and Maya (there are two more, btw) and other members of the dig crew. Seeing my car they had immediately concluded that I was looking for them – that should give you an idea how rural and deserted the area there is.
The dig is located at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains, which makes for a great view all day, but especially in the evening. Facing our camp was the western edge of the mountains, where a thick and extensively exposed limestone layer forms both a plateau on top of the mountains, and their western flank. You can see how this works in the panorama picture: the layer is bent smoothly. This gives the mountains a deceptively harmless and small, yet massive look. In fact, they are much higher than one first assumes.
Our camp was fairly comfortable, because we were allowed to use water form the local stream. It had to be filtered, but we had a nifty hand pump with a charcoal filter, and took turns. ‘Kirby’ demanded hard work, 12 hours a day, no day off, but in compensation he made sure that his was the most comfortable dig in the badlands I have ever seen. No expenses were spared to feed us (and yes, drinks were in sufficient supply as well), and he had had a table built, with benches and a roof for protection from the sun and rain. Proper trenches were dug around tents, so the rain water wouldn’t flood them. There was a (rudimentary) shower, and ‘Kirby’ organized day trips to Yellowstone, the Bighorn Mountains, a rodeo (just after I left) and so on. There is an airplane graveyard close by, where old planes are kept to be cannibalized for spare parts for the local firefighters’ planes, and we got to visit that as well.
After-dinner celebration: We had found a skull! Kirby pours the champagne, with Anton ‘Toni’ Fürst (who dug out the skull) watching. Emmanuel Tschopp (stegosaur skin researcher) and Kirby’s daughter Maya Siber on the left. Nicola Lillich and Rabea Lillich at the table. Me reading. Photo taken by Dimitri Brosens
The dig itself was exposed to the scorching sun all day, because there were no trees (obviously, this being badlands). However, the SMA team had devised an ingenious way of reducing the heat and UV insolation. Green plastic meshes of the kind used to protect vegetable plants were strung over the quarry, absorbing or reflecting roughly half the insolation. The strong winds that sprang up suddenly would have ripped them off if we had attempted to tie them to poles, but ‘Kirby’s people had strung wires from which the meshes were hung with eyelets, so that the first few gusts would simply make them slide to one side. That gave us time to take them down before the winds got strong enough to rip them off or to shreds.
Digsite with shading.
Enough for now; there is plenty more to tell about this dig, about dinosaurs we found, about the landscape and people, and about a nightly visit by a large carnivorous mammal.