At a site called the "Big Pig Dig" in the Badlands National Park in South Dakota, four students from the SD School of Mines in Rapid City are digging away. A park ranger by name Alison is their interface to visitors. I watch in some fascination.
Two of the guys are digging away with tiny instruments, though not being particularly gentle with them. In fact, while I'm watching, they use some kind of scalpel to lever up what looks like a piece of dirt from among a collection of pebbles, and then one says "Oops!" and everyone laughs. "It's a patella", he says, and moves off to the edge of the pit to examine it and bag it separately. I'm a little stunned. He's broken off a serious bit of the bone -- an entire kneecap -- and everyone's laughing? But I suppose this is what happens at fossil digs -- there must be stuff being broken all the time -- you can't get intact bones and skeletons.
I walk over and examine the piece with him. Amazingly, I think I might have recognized it as a kneecap too -- it's smooth and slightly convex, longish, just as my kneecap feels to me. Smaller than mine. This is the kneecap of a pig-like animal, genus written on an artist's conception of it, Archaeotherium. The artist's conception is of a long-snouted animal snapping at the camera. Plausible, especially given the skeleton on display, made from bones that were found here.
A young man in a bandana and red T-shirt with a dinosaur skeleton and "Deinonychus antirrhopus" has a different job that's just as fascinating. He's covering the area being dug with, first moist toilet paper, then plaster. The idea being, they can then lift the whole big lump of mud out and take it to the lab. There, the paper dries and they can then remove the plaster easily. Absent the paper, the plaster would stick to the bones and mud and damage any fossils. Seems like a simple, terrific solution. With the toilet paper, pleasingly low-tech too, with the toilet paper. Behind this group of three, another young man and a slightly older woman -- Alison tells me she's doing her PhD -- are putting finishing touches on one such lump of mud, roughly torso-shaped, its entire underside covered in white. Ready to go to the lab.
The young man also comes over to chat, his name is TJ. What's on his Tshirt is his favourite dinosaur. When I look at a pic on the web, I think it might be my favourite too -- a dinosaur with an obvious personality, for sure. A rock star, so to speak.
TJ also tells me that palaeontology is still done a lot by digging, like these guys are doing. I remember reading about Chaco people sites in NM that most of that kind of research does not now involve digging, because that disrupts the site, and that's bothersome especially there, because people treat the sites as sacred. Instead, they "dig" by seismic sensing, which can give scientists a good picture of what's under the surface. But TJ says that's archaeology. You can't do that with bones, because these fossilized bones have the same density as the surrounding soil, so it won't show up on that sensing equipment. The sensing depends on differential densities. Here, they dig.
"TJ what", I ask before he returns to papering and plastering, and he spells it out for me, "H-A-Y-D-E-N". "Oh," I say, "Hayden, I know that name, you didn't need to spell it out ..." and I'm about to add, I know of Matthew Hayden, for example. Just in time, I realize that TJ here in South Dakota, undergraduate at the School of Mines, is somewhat unlikely to know about Matt Hayden. So I also bite off what I might have followed up with, which is, you know about how he called an Indian player an "obnoxious weed", don't you?