It’s hard to really know what it’s like to go on a dinosaur dig from what you see in the movies, read in news articles and from trips to the museum. Dinosaur fossils and most other fossil vertebrates don’t just show up in the dirt and rock, waiting for you to uncover them with a brush. When you find them, they also don’t look perfectly preserved and displayed like they do in a museum.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a part of a research-based dinosaur dig*, read on.
How the day starts on a fossil dig
Early. The day always starts early. Stumble out of your tent or bed, throw on your long pants, long-sleeved shirt, hat, socks and boots. SPF a trillion is your best bet. Fill your water bottles (and maybe freeze them too-icy cold water—ahhhh) and don’t forget the electrolytes or you will regret it. Down a good breakfast and coffee while packing up your backpack with a protein-rich lunch, kneeling pad, gloves and water. And whatever you do, don’t forget the salty snacks. When it’s really hot, your body craves salt, so bring on the Fritos! Finally, If you’re a woman and you don’t want to drip dry, tissues for when you “go to see a man about a horse” are nice to have too.
Drive to your location
Usually, your site isn’t steps away from where you slept. Prepare for a long ride in a 4x4 vehicle for an hour drive, give or take. At least this gives you time for a cat nap if you’re still tired or to drink coffee to wake up enough to prepare for the day ahead.
Arrive at your dig site
Haul your backpack out, but not before helping to unload the gear needed for work today. This includes toolboxes and bags filled with rock hammers, awls, shovels, buckets, water and brushes of all sizes. Sometimes, these dinosaur bones are encased in backbreaking matrix (rock) that need a jackhammer to pry them loose. Haul all the aforementioned gear a few hundred yards if you’re lucky, a couple of miles if you’re not. Oh, and if you’re in the badlands, you’ll be meandering up and over the sandstone formations, around gullies, sneaking past any rattlesnakes, while trying not to fall flat on your bottom when you hit a slippery slope of loose rock.
At last, you are where those fossils are just there—waiting to be found. Take in the spectacular view, because as barren as the badlands are, they have a beauty all their own. The colors, the smells and the promise of bones all make for a happy place experience.
Because, let’s face it, being the first person to spot a fossil that has not seen the light of day for 70 million years or more is something that takes your breath away.
Step 1: Overburden removal
Using a shovel or a jackhammer and a whole lot of stamina, you remove rock from above and around the fossils to get to a more level area to access the fossils.
Step 2: Excavating fossils
Once you have reached the right rock strata where the fossils are, the perseverance begins. (To find out how paleontologists know where to find bones, read here) You’ll be using a rock hammer, bucket, awl, brushes and a bucket and dustpan. You can be working for hours and even days and still come up empty handed. But you’re all in this together. You are part of a team of interesting, dedicated people, all with great stories to tell and all focused on the same phenomenal mission.
Then luck strikes and your patience pays off! It looks like the edge of a fossil bone. Is it a fossil or a rock? Give it a lick and if your tongue sticks, you’ve struck fossil gold! You chip away at the rock and dirt with your awl and fine tools to follow the bone. Sometimes it’s a big bone and sometimes it’s a small chunk of bone, but you call out to your team with a feeling of awe, wonder and excitement.
Stop and take it in. You’ve found an actual dinosaur bone. This will be a story you will tell for years to come.
Then, time to take a little break because if you are out in the badlands, it gets really hot. Have a snack, and don’t forget to stay hydrated. It’s hard work in the hot sun, but once those bones start to appear, you want to be able to keep on going because there’s more where that came from…
Step 3: Jacketing fossils
Depending on the number of fossils you find, it could take a day or a few days to get each bone isolated and prepared. For the most part, fossils are not completely extracted from the rock out in the field. Paleontologists leave them encased in some rock to protect them during transport.
The fossils are then “pedastaled” which means that the rock is chipped away to form a triangle of rock under the exposed fossil, giving the whole thing a mushroom-like shape.
At this time, the tops of the fossils are further protected with a layer of toilet paper or paper towels that is layered on the fossils and rock and dampened down into place using a brush and water. Once there is a layer or two of paper, burlap dipped in wet plaster is applied over the paper, forming a hard “jacket.”
Because the fossil is sitting on its own pretty pedestal, once the top plaster jacket is dry, it’s easy to chip away the remaining rock underneath to flip the jacket, much like a turtle turned on its back. Then the bottom of the fossil is jacketed with paper, burlap and plaster.
Step 4: Transporting fossils
Once the fossil has been safely ensconced in its nice white jacket (no tails), it’s carried out to a truck either by hand, using a pulley system, or with the help of a tractor or helicopter! From there, the fossil is transported back to the fossil prep lab, usually located at a museum or university.
*(Based on personal experience on over a dozen digs on Cretaceous and Jurassic dinosaur digs in the USA)