It’s July, in Hell Creek, Montana. The daytime temperature hovers around 45ºC (113ºF). Your lips crack, and the water you guzzle seems to evaporate before you get a chance to swallow it.
The barren landscape is speckled with low buttes, rounded striated mounds that rise abruptly from the otherwise flat landscape. Tufts of serrated grass struggle to grow in the grey popcorn-like clay that breaks easily under the pick.
Weather-beaten bone fragments are abundant under your feet and ignored by the experts. The real treasure is still underground. The dark brown, almost purple bones that have been encased for millions of years are not hard to find. Isolated fragments of skeletons are common. It’s the whole skeleton, intact and in one place – now that’s the mother lode.
To find these, the researchers concentrate on landforms they call washes. The remnants of watercourses; these are places where bones congregate in a tangle to form bone beds. Here the dead beasts became stuck and then covered in mud and silt in a Triassic flood. They have lain here undisturbed, the bones becoming fossilised as the living tissue is replaced by minerals. Hard and locked in time.
Fifteen long hours of bright sunshine makes sleep a problem. The extended twilight, a photographer’s delight. The six hours of darkness that finally comes is not enough to recover from the day’s hard labour, yet you press on. The heavy pick is replaced by a small hand pick and then a soft brush and dental pick. Your tiny little pick hits something that “tinks” when the metal hits it. You’ve found it! You’ve found the rib of a triceratops. More digging, slowly, slowly with painstaking tedium you brush away more dirt. Wait! Stop! Is that the vertebrae? YES! The joy punctures the eerie mood. You are the only human who has ever seen this bone.
The feeling of time stretched out behind you becomes unnerving. What catastrophic event lead to these massive creatures being nothing but a pile of bones? Will it happen again?
Dinosaur dig vacations
A dinosaur dig is not your typical vacation destination. It’s not glamorous. You actually have to do some digging! It’s hot and dusty. Most “holiday” digs are part of research programs, and you become the cheap labour and pay for the privilege. My dig was with a group called Paleoworld Research Foundation who operated during the summers from a ranch about 50 km out of the town of Jordan. The two women (Hannah and Jess) who ran the operation where both Masters students who were collecting specimens for their studies. We slept in an old caravan and ate simple meals with the family who owned the ranch.
I travelled to America with Bec, a friend I had met at a Science Teachers’ workshop a few years before. Our trip was 100% science-based. After the dig, we drove down through the Yellowstone National Park (geology) and onto the Grand Canyon (more geology) and Los Vegas. From Los Vegas, we flew to Alabama to join an Educators’ Space Camp at the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center. (Maths and physics!) (Ok…. so Los Vegas wasn’t very scientific!)
Paleoworld Research Foundation are no longer operating. Some internet research shows that Judy Lervick, the ranch owner, sadly died in July 2017. There are other groups who offer a similar experience, although I cannot in any way vouch for them.