Fossil Digging as Writing Process – Part 3 of a Travelogue by Michael G. Smith

Fossil Digging as Writing Process – Part 3 of a Travelogue
The Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry is eight miles from the highway turnoff onto Cow Dung Road west of Hanksville. Fifty yards away from the parking lot are the two hills comprising the dig. People are strewn across both. Loud rumbles of gasoline air pressure generators reverberate. I expected a silence occasionally punctuated by a rhythmic tap-tap of hammers meeting chisels meeting rock.
A signboard posted at the entrance details the quarry’s history and fossils that have been excavated, including those of Allosaurus, Stegosaurus and Camarasaurus. I find the site’s office, a twenty-foot long white cargo trailer. It is filled with equipment, storage boxes and fossils. Josh, the principal investigator of the dig, is talking to an intern. He says he’ll give me a tour of the quarry in a several minutes. But it is easy to see he is in high demand – people continually walk in and ask questions.  I say I’ll just wander about and look for Nancy and Bob. He points to the hill on the west.
Bob is lying on his side microjacking the hard sandstone encasing a fossil. He pulls off his protective goggles and dust mask. A scientist in his element, his enthusiasm for fossils and extricating them dwarfs what I experienced at Duke’s. Smiling, he says their biggest problem at the site is too many bones. And his is a jumble – a scapula and coracoid, possibly of a sauropod. Because the hill was once a riverbed, the bones could be from different dinosaurs whose remains were washed down in a flood. Another fossil, possibly a rib, will appear later as he chisels away rock beneath the scapula. Scapulae are diagnostic; ribs aren’t, though the curvature of a meat eater’s is sharper than that of a plant eater’s.

Bob describes the Micro Jack power tool used to chip away the hard sandstone matrix cemented with silica encasing the fossils. I wonder if the user of one dreams about breaking into vaults filled with riches. He points out “discovery nicks” – tiny etchings in the fossil caused by tools. They are filled in before the fossil is publicly displayed. I like the idea of discovery nicks in fossils as a metaphor for writing – the writer unearths something, an idea, a phrase. After writing it down he may want to lengthen and deepen it, or stream new tributaries in and out of it. Editing polishes it all before others have a chance to read.

We walk up the hill, called Limb Bone Ridge, to where Nancy is excavating a 3.5 foot-long femur. One end was eroded, so the actual bone was longer. She thought it might be from a Camarasaurus. Her fossil is bright white, whereas Bob’s are tawny brown, the color of the sandstone they are embedded in. I ask about this. She has worked on this fossil for three weeks over three digging seasons, having to first remove a cervical vertebrae laying on top of it. The season is short in Utah because of weather – too hot or too cold except for five weeks during spring and fall. The fossils are given a coating comprising three layers – paper, aluminum foil, lastly plaster – to protect them in the interim and when they are shipped.
Of course protection is a good thing, but writer me knows to be wary of it too. I am speaking of the writing rule sprung from overprotection – cut your darlings – which all writers know. Darlings are defended by our biases or egoistic self-satisfaction. I hate to generalize; maybe such bastions are only true for me. And, the relevance of plaster-coating a fossil to this rule is unclear to me but feels as if it exists. Perhaps a reader can clue me in. Maybe the aforementioned is a darling I have stretched too far and refuse to see.
Excavating a Burpee fossil is a slow process because of the hard rock, and can take many weeks. Nancy slowly works around the fossil. Eventually she (or another) will microjack under the fossil’s edges until the bone is “pedestaled”. Once pedestaled, several people work together to “roll” the bone in one direction to loosen and then turn it over. Having endured for millions of years, hopefully the fossil survives the quick turn.

In the photo below another volunteer excavates a bone further
up Limb Bone Ridge.

Pedestaling is relevant to darlings. The creation of one simultaneously places it on high. I get a hint that I have created a darling and pedestaled it when I wrestle to craft a poem around it. It’ll feel as if I am trying to mate two mismatched puzzle pieces. After days, weeks or months I realize the problem is the darling and admit it couldn’t be given away at a garage sale or via Craig’s free list. Wham! I begin hammering away at it. Smash it to smithereens (no pun intended). Begin anew, sometimes with the darling’s kernel, the feeling of the thing I want to express.
Nancy emailed me several weeks later that the Burpee Team finished excavating the femur fossil after she and Bob returned home. Four people were required to roll it. It didn’t match any known species. She might have discovered a new dinosaur. I hope so. She deserves to have one named after her. What does it mean to have a species named after you? Certainly it is a precious thing to keep and write about.

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About Miriam Sagan

I'm blogging about poetry, land art, haiku, women artists, road trips, and Baba Yaga at Miriam's Well ( The well is ALWAYS looking to publish poetry on our themes, sudden fiction, and guest bloggers and musers.

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