Fossils, Big and Small

In 1974, I travelled with a group of divers to work on a historical shipwreck off the coast of the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, because we would have to wait two years for a proper permit, we never got to work on that wreck. On one of these trips, I decided to go to the mountains with a group of friends. The mountains of the Dominican Republic are famous for their amber mines. Amber is a clear, orange-yellow substance that comes from tree sap, or resin. When the resin hardens and becomes buried in the Earth’s crust, it sometimes preserves the tiniest forms of prehistoric life. On the day of my visit to the amber mine, one of the miners showed me such a piece of amber. There inside this fiery stone, was a perfect, ancient insect. I began reading everything I could get my hands on about amber. I returned to the mines countless times, looking through the thousands of pieces of amber. After a while I became quite a good amateur entomologist and I provided many museums and universities with amber fossils. Though my introduction to fossils began with the tiniest creatures, I soon moved to bigger life forms. Kirby Siber, a palaeontologist, asked me to join him on a dig for whale fossils in Peru. I worked six winters in the deserts of Peru. Our group uncovered enormous whale fossils, as well as seals and dolphins.

Sue – The Find of a Lifetime

The story
In 1985 I met a man named Peter Larson (president of The Black Hills Institute) while in Peru on a whale dig. I soon began volunteering with Pete’s group, digging for fossils in the United States and I worked with them three summers in South Dakota. The summer 1990 began in much the same way as the last summers I worked in South Dakota. Just two days before we were set to leave the site, a tire on our truck went flat. While the four others in the group left to get it fixed, I decided to stay behind. Throughout that summer, we had searched most of the cliffs in the area. But there was one spot I had never got the chance to visit. With the others gone, this was my chance. I set out across the valley, accompanied, as usual, by my dog, Gypsy.I walked around the base of the cliff with my head down, watching the ground. About halfway along, I noticed a few pieces of what looked like bones. Then I looked up. It’s difficult for me to put into words how I felt at that moment. There, about eight feet above my head, were three dinosaur backbones. I could see them clearly in the sunlight, as though waiting patiently for someone to find them. The walk back to our group’s base that day is a kind of a blur for me now. It took our group five days to remove the 30 feet of the rock that covered SUE’s skeleton. Because heavy machines would have damaged the bones, we used handheld tools such as shovels, picks, and crowbars to do the job. Later, we switched to smaller shovels and picks. In less than three weeks SUE was free from her rocky tomb. Back at the Hills Institute, workers began the long process of cleaning bones. Because SUE was so extraordinary, many people wanted to claim her. For eight million dollars, The Field Museum in Chicago earned the right to call SUE their own.

The significance of Sue

The first T. rex specimen was found in 1900. Since then, only seven skeletons that are more than half complete have been discovered. Of these, Sue is the largest, most complete, and best preserved T. rex ever found.

Most of Sue’s bones are in excellent condition and have a high degree of surface detail. Sixty-seven million years after her death, it is still possible to see fine details showing where muscles, tendons, and other soft tissues rested against or attached to the bone.

Sue’s completeness, combined with the exquisite preservation of the bones, makes her an invaluable scientific resource, permitting highly detailed study of T. rex anatomy.

Diving Deep

The year was 1992. I was lucky enough, to have joined a fantastic team of marine archaeologists, headed by Franck Goddio. That year, he had found a 400-year-old sunken ship, or galleon, called the San Diego in the waters off the Philippines. The San Diego was a Spanish ship that carried goods from the Far East for trade in Europe. But in 1600, the ship was used for a different purpose – a battle! The San Diego sank on the bottom of the South China Sea and nearly 400 years would pass before anyone would lay eyes on it again. Once the ship was found, our diving team went to work. A huge water dredge, a kind of underwater vacuum cleaner, helped us to remove more than 200 tons of sand and rock covering the wreck. From the wreck, we were able to remove 570 large stone jars, 430 gold and silver coins, and more than 800 pieces of beautiful, blue-and-white Chinese porcelain. Since the San Diego, I have joined Franck’s Team on several other dives. Two important discoveries I worked on were Napoleon Bonaparte’s lost fleet of ships and Cleopatra’s Royal Quarters. Napoleon was defeated by Admiral Nelson’s British fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. Many of Napoleon’s ships were sunk in an area called Aboukir Bay. The biggest ship in the fleet, the Orient, had exploded. The Orient carried a great deal of gold, silver and copper coins. Day after day, our diving team brought up there watery riches together with cannons, muskets, cooking pots, bottles, tools and swords from the other ships in the fleet. Cleopatra’s Royal Quarters in Alexandria, Egypt also contained incredible treasures. Now buried about 30 feet underwater, the Royal Quarters were where Cleopatra lived during the summers of her reign. An earthquake in the fourth century had caused the Quarters to sink into the sea. Our team used large, steel underwater scrapers to remove the coral shell growth. Not a fun job! Still, seeing those perfect, ancient statues rise from the water was enough to make our hard work worthwhile.

It is these moments of discovery, these brushes with ancient history, that keep me diving and hiking and searching.