I always wanted to be an archaeologist when I grew up. A lot of years and university later, I’m enjoying the thrill of uncovering the past, even though I do most of my digging through history books and the Internet. Then the Makoshika Dinosaur Museum provided the opportunity I’d always wanted—to be a dinosaur hunter and dig for real dinosaur bones.
My four hour drive to Glendive, Montana, where the Museum is located, took me into Montana’s badlands, where fossils abound. Jerry Jacene, resident palaeontologist at the time, told us many believe the name “badlands” was given as an early warning to stay clear of the area, and avoid encountering whatever kind of animal left such enormous bones behind.
That wasn’t all I learned from Jerry though. One of the first things he told me, and the others in the group was, “The difference between a dinosaur bone and a rock is that your tongue sticks to the bone.”
I still haven’t been brave enough to try that one out.
At the museum, I was shown through the exhibits and had my questions answered. The thing that impressed me most about the museum was its visual appeal—it wasn’t just a big room of old bones. Colors filled the displays: green plantlife and various colored rock formations.
The director said, “The museum grows all the time. We want to make it an International exhibit, not just a regional collection.” In 2007 they’ve added an Allosaurus and a Stegosaurus.
Of course, the museum is still seeing, and I wanted to get right down to the nitty gritty and find my own dinosaur bones. So, we headed out to the badlands for our first walk through the terrain to get the lay of the land, so to speak.
It’s not as easy to navigate badlands as you might expect. Basically a layer cake of alternating bands of dark and light rocks and soil, the terrain changes often and quickly. Scrambling up solid surfaces and slipping on sandstone, I was glad I had good hiking shoes to help keep my balance.
Jerry pointed out the exact shade of grey, mud from a shallow inland sea that covered the mid section of the North American continent 80 million years ago, that indicates there will be fossils. In fact, he told us about finding a fifty foot crocodile with immense teeth—the croc was large enough to eat a T-Rex!
It didn’t take Jerry—and then me—long to find bone fragments of a Hadrasaurus, the same type of dinosaur first discovered and described by William Parker Foulke back in 1858. I was thrilled. I’d become a dinosaur hunter!
Sunset soon put an end to my first day of adventures, so I was forced to head on back to Glendive to eat and pack it in for the evening. Makoshika Museum has formed partnerships with other tourism providers to make becoming a dinosaur hunter about the experience, rather than coordinating facilities and digs.
The next morning we were ready at sunrise—almost. While others in the group experienced the early morning fog, I was still deciding what to have for breakfast. June days in Montana are close to 18 hours long, from the first glimpse of the sun in the East to its glorious descent in the West. Afternoons can be incredibly hot, so getting to the dig site early was essential.
I was prepared: wide brimmed hat, hiking shoes, light colored, long sleeved shirt and pants to protect me from sun and mosquitoes, sunscreen on my face, and glasses with UV protection. The museum package provided me with the tools I needed and a field course.
Naturally the field course was the most important part, and Jerry was a great teacher. Once we started the hike to the dig, he tossed out answers as fast as we threw questions.
“Did a meteorite kill the dinosaurs?” “Why did dinosaurs become extinct?” “Could Jurassic Park really happen?” “What else lived in the time of the dinosaurs?” “Is the T-Rex really the biggest dinosaur that ever lived?”
Jerry knew a lot about the T-Rex. In fact, the Discovery Channel had shot one of its T-Rex dinosaur productions in the Glendive area. All of us were surprised to learn that there is another dinosaur longer than the T-Rex, and Bob, that’s his name, is also a Montana resident.
Two Medicine Dinosaur Center, another stop of Montana’s Dinosaur Trail, has had Bob, a Seismosaurus, added to the Guiness Book of World Records as the World’s longest dinosaur museum exhibit. Bob is over 11 feet in length, and contains over 100 dinosaur bones and fragments from at least 3 individuals and 2 separate species.
Questions ended as soon as we arrived at the dig. We got right down to business and gathered the tools to do our own poking around in some of the richest fossil beds in Montana. As I dropped to my knees, rock hammer and chisel in hand, I could almost hear dinosaurs thundering across the land. In the heat haze of the early afternoon, I had to blink a few times, as the mirage of a seven ton T-Rex plodded across the prairie grass below me.
Digging for dinosaurs is hot work—and certainly tedious, as I smoothed dust away from each tiny piece of rock and loosened shale. But I was rewarded with lots of small bone fragments, mainly of the Hadrasaurus. Locals have discovered Tryceratops, Struthiosaurus, and of course, T-Rex. Many fossils from the ancient riverbeds, shells, turtles, fish and other sea creatures are also common finds by fossil hunters.
One of the great things about digging with Makoshika is that I got to keep small finds as souvenirs, which isn’t the case in most places.
Fossils belong to whoever owns the mineral rights of the land, rather than who finds them or even owns the surface rights. In many cases that’s the government, so they manage excavations and work with museums to preserve the specimens. Taking even a small piece of bone fragment from that type of site is prohibited.
Makoshika Museum works with landowners, and their guests, to find and excavate fossils of many different types of creatures who roamed the earth millions of years ago.
Many fossils, due to erosion and the passing of the seasons, are uncovered each year in the badlands, and without restoration, simply disappear into the dust. Becoming a fossil hunter was not only a great experience for me, but also helped the Museum.
My visit to this dinosaur dig also netted me one of the best gifts I’d ever brought home for my grandson—some priceless dinosaur bones of his own to treasure. And the cycle continues, as now he dreams about becoming a dinosaur hunter himself.
Note * Makoshika is no longer operating.
Follow the Dinosaur Trail in Montana at: http://mtdinotrail.org/