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#1 Oct 13, 2007
For parts 1 & 2, see "Boneyard Bonanza"
It was possible to use Atlas Copco air tools on site because ConocoPhillips, Alaska, had flown in an air compressor to the site along with the fuel to operate it. Without the air tools, we would never have reached the fossil layer in the time available for field work in 2007. ConocoPhillips also provided significant support to fly in the film team and the crew from the University of Alaska.
Once the “witch’s brew” was removed, a protective structure was constructed in the tunnel to prevent any permafrost on the ceiling from falling on people who were collecting fossils below. Small amounts of permafrost had fallen between April and August, and further bits fell while we were there. Then, at last the fossil collecting began. Once this stage was reached, the fossils could be collected in much the same way as outside and this was done. Because this work was done in summer, care had to be taken to keep the tunnel cool. At one stage work had to be suspended for a day in order to maintain safe working conditions, so as to prevent the dreaded thawing.
The method used to collect fossils from the tunnel floor was to dig through the fossiliferous clay with hand tools, expose individual bones, measure their orientation, and collect them. In the cold confines of the tunnel, this work went much more slowly than it would have outside. The crew grew very cold in carrying out this meticulous task and had to wear electric hand and toe warmers after being in the tunnel for a few hours, even with hourly sojourns outside to get warm. As a consequence of this, they were only able to reach a depth of about 12 inches into the approximately 18 inches to 1 yard thickness of the fossil layer. Based on previous results of surface excavation in the open at this site, fossls bones are concentrated near the bottom of the fossiliferous layer there. So it not surprising that the quantity of fossils recovered in 2007 was not great. Importantly, the fossils found did demonstrate preservation that was far superior to those recovered in previous years from the active layer external to the permafrost. This was because those in the undisturbed permafrost of the tunnel had not been repeatedly thawed and frozen. For this very reason, staff of the Museum of the North of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, plan to return to the site in future and excavate the remainder of the fossiliferous layer exposed in the adit, given enough time.
In 2003, assisted by five colleagues, Tom and Pat had excavated fossils from an oil shale mine near Gladstone, Queensland, Australia by cutting out blocks about 16 inches square with a rocksaw. That technique has proven extremely successful in recovering very complete data. Each block was encased in a jacket formed of burlap strips dipped in plaster of Paris in the field, transported and subsequently opened in Melbourne and prepared there under controlled laboratory conditions. Because the orientation of one block relative to others was recorded and mapped, it has been possible to join together a single bones that crossed from one block to another. Such collecting facilitated the recovery of tiny bones, the sampling of microfossils, the precise mapping of bone orientation both horizontally and vertically – in other words, allowing the collection of much more detailed information than could have been gathered by conventional, excavation of under field conditions.
#2 Oct 13, 2007
Anticipating the difficult conditions of excavating fossils from the floor of the permafrost tunnel based on experience collecting in the tunnels at Dinosaur Cove, it was Tom and Pat’s plan to collect at least half of the exposed fossiliferous rock from the Colville in blocks to be studied under laboratory conditions. Subsequently, the micro-excavating and detailed recording of data could take place in the laboratory, after the field work was complete. The other half was to be collected by Kevin May and Amanda Hanson of the Museum of the North together with volunteers with hand tools in the conventional method described above.
However this did not happen because it was thought by some that the cut would destroy a small percentage of the fossils, a value judgment entirely contrary to the previous experience Tom and Pat had with their excavations in the Eocene of North Queensland and the Cretaceous of Victoria. Because of this decision, in the end, staff and volunteers of the Museum of the North carried out all collecting of fossils from the floor of the tunnel in a conventional manner and no blocks were removed intact. Hopefully, in the future removal of blocks will be permitted and meticulous analysis of the micro-sedimentology, as well as recovery of tiny fossils under controlled laboratory conditions, can be carried out.
The Colville tunneling operation was a pioneering project involving unique procedures and unfamiliar concepts to most of the people involved with permitting and funding the project. It was understandably difficult for many of them as well as fellow palaeontologists, to grasp the rationale for what was proposed to be done and therefore make realistic judgments about it. But it did, indeed, work!
On the otherhand, the encouragement and support for this innovative venture over the years by many people, particularly the BLM and Army Corps of Engineers, the Alaska State Government, the National Geographic Society, the Museum of the North, and other organizations, both in Alaska and elsewhere, and in particular ConocoPhilips, was most gratifying. We were grateful for the interest and input from the Inuit communities of the North Slope. Our connection with them resulted in us being able to provide educational materials for several schools on the North Slope together with posters from Melbourne's Monash Science Centre for public spaces in Barrow and Anaktuvic Pass connecting the polar dinosaur faunas of the North and the South (Alaska and Australia)- a cross-cultural dinosaur exchange!
The successful execution of this work in northern Alaska in 2007 has shown how it is possible to cut a tunnel into permafrost and recover very well preserved dinosaur bones from such deposits. It is no longer just a plausible conjecture that fossils collected deep underground are better preserved than those from the active layer of permafrost. It is now a well established fact. The objective of this project conceived eighteen years ago has most certainly been accomplished.
Ruth Berry’s documentary on the project provisionally entitled Dinosaurs on Ice should be released to a number of television networks early in 2008. One of the recipients will be NOVA.
Thomas H. Rich
Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology
Melbourne, Victoria Australia
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