A few years back, I had the privilege of participating in a 2 week paleontological dig programme called ‘The Mammoth Site Excavation and Preservation Program’.
Location: The Mammoth Site, Hot Springs, South Dakota, USA
Date: May 2017
I say privilege as not only was the actually digging in the dirt for pre-historical creatures phenomenally exciting, I also got to see a few sites in the Black Hills including Mount Rushmore and to top it all I met some fantastic people who I am proud to still call my friends today.
For some background, The Mammoth Site is a non profit organisation and active palaeontological site focussed on Education and Scientific research. The site is housed in an indoor, climate controlled building to protect the specimens from the elements. The remains of 61 mammoths (both Columbian and Woolly) as well as over 80 species of plants and mammals have been discovered at this site since the first discovery in 1974.
I had known about The Mammoth Site for a few years, first hearing about it via The Earthwatch Institute, but never had the time or money to do the dig programme. I eventually just went for it and I am so glad that I did.
What a phenomenal place.
Made extra special by the care and passion shown by those running the programme and of course my fellow group participants who were (and are) just amazing.
(Just to note: I have given my fellow participants aliases, mainly to protect their identities and also for a bit of fun 😊 They know who they are.)
I travelled solo to the US from the UK. In fact it was my very first trip to the States. I flew in via Chicago O’Hare, stayed overnight at an airport hotel and flew out the next morning to Rapid City. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at the Rapid City airport – I suppose you always have that fear that nobody will be there to collect you – but I shouldn’t have worried. Because he was there to greet me – The Man with the Fantastic Blue Shirt – our crew leader.
He told me we had to just wait for other group participants who were arriving from other destinations, before travelling on together. Dorset Digger who turned out to be from the UK – in fact 30 miles from where I live – arrived from Denver and The Sabre-Toothed Turtle from Louisiana. So, the 3 of us met up with The Guru who was returnee – having participated in digs at the Mammoth site for a number of years and was able to show us how things were done as well as impart some of her knowledge.
All of us got into the vehicle and headed off for about an hour out of Rapid City to the town of Hot Springs.
We all were staying at the Super 8 motel which is right next to the Mammoth Site. Literally within 30 min of arriving, Dorset, Turtle and myself went up to the Mammoth Site to have a look around.
We joined one of the guided tours. The first part of the tour is a video which you are shown in the auditorium, setting the scene for what happened to the mammoths at the site, you are then taken through double doors to the actual palaeontological site or Bonebed with walkways that surround it to give you an elevated position to see the remains, still in situ (as they found them).
There is also a small museum with loads of interesting information and of course there’s the gift shop ….which is also just great! Many happy hours spent in both 😊
For our first evening, we were given a welcome dinner by the local supporters of the Mammoth Site and got to meet everyone including the 2 other members of our group: Lady Rocks, who volunteers doing bone preparation at another paleontological site in Wyoming and has this thing about rocks – and Crazy Horse from California who was convinced that he was going to uncovered a rock formation that resembled the Crazy Horse memorial….or Mount Rushmore….or something particularly significant.
The first few days of excavation are all about training, techniques and how to move safely through the Bonebed. We were allocated a training area and the supervisors decided when we were ready to move to a new assigned area.
It was quite physical. All the dirt you remove has to go somewhere and its usually buckets which you need to carry to an area where they are collected and emptied. We did a number of things other than actual digging like preparing and removing bones, dating mammoth teeth, working in the lab and outdoor activities like screen washing.
The Mammoth Site is a very popular tourist destination so while we were working in the Bonebed we did have interactions with the public. One instance was with a mother and young son, who was super excited about what we were doing.
I asked him ‘What’s your favourite prehistoric animal?’
‘The Indominus Rex’ he said. To which his mother just rolled her eyes apologetically.
Hollywood. A curse or a blessing?
Talking of filming, for some reason, I got interviewed by the local TV channel. Not exactly Oscar winning but I got my 5 minutes of fame.
On some evenings there were lectures – everything from the archaeology of the Black Hills to the Ice Age. We talked about climate change and evolution, including a particular session that involved pictures of a mouse that had evolved and reduced in size as the environment changed – one before and one after – but it was the same mouse – the picture had just been reduced in size.
We pointed it out a lot (I think the presenter still secretly hates us) and it became our catch phrase – it’s the same mouse!
For other evenings we all gathered in the motel breakfast room and watched episodes of Blackadder, archaeological documentaries featuring The Man with the Fantastic Blue Shirt and snippets from Ice Age.
It wasn’t only about working at the site, we did have some free time and as I mentioned, I got to see the Black Hills – Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park, the Badlands National Park, Wall Drug and many other places
Although we came from all over, from that first evening, I’m still not quite sure how – but we just gelled. We somehow understood each other and we were truly kindred spirits. I have never laughed so much in a long time.
It was such an uplifting experience.
A great way to spend 2 weeks.
What our group learnt:
- Don’t ask to use power tools. You get a big trowel. End of discussion.
- Everyone needs a 3pm ice cream break. Obviously.
- Everyone needs a rock according the Lady Rocks.
And finally, it’s the same mouse!
The programme is now called ‘The Ice Age Explorers Program’ and although there might be slight difference to the programme we were on, its still all about digging mammoths and promoting scientific investigation.
The Mammoth Site conducts a four-week long excavation each summer. I was on a 2 week programme but you can now book dig weeks from Monday to Friday. (Weekends are free for you to explore the Black Hills)
The program is limited to a 10 participants a week and is very popular 🙂
Check out the Mammoth Site of South Dakota website for the latest info and pricing.
Special thanks to Dr J, S, Gandalf, M and everyone else at the Mammoth Site for making this something so special that I not only wanted to write about it but also inspired me to learn more about the earth’s lifecycle, climate change and our pre-historic world.
And by the way, it was definitely the same mouse.
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All images used are personal photographs taken during a visit to Hot Springs, South Dakota in May/June 2017.
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