Dig a Dino Bone with Paleo Pete Larson

Remember how I rolled into Hulett, Wyoming last week all hot and bothered to see Devils Tower? It didn’t happen. Instead, Polly and I spent the week digging dinosaur bones with world-famous paleontologist Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, South Dakota.

Peter Larson

Peter and his crew were in the Hulett area excavating dinosaurs that, eons ago, were washed into a a ravine or stream and then buried by soil. 150 million years later, he was digging them up with a mixed team of paid staff and volunteers – and this week, a mule traveler and his steed. All I had to do was ask. Pete said I’d be welcome to join them so I hitched Polly to the Lost Sea wagon and drove to the excavation site.

On site, Peter explained that unearthing bones as part of a responsible dig team just boiled down to slowly, carefully moving soil. Slow in this context meant “moving a mountain with an X-ACTO knife” as the paleontologist’s saying goes. “The brush is your most important tool” he stressed. It’s the brush, not heavy equipment, that uncovered dinosaur bones.

Tools of the trade

Or, as Peter cautioned, “I don’t want folks to think they can just back their truck up to a T. Rex sticking out of a dirt bank, hook a logging chain to its tail and jerk it out.” Just to ratchet my expectations down a few notches, a kid mentioned in passing, “and don’t get fooled by the faux bones.”

Faux bones? “Yeah, they look like bones but they’re not. We call them fool’s bones.” Or just plain old rocks.


Still, Peter encouraged me to try my hand at finding some bones. Brush, X-ACTO knife and a larger digging knife in hand, I settled among the gathered dinosaur bone hunters and began slowly, blade-full by blade-full, peeling back 150 million year-old dirt.

All day I picked at the dirt waiting for that giant Smithsonian-grade bone to appear under my slender blade. Nothing. The sun shone. The sun set. It was pretty. I found faux bones. I felt like a fool. I found more faux bones. That is to say, I found nothing but rocks.

Bernie: faux bone pro (note grim set of lips)

Did I mention the sunset was pretty?

Sunset over the Lost Sea Wagon
Outside Hulett, WY

I found no dinosaur bones.

The next morning, Polly, who was tethered just outside the mess shelter, sent me off with a morale-building nicker. I tromped up the hill to the dig site, spent the first half of the day unearthing rocks then climbed back down the hill for lunch. Polly, mirroring my plummeting expectations, greeted me lying down.

She even let me sit beside her in the dust, a Lost Sea Expedition first, as though saying, “it’s okay. you can sit next to me – even though you’re just a fool’s bone digger…”

Keeping up appearances
Self-portrait of a fool’s bone digger

Then, one afternoon, a clink under my blade and a whisk of the brush and yes, a real bone! I flicked and brushed away at the four-inch chunk then heard a voice hunching closer, saying, “Nice. That looks like a stegosaur chevron.”

It was Peter.

To me, the bone just looked like the broken-off end off the Thanksgiving turkey’s drumstick. Now Peter was saying it might actually be important and this buoyed my flagging spirits until I realized I hadn’t a clue what a stegosaur looked like.

Enter Sam Farrar.

Sam worked with Peter at the Black Hills Institute and after I cleared the chevron of dirt, he came over to stabilize my find. To protect the bone, he glued the fragments together (seems I’d found a fractured chevron) with Paleo Bond – the equivalent of paleontologist’s super-glue.

Sam the chevron repair man

When the glue set, Sam wrapped the bone in aluminum foil and strolled off to find tape for labeling the silvery parcel. While his back was turned, I saw it.

A stegosaur.

It was on Sam’s back. Rather, it was on the back of his t-shirt. Quick as Polly nipping a fly off her flank, I snapped a photo.

T-shirt Stegosaurus

Sure, now it was coming back to me. The stegosaur – that was the one with the tail spikes and kite-shaped plates on its back.

The chevron was one of the small bones under the cervical vertibra, the roundish bones that ran from the dinosaurs hind legs to the tail. Unlike larger bones found in the stegosaurus, which stood up better to the crushing weight of sediment and time, the chevrons were fragile. That’s what made them desirable. They would be used to build a stegosaur skeleton.

When Sam returned, he labeled the now aluminum-wrapped bone and returned it to the exact spot I’d found it. Later, he explained, he would overlay the site with a one-meter gird, measure the bone’s location and note its location on a map. That would make it easier to reassemble, if possible, all the chunks of stegosaur that might appear during the course of the dig.

Wrapped for mapping

So I finally found a dinosaur bone and that’s how I got the dinosaur digging fever and well, that’s why I spent five days digging with Peter Larson instead of heading for Devils Tower.

So, are you ready to stray from your routine a bit? Are ready to learn more about paleontology – or how Peter got the “Paleo Pete” nickname? Then visit the Black Hills Institue where you can learn more about what it’s like to unearth a T. Rex. Heck for that matter, you can even buy one. Hint: you’ll have to read “Bones Rock” by Peter and co-author Kristen Donnanto find out how he earned the monicker.

And what about Devils Tower? Well, Polly and I are still headed that way – ten days after we rolled into Hulett.

Until then, keep your harness oiled, your wheel bearings greased – and don’t glue your fingers together with Paleo Bond.

(Thanks Pete and Neal Larson and all the folks at the Black Hills Institute for including mule Polly and me in your dig. Bernie)


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