SNOWMASS VILLAGE — This place is a pit. A giant, oozing, squishy bog of malodorous peat, sticky clay and mud that can suck the boots off your feet. But for anyone looking for a spot where everything went right for paleontology and posterity, it is here at Ziegler Reservoir.
For two weeks, Denver Museum of Nature & Science crews have been pulling out treasures: five or more mastodons, a bison skull with 7-foot horn span, a couple of Columbian mammoths, a giant Jefferson ground sloth (the state’s first), complete deer with antlers, salamanders, snails, two more bison — a “prehistoric zoo,” as local headlines read.
Scientists here are giddy with excitement.
“Every day we’ve been making flashy discoveries,”
“Every freaking day,” reverentially echoes Ian Miller, curator of paleontology.
As of last week, diggers had found more than 200 bones. One expert estimated that tusks and other pieces of perhaps a dozen mastodons are at the site, prompting Johnson to quip the nearby ski village should be renamed “Snowmastodon.”
This place will tell scientists a great deal about the last Ice Age in the Rockies. It also could contribute to knowledge about our future, Johnson said, by revealing how animals respond when climate rapidly warms and changes.
The stunning abundance of bones here was made possible in large part because this ancient watering hole sits at the top of a hill. Most lakes don’t.
This high-altitude lake, really a geological accident, filled up very slowly with layer after layer of wind-blown sediment — over many tens of thousands of years — preserving an entire Ice Age ecosystem and specimens that Colorado schoolchildren will be queuing up to see for generations to come.
This site is so extraordinary, Johnson said, because of its high elevation (about 9,000 feet), the long span of time represented and the spectacular preservation of ancient remains.
The fossils here are not actually fossilized — as in hardened to stone — but are, in fact, juicy.
“When we hit the bones, water gushes out of the bones,” Johnson said. “Any one of these things would have made this an important site. Multiply it by all three and it’s a world-class site.”
Army of experts arrives
Day 7 of the full-blown excavation was the day that workers discovered Johnson’s personal favorite piece, a gorgeous bison skull twice the size of today’s relatively dainty beast. But it was Day 8 when Johnson fully realized the site’s potential because a small army of outside experts from several specialties had arrived and were just as impressed as he was.
University of Michigan evolutionary biology Professor Daniel Fisher said any site that dates back tens of thousands of years provides an opportunity to study changes in the earth’s history.
“And it’s relevant to studying change in the world today,” Fisher said.
Johnson said he knew as soon as he arrived here Oct. 27 that the site was one of the most important Ice Age discoveries in the Rocky Mountains, where conditions favor annihilation rather than preservation of dead creatures.
“I took one look. This was the real deal,” Johnson said. “I just moved to Snowmass Village. We’ve moved the museum to Snowmass.”
Racing against winter
For the first week or so, even the weather was unseasonably, unreasonably warm. Workers were in short sleeves until Tuesday. Now, crews are racing against accumulating snow and freezing ground.
“Winter is going to kick us out,” Johnson said.
The field work likely will wrap up today or soon after. It has cost about $75,000, in addition to museum salaries, Johnson said.
The adventure began Oct. 14, when a bulldozer unearthed mammoth bones while expanding the 15-acre reservoir to increase snowmaking capacity for the ski area.
Snowmass Water and Sanitation District officials soon called museum officials. They negotiated an agreement with the water board Oct. 29 on the terms of the museum’s takeover of the excavation. By law, the state owns the bones.
By the end of October, area students and other residents had enjoyed the first public viewings of some bones at the water district office. Some bones even made the rounds of a few Pitkin County schools.
When the museum took over, education expert Samantha Sands visited eight schools and 8,500 children in five days, earning her the handle “Samammoth” and creating fossil fever up and down Colorado 82, from Glenwood Springs to Aspen.
The restaurant Spencers, one of the few open here off-season, is abuzz with fossil talk every day, owner Annette Docimo said. The restaurant quickly served up a special, “The Woolly Mammoth,” a sandwich of homemade sausage. Even though a woolly mammoth has never been found in Colorado, the entree caught the spirit.
“The dig is all they talk about at the bar,” Docimo said. “It’s been a great thing for the village.”
On Saturday, the museum hosted its own exhibition, “Mammoth and Mastodon Madness,” at the Base Village Conference Center to thank the area for its hospitality.
“This is what we do,” Johnson said of the museum. “We don’t just collect things. We do research and we educate the public.”
Johnson wants people to appreciate that fossil creation is a very unlikely event. A lot of life has come and gone in the earth’s 4.6 billion years, but for remains to survive they must have a proper and timely natural burial.
“For most things that die, it really is ‘ashes to ashes and dust to dust,’ ” Johnson said.
For fossils to surface, the earth has to move.
“Moving dirt is a craft. We have a lot of camaraderie with the ‘dozer drivers,” Johnson said. “I’m a digger, too. For me, truth comes at the end of a shovel.”
The first mammoth found was sheltered under a large vinyl tent and pain stakingly excavated with tiny trowels, layer by thin layer, by Steve Holen, curator of archeaology, and his team. They looked for any evidence of early humans, such as spear tips, associated with the mammoth. None has been found so far.
The site is so rich, scientists can just grab a handful of peat and break it open to make finds. For Ian Miller, a paleobotanist, it’s thrilling to pull earth apart and see ancient seeds, pollen and plants that are still green. They’ve also found old white spruce and subalpine fir, and beaver gnaw marks on wood.
“We didn’t have anything like this before in the West — nothing at this elevation,” Miller said.
12,000- to 120,000-year span
Miller said the find might span 12,000 to 120,000 years old — and an earlier Ice Age — but time is still an open question. Preliminary carbon- dating indicates the lowest levels of the dig are at least 43,500 years old and could be much, much older.
Jeff Pigati was one in a trio of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey who spent hours staring at an exposed section of bed, a 3-D puzzle, until various soil strata revealed themselves. Pigati was later seen showing off a chunk of earth holding thousands of small bivalve crustaceans called ostracods that could provide a wealth of information about water chemistry, temperature and depth.
Every day, a processing crew took extracted bones and washed them with warm water and toothbrushes.
“Yes, I brush mastodon teeth,” said Carol Lucking, earth science collections assistant. She also had the big task of managing the site’s inventory.
Bones are wrapped in wet paper towels, slipped into plastic bags left slightly unsealed and placed in cold storage. The fossils must dry out ever so slowly, for a year or more, or they could disintegrate.
Tusks, skulls and smaller fragile bones are encased in plaster of Paris and burlap jackets.
Transport to the museum is a convoy of personal vehicles down a driveway leading from former Walt Disney CEO’s Michael Eisner’s nearby compound and back to Denver.
Preservation and scientific analysis will begin right away. It isn’t known when objects will go on display at the museum. It could be a few years.
“A site is only as good as the work you do on it,” Fisher said.
Meanwhile, scientists and crew happily joke about serving up surplus bones in a stew. They tease about possible other new rituals inspired by the intoxicating treasures.
“We’re talking about drinking the juice of the mammoth bones,” Johnson said.
To the chorus of groans in response, he fired back: “You know some of you will be drinking the mammoth juice.”
Electa Draper: 303-954-1276 or firstname.lastname@example.org