BY SARA LONDON
In November, Diane Kelly, an expert on vertebrate morphology and a visiting assistant professor of biological sciences at Mount Holyoke, received the sort of call many paleontologists wait entire careers for. Friends from the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) in Ithaca, New York, were phoning with a mastodon alert. Suspicious bones had turned up in a suburbanite's backyard pond in Hyde Park, New York, which just happens to be Kelly's hometown. In late August, PRI set up camp, and Kelly drove down to assist. Luckily for a group of twelve Mount Holyoke women, she needed a hand.
Her recruits plunged headlong into prehistory. "It was one of the most amazing experiences," says Laurel Moulton '01. "In addition to finding tusk fragments, I uncovered two bones. Each one was as long and twice as thick as my forearm." The enormous scale of the pieces amazed even Kelly, an expert at bone identification. "The tiniest bones in the foot were this big," she says holding her hands four inches apart. The unseasonably cold, sticky "glacial mud" created a general challenge, and by the end of the day the volunteers were not only covered from head to toe, says Kelly, but their feet and legs were frozen. Bare feet not only served as helpful feelers, but also prevented the fragile specimens from breaking.
Located in a kettle bog formed by glacial melt, the excavation site was drained for the work, but water from natural springs released a constant flow into the clay. Even with mechanical pumps, it was impossible to keep the area dry. Mount Holyoke students--along with groups of volunteers from several other New England colleges--were given the task of removing the heavy clay "matrix" (the sludgy mix of mud and organisms such as snails) bucket by bucket. "I tried to warn them about the mud," says Kelly.
Despite the messy conditions, her assistants were undeterred. Submerged to her waist, Anna Lincoln '01 worked for hours beside an exposed tusk, the idea of which she found "very distracting." The enormous pelvis of the mastodon, the first bone uncovered in the pond, lay beneath a tarp at the bottom of the pit. The skull sat in a nearby garage. "It was a wonderful experience," says Lincoln. "Only at Mount Holyoke could an economics major go digging for mastodons!"
ýThe experience inspired much speculation as to how a mammoth mastodon, cousin to the elephant, might have ambled onto precariously thin ice thousands of years ago and crashed through the frigid depths. The creature's huge corpus clearly settled and shifted through the eons. Ultimately, it was enshrined in perfect bone-preserving, oxygen-deficient glacial clay until summer 1999, when Larry Lozier, a twentieth-century Homo sapiens, decided to dredge and deepen his backyard pond in the middle of American suburbia. The story of Lozier's remarkable find has been well documented in the New York Times and other publications, and Lozier has donated the remains to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. (In exchange he has modestly requested that his yard be restored to its original state.)
For the Mount Holyoke students, Lozier's backyard became the site of an extraordinary master class. Students labored side by side with professional paleontologists and geologists and witnessed a significant portion of the excavation process, from the pond draining and the building of a wooden pallet bridge to the pond's center, to "coring" samples of earth for analysis, to measuring, photographic documentation, mapping, grid making, and exhuming the specimens. They even helped build boxes for shipping the bones to Cornell, where they will be examined.
Back at Mount Holyoke, students have finally scraped the sludge from their fingernails, but the thrill of participating in a uniquely important dig lingers.