One hundred years ago, a national monument was established to protect a paleontologist’s dream: a vertical sandstone wall filled with Jurassic dinosaur fossils known as Carnegie Quarry. It would later become the main attraction of Dinosaur National Monument.
Twenty years ago, a little girl looked up at that wall of bones and dreamed of being a paleontologist.
This Thursday, I stood precariously on a narrow ledge of that wall, somewhere between a Stegosaurus and an Apatosaurus, while a paleontologist told me, “If you think you’re going to slip, just grab onto a dinosaur bone if you have to.”
I stood precariously on a narrow ledge of that wall, somewhere between a Stegosaurus and an Apatosaurus
I was the first of four summer GeoCorps participants to arrive at Dinosaur, one day early on Sunday, May tenth. After tracking down the employee housing just past the Quarry Visitor’s Center, I found “the bunkhouse.” Stepping over a prairie dog hole and scaring a robin out of her nest atop an electrical box, I approached the white screen door, and knocked. No one answered, so I stepped inside.
A chair greeted me, facing the front door. On the chair was a note, gracefully handwritten on yellow paper, telling me to pick a room and welcoming me to Dinosaur. It was signed “Beverly” and underneath it was a plate of cookies.
I picked the first bedroom and the bed under the window. The dresser drawers were in the wrong order and didn’t close right, and the switch on the floor lamp was broken, but I was in the desert and I was finally out of my car. This was my home for the next twelve weeks and I was more than OK with that.
I finally met Beverly when she came home a few hours later: a retired seasonal volunteer who makes a mean chocolate chip peanut butter cookie and had been in the bunkhouse since February. At a quarter to seven, we walked to the visitor’s center together and met some of the other staff for movie night. Dan Chure (pronounced “Churrie”) is the staff paleontologist who hired me for the summer, and he was our host for the evening showing of THEM on the big screen. It was the biggest screen around, anyway, and it was in the auditorium of the Quarry Visitor Center. I was advised multiple times by everyone in attendance that the Movie Night movie Dan picks is usually much more obscure and of significantly lower production value then the classic giant-ant drama I enjoyed on my first night at Dinosaur.
Monday was my first day on the job. I found Dan Chure’s office in the back of the last house of my new neighborhood, which consists of a handful of single-story, identical beige structures built in the 1960s to house park staff. The offices had originally been in a building adjacent to the Exhibit Hall that was constructed to protect the wall of bones at Carnegie Quarry. Unfortunately the structure was condemned in 2006, and the staff was given 48 hours to get everything out and find a new place to work. As Dan likes to explain, the building had no right angles, but one could find any other crystal structure by measuring the doorways and corners. There was a growing gap between the windows and the foundation that had to be repeatedly filled with foam to keep rain off of the fossils and visitors.
The job of tearing down the old building and putting up the new one was complex and took several years, disappointing half a generation of budding paleontologists whose parents had gone out of their way to make a stop here in the Uintah Basin just for the purpose of showing their kids the wall of bones that I was lucky to enjoy in the 1990s. In 2011, Carnegie Quarry finally reopened, with no offices this time, but with a new disability-friendly viewing area and a much lower risk of collapsing on visitors.
This is the reason I’m here this summer: the digital quarry mapping project.
I haven’t yet asked Dan Chure what first gave him the idea to digitize the quarry wall, but I suspect the many questions raised during the difficult planning process for the new structure had much to do with it. This is the reason I’m here this summer: the digital quarry mapping project. I discovered the project while browsing summer GeoCorps positions on the website of the Geological Society of America, and it perfectly matched by interests and background in web content strategy. Paleontologist Ken Lacovara, who I’ve been working closely with on a website for the Inversand fossil quarry, generously wrote me a letter of recommendation, and I was thrilled to accept the twelve-week role working on an ambitious digital project about my favorite subject, in one of the most beautiful settings in the world.
And Dinosaur National Monument is definitely beautiful. As I drove in, low clouds caught on the peaks of the dramatic ridges framing the Green River, and near sunset a double rainbow traced a half circle from sandstone to sagebrush just behind the Quarry Visitor Center. For the next eleven weeks, I’ll be posting photos and describing the rich natural scenery of the park, so I hardly have to pause here for it. Instead, I’ll move on to the project, which is what I now spend my workdays on.
To the side of Dan Chure’s office is a small library of old paleontology books and shelves of records about Dinosaur National Monument, its fossils, and its history. When I first walked into the library, a huge map of Carnegie Quarry was spread across the table, so long that it started up on top of an adjacent file cabinet, held down by hand-sized sand bags on each corner, and rolled down onto the table and all the way to its edge. The current wall of bones is long, but not that long, at least proportionally. I learned that the map displays the quarry as it was when Earl Douglass first excavated most of the fossils. He was the paleontologist who pushed heavily for the in-situ (still-in-the rock) preservation of the current wall, which began formal planning in the late 1920s. The site was declared a national monument in 1915. The old quarry map is much larger than the present wall because most of the cliff face was removed as fossil specimens were excavated and moved to natural history museums like the Smithsonian and the Carnegie. The map has a blank section in middle, toward the bottom, easily dwarfed by the skeletons that surround it. That blank section is the current wall of bones visible in the Exhibit Hall.
So where are all the bones in the map? That’s one of the fascinating challenges of this project. The list of recipients of Dinosaur’s dinosaurs is surprisingly long, and includes famous museums as well as obscure private collections. Some are lost to history–or perhaps there are clues in the archives of the library.
That’s another part of the project. The library archives date back to Earl Douglass’s day, and even include his correspondence pushing for the preservation of the vertical quarry wall. All of these archives need to be digitized for posterity as well as historical content for the new project. The vision is to have an interactive map of the original quarry wall, with clickable features that expand to tell the story of the bones.
Each bone in the wall tells a story, and has one of its own. See that camarasaurus skull? What was that animal like? What can it tell us about the ancient environment it lived in? Who excavated it? Where is it now? The dream is for all of this information to be available online, in the context of the quarry itself, for both researchers and the general public.
So far, the entire modern quarry wall has been photographed in detail, and our job this summer is to collect all the relevant information from the library to accompany it. The park office has several flatbed scanners, but after realizing how many of the documents were straight text, I wondered if a scanner wouldn’t just slow things down.
A couple of years ago, I had looked into digitizing the entire run of a science and science fiction magazine called Future Life, which my dad had written several articles for. I didn’t end up doing it because of copyright issues, but I did learn a lot about DIY book scanning (as well as copyright issues!), and I found a simple, cheap system that involved little more than some lights and a camera. I suggested this, and Dan excitedly handed me the park’s heaviest-duty camera, a superb Canon EOS Rebel that turned out to be major overkill, and showed off a complete studio lighting set that had been purchased for specimen photography.
We’ve scanned a transcript of a radio interview with several paleontologists, a letter drafting all the male park employees for World War II, an inventory of fossils now residing at the University of Utah, and many more. And that’s just our first week.
After some research and experimentation, we ended up with a very simple and efficient setup using some park-owned iPads, two of the studio lights, and an app called CamScanner, which Elliott, the second GeoCorps participant to arrive, found on his Android phone. It was the only app that worked on both our own devices and the office iPads, and offered automatic perspective correction as well as multi-page PDF generation. So now we are going through the literal pages of history of Dinosaur National Monument, folder by folder, photographing each page with iPads on a flat, well-lit surface, composing the PDFs right there in the app, emailing the PDFs to our new National Parks Service email addresses, and saving them to Google Drive within the Department of the Interior Google setup. We’ve organized a file structure to match the physical archives, and are writing descriptions for each file that mention key historical figures, institutions, taxa and catalog numbers for the specimens. We’ve scanned a transcript of a radio interview with several paleontologists, a letter drafting all the male park employees for World War II, an inventory of fossils now residing at the University of Utah, and many more. And that’s just our first week.
On Wednesday, the third GeoCorps participant arrived. Her name is Marie. She was quiet at first but jumped right into our archiving scheme and owned the scanning for the last two days of the week, powering her way through a box of folders in the windowless library. The first thing she made in the Bunkhouse kitchen was a dish from the Dominican Republic, where she lived until moving to Rhode Island, made out of cheesy mashed plantains with two soft-boiled eggs on top. I couldn’t keep myself from oggling this delicious-looking mystery as I chewed a cold grapefruit. I hope I can convince her to make it for me before the summer’s over.
The three of us have started to make our mark on the Bunkhouse. After flailing with the Teflon pans it had accumulated over the years, I went to the K-Mart in Vernal and bought a cast-iron set. Elliott pinned up a geologic map of Utah for us, and we spread out a National Geographic map of the park on a table that didn’t seem to be doing anything else. It’s now a war table, and we’re marking off the trails we want to explore.
The first trail I explored was the Sound of Silence trail. Last night, after Elliott, Marie and I ventured into Vernal to see Mad Max: Fury Road, Elliott declared his plans for leaving early the next morning for a hike, inviting Marie and I generously along if we got up early enough. I awoke at my usual time (7ish, depending on the weather), had a bowl of Cheerios, checked my email, did the dishes, tried to download some photos from my Olympus, failed for unknown reasons, decided to deal with it later, checked Facebook, and then finally saw Elliott wandering into the kitchen to make pancakes. (He made me one too.) Marie stayed in, but Elliott and I spent the day hiking from the Sound of Silence trail to the Desert Voices trail to the shore of the Green River where it cuts through Split Mountain, and then back. We tried to piece together what we remembered about the geologic column from Dan Chure’s precarious tour of the wall of Carnegie Quarry two days prior. Was that the Chinle formation? Or the Carmel? Wait–surely this was the Nugget sandstone? Dinosaur National Monument has the most complete geologic column under National Park Service purview, with tilted layers documenting over a billion years of Earth’s history. It’s a playground for geologists, and serious test for geology students like us. And I can’t imagine a better view of it than what we got on the Sound of Silence trail.
Dinosaur National Monument has the most complete geologic column under National Park Service purview, with tilted layers documenting over a billion years of Earth’s history.
On Monday our first task is a hike to Harper’s corner, on the Colorado side of the park. Then back to the library, to bring the history of prehistory into the future. Later in the month we have a several-day river expedition planned with a park ecologist, and the fourth GeoCorps participant, Trinity, is expected to arrive. Beverly, sadly, goes home this week. I hope she leaves us some cookies.