Celebrating a Mammoth Project (Literally)
Yesterday afternoon, Principia College commemorated one of the most significant vertebrate paleontologic finds in the central United States. A bench marking the site was unveiled during the ceremony, which marked the end of a nearly 15-year response to a surprise discovery in 1999.
During a remodeling project, Principia College facilities crew members hit a small, hard, white chunk while digging a manhole. Realizing they had found something unusual, they took it to Principia science faculty, who, along with experts from the Illinois State Museum, identified it as a mammoth tooth. Principia’s mammoth was later named “Benny” in honor of the backhoe operator on the crew that made the discovery.
Benny had been buried within several yards of Rackham Court for about 17,500 years, submerged in loess (wind-blown silt) derived from glacial outwash deposits left behind in the waning days of the Ice Age. In his prime, he would have measured about 11 feet tall at the shoulder, weighed approximately six tons, and eaten 400 pounds of vegetation each day. His enormous tusks, which were eventually excavated, are 6.5 feet long.
From 2002–2012, Principia College students excavated the mammoth remains as part of a geology class taught by Dr. Janis Treworgy (C’76). Students learned and practiced a range of skills, including excavating with trowels and bamboo skewers, pedestaling bones in preparation for removal, mapping (using a grid system), wet sieving matrix (dirt) samples, and cleaning and consolidating skeletal elements.
The most exciting—and challenging—excavation event happened during the summer of 2005 when Treworgy, along with Principia staff and students, removed the skull block, a delicate procedure requiring tremendous care. Students have since worked on the skull block in the lab, revealing Benny’s articulated cranium, tusks, and upper teeth. Other significant skeletal elements that were excavated include both upper arm and leg bones, a lower arm and a lower leg bone, both shoulder blades, and a number of vertebrae and ribs.
Benny has been a wonderful ambassador for Principia. More than 9,000 visitors, including university students, school groups, girl and boy scout troops, geology clubs, and a variety of adult groups have toured the excavation site over the years. Scientists from other institutions have participated in the project, and Benny has been featured in major print, radio, and television news media, as well as scientific literature.
Eric Lines (C’08), who took Treworgy’s class on the mammoth, spoke at yesterday’s commemoration ceremony. “What I loved the most among all the theoretical learning was the chance to actually interact with the subject matter,” he said. “It was great that, after a lesson on the anatomy of an extinct animal, we got the chance to handle the very bones we were discussing.”
Treworgy shares Lines’s enthusiasm for the project. “It has been an opportunity of a lifetime for me, not only to be able to excavate a mammoth but to involve college students in the project,” she says. “Nearly all the field and lab work has been done by students, and they have done a great job. I love teaching with an experiential focus, so I will miss this project, but I will continue to give talks and tours of the lab in order to extend the educational benefits of the project. Benny is a gift to education that can keep on giving.”