Monday, November 12, 2007

Week 8: Cleanup and Wrapup

Sadly, this week marks the last week of excavation until next season. It has gotten too cold and too dark for us to get much more done, and so we packed up our shovels and buckets, took our final mapping measurements, hopped in the van, and headed back to McGill.

As much as we'd like to keep digging up various exotic animals well into December, it was probably a good time to put a pause on any further excavation. The days are getting significantly shorter each week, and when we arrived at the site last Friday there was a substantial amount of ice floating on top of the water that normally fills all of our pits. As well, we managed to get the majority of the Watusi out, and so are in a good position to begin re-articulating and putting the skeleton together for Parc Safari over the winter. We're missing a few carpals, tarsals, and phalanges, but we hopefully should be able to have something to show for ourselves in a few months time, display-wise.

When we got to the site, we set out to prepare the area as much as possible for the winter. More specifically, this involved filling in all the holes we weren't going to be using, and marking off the pits that will remain open. While the excavation area is relatively secluded, somebody out walking or riding their snowmobile may fall into an open pit if enough snow has piled up to conceal its contours. Naturally, we really, really don't want something like that to happen, and so we shoveled dirt back into every pit we dug except M-5 (the watusi pit) and M-10 (the elephant pit), as we hope to be able to excavate the elephant (and/or the mystery bovid lying just outside the current walls of the watusi pit) next season. We then made a series of stakes, placed them along the edges of our two pits, and strung rope around them. Hopefully, this will be enough to stop anyone from getting too close.

The other thing we needed to do before we could leave was to finish our total station mapping of the area, and this included exploring what was going on on the other side of the road. Because we had so much work to do on the north side this fall, we hadn't really looked around across the street, and so what we found last Friday may be worth investigating and test-pitting next year. Essentially, what we had assumed was a relatively small, natural elevation turns out to a large pile of highly disturbed soil. There were even a large femoral epiphysis (the end of a femur) lying on the surface underneath some light vegetation at the top of the mound. This dirt could be the soil that was removed when Magic was buried, or may have come from another burial event. If so, it may be full of the bones of burials that preceded Magic or the watusi, which is pretty neat.

In terms of excavation on our final day, we fished the bag of bird bones in the watusi pit (there actually turned out to be two bags, but we left one in the pit) out and sifted through its contents. Inside are what appears to be the remains of at least two birds, complete with leg bands on the tibiae and everything. Most, but not all, of the flesh had decomposed to a brown liquid, as well as the feathers (although their cores remained). Interestingly, some pieces of cartilege did survive, floating about in the decomposed goo that was once bird meat. We did what we could to separate the bones and feather cores from the other contents of the bag using a sieve, and took the rest back to the lab with us. As well, we found a mysterious canvas sack full of small mammal bones that no one seems to remember excavating. It seems that, when all of our backs were turned to the watusi pit, this bag magically appeared. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, we took it with us as well.

Real quick, here are some pictures from our last day:

Above: The white you see is, for the first time at our site, not fat. It's ice.

Above: The shadows are getting longer, and the temperature is dropping. We probably snagged the last nice day to get work any done until next year.

Above: Emptying the contents of the bird bag onto a sieve. One thing that we've all learned from doing this dig is that there is always something out there that will disgust you, no matter how prepared you think you are.

Above: Another look at the contents of the bird bag. Note the leg-band.

Above: The Watusi pit, in full safety mode. Hopefully the snow won't pile up over the height of the rope.

Above: The femur end we found on the mound on the south side of the road. This thing is huge, and doesn't seem to have come from a bovid. If it turns out to be something interesting, we'll be sure to post it.

So that's it. Over the last two and a half months we went from looking for an elephant and a rhino, to not really finding either, to finding a not-so-decomposed elephant and abandoning it, to excavating an animal most of us hadn't even heard of before. Along the way we found garbage, a monkey jaw, bags of birds, muscle and stomach contents in various states of decomposition, an early 20th century farmhouse, newspapers, pieces of fat, miles of red string, and, last but not least, significant quantities of dung. Quite surreal, but a great experience nonetheless, and we've all appreciated it tremendously.

As far as more posts for the blog are concerned, there are likely to be more pictures coming, as well as some brief updates on the status of our lab work and our upcoming skeleton assembly. It would be nice if we could put up some images of the bird skeleton, which is really cool, or the ever-growing pile of cleaned watusi bones we have sitting in the lab. We may be done digging, but we aren't done with this project by a long shot.

Anyways, that's all for now,
The Field School

Monday, November 5, 2007

Week 7: The Exhumation of the Headless Beast

We showed up last friday with our brand-spanking new shovels, some not-so baby safe (but figure skate safe?) gigantic zipper-lock storage bags, and a dream.... to convert lake superior back into our watusi pit and exhume the rest of the beast, save a shin or two. Done and done.

We began with the weekly bucket-drain-train of our pit, which takes much longer every week because the pit is becoming more like a big chasm every week. After our aquatic watusi became, well, un-aquatic, we got down to business. That business was to map, remove, bag, and tag as much of the watusi as possible, because the ground will be frozen sooner rather than later with winter coming along, which makes our job a little problematic. So some of us hopped into the pit to continue the excavation, others were recruited to be Chris' right-hand people and help with the mapping of the site, and others sifted through the backdirt piles, which consisted mostly of various forms of fecal matter...yay.

The watusi has been almost completely excavated (90-95%), the back side was almost completely uncovered and everything (ribs, thoracic vertebrae, lumbar, scapula, long-bones, pelvis, carpals/tarsals and their meta counterparts, etc.) except some wandering toes, incisors and the tibia and fibula of the back left leg have been removed and brought to the lab for cleaning. Some of the leg bones of the second individual in the pit (which we believe now to be another watusi) were removed as well, but unfortunately it does not look as if we will have enough time to completely excavate watusi 2 before the ground is completely frozen.

The other exciting find of the day was a bag of bird remains, which was found in the south-east corner of the pit. Though we have no idea when the bird was buried and its relation to the watusi(s) burial, we can see that being put in a garbage bag slows the rate of decomposition, which leads to some of the nice "cream cheese" stuff we keep finding...mmm mmm good.

The site has also been almost entirely mapped, save for the tree line and a few other minor details. This means that we should have a complete map of the site and the finds by next week.

So what do we do now that the watusi is almost fully excavated and the ground is about to freeze? Well, a few things. The first obvious thing would be to articulate the watusi skeleton, which will happen, but the details aren't fully worked out yet so further posts will fill you in. Also we can theorize on possible burial scenarios. As of right now it seems that we are removing the watusi from a mass grave. Judging by newspaper clippings found in the pit, which have provided us with a possible relative burial date of the spring of 1992, and a clear stratigraphy change at the edges of the pit, the theory that has been proposed is that perhaps the animals who die during the winter are stored and buried in a mass grave in the spring when the ground thaws. This annual mass grave theory seems like a logical and efficient way of disposing of those unfortunate animals who die during the winter. To be able to prove this theory however we must first follow the edges of our current pit and completely excavate everything we find in it, and test pit perpendicularly from the road into the back of the lot (behind the "house") to see if there are any other, possibly older, mass graves. This unfortunately will have to wait until after the winter to happen. Also, the land-ownership records for the lot are currently in the process of being attained, these records could help us learn more about the changes that could have occurred to the area over and after the time it was used as Parc-Safari's animal cemetery.

Here are pictures from week 7. There's a lot of them, 25 to be precise, and that's cut down from 89.

Awesome Pictures, courtesy of Ieva.

The Bucket Train


Removing the what looks to be revolting tarp from the watusi pit

Water-logged Watusi ribs

Peek-a-boo? no....LEVEL!!!

Bone from the bag-O-bird remains

Working away in the watusi pit

The Lumbar region of the watusi remains

Mapping the Lumbar region

Excavating the ribs

The pelvis (?) of watusi #2 in the North-Western corner of the pit

Sue and Tabitha observing a find

Who let Valerie use the machete? Not shown in this picture: Brendan's severed limbs


The Headless Beast (or the watusi minus one skull). The pelvis is in the back right of the picture and the head (if it was still there) would be in the bottom left.

Remains again from a different angle, the pelvis and left and right femurs right up in front, followed by the lumbar, then the thoracic vertebrae and ribs

Another shot of the remains

Last shot of the remains, this one gives you an idea of how big the watusi pit has become

2001: A Space Odyssey

Watusi Pelvis + Face = Frank the Bunny

The empty pit after removing most of the watusi

Keep Babies out of the bag... watusi pelvises are ok though, if you can make them fit

Baggin' & Taggin'

And to finish off with a bang: the surprise that was hiding under/within the bag-O-bird remains

That's the end for today, until next time.

Cheers, The Rhino Group

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Week 6: Skulls, vertebrae, and bottle openers, oh my! or Who took the %&@#ing shovels!

Alright, well sorry for the delay everyone. Midterms etcetera, as always, have cramped up all our schedules a little bit, I think. But anyways on to the infotainment…

The dig last Friday started off with the, now weekly, bucket train ritual. The water level was no more forgiving this week, and so bailing the Watusi pit was a considerable chore. But after the better part of an hour, it was finally time to dive face first into the mud and start exposing more of the skull and hindquarters. The exposing efforts essentially called for lying down, face first in the mud with a trowel and sticking your head into a pit that smelled a little bit like old bologna wrapped in muddy rugby gear that’s been left in a plastic bag for 3 weeks. Good times.

Before long, it was decided that if the entire Watusi was going to be removed, the trench would have to be expanded. At least that was the plan, until we discovered that our equipment stash had apparently been raided! That’s right we can’t believe it either. Someone obviously somehow stumbled across the equipment we had hidden in the trees just next to the dig site. They stole all the shovels, the short tape measures but not the long one, and some first aid supplies but not the entire first aid kit. Strange. We don’t know who you are, why you’d want to steal such an obscure selection of things, or if you read our blog, mysterious equipment thief. But please just give us back our shovels, we need those! Not to worry though, it was alright in the end thanks to Tabitha’s brother and sister-in-law (I think). Fortunately they live nearby and arrived in a flash with some shovels in their trunk.

As you can see in the pictures Dave posted earlier this week, the skull, ribs, vertebrae and most of the hind legs are all now visible and are relatively articulate. During the digging on Friday, a layer of fat and, as Dave guessed correctly, what appear to be stomach contents and feces were uncovered at the South-most end of the trench. A few objects, some organic and some even souvenir-like, were pulled out of the pit and mapped. These included:
- a bottle opener at 94 cm deep, the same layer as the fat and poo (I guess that Watusi really knew how to party)
- some pieces of Styrofoam (never leave a Watusi unsupervised around Styrofoam)
- 2 metacarpals, presumed to belong to our Watusi friend
- and a small tooth-shaped piece of bone, which may or may not be associated with the metacarpals

A few other bones found in the pit, not necessarily Watusi-like in appearance, give some suggestion to the mass grave hypothesis, but its still very much up in the air at this point.

Aside from mapping the more obscure finds, it was decided that the major order of the day would be to remove as much of the visible Watusi as possible, in order to keep the remains in the best possible condition. First, the vertebrae and the huge paddle-like scapulae were carefully removed and bagged. But the real excitement came next, when the attention was turned to pulling out the large skull with both colossal horns still intact. It took a three person team, with some precision yanking from Prof. Costopoulos, but the skull was eventually freed, rinsed, and left to dry, before being loaded into the van for transportation back to the lab. There we’ll be able to wash and dry it properly. The skull can then be properly stored until we try to put the Watusi together.

And so ends another exciting chapter of our adventures exhuming dead animals in rural Quebec. That’s all from us until next week. Please give our shovels back.

Cameron for Team Elephant-Watusi