Lots of people have been asking about the status of our mammoth excavation, so I want to provide an update. My PhD student Lauren Parry and I have been very busy with lots of mammoth-related research, but the site itself has lain dormant since last spring. The next step in the project is to excavate a trench around our site with a backhoe. I'll explain the reason for that below. Digging this trench requires approval from the Bureau of Land Management, so we are discussing all of this with our BLM colleagues. We hope to have the green light to proceed with this aspect of the project very soon.
Meanwhile, based on the results of our first field season and discussions with other mammoth paleontologists at a recent international conference in Taiwan that Lauren and I attended, we have some new ideas about how our mammoth (whose name is Dane) ended up with his tusks stuck downward into the ground (a unique situation in the annals of mammoth paleontology). Our revised taphonomic model involves quicksand. (Taphonomy is the study of everything that happens to an organism between the moment it dies and the moment we discover its fossilized remains; this word comes from the same root as epitaph.) We now strongly suspect that our mammoth waded into a pond and got stuck in quicksand. It died there, and its skeleton fell apart and sank into the quicksand. Because of this upright position, its tusks and skull ended up oriented straight down into the quicksand.
The really exciting aspect of this new scenario is that the rest of the animal's bones would not have drifted away from the tusks, as I feared had happened in our earlier model. After the animal got stuck in the quicksand and died, its body would have been out of the range of most predators, and the bones would have fallen into the quicksand and descended downward a short distance. If this new model is correct, or nearly so, the rest of Dane's bones should be about five feet below the proximal ends of the tusks (which are exposed at the surface).
And that's why our next step is to excavate a 4.5-foot-deep trench around the site. The trench will allow us to progress more quickly by excavating horizontally. In addition, the smooth wall of the trench will allow us to carefully examine the stratigraphy (the characteristics of the layers), to test our quicksand hypothesis.
So stay tuned. A lot has been going on with this project, even though we haven't moved any dirt for awhile.