Box of Bones
This is an article from the fall 2016 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
A secret passage in the Ruthven Museums Building can take you from an office on the first floor to the basement of the building. The space is a dark cave until you find the hidden switches, and long lights flicker on overhead. Pipes span the low ceiling. Closed metal cabinets line most of the subterranean storage space—they hide bones, teeth, shells, and other evidence of ancient animals. On every inch of table surface lie oversized artifacts and dug-up detritus—giant tusks, jaws, and skulls, along with bone fragments, tools, and boxes. In other corners of the basement lean retired roof gargoyles, an old metal grate welded with the word “research,” and antique equipment.
All this scientific stuff—more than two million specimens in the Museum of Paleontology collection alone, though not all held in the basement—must be inventoried and packed for the move from the Ruthven Museums Building to the new Biological Sciences Building (set to open in 2018) or the Varsity Drive collections and research facility near campus. The process already has yielded some dusty treasures, like a cardboard box containing what looked like Triceratops horns and other bones, packed with a faded tag labeled “Montana, 1938.”
“They were two Triceratops horn cores—the bony parts of the horns on the skull,” says Adam Rountrey (M.S. ’06, Ph.D. ’09), the vertebrate collection manager of LSA’s Museum of Paleontology. “But they had never been catalogued.”
Rountrey suspected that any dinosaur bones collected in 1938 probably came to the museum via Ermine Cowles (E. C.) Case, a respected vertebrate paleontologist who liked to call himself a “bonehunter.” Case’s early research involved identifying dinosaur fossils that came out of the American West during the infamous “Bone Wars” frenzy of the late 1800s. He later discovered several dinosaur species—including Caseosaurus, named after him—and in the early 1900s became the chair of LSA’s Department of Geology and the first director of LSA’s Museum of Paleontology. According to former U-M President and Museum Director Alexander Ruthven, Case spent most of his career “collecting for the University some of the finest specimens of Permian and Triassic amphibians and reptiles to be found in any museum in the world.”
E. C. Case became a U-M professor in 1907 and stayed for 35 years, bringing notebooks like this one to the fossil digs he led nearly every summer in the western and southwestern United States.
Photos courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image #SIA2008-0405 (left) and Adam Rountrey (right)
Case’s field notes mentioned the Montana field site: “Then on road . . . above dam . . . a head of Triceratops up at end of a long valley among the hills. We will try to uncover this last tomorrow.” He continues, “Rained last night & the roads were rather muddy & slippery & full of pools of water this morning . . . Spent day working on Triceratops skull . . . Found skull broken rotten & disturbed . . . ” Ultimately, Case and his team packed 7,691 pounds of fossils into 20 boxes on that trip, to be shipped back to the University of Michigan.
The Triceratops horn cores that Case retrieved from a muddy site in Montana have come a long way. They’ve been buried among thousands of artifacts in the Ruthven basement and rediscovered. Today, they’re available for inspection in magnificent detail by anyone with access to the internet—they’ve been carefully scanned and included in the Museum of Paleontology’s U-M Online Repository of Fossils. And for visitors to campus, one of the horn cores likely will be on display in the new Biological Sciences Building.
As for a burlap bag found in a far corner of the basement labeled “Princeton thesis 1965” and containing little pieces of unidentified bone—that’s a mystery to be solved another day.
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