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Scattered and Shattered: A Brief History of the Early Methods of
Digging, Preserving and Transporting Kansas Fossils
Author(s): Jane P. Davidson and Michael J. Everhart
Source: Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, 120(3–4):247-258.
Published By: Kansas Academy of Science
https://doi.org/10.1660/062.120.0416
URL: http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1660/062.120.0416
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Vol. 120, no. 3-4
p. 247-258 (2017)
Transactions of the Kansas
Academy of Science
Scattered and shattered: A brief history of the early methods of
digging, preserving and transporting Kansas fossils
Jane P. Davidson1 and Michael J. Everhart2
1. University of Nevada, Reno, Reno, Nevada, 89557 jdhexen@unr.edu
2. Sternberg Museum of Natural History, Fort Hays State University, Hays, Kansas 67601
meverhar@fhsu.edu.
The fossilized remains of prehistoric creatures are often difficult to remove from the rock
that encloses them, and the bones are generally fragile once removed. In most cases,
larger specimens need some protective covering in order to be transported from the
collection site. Not doing so can result in the specimens being shattered and scattered.
Historical developments in collecting, preserving and transporting techniques for newly
discovered fossils are discussed here, including two important early Kansas discoveries
of type specimens: Elasmosaurus platyurus in 1867 and Protostega gigas in 1871.
Introduction
Small fossils, including petrified wood, sea
shells, shark teeth, and bones, have been
collected as curiosities for thousands of years,
long before they were understood to be the
remains of extinct plants and animals. The late
17th Century – early 18th Century discovery of the
skeletons of larger creatures in the limestones of
Europe (e.g. the skull of Mosasaurus hoffmanni
in an underground mine in the Netherlands and
Mary Anning’s Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus
skeletons on the coast of Lyme Regis) brought
with them the difficulties of removing a
specimen from its resting place, transporting
it without further damage, and preparing it for
study and exhibit. The science of paleontology
was still in its infancy at the time and much was
to be learned from these early specimens, mostly
by trial and error, as new and even larger fossils
were being discovered in North America.
Many of the first recognized fossils in North
America were discovered by accident by nonscientists, but were robust and relatively easy
to collect. Fossils of large Ice Age mammals,
including mammoths and mastodons, were
discovered at Big Bone Lick in Kentucky as
early as 1739 (Hadeen and Faragher 2008).
Among other notable early fossil specimens
discovered in the United States were the limb
bones of a giant sloth from a cave in western
Virginia. These bones were sent to Thomas
Jefferson (1799) who believed, based on
the claws, that the specimen represented a
carnivorous animal similar to a lion. Caspar
Wistar (1799), a Philadelphia physician,
subsequently described and figured the remains
as those of an extinct ground sloth (Megalonyx
jeffersoni – ANSP 12507 and 12508; see also
Spamer and McCourt 2006).
The huge elephant bones discovered at Bone
Lick were located in a swamp, Jefferson’s sloth
specimen was dug up from guano deposits on
the floor of a cave, and even America’s first
dinosaur, Hadrosaurus foulkii Leidy (ANSP
10005) was exhumed from a commercial marl
pit. In each case, the bones were relatively wellpreserved, large and solid, and did not require
that much careful handling. As the expansion
of the United States moved westward, however,
other fossils were discovered that would require
improvements in collecting methods and
packaging for long distance transport.
The various expeditions into the western
interior of North America in the early 1800s,
including Lewis and Clark (1804-05), came
across fossils nearly everywhere they traveled
(Everhart 2017b). Small fossils were readily
collected, but with few exceptions (Harlan
1834; Goldfuss 1845), the larger ones had to be
left where they were found.
248
Davidson and Everhart
Figure 1. Many of the 68 cervical vertebrae from the type specimen of Elasmosaurus platyurus
Cope (ANSP 10081) currently in storage at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Considering the primitive conditions under which the remains were
collected by Turner and his inexperienced volunteers in 1867, packed in prairie hay and transported
halfway across the country, the vertebrae are in surprisingly good condition. Scale bar = 10 cm.
In the spring of 1867 a military surgeon at Fort
Wallace in far western Kansas, Dr. Theophilus
Turner, discovered a 40 foot-long string of
vertebrae of a giant plesiosaur that E.D. Cope
(1868) then named Elasmosaurus platyurus
(ANSP 10081; Almy 1987; Everhart 2017c,
this issue). American paleontology was about
to be forever changed.
Abbreviations: AMNH – American Museum of
Natural History; ANSP – Academy of Natural
Sciences of Philadelphia ; USNM – United
States National Museum (Smithsonian).
Discussion
The bones of Elasmosaurus (Fig. 1) were
collected by Dr. Turner and others in December
1867 from an exposure of the Sharon Springs
Shale near Fort Wallace. At the time, Turner
had been in contact with E.D. Cope at the
Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.
On February 13, 1868, Cope wrote to Turner
and suggested how best to pack fossils to
prevent damage to the fossils for shipment
(Almy 1987, p. 188):
“It is very desirable that the specimens
should be packed in such a way as to avoid
friction or breakage in case of sudden jars.
To accomplish this each single piece or mass
should be so surrounded in the hay or other
packing as to allow some elasticity of contact
with the next. It is also important that any
box should not be too large to bear rough
handling of so much weight; otherwise it
may be broken, even much lost.”
The Elasmosaurus specimen, weighing 800
pounds or more, was packed as well as possible
in wooden shipping crates, using the limited
materials available at the fort. Then in early
Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 120(3-4), 2017
249
Figure 2. Early photographs of O.C. Marsh (1831-1899) and E.D. Cope (1840-1897). Both men
were relatively inexperienced in the collecting methods that were necessary when they first visited
the Smoky Hill Chalk in western Kansas.
February 1868 the crates were sent by military
wagon train across the prairie to the where the
Union Pacific railroad was being built about 100
miles to the east. Once the shipment reached the
railroad, it was shipped halfway across the United
States to Cope in Philadelphia (Everhart 2017c,
this issue). It is unlikely that any special handling
or care was involved. Cope received examined
the remains and named the fossil in early March
1868. In a letter to Turner dated March 25, 1868,
Cope noted (Almy 1987, p. 189):
“The fossils were sent with about the right
amount of matrix to prevent breaking
by the men [who handled the boxes?].
I would suggest an improvement in the
packing. Each mass should have had a
thicker wrapping of hay still when paper
is used [substituted] & the box should be
so packed as to prevent the rubbing and
moving of the pieces. The largest box had
1/3 to 1/4 vacant space when it arrived &
it as well as others suffered some injury on
that account.”
It should be noted here that no one in 1870,
with the possible exception of Professor
Benjamin F. Mudge at the Kansas State
Agricultural College (Everhart 2017a) had
much experience collecting fossils from the
Late Cretaceous rocks in Kansas. Turner was
only 26 years old and had no field experience
when he discovered Elasmosaurus near Fort
Wallace. O.C. Marsh, age 39 (Fig. 2A), arrived
in Kansas for the first time late in 1870 with
his students. Cope, age 30, who had already
received chalk fossils sent to him by Mudge,
would not get to Kansas until 1871 (Fig 2B).
Samuel W. Williston, one of Mudge’s students,
started collecting with him in 1874 at the
age of 23. Charles H. Sternberg was only 26
years old when he started collecting for Cope
in 1876. His only experience up to that time
was collecting fossil leaves from the Dakota
Formation (Sternberg 1909). Mudge (Fig.
3A), on the other hand, collected the very
delicate type specimen of a pigeon-sized bird
with teeth, Ichthyornis dispar, in 1872 at age
55 and sent it to Marsh intact. Dr. George M.
250
Davidson and Everhart
Figure 3A. Professor Benjamin Mudge (1817-1879) was one of the first to collect fossils from
the Late Cretaceous rocks of western Kansas and to send them back East for identification. He
collected the first known bird with teeth, Ichthyornis dispar Marsh; 3B. Doctor George M. Sternberg
(1838-1915) was the military surgeon assigned to Fort Harker, near Ellsworth, Kansas, in 1866. He
collected fossils from the Smoky Hill Chalk and sent them back to the U. S. Army Medical Museum
in Washington, D.C., including the type specimen (a single bone) of the giant fish, Xiphactinus
audax Leidy.
Sternberg, U.S. Army, who collected the type
specimen of Xiphactinus audax (USNM V52)
was 29 years old at the time (Fig. 3B).
Cope would subsequently visit Kansas in late
1871, collect fossils with the help of an Army
escort and incur similar problems with his
methods, including badly damaging the type
specimen of the giant marine turtle Protostega
gigas (AMNH FR 1503). Regarding the
discovery, Cope (1872) wrote:
“The fragments of the Protostega were
seen by one of my party projecting from a
ledge of a low bluff. Their thinness and the
distance to which they were traced excited
my curiosity, and I straightway attacked the
bank with the pick.”
Three years later, Cope (1875, p. 112) described
the hasty collection of the type specimen in
greater detail:
“The edges of one of the large bony
shields were seen projecting from a bluff
near Butte Creek, and was followed into
the chalk-rock with pickax and shovel
with the result already indicated. The large
bones were exposed in an entire condition,
but were much fractured in the attempt to
lift them from their bed. Though carefully
packed, the transport of fifteen hundred
miles still further injured them, and the
portions described were reconstructed
of over eight hundred pieces by myself.
One of the bony plates was broken into
108 pieces (Fig. 4), the ribs into 183, the
marginals into 146, etc.”
In regard to this kind of over preparation in
the field, Wieland (1906, p. 284–285) later
noted in in discussing the Protostega gigas
specimens collected by Charles Sternberg
for the Carnegie Museum that it should “be
evident to any student of the fossil vertebrates
the removal of the fossil from its matrix in
the absence of the necessary knowledge,
training and equipment, was ill advised. Such
work is difficult enough in the best equipped
laboratories.” Not offended, Sternberg (1909,
p. 116-117) repeated Wieland’s admonition in
his book, The Life of a Fossil Hunter (see also
Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 120(3-4), 2017
251
Figure 4. Photograph of the left hyoplastron and hypoplastron of the type specimen of Protostega
gigas Cope (AMNH FR1503) in dorsal view showing the breakage that occurred due to early
methods of collection and transport (Cope 1875). Adapted from Hay 1895, plate IV. Length = 1.2 m.
Everhart 2017b, p. 154). The lesson here was
that fossil bones were fragile and that devising
means to recover them intact was essential if
they were to be collected intact and useful for
further study.
In 1872 Cope published a written invitation to
his military and civilian colleagues in the West
to send such fossils as they might find to him “in
Philadelphia.” He asked for specimens of “bones
and teeth which they may find” to be sent to him
at his expense. By the time that his invitation
was published in the Preliminary Report of the
United States Geological Survey of Wyoming,
and Portions of Contiguous Territories, (1872, p.
286), this comment might also have been a not
so gentle nudge at Ferdinand V. Hayden (United
States Geological Survey) to provide some
funding for the acquisition of fossils. However,
as evidenced in his letters (Almy 1987) to Dr.
Turner, Cope had already been paying field
shipment expenses for several years. It is likely
that this had been an established practice of his
even if there was no government or institutional
financial support forthcoming.
Besides its being a matter of expediency, this
was something he probably learned from his
father, Alfred Cope (1806-1875). A prominent
Philadelphia shipping magnate, Alfred is
known to have been interested in fossils, and
to have actually purchased specimens. A bill
of lading, from his Cope Brothers Packet
Line exists for a payment which Alfred made
to a friend, John E. Lee, from whom he had
purchased fossil specimens in September 1839
(Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Cope
Family Papers Collection 1486, Series III,
subseries C, Box 327, Alfred Cope Papers).
This document also contains a letter from
Lee, dated September 16, 1839, in which he
indicates that he and Alfred Cope had been in
this business arrangement for some time. Lee
commented on fossils he had recently received
from Alfred and noted they were “very
beautiful.” Lee mentions both flora, which he
called “vegetable fossils” and fauna, including
a specimen of the fish, Lepidosteus osseus. The
bill of lading cited payments for “one hamper
containing fossils being specimens of natural
history,” and “one case containing fossils being
252
specimens of natural history.” This would
suggest that we might look back nearly twenty
years before the discovery of Elasmosaurus
platyurus to find earlier indications of how
fossils were being acquired and transported.
Alfred Cope probably should be included
among those who learned how to ship fossils
successfully when the rail freight system was
still in its early stages. It seems likely he would
have discussed the problems he encountered
with his son Edward.
Regardless of who paid for the packaging and
shipment, transporting fossils from Kansas
to Philadelphia in the 1860s and 1870s was a
difficult process which could and did lead to
damaged specimens. Little is known about the
packing methods used by Professor Benjamin F.
Mudge (Fig. 3A) and Dr. George M. Sternberg
(Fig. 3B) who, in the mid-1860s, were certainly
among the first to be shipping Late Cretaceous
Kansas fossils back East. The early collectors
had to learn their craft on the job, in part
because every new fossil presented different
problems in its recovery due to changes in the
matrix, weathering and other issues. Various
means of stabilizing friable fossils were tried,
mostly unsuccessfully, along with the protective
packaging needed for transport.
Given the primitive conditions under which
they were working, field techniques were
matters of expediency. Field men used whatever
was available to them to protect the fossils. The
fossils were then shipped in wooden crates, and
always needed some material for padding. Hay
or prairie grass was one of the most common
packing materials available in the West. Paper,
usually from newspapers, was also used but
generally in shorter supply. As one of the first
to receive fossils from Kansas, Cope surely
played vital roles in the development of more
successful packaging. Some of these methods
may have imitated contemporary medical
methods that used plaster casts to stabilize
broken bones. The quality of the research that
could be done on these fossils was of course
impacted by the condition of the remains with
Davidson and Everhart
which Cope, Marsh and the others had to work.
Marsh, for example, actually had a list of
instructions printed for his collectors (Schuchert
and LeVene 1940, p. 172-173).
Schuchert and LeVene (1940, p. 171) also
commented that the early period of collecting
and transporting fossil vertebrates was one
which “might be called the pick-rake-sack
stage.” The fossils were dug out of the rock,
fragments collected by raking the debris and
then everything ended up being placed in a cloth
bag. More breakage occurred as the bags were
carried on horseback or in wagons before they
could be minimally protected in shipping crates
for transport. It is not clear if Schuchert invented
the “pick-rake-sack” term or if he was referring
to something that Williston or O.C. Marsh
might have said to him. To this end, Schuchert
and LeVene (1940) cited Samuel W. Williston’s
(1914, p. v) remark that early fossils “were
rudely collected, after the way of those times,
for modern methods were impracticable with the
rifle in one hand and the pick in the other.”
Schuchert worked with both Marsh and
Williston, and to his credit, he did suggest
that Marsh might have embellished his own
role in devising the technique of placing the
bones in “splints” which were then covered
with Plaster of Paris. He felt this was more
likely something that Williston, a physician,
might have thought up. Actually, this process
might have been discussed much earlier than
Williston’s use of splints and flour paste in
1877 (Schuchert and LeVene 1940, p. 174).
David Baldwin, a collector who worked for
Marsh in New Mexico, had also devised a
procedure for setting fossil bones in a wooden
splint-like device in 1876. Schuchert referred
to this as “hollowed-out pieces of soft wood”
(1940, p. 175). Schuchert felt that Baldwin was
the inventor of splints, and Williston was the
inventor of the Plaster of Paris jacket.
A former student of Williston, Ermine C. Case,
described a consequence of the early use of
a flour paste prior to the arrival of Plaster of
Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 120(3-4), 2017
253
widely known in the United States by the end
of the Civil War (Peltier 1990, p. 71). The real
question might be why did it not come into use
by paleontologists sooner.
Note that Plaster of Paris had been used in
paleontology for many years to make accurate
models of important fossils. Spamer et al.
1995, p. 129) noted that the Academy of
Natural Sciences of Philadelphia has a plaster
cast of the type specimen of Mosasaurus
hoffmanni that had been sent to Dr. Richard
Harlan (1796-1843) from the National Museum
of Natural History in Paris as early as 1840.
By the 1860s, Henry Ward (1866) was selling
painted plaster casts of large and small fossils
to museums in the United States and Europe.
Figure 5. Field photograph of Samuel Williston
(circa 1891) adapted from Shor (1971, p. 47).
Williston was noted to have wiped the excess
flour paste used to wrap fossils on his trousers.
Paris in the field. Case noted (1908, p. 239; see
also Martin 1994, p. 140), “Meanwhile your
hands get covered with the paste;…but our
chief [Williston], being a direct and practicalminded man, simply wiped his hands on his
trousers … After a few days the only part of
his garment that would bend was the knees and
when he went to bed he crawled out of it and
leaned it up against the tent” (Fig. 5).
Splinting and jacketing fossil bones with
Plaster of Paris would have mimicked the
practice used by some physicians. By the
middle of the 19th century, this was a fairly
common practice. Leonard F. Peltier (1990,
p. 66-68) credits several European surgeons,
among them Antonius Mathijsen (1805-1878),
with devising practical surgical casts using
Plaster of Paris. Certainly this practice was
Comments by Schuchert and LeVene (1940)
notwithstanding, Williston certainly was not
the first physician who was also a collector of
fossils. Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), Ferdinand
V. Hayden (1829-1887), and the collector of
Elasmosaurus platyurus, Dr. Theophilus Turner
(1841-1869) were also trained as physicians.
Even Alfred Cope was well acquainted with
prominent Philadelphia physicians. Stabilizing
fossil bones as one would immobilize a broken
human bone was bound to have come to mind
among men like these. Protecting unique
and fragile fossils was just logical, providing
one had the appropriate materials at hand. In
Turner’s case, we also know that there were
plasterers (and plaster) employed at Fort
Wallace in 1867 during the construction of
the officer’s quarters (Oliva 1998). However,
under the primitive conditions of the time,
it is doubtful that Turner even considered
using Plaster of Paris to protect the bones of
Elasmosaurus.
Charles Schuchert went to great lengths to
establish an important role for O. C. Marsh
in devising the eventually accepted means
of packaging and shipping fossils. This role
may have been somewhat exaggerated. To
reinforce his point that Marsh had made major
improvements in how fossils were handled
254
in the field, Schuchert and LeVene (1940)
published a list of fifteen directions which
Marsh had printed for use with his collecting
crews between 1870-1874. These instructions
are valuable as a reference to the practice
of the times, although they were the sorts of
practical instructions other scientists and field
men were already using. The list is interesting
in that Marsh’s instructions mention some
of the actual materials in use. Again, these
were hardly novel. They were derived from
expediency, trial and error, and discussions
about what others were doing in the field.
When Marsh wrote, “Better to send 100 pounds
of rock than leave a tool mark on a good
specimen,” his point was rather obvious. Of
more interest are the actual packing materials
mentioned by Marsh. He specified that skulls
be encased in cotton and then placed in “one
or more sacks, closely tied or sewed up.” He
advocated the use of cans or cigar-boxes to
store small or delicate materials. And he noted
that “Every bone should be wrapped in paper.”
As to the actual crates, he advocated the use
of boxes with “plenty of hay or straw,” to be
used as ballast within the boxes. “Hoop all
boxes at both ends, with iron, wood, rawhide,
or leather.” Boxes were to be shipped freight;
small boxes with delicate specimens should
go express. (Schuchert and LeVene 1940, p.
173). One cannot help wondering how much
protection, if any, that express shipping could
have actually afforded to delicate fossils.
It seems that 1876 was about the time when
field men began to use packaging methods
which resemble some of those in use today.
We know that Cope and Charles Sternberg
used burlap and cheap cotton flour bags coated
with a paste of boiled rice to protect the fossils
coming out of the Judith River badlands in
1876 (Sternberg, 1909, p. 88).
Charles H. Sternberg began collecting fossils
for Cope in 1876 and wrote about his field work
in the Kansas City Review of Science (1884)
in which he discussed his packaging materials
Davidson and Everhart
and methods of transportation. It sounds quite
similar to Marsh’s methods that Schuchert
discussed, and includes some of the same
types of methods using whatever was at hand.
Sternberg noted that collectors should always
have “burlap sacks, old newspaper, cotton,
manila paper and hop needles; boxes and
barrels for shipping (1884., p. 219). He noted
further, “In packing cover the exposed bones
with cotton, the slab with dry grass and bind
strongly with twine. Cover with burlap and sew
securely” (p. 220). Sternberg also suggested the
use of gum Tragacanth (a water soluble gum
derived from several species of Locoweed,
the genus Astralagus) for very friable fossils,
such as fish. “Another good way is to cover the
specimen with two or three inches of plaster
of Paris, and allow it to set….” (p. 221). This
technique, called a slab mount where the
exposed bones are set in plaster and the fossil
removed in large slab of matrix was perfected
by Sternberg for collecting the remains of large
fish. Back in the laboratory, the slab is turned
over and the matrix removed from the lower
side of the fossil, leaving the bones securely
mounted in plaster.
Sternberg later discussed his Kansas experiences
in his autobiography The Life of a Fossil Hunter.
In one chapter he describes the difficulty of
collecting a large fish fossil (Xiphactinus audax)
during cold weather and storing it until it could
be shipped (1909, p. 56-57):
“When they [the bones] had been packed
with excelsior in strong boxes, a wagon
was backed up against the level platform
which we had made in throwing out the
rock and soil that lay over the specimen
(Fig. 6). The boxes were then set on edge,
and, with the help of boards and rollers,
loaded into the wagon for shipment to
the railroad thirty miles away. … Then
all through the winter, while I was trying
to dry out the specimen, so that it could
be cleaned and prepared for shipment,
the rats, which inhabited the walls of the
laboratory in great numbers, kept pulling
Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 120(3-4), 2017
255
Figure 6. Charles H. Sternberg (standing in center with hand raised) and his sons (l-r; George F.,
Charles M., and Levi) pose on the wagon carrying a plaster slab containing a Xiphactinus audax
specimen for the Canadian Museum of Natural History in Ottawa, Canada (circa 1906). Used with
permission of the Forsyth Library (Special Collections), Fort Hays State University.
out the bran and excelsior that had been
put around the delicate bones to protect
them; thus causing the broken plaster,
with the bones of the head, to sink lower
and lower, as the packing was carried
away from underneath. Driven to think
out some plan of saving the specimen
from destruction, I conceived the idea
of shoving a number of wooden pegs
of various lengths under the broken
fragments, so as to push them up into
their places and hold them firmly there.
All the excelsior was then taken away
from beneath them, a frame of lumber
made around the section, and the whole
space filled with plaster which held all the
broken bones in place.”
One of Marsh’s employees, David Baldwin,
was also bandaging fossils in New Mexico
with what Schuchert and LeVene (1940,
p. 175) referred to as a “plastic gumbo.”
Gumbo is a term applied to soil which could
be mixed into a thick paste. In other words,
in some situations Baldwin used just plain
mud. Schuchert and LeVene (1940; see also
Shor 1971, p. 97) noted that Arthur Lakes
(1844-1917) at least had the option of using
plaster while collecting for Marsh in Morrison,
Colorado. They quote a September 1877 letter
from Lakes to Marsh:
“I do not know whether you wish us to use
plaster of paris but if it is not an obstacle in
your final clearing up of the bones, it would
be often a great assistance to us in keeping
together very fragmentary bones.”
Schuchert and LeVene (1940) also credit
Williston with using Plaster of Paris by 1877.
However, they also quote (p. 174) from a
September 1877 letter to Marsh in which
Williston requests permission to use flour paste
and strong paper to cover the fractured bones.
256
Williston also appears to disagree in his note
regarding the 1877 discovery of dinosaurs in
Colorado published by Matthew (1915, p. 129;
see also Shor 1971, p. 89);
“... I attempted to save some samples of
them by pasting them up with thick layers
of paper. Had we only known of plasterof-paris and burlap the whole specimen
might easily have been saved....”
Cost and economics were also factors. In a
letter from the Long Island Quarry in Phillips
County, Kansas, to Marsh dated August 9,
1884, Williston wrote,
“There is no reason why with good packing
the bones should not reach New Haven
[Yale College] in absolute safety, but I will
assure you that you will never succeed
in getting specimens packed well by
Sternberg or anybody else when the matter
of packing material becomes the object of
personal economy” (Shor 1971, p. 109).
Apparently Marsh was not paying his collectors
enough to guarantee the best packing. In a letter
dated August 29, 1884, Williston notes that they
are still using hay as a packing material (Shor
1971) for the unprotected bones, most of which
were from the extinct rhinoceros, Teleoceras
fossiger. It also appears that collectors of the
time were spending their own money to collect
fossils and hoping to be reimbursed by their
employers. In a telegram to O.C. March, dated
May 22, 1884, Charles Sternberg (Everhart
2007, p. 257-258) noted that:
“I have been at a good deal of expense.
First I came on ahead of my team to save
time & paid fare $2.00. Hotel bill $5.00,
Lumber $3.00, nails .30, [???] .45 $3.75,
Total $10.75 [for] which would be greatly
obliged if you would send me.”
None of this chronology of plaster jacketing
would apply to the digging, packaging and
transportation of Elasmosaurus platyurus in
Davidson and Everhart
1867 or Protostega gigas in 1871. In the case
of Elasmosaurus, Turner and others from Fort
Wallace simply dug or pried the bones and
concretions containing bones from the relatively
soft Sharon Springs Member of the Pierre Shale
using picks and shovels. The remains were
loaded without any packing material on a horse
drawn wagon, possibly the Army ambulance,
and hauled across the open prairie for about
15 miles to Fort Wallace. Once there, Turner
packed them rather loosely in wooden crates
using locally available prairie hay as padding.
The type specimen of Protostega gigas was
collected by Cope and his military escort
from the upper Smoky Hill Chalk in Fossil
Springs Canyon, about 20 miles southeast
of Fort Wallace. According to Cope’s (1875)
account, the fragile bones were damaged
initially when they were removed from the
chalk. Further breakage occurred as they were
bounced across the prairie in a military wagon.
While it is likely that Cope tried to pack them
for shipment as a well as he could under the
circumstances at Fort Wallace, his (1875)
report on their condition once they arrived in
Philadelphia strongly suggests they were also
damaged in transit.
Even using these two examples as a starting
point, we cannot pinpoint a particular scientist
or field collector who thought of Plaster of
Paris jackets first. Most likely the practice
developed quickly in the late 1870s once the
methodology was shared among field workers.
Conclusion
The discovery of marine fossils from the Late
Cretaceous in Kansas in the late 1860s started a
‘fossil rush’ led by several prominent scientists
of the day, most notably E. D. Cope and O. C.
Marsh. While many of the fossils represented
previously unknown and important species of
extinct animals, the collectors were initially
unprepared to collect and transport the fragile
remains, leaving many of the specimens
shattered and scattered, and diminishing their
Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 120(3-4), 2017
scientific value. The tools, techniques and
packaging of specimens improved through the
1870s, especially with the use of plaster and
burlap jackets to enclose and protect fragile
specimens. While Cope and Marsh certainly
provided the overarching instructions on how
to collect, the men in the field were actually
the ones who developed the best practices and
eventually perfected the nearly universal plaster
and burlap methods that are still in use today.
Acknowledgments
We are grateful for the comments provided by
two anonymous reviewers which improved on
the original version of this paper.
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