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Saturday, May 29, 2004

The Life of a Fossil Hunter

American history during the period from the end of the Civil War (1865) through the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt (1910) hold great interest for me. Primarily because this is a period where little if anything was said in my public school education (seems we always skipped from the Civil War to World War I with a slight mention of railroads in passing) but also because this was a period of great possibilities due largely to an untamed west. The unavoidable culture clash Guns, Germs, and Steel and its effects also contributed to the texture of the times.

The book The Life of a Fossil Hunter is set squarely during this period and is the account, written in 1909, of some of the fossil hunting expeditions of Charles H. Sternberg (1850-1943). Sternberg was born in New York state but moved to Ellsworth Kansas with his family in 1867 to join his Uncle's family in running a ranch. Without any scientific degrees Charles quickly collected some of the world's finest fossil plants in Kansas and never looked back. He found he could make a living collecting and selling the specimens to museums in the east and abroad. He went on to collect fish, sea-going reptiles (mosasaurs and plesiosaurs), pteranadons, and birds in the chalky rock of western Kansas and mastadons, camels, and horses in Kansas and the badlands of Nebraska. He also traveled west to Montana and Washington state and south to Texas in search of dinosaurs and Permian reptiles and amphibians. Material he collected is on display literally all over the world with large collections in the American Museum of Natural History, the Natural History museum in London, and in Munich. During many of these expeditions he worked directly for Edward Drinker Cope, the Quaker paleontologist from Philadelphia and rival of Othaniel C. Marsh, the paleontologist from Yale (the rivalry is the subject of the book The Gilded Dinosaur). Sternberg would find the fossils, dig them out sometimes by inventing techniques that later became standard practice including using plaster to strengthen the bones during removal and excavating entire slabs so that the fossils lay in situ for further study, load them on a wagon and finally ship them by the ton by boat or train back to Cope or to their finally destination. Cope even joined Sternberg in an expedition out west in 1876, smartly avoiding the Sioux in the wake of the battle of Little Bighorn.

Sternberg tells his stories in a straightforward and interesting manner recounting many anecdotes and tales, some funny and some of pure adventure like his story of how Cope entertained a band of warriors they happened upon by removing and putting back his false teeth and his account of the "Bannock War" of 1877. Reading it from his own hand helps one get a feel for what it must have been like searching the chalk on foot and horseback, worrying about where to find water, eating nothing but hard tack or bacon for days on end, and drinking mostly alkali water. Having done a couple days of prospecting in these same canyons and outcroppings only enhances the appreciation for what it must have been like. To his credit Sternberg never wavers in his assertion that he did it all to further the knowledge of mankind and that he would have endured all the hardships over again in order to fulfill this higher calling. On more than one occasion he records the lengths he would go to to preserve fossils that were damaged including risking his own life and the disgust he would feel when fossils or animals were needlessly destroyed. He also succeeds in communicating his wonder at the ancient flaura and fauna he discovered - "How wonderful are the works of an Almighty Hand!" - and comes across as a true lover of all things natural. However, he clearly enjoyed the notoriety and prestige he received from scientists such as Cope (who he holds in the greatest esteem) and can therefore perhaps be forgiven if he goes to great pains to quote letters of appreciation to himself as well as quoting plaques in museums that mention his name.

Somehow during this period (the book covers mostly 1876 to 1897) Sternberg had time to raise a family and in later accounts tells how his three sons George, Levi, and Charles assisted him. Charles went on to become a fossil collector in his own right and discovered the famous "fish within a fish" fossil on display at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas.

He ends the book with descriptions of several finds in the early 1900s including his most famous, a "mummified" duck-billed hadrasaur from Wyoming in 1908, the year before the book was published, which includes fossilized skin and plates.

Many of the scientific names Sternberg mentions in the book are still in use however there are a few such as Portheus molossus (now referred to as Xiphactinus, the large fish in the fish-within-a-fish fossil) coined by Cope which have been superceded. Modern readers will also note that his assessment that the Permian fauna he collected in the fossils beds of Texas over eight seasons beginning in 1882 were 12 million instead of 200 million old are incorrect. Modern readers may also flinch at several descriptions of Indians, all common for the time, but that seem to us stereotypical or bigoted.

Overall, the book also conveys how much the west has changed in 100 years and how much science has advanced during this brief period. In fact, Sternberg notes that during his youth in upper state New York he would carve fossil shells out of the local limestone which "were admired chiefly as examples of the wonderful power of running water to carve rocks into the semblance of shells" or accounted for by God creating rocks to look like shells and plants. And of course it also makes me wish that just once I could experience the untamed west on one of his expeditions complete with buffalo, elk, Indians, and plenty of fossils for the finding. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys western adventure stories and of course fossils. For another perspective during this time period you might also check out Discovering Dinosaurs in the Old West, the journals of Professor Arthur Lakes who worked for Marsh and discovered some of the first dinosaurs in the west, particularly those in Morrison Colorado near Denver and Como Bluff Wyoming. They're a bit drier although they record the events as they happened.

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