This year marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of the first fossil gallery in Canada, in what later came to be named the Canadian Museum of Nature—our museum here in Ottawa.

In fact, the large panel mount of Edmontosaurus regalis which was reinstalled in our current gallery, was the first complete dinosaur skeleton mounted and displayed in Canada.

A man works at a lab table covered with fossils, trays and newspaper.
Museum volunteer Geoff Rowe. Image: Margaret Currie © Canadian Museum of Nature

Our fossil collection, which is housed in our research and collection campus in Gatineau, Quebec, is a repository for dozens of other field-jacketed dinosaur specimens that were collected in Alberta in the early 1900s. (Visitors will be able to see some of them during the Open House at our Gatineau campus on October 19). But because these field jackets are so large, opening even one of them and preparing the skeletal elements within requires a lot of time and, of course, money—a resource that’s often in short supply.

However, hundreds of smaller, isolated dinosaur elements (some associated with the larger jackets; some not), were also collected in those early years. Many were simply wrapped in newspaper and bound with string. Back in the bowels of our fossil collection, there are stacks of cardboard boxes containing these bundles, most of which date from 1912 to the 1930s.

A string-tied bundle wrapped in old newspaper, with a tag.
1917 bundle of dino fragments. Image: Margaret Currie © Canadian Museum of Nature

As you can imagine, after close to 100 years, newspaper (and unfortunately, any specimen data written on it) begins to disintegrate. But while these very dusty packages may potentially contain valuable specimens, it is quite time-consuming to open each one and then properly repack it. This is where our trusty volunteers come in!

One morning a week, three volunteers sit under ventilation trunks and carefully un-wrap these mysterious parcels from the past. It is dirty work, and not always rewarding, as these specimens were collected “as found” (that is to say, broken in many fragments!).

Two women sit across a lab table covered in fossils, trays and newspaper.
Museum volunteers Dale Crichton (left) and Christiane Cooper at work, unwrapping dinosaur fossils. Image: Margaret Currie © Canadian Museum of Nature

But our volunteers are up to the task, and occasionally offset any tedium by reading the tattered newspaper fragments, which contain everything from updates on the war, to amusing advertisements for “tonics”. (It should be mentioned that aside from their entertainment value, these newspapers can often be useful when we’re trying to narrow down the collection year of specimens whose data has been lost).

A crumpled and torn sheet of newspaper.
A 1915 Calgary newspaper that has served as wrapping for dinosaur finds. Note George Sternberg’s subscription label, attached at the top of the central photograph. Image: Margaret Currie © Canadian Museum of Nature

But getting back to the unpacking job, the volunteers carefully transfer the fragmentary fossils (along with any accompanying data) into clear plastic bags so that researchers can easily access them in the future.

Any specimens that look interesting or significant are set aside for re-assembly and repair by me or another technician, and may eventually be catalogued into the main collection. Already, this project has produced some interesting elements such as a lacrimal bone (a cranial element) of a juvenile tyrannosaurid, two complete ilia (hip bones) of hadrosaurs, and several skeletal elements associated with an already catalogued Daspletosaurus (a tyrannosaurid) in our collection.

Two fossils in a tray.
Hadrosaur ilium (above) and tibia (below) reassembled and glued. Image: Margaret Currie © Canadian Museum of Nature

The fine work of our volunteers serves to enrich and develop our fossil collection, to stimulate new research, and to bring out of obscurity these specimens that were collected in Alberta a hundred years ago.

A broken fossil, reconstructed by placing the pieces back into position in a tray.
Hadrosaur bone being pieced together. Image: Margaret Currie © Canadian Museum of Nature