In my first year of palaeontology fieldwork along Alberta’s South Saskatchewan River —three seasons ago now—I came across a massive cliff with an interesting dinosaur fossil poking out near the base. There wasn’t much showing; just a flat bone curled at one end, visible in cross section (the rest of the bone had broken away when a piece of the cliff face collapsed long ago).
It was hard to tell at the time, but I had an inkling as to what it was (or maybe, what I hoped it would be): the back edge of a horned dinosaur frill. The bone was in solid ironstone, with nine feet of rock above it. I knew I would never get it out with the simple hand tools I had on me at the time, but I couldn’t walk away from such a potentially great find, and planned to return again one day with power tools to extract it.
So that’s what I did this year. I had initially and naively planned to jackhammer my way down to the fossil from above—the sheer amount and hardness of the rock prevented that.
Instead, palaeobiology technician Alan McDonald and I opted to cut into the side of the cliff using an angle grinder to extract the specimen. Alan cut a grid pattern into the rock around the fossil, and we chipped the resulting blocks out with a hammer and chisel.
The work was long, hot, and very dusty, but after several hours of cutting and chipping, we were finally able to see the fossil in its full glory. And it was…a partial ilium (hip bone) of a duck-billed dinosaur.
Ugh! Certainly not the highlight of my career. Duck-billed dinosaurs are as common as they come in these parts, and another partial hipbone in isolation isn’t likely to teach us much about we don’t already know.
Still, when it comes to fossils, there’s strength in numbers, as a fellow palaeontologist wrote in his recent blog. Perhaps one day some student will see something significant about the ilium that I might have missed. If so, I hope they’ll appreciate the hard work that went into retrieving it!
Read blogs about Jordan’s previous fieldwork in 2014: