Secrets of the Dust Bowl Digs

by Holly Wall


Years ago, buried beneath the University of Oklahoma football stadium, there was once an underground concrete cave, with dirt floors, dim lighting, and ceilings just barely held up by cracked, chipped pillars.

For years, it housed hundreds of crates, buckets, and boxes, virtually forgotten except to be moved out of someone’s way—to an old naval barracks south of campus, for example, and then later to the fourth floor of a dormitory (a building absent an elevator, so the containers were hoisted by crane and swung in through an open window). Inside those boxes and buckets rested specimens from Oklahoma’s primordial past, some of them dating back 450 million years. For some time, government workers made sloppy attempts at piecing together the bits of bone but eventually, after time and money ran out, they gave up.

The crews digging for dinosaur fossils just outside Kenton, Oklahoma, were part of J. Willis Stovall’s WPA-funded “Fossil Bones Project,” responsible for unearthing some 30,000 fossil specimens between 1935 and 1942. They were inexperienced, barely trained, and pretty much guessing at what was rock and what was fossil as they chipped one from the other and attempted to reassemble the bones of God-knows-how-many dinosaurs into something that resembled the pictures they’d seen in books.

By 1942, they’d abandoned Stovall’s project, by order of the government, and left the bones where they lay—in boxes and crates, wrapped meat-market style in sheets of newspaper, tucked inside cigar boxes, broken and left jumbled in buckets.

They moved around a bit, taking up various residencies at the university, but other than that, they remained untouched for almost 50 years.

Today, the Fossil Bones Project stands as the most aggressive and fruitful dinosaur dig in Oklahoma’s history. It offered insight into the geology and natural history of the state, producing fossils of dinosaurs that haven’t been discovered anywhere else in the world. And it helped catapult what is now known as the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History from a twice-burned natural history cabinet, modeled off the curiosity cabinets folks once used to display oddities in their homes, into a state-sanctioned, world-class facility. But in order to understand the bones, you have to understand the dig.

The Primordial Panhandle

In 1931, road workers were clearing a path through Kenton and out of Oklahoma when they stumbled up a five-foot long rib bone, buried just beneath rock-dense earth. Oklahoma’s first vertebrate paleontologist, J. Willis Stovall, had recently begun work at the University of Oklahoma in Norman and was called out to investigate. The rib belonged to an Apatosaurus (known popularly—albeit incorrectly, as scientists have recently begun to point out—as Brontosaurus), and Stovall suspected that Black Mesa [1] might be rife with them.

This wasn’t the first fossil discovered in Oklahoma—that was the shoulder bone of a long-necked Cretaceous-period dinosaur found in southeastern Oklahoma in 1908 during a geological survey. That creature, named Acrocanthosaurus atokensis by Stovall, would later be named Oklahoma’s state dinosaur. Another dig, in the early 1930s, produced a collection of mammoth bones near Eldorado. But with no one around really interested in the excavation of fossils at the time, the findings were published and then all but forgotten (until the more recent past, when paleontologists revisited those sites; some of the later excavations are included in the Sam Noble collection).

Stovall wasn’t particularly interested in dinosaurs, either; he was teaching geology to OU students and finishing his Pvh.D. at the University of Chicago. Still undecided on the topic of his dissertation, Stovall got the call to claim a fossil and putt-putted his (probably) black Model T Ford the several hours to Black Mesa, where he excavated the rib and a couple more bones. He became frustrated with the excessive rock and rough digging conditions, gave up, and headed back south. The memory of the dig stuck with him, though.

In 1935, at Roosevelt’s order, the Works Progress Administration was created, and Stovall seized the opportunity to use federal funds to dig for dinosaurs in Oklahoma. His Fossil Bones Project was funded that year, and immediately crews were digging out fossil from rock in several quarries just a stone’s throw from New Mexico.The crews were local guys,hard-working men living hand to mouth, struggling to feed their families, with no education in science (or much else). They had no experience in the unearthing of million-year-old fossils and little training or supervision. C.R. Tate, the appointed foreman, led the crew because he had been to college and could “write more or less coherently.” [2] He suffered from polio and from personality conflicts with the members of his team and with Stovall, to whom he complained regularly about his working conditions and his doubt that his team could keep the Kenton project alive. Bones weren’t always easy to come by, and the crew’s livelihood depended desperately on their ability to produce.

They used basic tools—chisels, steel files, and jackknives—to dig the bones out of the hard earth. Heavy masses were blasted first with black powder and then moved by hand or horse. Crewmen had a difficult time telling bone from rock, and they sometimes scraped a fossil clear down to the spongiosa. When the weather was bad, they huddled in little adobe shacks, which also served as storage sheds, preparing their findings.

The Morrison Formation, where the men worked, was the most widespread formation in the Panhandle, formed during the Jurassic period. Back then, the ecology wasn’t the same as today; it was lush, verdant, with running rivers and tropical forests—the exact opposite climate that it has now. And it was through those forests and rivers that the likes of the Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, Ceratosaurus (a horn-nosed meat-eater), and Camptosaurus (a broad-bodied, beaked herbivore) roamed. The crews were instructed by Stovall to gather every fragment of fossil they could find, and every so often Stovall or one of his students would drive to Kenton from Norman and haul away truckloads of bones.

The digs occurred during the Dust Bowl, when temperatures reached the far extremes during both summer and winter. When the quarries filled with snow, workers were forced to take time off, unpaid. When they were paid, it wasn’t much and checks were rarely on time. Local merchants made sure the men’s families didn’t suffer while they waited for their funds to arrive.

Over a period of seven years, the team excavated 12 quarries in Black Mesa; most of the documentation of their efforts has been lost, and what was available was mostly incomplete and often incorrect. (Later paleontologists would sort through them, reorganizing and recataloging the rubble.)

Bone by Bone 

Stovall was named director of the natural history museum, which housed exhibits in zoology, botany, and geology, as well as vertebrate paleontology, in 1943. While the exhibits occupied a space in the Geology Building, what wasn’t on display was stored in various buildings all over campus. Concerned primarily with teaching, managing the museum, and out-of-state fossil excavations in his free time, he didn’t bother much with the bones he’d collected years earlier. He also battled early-onset dementia. Stovall died in 1953, suffering a heart attack while on a dig in Wyoming, and passing the next day after being rushed back to Norman. The museum was renamed the Stovall Museum of Science and History in his honor. Other paleontologists followed after Stovall, but each had his own area of expertise, and none touched the treasure Stovall left behind— until 1986, when Rich Cifelli, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the museum and presidential professor of biology at the University of Oklahoma, was hired to, as he put it, “whip the collection into shape.”

Cifelli has narrow shoulders and hips, with chiseled biceps that creep out of the short-sleeved maroon dri-fit shirt he’s wearing the day I visited him and Museum Preparator Kyle Davies. They’re something of an odd couple, Rich trim and compact, clean-shaven with wispy brown hair. Kyle, taller and more rotund, wore wire-rimmed glasses and had a full, gray beard that hovered just above his blue “Kyleosaurus” T-shirt. Kyle’s the dinosaur guy, and he looks the part.

Cifelli studies mammals from the age of dinosaurs. When he arrived in Norman, the fossil collection was housed on the fourth floor of one of the dormitories. It hadn’t been touched since the ‘40s, left in its original field packaging. Large fossils were still wrapped in newspaper, and with every package he unwrapped, Cifelli relived the trial of Bruno Hauptmann in the Baby Lindbergh kidnapping and the Hindenburg disaster.

Some fossils were packed in straw; others perched on corkwood on rickety old shelves. Some of the smaller stuff was tucked inside old cigar boxes. He had 30,000 specimens to sort through.

“Some of the stuff was really badly messed up, badly broken, in bits and pieces,” Cifelli said. “It was like these people threw the bones on the floor and jumped on them, then mixed them up with a snow shovel or something. It was terrible.”

Through a series of grants from the National Science Foundation, Cifelli and a small team were able to dust them off, catalog them, and properly store them.

Davies first discovered dinosaurs as a child in the stacks of the library where his mother worked. He arrived at the University of Oklahoma in 1995 to help build the exhibits for what would become the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural Science. The museum opened in its current location in 1999, named for the oil baron benefactor who helped fund the 50,000-square-foot facility, which boasts the world’s largest Apatosaurus collection, the oldest painted object in North America—a bison skull discovered in 1994 that dates to 10,900-10,200 BCE—and a Pentaceratops skeleton, whose skull, at 3.1 meters high, is the largest of any land vertebrate.

Cifelli, Davies, and the rest of the Sam Noble team expanded Stovall’s original collection to about 75,000 specimen, about half of which are from Oklahoma. Additional fossils have been collected by Cifelli and other students and professors in Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Wyoming, and Montana. Some of it Stovall himself collected, out on escapades that were mostly for fun, at sites more productive than those in Black Mesa.The museum’s galleries boast some Okie dinosaurs, and others are regional, representative of what would have roamed Oklahoma millions of years ago. Stovall’s team cleared all the public land, but the state is still rich with potentially big fossil finds. What remains untouched is private, and, therefore, difficult to access. Until recently.

Modern Day Digs

Last June, a team of 23, for the first time since Stovall’s effort, broke earth at Black Mesa once again in search of Jurassic-period fossils. Like the WPA workers almost 70 years before them, these people were unskilled and minimally trained. But they weren’t men struggling to provide for their families; rather, they were students, accompanied by paleontologists, geologists, science teachers, and other scientists and volunteers, all of whom were hoping to instill in them some sort of appreciation of science.

They were underserved middle and high schools students and Native American college-students brought to Black Mesa by two programs— ExplorOlogy and Native Explorers, respectively—funded by the Whitten- Newman Foundation. The foundation purchased 700 acres of land containing new, untapped fossil quarries.

Students in the ExplorOlogy and Native Explorers programs uncovered more fossils, which are now being analyzed by the scientists at both University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University. At the end of the group’s trip, they began to uncover partially intact bones, which they capped, reburied, and will continue to excavate this June. The bones appear to have belonged to a large sauropod—perhaps another Apatosaurus, perhaps something completely new—and paleontologists are excited about unearthing the discovery. Unwittingly, students in the programs are themselves becoming a part of Oklahoma’s fossil history—a history initially written in bones and mud, and now a history celebrated and showcased before the world.

1. PArt of the Morrison Formation that extends through Colorado, New Mexico, and the western tip of Oklahoma.
2. “The Kenton Dinosaur Project,” Wann Langston. 1989.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 7. April 1, 2013.

Holly Wall is This Land‘s news editor and aspiring paleontologist.