Saturday, November 16, 2002

Mammoth Site

Mammoth Site

All weather worries were dispelled when we reached the town of Hot Springs, South Dakota. It was still cold, and there were still bits of frosted fluff flittering to the ground, but we felt relieved and even amused with ourselves; so silly to have been nervous about a bit of weather. And Hot Springs proved to be a welcoming town with beautiful old stone buildings along the river and we saw ducks enjoying the steamy warmth on the banks.

We stopped for lunch, and then went to Mammoth Site. In the 70's a man began excavation of his property, in preparation for buildings, but fossils were discovered, so the tractors were parked until it could be determined what they were digging up. It turns out to be the site of a very old sink hole that accumulated very many mammoth and other animals, and the conditions were ideal for preserving their bones. Fortunately the site was preserved and is now a museum. The building that houses the museum and labs, also encloses the dig site. The fossils are protected from the elements and visitors are privileged to observe the bones as they are discovered.

Every year in July paleontologists gather at Mammoth Site to chip away at the dirt surrounding the fragile remains of ancient animals. They collect all they can in one month, and the rest of the year is devoted to recording and processing the material and information gathered. On a cold October day, in the middle of the week, there are very few visitors. We enjoyed a practically private tour. We very much enjoyed witnessing the process involved in solving a mystery. The clues are in geology, biology, paleontology and intuition, and the detectives are dedicated to the study of every detail, including the cross sections of mammoth molars.

Downstairs we met Malon. He sat in his desk chair, smiling warmly and waved us in to the lab. He casually showed us around, pointed out the latest big bone to be brought out of the dirt and shared with us the disappointment they all felt when it fell and broke as they hoisted it up. Now he will help to reconstruct the pieces, and make fiberglass models, like the one of the bear. He passed the skull of the bear to William. He showed us arrowheads he is making as replicas from real artifacts, and described the pleasure he has in his work. The boys asked about the clay on the shelves and the illustrations on the desk tops. Malon told us about the hard working Summer interns, and his confidence in the talent and skills of one young woman in particular.

Any visit to a museum can be interesting or enlightening, but our visit to Mammoth Site made a more lasting and meaningful impression, largely thanks to Malon. He patiently visited and laughed with us; we felt like friends just come back to town. He took the time to make his interest in his work more interesting for us. We have suggested to our sons that the best careers will be found in work that interests them. Malon lives and projects the success of this way of thinking. I'm glad we met him.

Maybe I botched details, and certainly Mammoth Site can tell it better, so if you want to know more please check out: And visit if you can; it's worth the drive.

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