There are no instructions for taking apart a 20,000-year-old mammoth skeleton. So workers moved carefully Monday as they beheaded the massive one that has loomed for decades over the Ice Age hall in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
“It’s coming,” called one of four technicians perched on three ladders as a metal blade cut through the single steel rod that holds the 250-pound skull to a spinal column the size of an elm trunk. A cable winch took the weight and, with eight anxious hands guiding it, lowered the skull to the terrazzo floor.
The surrounding crowd of curators and conservators, who spend their careers protecting these fossils, breathed again. They were one bone further along in their own mammoth undertaking: Remaking the museum’s signature collection of dinosaurs and other creatures from bygone eons. This and dozens of other ancient specimens will be shipped to Ontario for restoration as part of a five-year, $48 million makeover of the museum’s fossil hall, scheduled to be completed in 2019.
“It’s a little bittersweet,” said Steven Jabo, a preparator of vertebrate fossils, as he watched the dismemberment unfold amid a jumble of crates and half-demolished dioramas. He leaned against the boxed remains of a giant ground sloth that had for years served as an ambassador from the Ice Age. “You have a lot of memories among these halls and exhibits.”
With an estimated 8 million visitors in 2013, the Natural History Museum ranks as the world’s second-most-visited museum. More than 5 million of those museum-goers passed through the 31,000-square-foot fossil hall last year, gawking at the diplodocus and snapping goofy selfies with a Tyrannosaurus rex replica. When it reopens in 2019, the new hall will feature a real T. rex from Montana, one of the most complete skeletons of the species ever found.
For now, plastic covers many of the skeletons, and the iconic background paintings of mammoths and horses grazing on the tundra by Virginia paleoartist Jay Matternes are ready to be carefully packed away.
But Jabo is thrilled that these old bones will find new life before returning to a gleaming, modernized facility. The mammoth, which was assembled in the 1970s from several separate fossils found in Alaska and other post-glacial terrain, will be cleaned and remounted. It will assume a posture more dynamic than the stocky class-photo pose it has maintained for almost 40 years. Myriad cracks and flaws, most invisible to visitors but nightmarish to conservators, will be repaired.
The mammoth is one of the largest creatures dismantled in a deconstruction process that began after the hall was closed to the public in the spring. It is also one of the most complicated. Museum staffers know many of its parts came from an elaborate bone-swap with the American Museum of Natural History in New York in the 1970s, but this is their chance to learn more about a composite critter that seems to be made of several separate individuals, perhaps as many as 70, and possibly more than one species.
As technicians unstrung the ancient gothic necklace of the mammoth’s spine one vertebra at a time, staffers scampered gleefully around the boneyard that was spreading in all directions. They hoisted each fossil and examined markings that have been hidden for decades. “Banks of Fox Cold[?] Stream Alaska 1939,” read one.
“It feels like we’re excavating it for a second time,” Siobhan Starrs, an exhibit developer, said as she looked up some of the creek names on her smartphone.
It would be good news if many of the fossils were found near each other, and the farther north the better. The specimen has been displayed, and labeled, as a Woolly Mammoth, but some parts seem to be from its more southerly cousin, the Columbian Mammoth. If possible, in the restoration process, preparators can make it more of one or the other by replacing outlier bones. If they find it too hopeless a hybrid, curators could go looking for a purer mammoth entirely.
“Mixing species is a strange thing to do in a modern exhibit,” said Matthew T. Carrano, the museum’s curator of dinosaurs.
Workers methodically took apart the body until, hours later, it was just a massive pelvis rearing on a pair of hind legs. The Smithsonian contracted with a specialized Canadian firm, Research Casting International, to serve as mammoth undertakers. The company has taken apart — and put together — towering skeletons from Taipei to Berlin.
And not always old ones. Last week, members of this crew were packing a recently deceased blue whale in huge vats of cow manure, a process that will help strip and clean the bones for future display at a museum or aquarium.
“It’s something different all the time,” Peter May, the company’s owner, said as his workers wrangled the mammoth’s balky hip structure out of the spotlights that have been shining on it for years.
There were few standards for mounting specimen skeletons, particularly in earlier days of paleontology, and May never knows what his team will find. Peering into the structure for the first time Monday, they found that the mammoth’s colossal head and huge swooping (fiberglass) tusks had been looming over the crowd for decades on just four bolts through a single rod.
“They didn’t use engineers back then,” he said. “We do.”
The modern experts tut-tutted as they noted how bones were drilled and pinned with metal rods, in at least one case with a length of automotive brake line. The neural canal was bored wide to accommodate three steel support bars. Carved bits of wood and beeswax helped connect the ribs to the sternum.
By contrast, during its months-long stay at May’s Ontario facility, blacksmiths will forge exacting steel-armature fittings to cradle each bone without penetrating it. Mammal bones from the Pleistocene, a mere 20,000-years old, are not as fossilized or brittle (or rare) as those of, say, a 65-million-year-old T. rex femur. But they still require great care.
As each bone came down, May and his staffers tagged it with a tracking number. They laid them on thick foam sheets in custom-built crates. (The crates are made from Canadian lumber to ease their transit over the border; the mammoth used to wander freely across North America, but there is NAFTA to contend with now).
They cut precise hollows in the foam to fit each bone, then finally planted a hidden motion indicator in the box to tell them, at trip’s end, whether any of them have been jostled or dropped.
It may be five years before these bones are back under the Smithsonian lights. That’s a long time for Washington’s fossil-starved children. But for the mammoth, it’s just a blink of its unblinking eye.