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Brooke Mahar, interpretative resource specialist at the Mastodon State Historic Site, stands before the mastodon tusk that was cleaned at the Saint Louise Science Center's Fossil Prep Lab.
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Beyond Castlewood - March 14, 2017 Tom Uhlenbrock - Missouri State Parks

Mastodon Tusk Receives Some Loving Care

By Tom Uhlenbrock
Missouri State Parks

KIMMSWICK, Mo. – The 8-foot-long mastodon tusk on display at Mastodon State Historic Site looks almost good as new, even though it's more than 10,000 years old.

The tusk recently returned to the museum at the state historic site after a six-month stay at the Saint Louis Science Center's Fossil Lab, where it was cleaned and stabilized.

"The tusk was fairly brown, and it looks very white now," said Brooke Mahar, interpretative resource specialist at the state historic site. "It's just normal for an ivory tusk to need conservation work eventually because they're fairly fragile."

The tusk was uncovered during an emergency excavation in 1976 after prehistoric bones were dug up during construction of a car dealership in Barnhart, which is not far from the famous Kimmswick Bone Bed.

Archaeologists, both amateur and professional, had been digging at the bone bed since the early 1800s, recovering evidence of animals that lived during the Ice Age and were drawn to the site for its mineral springs.

When developers sought to buy the important archaeological site, a grass-roots effort raised funds to buy the bed and it became a state park in 1976, and later the Mastodon State Historic Site. There currently are no excavations at the site and the remnants of the bone beds are buried for preservation.

The bone bed made scientific headlines when excavations in 1979 and 1980 yielded spear points found next to mastodon bones, giving hard evidence that mastodons were hunted by humans. That relationship was confirmed later at other archeological digs, but it came first at the Kimmswick Bone Bed, earning the site recognition on the National Register of Historic Places.

The museum at the state historic site has a central diorama that depicts a full-size mastodon skeleton near the figures of three Paleo-Indians. That skeleton, however, is a replica and its two tusks are casts made of fiberglass.

The tusk that was cleaned at the Saint Louis Science Center is the only real, intact tusk at the state historic site. The tusk is displayed in a glass case, along with a mastodon femur.

"We've got other fragmented tusks from babies and juveniles," Mahar said. "But this is the only one that's whole."

A Close-up Look at Science



The museum at the state historic site has a full-size mastodon skeleton that is a replica, with tusks made of fiberglass.
Brian Thomas, Senior Educator at the Science Center's Fossil Prep Lab, said the lab has worked on mastodon teeth and a jaw, but this was the first intact tusk. The lab, however, is accustomed to handling much older fossils.

"The tusk is only about 14,000 years old, so it's in the earliest stages of fossilization," Thomas said. "To put in it perspective, we've studied dinosaur fossils that are, on average, 67 million years old."

The first task, Thomas said, was to remove work that was done on the 100-pound tusk after it initially was discovered. Those early efforts were believed to have been done by a high school teacher and a student.

"It was originally prepared in the late 1970s and they used techniques and material fossil preparers no longer use today," Thomas said. "All the materials I use are modern-day epoxies and polymers meant for this type of work.

"I removed layers of what more than likely was Elmer's glue. In areas where there wasn't any ivory, it was painted tan. We removed that and touched it up with white paint that is made for this type of application."

The tusk had some stains from the iron in the soil where it was found. Those stains were removed with special chemicals, and the tusk now appears much brighter.

"Our production department also made a brand new mount so the tusk is oriented in the case differently than it was," Thomas said. "Visitors can see more of the underside and its stands more natural now."

The Fossil Lab is a popular attraction at the Science Center, and allows for a close-up look at how restoration is done on prehistoric bones.

"Unlike 99 percent of fossils labs in the world, visitors can walk right into our lab," Thomas said. "The idea is to ignite and inspire an interest in science by watching real science being done. Right now, we're working on a mastodon jaw and part of a Triceratops skull."

Crazy Housewives


Mastodon State Historic Site, which has three hiking trails in addition to the handsome museum, owes its existence largely to four women who fought to buy the site and turn it over to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources for a park.

Of the four, only Marilyn King is still alive, and is still active as a volunteer at the state historic site. Dorothy Heinze, Hazel Lee and Rita Naes are deceased.

In an interview at the site, King recalled how the women refused to give up, pestering state officials until the land was secured.

"They'd say, ‘Oh no, here comes those crazy housewives again," King said. "We had tailgate sales, bake sales, walks, dinner dances, bumper stickers and collection cans with ‘Save the Mastodons' on it."

Brooke Mahar, an interpretive resource specialist at the state historic site, said the work of the four women in publicizing the value of the finds at the Kimmswick Bone Bed was important in saving the tusk found during construction of the Barnhart car dealership.

"They basically said come get it, or it's going to get paved over," Mahar said.

For more information, visit MOStateParks.com
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