VCU sci­en­tist scan­ning mu­seum’s mastodon bones

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - NEWS - BY TA­MARA DI­ET­RICH

NEW­PORT NEWS — For now, the mastodon is in pieces. A mighty tusk is held to­gether by plas­tic wrap. A first rib lies on a ta­ble near a shiny, well­worn fos­silized tooth.

Plas­tic bins hold more of the beast, marked with note cards of the con­tents: right half of right jaw; right rib prox­i­mal; lower right jaw teeth, four frag­ments; tho­racic ver­te­bra; a tub full of foot bone frag­ments; and loads more.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gist Bernard Means is in­trigued by all the bits and pieces and the sto­ries they could tell. So on a re­cent day, he was us­ing high-tech 3D scan­ners to try to give the old mastodon a sec­ond life, this time dig­i­tal.

And with those dig­i­tal im­ages, the mastodon that died a vi­o­lent death some 16,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age in what is now York County might one day be ren­dered as a vir­tual re­con­struc­tion — maybe a com­put­er­ized, in­ter­ac­tive crea­ture or per­haps a 3D printed re­pro­duc­tion. Or who knows? Maybe both.

“Un­der­stand­ing sci­ence and shar­ing it with the peo­ple — it’s what we do. It’s our mis­sion,” said Re­becca Klein­ham­ple, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Vir­ginia Liv­ing Mu­seum in New­port News, where the mastodon is ex­pected to be­come the crown jewel of its ex­hibits in a few years.

“If we can get our ar­ti­facts scanned and to a point where they are able to be ma­nip­u­lated and we can share them and share what they are, then per­haps there’s a way for us to dig­i­tally re­con­struct this,” Klein­ham­ple said. “Tech­nol­ogy’s ad­vanc­ing so fast, we’re not even sure where we’re go­ing yet.”

A dig­i­tal or 3D cast ex­hibit is likely the best the pub­lic can hope for, since these mastodon bones are too frag­ile and too valu­able to be on pub­lic dis­play. But Means and his scan­ners could help pro­vide the next best kind of ac­cess.

As di­rec­tor of the Vir­tual Cu­ra­tion Lab­o­ra­tory at Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Univer­sity in Rich­mond, Means has scanned about 4,000 ob­jects over the years, from a Tricer­atops horn to the up­per arm bone of an ex­tinct gi­ant sloth, a mummy’s sar­coph­a­gus to a 17th-cen­tury steeple­chase cup, an iron key found on Edgar Al­lan Poe’s body to the World’s Old­est Ham in Smithfield.

But Means is es­pe­cially keen to scan the fos­silized re­mains of Ice Age an­i­mals. With fund­ing from a VCU grant, he has trav­eled the coun­try, vis­it­ing mu­se­ums and sci­ence cen­ters, scan­ning and print­ing, em­ploy­ing ar­ti­facts to spark the imag­i­na­tion of stu­dents.

In the mu­seum’s col­lec­tions stor­age room, Means went to work with a desk­top 3D laser scan­ner tar­geted on the mastodon’s left hy­oid bone, which is found in the throat, then picked up a hand-held scan­ner that works us­ing pulses of light to tackle a gi­ant rib. Be­fore the day was out, he ex­pected to scan about a dozen fos­silized bones.

The mu­seum has hordes more — about a third of the mastodon was re­cov­ered, in­clud­ing both of its tusks, mak­ing it the most sig­nif­i­cant mastodon re­mains found east of the Blue Ridge Moun­tains.

Mastodons aren’t mam­moths; they’re a bit smaller, stand­ing about 8 feet tall at the shoul­der, and roamed only in North and Cen­tral Amer­ica. Mam­moths, mean­while, were found on many con­ti­nents.

It’s in­cred­i­bly rare to find mastodon re­mains in Vir­ginia, mostly be­cause the bones de­cay in the wet soil. But the York County beast hap­pened to fall on a pile of shell that helped pre­serve its fos­silized re­mains. Only one other mastodon has been found in this state, in Saltville near the Ten­nessee bor­der.

The York spec­i­men has been dubbed the HartFis­cella Mastodon, in part af­ter the man who dis­cov­ered it back in 1983. He was a brick ma­son named Lawnell Hart out hunt­ing game when he stum­bled across a fos­silized tooth the size of a spi­ral ham jut­ting out of a creek bed.

Ex­cept for a few ran­dom pieces, the rest of the mastodon wasn’t re­triev­able un­til decades later, when Jerre John­son, then a ge­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Col­lege of Wil­liam & Mary in Wil­liams­burg, as­sem­bled a crew and ex­ca­vated it. The last of it was de­liv­ered to the Vir­ginia Liv­ing Mu­seum last year.

Fred Far­ris, the se­nior di­rec­tor of ex­hibits, es­ti­mates it will take three to five years to sta­bi­lize and chem­i­cally pre­serve the bones, which con­tinue to de­te­ri­o­rate now that they’re ex­posed to the air. Mean­while, mu­seum ex­perts are brain­storm­ing on the best and most novel way to ex­hibit their show­piece. The goal is to raise as much as $200,000 for a proper dis­play.


Mastodon bones found by a brick ma­son in York County and now at the Vir­ginia Liv­ing Mu­seum in New­port News get scanned by VCU ar­chae­ol­o­gist Bernard Means.

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