A creationist dig site in eastern Wyoming has set a new standard of excellence in fossil fieldwork. Using the latest technology, their precise catalog of dinosaur bones over a 247-acre area is uncovering an astonishing story of mass burial by rapidly moving water.

Wyoming’s weather proves unpredictable again. Even in June, a cold wind cuts through wet clothing and chills those working under the pyramid-shaped “Hoodoo Hut.” Mud clings to the awls and metal probes in the workers’ hands and slows progress. Shivering, some of the workers scramble back to the warm camp, while others gulp down a quick cup of hot chocolate before returning to the sifting, scouring, and cleaning of fossils. The digging season window is short; only the worst conditions will stop the work.

Before long, however, the pounding rain makes further progress impossible; and rivulets course through the fossil quarry. The remaining workers—including students and volunteers—finally retreat to their tents.

Dinosaur fossil discoveries will have to wait until tomorrow. For now, the group gathers for dinner, a lecture, and praise music. Welcome to Camp Cretaceous.

The Formation of a Formation

Since 1997, the Hanson Research Station at Hanson Ranch in eastern Wyoming has hosted a “Dino Dig” like no other. What began with five graduate students and two professors—Art Chadwick and Lee Spencer—has turned into an annual gathering of as many as 97 participants, all eager to help build a scientific view of taphonomy (the study of animal and plant remains and how they are buried and preserved) within a biblical framework.

Hanson Ranch was chosen because it contains extensive outcrops of the Lance Formation—a fossil-rich rock layer located in the western United States. As many as 25,000 animals were buried in the 247-acre (1 km2) research area. According to the standard secular explanation, freshwater streams gradually laid down the mudstone and sandstone during the Late Cretaceous. If this model were correct, however, it would have taken thousands of years for rivers and local floods to lay down so many fossils. And that view has major problems.

For Chadwick, one of the main problems is that scientists accept the standard explanation uncritically. “In my opinion, this unchallenged hypothesis, used not only with respect to the Lance Formation but also for other deposits worldwide, has served to prevent scientists from carefully considering alternative models, including catastrophic ones. We are beginning to unravel the history of these Lance beds, and the history we are seeing thus far appears quite different from this standard scenario.”

To test the conventional explanation, Chadwick and his colleagues began to meticulously reconstruct the taphonomic history of Hanson Ranch. What happened to the animals’ bodies after they died?

The processes of burial and preservation left behind valuable evidence that helps scientists reconstruct the past. They look at the sorting of the bones (what kind of bones are nearest the surface), articulation (which bones are still connected at the joint), scavenger marks, and the relative location of each bone. All of this information, when compiled, helps build a picture of the past.

When the group first documented their finds in 1997, they recorded the details of each fossil in a table, which included the measurements and orientation of every fossil. While unwieldy, this process provided hints that a high-velocity water current deposited all these bones catastrophically.

To unlock a more complete history of the site, however, they needed a more precise method of recording—something that would give them a better glimpse into the chaotic forces that killed these animals then dumped their bones in the patterns we find today.

Their solution caught the attention—and acclaim—of the secular scientific world. In fact, it has set a new standard of excellence in rigorous fossil fieldwork.

Old Bones, New Technology

When you think of GPS (the global positioning system), you probably think of the popular new gadgets that help drivers find their way to even the most remote destinations. Orbiting satellites can give us a fairly precise picture of our location, accurate to within about 50 feet (15 m) on most phones and commercial products.

This works well for interstates and byways, but not fossils. So the team turned to special differential RTK (real-time kinematic) equipment, which they set up on site. Unlike most GPS devices, the special differential RTK equipment provides accuracy to within less than one quarter of an inch.

When the team arrives at the ranch each year, they install a base system on “GPS Hill.” Here they set up a large satellite antenna, a computer, a radio, and a radio antenna. The base system reads the location information from the GPS satellites and forwards it to the GPS “Rover.” The Rover (essentially a smaller, portable version of the base system that is carried to each dig site) uses these updates to correct for its own position in relation to the base on GPS Hill.

Once a bone has been excavated and carefully logged, a GPS survey team brings the Rover to the quarry and records a number of data points on the surface of the bone. These points capture each fossil’s position and orientation in three-dimensional space.

With many fossils now compiled over the years, this mapping system has allowed the team to create an extraordinary reconstruction of the entire bone bed in 3D. Many of the team’s other individual discoveries, including bones from a rare Nanotyrannus, have greatly expanded our understanding of dinosaurs. But more than ten years of fieldwork have produced an even more valuable, broad perspective into the formation and history of this unique site.

So what can these fossils teach us?

Excellent Science Starts with the Bible

Unearthing fossils in remote places is both rewarding and challenging. Rough weather, power outages, communication failures, and the occasional snake make life interesting. But the work at Hanson Ranch has provided important insights into the fate of these remarkable animals—and challenged uniformitarian claims.

The GPS data, along with other observations, have revealed that this bone bed, one of the largest in the world, is not the result of slow accumulation. “The vertebrate deposit is in a relatively homogeneous mudstone, not river sand,” Dr. Chadwick explains. “The disposition of the bones in the mudstone requires that the mud and bones were deposited together as a single catastrophic unit.”

If the bones were deposited gradually, they would also show evidence of weathering and damage from being transported. But they do not. Instead, the whole mass of bones was sorted in water as one unit. Throughout the site, researchers find large dinosaur limbs that sank first to the base, while smaller toe bones appear at the top. In fact, all the bones were buried in a single graded bed (bones are progressively smaller as you move from bottom to top).

Based on GPS data collected so far, the more likely scenario is that an enormous herd of dinosaurs, mostly the duckbilled Edmontosaurus, were overtaken by fast-flowing water and mud, died quickly, rotted in a freshwater environment, and then were swept into deeper water by another catastrophe. This mass carnage and devastation fits well with the creationist view of upheavals caused during and after the Flood.

From Dirt to Digital . . .

From Dirt to Digital

Join the Dig . . .

  • Anyone can sift through the amazing collection of bones from the Hanson Research Station online. Users can sort bones by type and other factors, view bones in context to the entire quarry, and even examine 360º views of some of the fossils. http://fossil.swau.edu/
  • Everyone is welcome to participate in the 2010 dig from June 3 to July 2 (tentative dates). http://dinodig.swau.edu/
  • For those unable to attend or simply wanting to learn more, the Online Dinosaur Museum offers information and videos about how work is done at the quarries and the lab. During digging season, there’s even a live video feed from Hanson Ranch. http://dinosaur.swau.edu/

More than Bones

By the end of the 2009 digging season, the rain-soaked start has given way to hot days and cool nights. Free of light pollution, this remote part of Wyoming offers a spectacular view of the Milky Way. Some of the campers leave their tents and sleep under the stars to enjoy the last moments of this glorious experience.

Despite all the delays, the participants of this year’s Dinosaur Project have located a record 1,233 specimens. School children, college students, and volunteers have come and gone; bones have been unearthed and shipped off; and the understanding of the Lance Formation continues to grow. But more importantly, each member of the dig team has witnessed firsthand how science and technology confirm the biblical account.

Chadwick sees that as the most important aspect of the dig. “We continue to feel that the benefits of this project to participants outweigh even the remarkable scientific value of the bones.”

Bones buried for thousands of years are not simply interesting relics. They allow us to discover more details about the amazing God who created these creatures, as well as His past acts of judgment. Above all, they declare God’s glory and the absolute accuracy of His infallible Word.

John UpChurch serves as an editor and writer for the Answers in Genesis website and contributes to the News to Note and InSite columns. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of Tennessee with a BA in English.

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