Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Jeff J. Person's blog

Digging for Fossils, Searching for Answers

How far would you go to get something you want or need? Would you make a special trip up a flight of stairs in your house to get new batteries for the remote? Or would you wait until you had to go up for another reason? How about two flights? What if I took away the stairs, and you had to walk up a hill? How far would you go then? Ten feet up? Twenty feet? Thirty feet? What if your prize at the top of the hill wasn’t something you could easily replace from a drawer in your home but instead was the key to a box? A box that contained the answer to a question you’ve asked yourself for more than a decade. Now for the final wrinkle. What if I told you that the key you’re searching for is likely at the top of that 30-foot high hill, but I can’t guarantee it’s there, or if it is there that you’ll even find it. Is your answer still the same as it was at the beginning?

I recently found myself in a situation very similar to this. In the hopes of answering a question that I’ve asked myself for 13 years, I had to collect a lot of rock from a very tall butte in North Dakota. So a small group of us went to a site in the southwest corner of the state. We had to collect a lot of rock because the fossil animals we were looking for are very small, rare, and hard to find. As a result of the small size and scarcity, the bigger the sample size we collected, the more likely we will find what we’re looking for. After all the work was done, we had collected more than 800 pounds of rock from the top of that butte. The rock then had to be carried by hand in buckets down the butte and across the prairie. There is a high probability that the reward will be worth the effort. Maybe I will finally answer that question that has been burning in my mind for more than a decade. If not, I’ll try again and again until I’ve answered my question.

A women wearing a dark colored sweatshirt, pants, and hat hikes up a very brown hill with brown fields shown in the distance behind her

Our quest involved hauling roughly 800 pounds of rock from the collection site to a waiting truck.

This is the quandary faced by scientists all over the world. But in my opinion, not knowing what you’ll find or when you’ll find it just makes the endeavor more exciting. At times, the work paleontologists do can be hot, dirty, and tiring. Nevertheless, for me, the discovery part of science is both fun and rewarding — answering the questions that no one has answered (or even thought to ask) and finding something new that no one has discovered. That is what keeps me coming back for more, and I bet a lot of you feel the same way.

Many green buckets with white lids sit stacked on a pallet.

Could the answer to my burning question lie inside one of these buckets?

If you want to join me on the quest for answers, come along on one of our public fossil digs. We hold them every summer. Please keep in mind that while not every dig we offer requires a lot of physical strength, all of them require patience. The fossils we work with are fragile and need a certain amount of care to remove them intact, but you will learn how! Follow us on social media to find out when registration will start. We are on all the major platforms (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), just search for @NDGSpaleo. I hope to see you next summer!

Cleaning Exhibits

What are some ways to make the best of a bad situation? How do we use the closing of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum to the advantage of everyone: the public; staff; and exhibit specimens and artifacts? We clean, of course! Not just everyday cleaning that happens whether the museum is open or closed, but “deep” cleaning that requires portions of the building to be closed off. Think of it as spring cleaning the dinosaurs!

The Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time was opened to the public in November of 2014. Since that time, thousands of visitors from around the globe have enjoyed and learned about these prehistoric beasts that once roamed the place we now call North Dakota. In March of 2020, the Heritage Center was closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was decided that staff should take advantage of this situation and do something we wouldn’t normally be able to do, or at least not do as easily. Large-scale cleaning of the exhibits is not a quick or easy task–not without disrupting the experience for visitors to a museum.

Deep cleaning can involve large equipment, loud noises, and lots of dirt and dust. Nevertheless, exhibits do need to get deep cleaned periodically, and after five years it was time to break out something a bit more powerful than the feather dusters.

Woman cleaning exhibits with a feather duster

Paleontologist Becky Barnes cleaning the Highgate Mastodon with a feather duster.

We gathered together all the equipment we thought we might need in the Geologic Time Gallery and got to work. With the help of a multi-speed leaf blower, an electric lift, and a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter vacuum, we were able to remove accumulated dust from very hard to reach places.

Man inside assembled dinosaur skeleton dusting with a handheld air blower

Man cleaning dinosaur skeleton with an air blower

Cleaning skeleton with air blower

left: cleaning the TRex. right: cleaning the Pteranodon

Getting into hard-to-reach places inside the Geologic Time Gallery exhibits to dust the skeletons. A multi-speed leaf blower on the lowest setting was used to remove most of the accumulated dust. HEPA vacuums were then used to suck up the material that rained down onto the exhibit bases and carpet of the gallery.

The amount of dust we removed was surprising, and everyone involved was happy the removed dust bunnies were not “raining” down on visitors.

All of the creatures on exhibit were treated to a dusting, with the taller and harder to reach areas benefiting more than the lower ones. From the large T. rex to the small, tree-climbing Plesiadapis, everything in the Geologic Time Gallery is now clean and ready for another five years of silently watching the parade of visitors stroll by below.

From the tip of the Pteranodon’s nose
To the end of the T. rex’s toes,
No one knows
How the dust bunny grows.