AU Students Participate in Mastodon Excavation

10/2/14 MORROW COUNTY, Ohio – Eight to 12 Ashland University students, along with several dozen volunteers, are spending their Saturdays this fall in the middle of a soybean field in Morrow County Ohio as part of a mastodon excavation.

Dr. Nigel Brush, associate professor of geology at Ashland University, has organized the excavation at the location termed the Cedar Creek Mastodon site. The mastodons are tusked beasts that lived during the Ice Age, at least 10,000 years ago.

Brush said bits of bone and tusk fragments were found last year by a farmer during the excavation of a drainage ditch in the Morrow County field. “I've been waiting for 21 years to do this. We found one in 1993 in Berlin. It was found the same way. They were draining a wet area,” he said.

The find spot was immediately adjacent to a natural bog, and the tile was installed to follow a natural swale that drained higher parts of the field into the bog. The tile trench was inadvertently dug through the level where the teeth and jaw bone material were lying, about three feet below the surface.

Brush said it is difficult to say if there is a complete skeleton there waiting to be discovered.

“When we first began excavating this site, we thought most of the mastodon skeleton might remain undisturbed, except for the damage caused by the backhoe during the digging of the drainage ditch,” Brush said. “That scenario is now much less likely since we are recovering fragmented mastodon bones from various parts of the body. The skeleton could have become disarticulated by the activities of Ice Age predators, or by human hunters.”

Brush said the discovery of clusters of bones in association with some large flint flakes in mid-September, as well as possible cut marks on one of the bones, favors the latter reconstruction.

“Therefore, our present working hypothesis is that this site may be a Paleo-Indian kill and/or butchery site. This changes the goal of our excavation,” he said. “Instead of trying to recover large bones from the mastodon skeleton, we will primarily focus on recovering evidence to validate our hypothesis that this is a human kill/butchery site. Many mastodon sites have been found in Ohio and surrounding states, but only a few have good evidence for human interaction. Therefore, we must change our excavation methodology.”

The teams of students and volunteers are working Saturdays on the excavation, Brush said.

The dig is very exciting for Ashland University student Dave Hogue, whose career goal is to become a paleontologist. Hogue is a junior geology major from Uhrichsville, Ohio.

“In the beginning you wonder and hope that you will find anything at all where you are digging,” Hogue said. “Then once you begin to find pieces of bone it becomes exciting to try and unravel the mysteries of how the creature died and why the bones were found in the arrangement they were found in.”

Hogue said he has learned several things from the excavation.

“One thing that stands out is the procedures for recovering samples to be tested in labs,” he said. “We will send some samples off to be tested and those samples must be collected in a certain way as to not contaminate the samples. When out in the field your first thoughts are not on how sensitive the machinery in the labs is.”

Hogue believes this type of project is a great chance for the students of Ashland University to get out of the class room and experience geological field work.

“Obviously, field experience is needed by those students, who like me, are majoring in geology. However, this project is also beneficial to non-geology major students,” he said. “Dr. Brush is currently teaching a ‘Discovering the Ice Age’ class that is open to all students. I think the excavation really brings to life the class for the non-majors. Instead of reading and seeing pictures in a textbook the students get to actively participate in the uncovering and recovering of a Mastodon. It is no longer just a picture, now it is a bone the students remember seeing or holding.”

In addition to the students who are part of the “Discovering the Ice Age” college course, students from the Ashland University Geology Club are also participating in the excavation.

Ashland University, which has been ranked in the top 200 colleges and universities in U.S. News and World Report’s National Universities category, is a mid-sized, private university conveniently located a short distance from Akron, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio. Ashland University ( values the individual student and offers a unique educational experience that combines the challenge of strong, applied academic programs with a faculty and staff who build nurturing relationships with their students. ###


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AU Students Participate in Mastodon Excavation