Inner Mongolia project takes a hit, moves forward

9 September 2010. Xiaotangshan, rurtal Beijing, China

In early September a small team of technicians visited the Baogeda Ula quarry site that Jack and the crew worked on in 2009, to attempt to extract a large field jacket left there (dubbed "The Southern Block"). What the crew found was an empty hole with fragments of what's left over of the jacket.

After consultation with the local police, the Land Management office, and the local rancher, we concluded that the jacket was destroyed by tomb raiders in Abaga. Many small operations of illegal excavation plague the Inner Mongolian grasslands which boasts thousands of ancient Mongolian burial sites. The cultural bureau has no adequate resources to protect and manage all of them. Unfortunately, our site was targeted by locals who do not differentiate between burial sites and fossil sites.

With the largest chunk of bonebed from our 2009 excavation destroyed, we (those in Beijing) turned our attention to the smaller field jacket (dubbed "The Northern Block") which was transported to the rural field station of the IVPP in Xiaotangshan at the end of the field seasons last year.

[a cocoon hangs quietly outside the warehouse which houses field jackets made by IVPP field teams from all over China]

Dr. Qiang Li and Jack spent the day opening up the Northern Block with help from technicians at the field station, and then immediately began preparation on the jacket. So far, two scapulae and two radii have been uncovered, in addition to rib and vertebral fragments that were exposed during excavation.

[Xiaotangshan technician Ding saws open the top of IM0902 "The Northern Block"]

An in-house technician will be assigned to the preparation of the jacket with Li and Jack's supervision, to collect data on the arrangement and preservation of fossil bones while preparation proceeds for the next few months.

[the surface of the jacket after first day's preparation]


ZD1001 bonebed

8 September 2010. IVPP, Beijing, China

Fossil specimens from Tibet have all been unpacked and stored in specimen boxes. Now comes the more "scientific" part of curation: make sense out of the fossils.

We have extracted fossils from the ZD1001 bonebed with the purpose of studying its taphonomy (the study of the circumstances surrounding the preservation of different types of fossil deposits). One aspect of examining its preservation involved collecting all bone fragments and elements that were uncovered during the process of excavation, and the documentation of the orientation of the bones as they are found in the ground.

[a scan of Jack's field notes, showing a numbered list of specimens taken out of ZD1001 {left page} and their orientation and position in the ground {right page}]

Digitizing and building a quarry map showing the arrangement of bones from ZD1001 is one step towards understanding the environment in which the fossil vertebrates died and became preserved.

To many Angelinos this is all too familiar; the Rancho la Brea deposits of Hancock Park are full of concentrated pockets of fossils (although la Brea fossils are younger in geologic age than those from ZD1001 by a few million years).


Unwrapping Tibet

7 September 2010. IVPP, Beijing, China.

The field vehicles arrived in Beijing on Sunday evening, after a ten-day trek from the western border of Tibet across the Tibetan Plateau and down to coastal China. We welcomed the drivers back with an early dinner, and sent them home for some rest.

Monday morning was the usual off-loading of the vehicles which made our fossil finds visible for all in the institute to see. Many passers-by asked about our trip and the nature of our new discoveries. The real work begins, however, with the unpacking and curating of the specimens.

[boxes of mammal fossils as they were in our Zhada Basin headquarter]

Even though the title "curator" may invoke many glorious (sometimes not so glorious) and adventurous associations in the common enthusiast, its core responsibility is far from those perceptions. Work does not end with the discovery of a new fossil specimen (in fact, that is the simplest and easiest step, in my opinion). The cleaning, labeling, identification, and proper documentation and storage of each and every single specimen that comes into one's attention is the bridge that allows a specimen to be scientifically studied and made known to the world.

I gained a full appreciation of the "background work" of curation and collection through working with Curatoral Assistant Gary Takeuchi, who upheld a high standard of specimen curation even under the more adverse field conditions. This year I am left to curate the specimens on my own terms as both Xiaoming and Gary have returned to Los Angeles.

It is no easy task, and specimens are still being unpacked at this point. Measurements will commence on the in situ specimens from the ZD1001 quarry as soon as everything from this season has been boxed and labeled.