More remains found at Snowmass reservoir site
October 29, 2010
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – If you were among the hundreds of people who viewed the mammoth bones, teeth and tusks at the Snowmass Village Water and Sanitation building during the past week, get ready, you haven’t seen anything yet.
Late Wednesday afternoon and into Thursday, workers with Gould Construction made some additional startling discoveries of bones that are even larger than the ones they unearthed two weeks ago from Ziegler Reservoir.
“In the last two days, we found four animals,” said Mark Gould, owner of Gould Construction. “This is huge!”
Huge is also the description that Snowmass Water and San Manager Kit Hamby used to describe the new find. “They are very, very large bones from a heavy animal,” he said.
Whether or not the remains – which include four different tusks and some big teeth – came from more mammoths will likely be determined by paleontologists from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. But those amateur sleuths who were on site to witness the discovery and unearthing believe these finds came from a different animal or animals.
Gould, who said he actually “dug up one of the tusks by myself today,” described how the find unfolded: “As we were uncovering the tusk, we uncovered a tooth.
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“Which absolutely proved it was a mastodon,” he said, adding that “the teeth we found today are not the teeth of the Columbian mammoth.”
Excavation of the site has been under way for more than a month, as crews have been removing layers of clay, peat and silt in order to provide a stable infrastructure that could support a reservoir for snowmaking. An engineering firm hired by the water and sanitation district determined that none of the layers “could support the dam,” Gould said.
The first discovery was made outside of the reservoir’s perimeter, between the peat and clay layers which has no oxygen, an element that causes bones to deteriorate more quickly. “Since we had this 6-foot layer of clay over the top of the peat, oxygen couldn’t get to the animal,” Gould said.
On Wednesday, construction crews started digging in the silt layer with the same machine that was used on the first find. Gould said it employs “low ground pressure,” which in layman’s terms means it doesn’t tread as heavily on the turf due to the way the machine is built. That’s proven to be advantageous for this project.
“We were very careful as we’ve been excavating, continually looking for another animal. Yesterday we uncovered an animal that we assumed at the moment was another Columbian mammoth.” Closer inspection and discussion with the experts suggested otherwise.
For now, there are far more questions than answers, including whether the animals were trapped during different glacial periods and how so many perished within such close proximity.
“We’re all speculating because we don’t have carbon dating,” Gould said. It’s now assumed that the initial discovery was of an adolescent mammoth, one that was perhaps 14 years old. Remnants of the latest find appear to have come from an adult that may have fallen into a sinkhole.
To say that the construction crews are working under difficult conditions would be a vast understatement. The bitterly cold temperatures and snow of this week turned the site into a “muddy, miserable mess” when temperatures rose, according to Gould. Exacerbating the situation is the groundwater that was discovered at about 15 feet below the surface. A tent covering a section of the site had rivers of water running off its canopy this week, which isn’t providing much protection to the project nor the employees.
But those miseries are put aside in the thrill of the moment. “We’re talking four [animals] in the size of a football field … We’re not looking for a needle in a haystack. We’re looking for an elephant in the haystack,” Gould laughed.
And the focus now is to be thoughtful stewards of bones that have been preserved for thousands, or tens of thousands, of years that could quickly become fragile in the harsh elements.
“These bones are moist. If they froze, they would break,” Gould said. Concrete blankets are being employed to help stave off a freeze/thaw cycle with the remains.
While these amazing discoveries remain foremost in the public’s mind, there’s still the matter of an unfinished reservoir that will be needed in the future for snowmaking draws.
“The concern at the moment is, ‘How do we make sure we honor these discoveries and, as a [construction] team member, get the foundation ready for next spring?” Gould said. “Clearly the last day-and-a-half has made life more miserable.”
The mammoth remains and possibly some of the new finds will be available for viewing during the next three days at the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District office, located just behind the Snowmass Club. The new schedule is Friday from 1 to 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.