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09-23-04 Past resurfacing on Darke County farmland

By Betty Lawrence

  The recent discovery of mastodon bones on rural farmland near Rossburg in Darke County is exciting and fruitful, but not a rare find, according to veteran geologist Dale Gnidovec.

  Gnidovec is overseeing the excavation of what is termed a Pleistocene mastodon site.
  "There have been around 260 places in Ohio where mastodon bones have been found, mostly isolated teeth and some bones. But here, at the Rossburg dig, we've found a good part of the skeleton," Gnidovec says of the ongoing excavation, which began last spring.
  Four teeth, a neck bone, shoulder blade, two arm bones, a thigh bone, pelvis, several toe and ankle bones and a "whole bunch of ribs," Gnidovec says, have been unearthed thus far in a 12-by-12 foot section of land.
  "The bones have been all mixed up We've found no tusks and no skull material. We found some well preserved lower teeth, but no lower jaw," he says.  Mastodon Americanus lived in North America and Canada during the Pleistocene era until the end of the Ice Age.
  The huge, tusked, elephant-like mammals, not to be confused with woolly mammoths, were one of the largest land animals living during the Ice Age. The animal often reached 9 feet in height and 14 feet in length and weighed in at approximately two tons.
  "Mastodons were browsers and preferred the forested areas because they fed on plants, whereas the mammoths, more like the buffalo, liked the prairies. But they both lived at the same time," explains Gnidovec, who is the collections manager/curator of the Ohio State University Orton Geological Museum in Columbus.
  The geologist said when he started the project he was hoping to find less mastodon, and instead, bones of other Ice Age animals, such as the giant beaver, sloth and bear. But still the site is a find and leads to clues of the past.
We're not just after the bones, but after other information that we can get from the ground that will help us in our research on what it was like 15-20 thousand years ago," he says.
To obtain that information, excavators have been taking samples of earth surrounding the dig by pulling up core plugs. The dirt is analyzed by geologists who will be able to tell what the land looked like back in the Ice Age. A grid is used to map out everything that is found.
  According to Gnidovec, Darke County farmer Henry Post brought a 5 gallon bucket of bones and two teeth to the museum in 2002 when he plowed them up.
  "We did some preliminary tests at the site in 2003 when we uncovered a large bone. We dug two, meter by meter, tests pits and uncovered a bone 39 inches long that I think was a thigh bone," he recalls.  
  Plans call for more excavation this fall, before winter sets in, and then more digging in the spring. The land presently is owned by the Rossburg Volunteer Fire Department.
  "Every time we expand, we find more bones. We're not done yet," he says.
  Several geologists and historians have volunteered their time to work at the site, under Gnidovec's direction, including Darke County Geologist Elaine Holzapfel, Ohio Archaeology Magazine Editor Robert Converse and Mercer County Historical Society President Joyce Alig.
  Area school teachers, geology professors from Wright State University-Lake Campus and students also have had the opportunity of helping at the site.
  For the time being, the bones will be taken to the Ohio State University museum where they will be cleaned and glued.
  "After that, I'm not sure what will happen to them. I would like to see them returned to Darke County. I think prehistoric items found in local areas should be kept there," Gnidovec says.
  Another Pleistocene site was discovered in Darke County in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At that bog site, known as the Carter site, prehistoric vertebrae from at least 23 Ice Age animals, including a ground sloth, giant beaver and extinct moose, dating 10,000-12,000 years ago, were found.
  "It was the second best Ice Age animal site in the whole state of Ohio," Gnidovec says.
  Also, there was a Pleistocene bog excavation in Mercer County in 1982 when a large elk antler rack was unearthed on the Ron Stucke farm in Cranberry Prairie. According to Alig, the remainder of the skeleton was excavated. It had a radiocarbon date of around 9370, she reported.


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