Review: ‘Digging Snowmastodon’ reveals rest of fossil story |

Review: ‘Digging Snowmastodon’ reveals rest of fossil story

Janet UrquhartThe Aspen TimesAspen CO Colorado
Courtesy photo

Anyone who was fascinated by what unfolded at Ziegler Reservoir near Snowmass Village in the past couple of years might want to find space on their bookshelf for “Digging Snowmastodon: Discovering an Ice Age World in the Colorado Rockies.”At the very least, reading the book is a chance to be amazed all over again.Authored by Kirk Johnson and Ian Miller of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and published by Aspen-based People’s Press, the 144-page, 11-by-9-inch book is an easy read. The 300-plus photos and 37 illustrations certainly lend to its accessibility. Though the two leaders of the well-publicized fossil dig at Snowmass share writing credit, the book reads as Johnson’s first-person account of the frenzied excavation that began with the initial discovery of mammoth bones in October 2010 as a bulldozer operator worked on enlargement of the reservoir. The dig resumed for seven weeks in 2011 – a window that allowed a crew of museum staffers and volunteers to extract whatever fossils would be lost by the planned construction of an earthen dam.Johnson, who already has proven himself a charismatic and approachable speaker to listeners who don’t happen to have a Ph.D. in geology and paleobotany (as do both authors), relates the saga from start to finish as though he were describing the events over coffee.For readers who devoured the headlines from Ziegler as the discoveries mounted, the book is a recap of what transpired in the short span after the initial mammoth find and again the following spring in the heady weeks of a full-scale excavation that earned Ziegler a place in the annals of paleontology. In 69 days, more than 380 diggers moved 7,000 cubic yards of dirt and mud with shovels, uncovering more than 5,400 bones in the process.The book is rife with photos and details about recovered specimens that ranged from eye-popping, Flintstones-sized bones to microscopic pollen spores that allowed scientists to determine what sorts of plants grew at the site of an ancient lake.”A thimble of mud gives you a whole forest,” Johnson wrote. Most of the plant species that were documented still live today in the Rockies, though the big animals that met their fate there have long been extinct.The book offers understandable explanations on how plants are identified from fossil bits, how radiocarbon dating works and how a glacier spilling down the Snowmass Creek Valley pushed up over a ridge and carved out a bowl that filled with water, creating an improbable lake. And, of course, it details the theory of what made the lake an ice-age burial ground.Equally interesting are what, at least until now, have been the little-known stories of the dig. Musicians Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks performed at the Chili Pepper and Brew Fest at Snowmass and were invited to the dig (Tedeschi dug in like a pro and struck a mastodon ulna before dashing to the airport to catch a flight). There were efforts to tap the valley’s wealth to raise the roughly $1 million needed to finance the dig (a donor offered $5,000 if Johnson and Miller could unearth a bone in 10 minutes while she watched, and she followed that with a double-or-nothing bet that resulted in a $10,000 contribution). And, there was the painstaking excavation of an 8-foot tusk that broke into three pieces when the plaster cast it had been encased in was flipped over. The book is full of such tidbits.The challenges of mobilizing volunteers, experts and equipment for the biggest excavation project in the museum’s history also are detailed.Among the most revealing tales, however, is the debate over the plan to turn the site back over to Snowmass Water and Sanitation, which ultimately completed the dam and refilled the enlarged reservoir. “Why are you letting it drown on your watch?” a colleague asked Johnson, who confessed he had yet to confront a question that had been on the minds of many.With the 2011 dig deadline approaching, Johnson asked the group assembled for dinner after a day’s work, “Should we, in the 11th hour, change our tactics and fight the completion of the reservoir and lobby for the creation of a national monument?”Two hours of spirited conversation ensued, according to the account.In the end, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist pointed out that it was the lack of exposure to oxygen that had preserved the fossils for tens of thousands of years. The best way to preserve the site was to cap it with clay and cover it with water.Another tidbit: Snowmass Water and Sanitation created a gravel road to the bottom of the lake just in case future exploration is in the cards.”Digging Snowmastodon,” to be released March 20, retails for $19.95. Look for it in local bookstores, or go to to purchase

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.

For tax deductible donations, click here.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User