Deerfield bones help teach the future

Gray Hughes

A local connection recently helped students at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology get hands-on experience with dealing with fossils as well as helping researchers learn more about the history of the Black Hills.

The bones the students were working with were discovered in the Deerfield area and include bison, mountain lion, horse, deer and elk bones as well as a range of smaller animal bones. Research estimates some of these bones date back 8,000 years.

“We are super appreciative that they though of us for this project,” said Shannon Harrel, a master’s student in paleontology at the School of Mines, in a release. “It was a great opportunity for us.”

The bones were excavated from the Deerfield area in the 1990s, said Sally Shelton, associate director of the Museum of Geology at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and have a “complicated history.”

The Illinois State Natural History Museum excavated the bones. However, the museum ran into some trouble and closed for several years. It was during that time in 2017 that the bones were returned to the Black Hills and the Museum of Geology.

The school’s contact with the United States Forest Service was concerned about the museum being closed, Shelton said, which is why the bones were returned.

The bones were used by the class, Shelton explained, to help teach students about proper procedures when it comes to handling ancient bones.

Shelton began teaching that class in 2009.

“From the beginning, I wanted it to be a real-time, real life project, and have been fortunate that every time the class rolls around some project rolls around that needs help, so students have always been able to do real-life internships,” Shelton said. “These boxes were brought in during the fall (the class started in the spring), and so the students basically were opening the boxes, doing a spreadsheet, accounting for them, doing the initial stabilization, getting them into the database, providing a list with the people at the archeology lab… we tried to draw a bright line between human material and non-human, fallen material.”

Researchers are interested in the bones because not only are there buffalo bones — which are commonly found in the Black Hills — but also there are bones from other animals that researchers don’t see as often in the Hills, said Katie Lamie, who works for the South Dakota State Historical Society’s archeological research center in Rapid City.

“They are in various states of preservation,” Lamie said. “We are pretty sure that a lot of the material comes from different areas characterized by different preservation. Some of the bones are a bit darker and kind of stained, and some of the bones are more fragmented.”

Other bones in the collection, Lamie continued, might be more recent or better preserved.

Bone found in the Black Hills is not usually well preserved, she added, which makes these better preserved bones all the more interesting.

“Sometimes you find the smallest little bits of bones and they crumble in your hands,” Lamie said. “These bones held up pretty well even though some of them are thousands of years old.”

From these bones, researchers can learn more not only about the type of fauna found in the Black Hills dating back thousands of years but also the history of the climate in the Black Hills.

These bones can really bring together the whole picture as to what was happening in the Black Hills, Shelton said.

“We might even have a bone that is saw cut, so we might be seeing a lot of different things in this collection,” Lamie said. “It's just hard to kind of parse it out, especially by time period. But we kind of went back and forth working with the class what constitutes a cut mark, what is a scratch for excavation or what is a breakage before, a long time ago and what is a recent break. There are specialists that would have to help identify part of that.”

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