Farmer’s discovery of mastodon tooth turns field into archaeological dig site
BELLVILLE, Ohio — The item, bonelike and bigger than the fist of the farmer who found it, showed up in a pile of dirt.
It was all cusps and bumps and looked prehistoric, so the farmer took it into his house and started searching the Internet. The item was so distinctive that it didn’t take long to find a photo match online.
What he thought was a bone was the tooth of a mastodon, a prehistoric elephantlike mammal that roamed North America more than 10,000 years ago.
The farmer called some historians, who called some geologists, who have spent the past three months carefully excavating a site near the farmer’s soybean field in Morrow County.
For Nigel Brush, the Ashland University professor leading the excavation, it was among the most exciting discoveries of his career.
Mastodon remains have been found in Ohio before, but they are usually incomplete — a tooth, or a bit of tusk.
A full or almost-full skeleton would be rare.
“I’ve been waiting a couple of decades for a call like that,” Brush said during a recent Saturday at the excavation site. “It has the potential to be special.”
It has even more potential to be special because of the things the scientists are finding around the bones.
The bones mostly have been discovered on piles of rocks and gravel. The researchers have found bits of flint and lines of charcoal, too.
The soybean field leads to a bog, which the scientists say probably existed back in the Ice Age when it likely was a little bit bigger — maybe the size of a small lake.
All the evidence leads Brush to believe that Ice Age hunters chased this mastodon across the field, trapped it on the uneven wet ground near the lake, and then killed it, cleaned it on those rock piles and cooked the meat right there.
It’s just a hypothesis, but labs can test the flint for blood and determine whether it belonged to a mastodon. If there is a match, the site would become even more special because it would mean that Brush could conclusively say that Paleoindians hunted and captured a mastodon there.
“It’s about human behavior, that’s what we ultimately want to get at,” said Nick Kardulias, an archaeology and anthropology professor at the College of Wooster who is helping Brush with the dig.
“The objects themselves are wonderful. But the ultimate connection is really between the items that you find and reconstructing that scene, and understanding what happened in the past.”
The team of scientists already has sent off some pieces for testing.
Their excavation will take as long as two years, Brush said. The Dispatch is not identifying the farmer to protect the site from vandals. It could be a while before researchers find out how many bones remain in tact.
A few mostly complete mastodon skeletons have been found around Ohio, but those discoveries are generally few and far between.
The Conway mastodon, which is on display at the Ohio History Center in Columbus, was found by a farmer in a swamp near the Clark-Champaign county line in 1887. Another was found in Johnstown in 1926. That skeleton is on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
Brush has excavated just one other mastodon in his career, in Holmes County in 1993.
As the scientists and volunteers have worked over the last three months on this find, they’ve discovered other bones from the mastodon — legs, ribs, ankles. They’ve found pieces of tusk.
On a recent Saturday, about 40 people worked on the site, including students from Ashland and Wooster, and professors from Ohio State University and the University of Toledo.
Melissa Baltus, an archaeology professor at the University of Toledo, knelt in the dirt and brushed bits of soil off rocks and stone.
She pointed out charcoal and said some of the bones they’ve found there have had marks that could have been made by prehistoric tools cutting meat from a bone.
Fast-forward a few millennia to a farm where a farmer tills his land and brings a tooth to the surface.
“History is often big people, big names, big events,” Baltus said. “So to get to see how the general public lived on a day-to-day basis is very exciting.”
So is the simple act of touching something that no one has seen for thousands of years.
“When you stick your trowel in the ground, you have absolutely no idea what you’re going to find until you uncover it,” said George DeMuth, president of the Sandusky Bay Chapter of the Archaeological Society of Ohio.
“And that’s a thrill.”
Tricia Goff, a business administration student at Ashland, is taking one of Brush’s classes and took him up on an offer to help on the dig. It was a bucket-list opportunity, she said.
“Holding something that’s 10,000 to 20,000 years old, that no one has ever held before … it’s exciting,” she said.
Brush said the excavation site will be covered through the winter.
In the meantime, the farmer who found the tooth said he likes to walk back to the field at sunrise and imagine the hunt that took place in that exact spot when saber-toothed cats and giant ground sloths ruled the land.
“Often we come back here and we think, you know, we think we know so much,” the farmer said. “ And we have no idea.”
By Laura Arenschield
The Columbus Dispatch • Sunday October 19, 2014 6:39 AM