Beneath the scorching heat and wind of a Wyoming summer, a mix of nearly a hundred volunteers and hired hands worked some six thousand man hours between the months of June and July digging for treasure. Hidden within the same land that made cattle farmers rich and oil barons richer lay a find many times rarer, and to some, many times more precious than even the blackest gold.
A nearly complete backbone, fully articulated with the upswept arch of rigor mortis still preserved was found along with an intact pelvis, ribs, and thighbone. They belonged to a Tyrannosaurus rex, one not yet fully grown, but still large enough to have stretched at least fifteen feet from shoulders to hips.
Finds like this are uncommon enough, but more uncommon still is the manner of their preservation. The bones were encased within a sedimentary concretion, a single block of natural concrete made up of the mud and sand that filled in and around the corpse near the time of death and petrified along with the animal’s remains. It’s an exceptionally rare type of process that can produce a natural “mummification” of sorts, preserving any undecayed skin, tendons, muscle, and internal organs along with what’s left of the skeleton.
Such fossils are a rarity to science, but a find like the one in Wyoming is all but unprecedented. Never before has a dinosaur of such size been unearthed while still locked within the hardened sediments that first buried it. The concretion is like a vault, preserving any manner of untold clues as to the history, behavior, physicality, and appearance of a monster whose mystery is only surpassed by its ability to fascinate both scientist and layman alike.
For the Tate Geological Museum in Casper, Wyoming, a find like this could mean a place on the map. The plains and prairies covering the eastern half of the state are rich lands to the world of paleontology, laden not with gold or silver, but fossils. They are, as far as the scientific community is concerned, one of Wyoming’s natural resources, subjects not just of study or professional interest, but prosperity. And the rarer, the better.
Back in 1997, the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus specimen ever found was sold at auction for over $8,000,000 to the Field Museum of Chicago. The beast has since become a staple among the museum’s already esteemed collection, drawing both public and professional attention from around the world. It’s a story of nothing if not consistency. Since their discovery in America during the middle of the nineteenth century, dinosaurs have brought big prices and even bigger crowds. They’re like locally-grown attractions pulled right from the layers of the earth itself. “Rock” stars in the truest sense.
But there’s a hitch. Wyoming might be the place where, some sixty-five million years ago or more, creatures like Tyrannosaurus walked and were laid to rest, but it’s not the place they’re likely to remain once that rest is disturbed. Institutions like the American Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, and even the Natural History Museum of London have generally been the first to lay claim to these monsters after they’ve been discovered.
Superior funding and resources have typically allowed older, more prestigious museums and even the odd private collector to claim such fossils long before smaller, more local institutions even have a chance to get there. In the hundred years since it was first described by science, six Tyrannosaurus specimens have been found in Wyoming, all of which have either been dug up or bought up by out-of-state collectors. Its remote location and limited ability to compete with larger, more affluent institutions out East have historically prevented Wyoming from retaining one of its most spectacular scientific treasures. But all that’s about to change.
Under the direction of J.P. Cavigelli and Dr. Kent Sundell of the Tate Museum, Wyoming’s seventh and newest Tyrannosaurus will be the first to remain in the place it was discovered. A small institution located on the campus of the eponymous college in the city of Casper, the Tate might lack the financial clout of some bigger-name fossil collections, but it’s got something they don’t have.
Proximity and good relations with local ranchers saw the fossilbearing lands outside of Casper leased to the museum for the better part of a decade, allowing the Tate to freely collect any specimens contained therein. Ever the paleontologist’s friend, a bit of blind luck always has a part to play in situations like these, but the simple finding of the new tyrannosaur, christened “Lee Rex” after its landowner, was only half the process.
For the actual excavation, a veritable militia of fossil hunters arrived on location, made up of any able-bodied man or woman able to bear a pick or shovel. People came from across the country to help with the operation, including everyone from regular folks to amateur paleontologists to personal friends, neighbors, locals, and alumni of Casper College. Drawn together through their relationship with the Tate, the city of Casper, or simply the joy of the hunt itself, they spent day after day in the dirt and elements quarrying out the remains of a creature that had lain buried these sixty-five million years or more.
Moving earth by the barrowful with simple shovels and hoes, the team went about it much as paleontologists have done for over a hundred years. Uncovering the dirt from the specimen to jacket it in plaster and burlap, they worked for four solid weeks before Lee Rex was finally ready to be set free. Cemented to a giant steel frame, the jacketed fossil was hoisted from the quarry in a single piece weighing an excess of 25,000 pounds before it was locked onto a flatbed and taken back to Casper.
For the folks at the Tate, the work on Lee Rex is only just beginning. Now the real study takes place, as the concretion is slowly dissected and the actual bones and tissue examined to see what evidence they may reveal about the life and science of a creature long passed away. This preparation process takes time, and it may be a number of years before what was excavated is finally ready for formal display. But when it is, it will be to an entirely new community, granting the people in perhaps what is one of the country’s most out-of-the-way places full access to one of their own geological treasures. A find like this isn’t just a victory for science, but a victory for Wyoming and the city of Casper as well. For this time for the first time, such a monster will be set free from its earthy tomb and won’t have to wander too far from home.