A ‘bone’-a-fide legacy

By: 
KateLynn Slaamot

Photo by KateLynn Slaamot/NLJ

Diggers with the Hanson Research Station uncovered a femur bone this year. 

 

KateLynn Slaamot

NLJ Correspondent

 

When Carolyn Johnson’s grandfather, a Mormon boy from the Salt Lake Valley of Utah, came to the area southwest of Newcastle and began homesteading, little did he know the treasures that lay beneath his feet, waiting to be discovered. Did he ever imagine that his homestead would later become a place of groundbreaking paleontological discovery? 

Henrick Hanson, the oldest of 17 children, came to this area in the early 20th century. He trailed 13 bands of sheep from the Salt Lake Valley and across Wyoming to the McCuen ranch. Hanson worked as a foreman on the McCuen ranch, 7 miles from the current Hanson ranch.

Henrick eventually decided to start his own homestead in 1908, the same year he married Carolyn’s grandmother Roxie Freel, who grew up near Mallo Camp. Glenn Hanson, Carolyn’s dad, was born in 1917, the youngest of three children born to Henrick and Roxie. 

“It’s interesting that God caused him (Henrick) to come right here and homestead here,” Carolyn said. “I think it’s neat to look back and see how God has worked.”

Glenn and his siblings grew up on the Hanson ranch, and then Carolyn and her siblings grew up there. She says she remembers seeing dinosaur bones everywhere. It was just a common occurrence, she said, and they didn’t realize how valuable they really were.

“We always picked up the dinosaur bones,” Carolyn said, noting that
she and her siblings would keep the ones they wanted and toss the ones they didn’t. 

As time went on, the family began to realize the significance of what lay scattered on the surface of their ranch as interested persons began to inquire about the dinosaur fossils. A scientist from New Orleans stopped by their ranch one day and asked about digging, so Glenn allowed him to. He then continued for a few years, before they parted ways due to a disagreement. 

Glenn decided that he wanted his ranch to be the site of scientific discovery, and he did not want to sell the bones, Carolyn said. A deep passion to use the deposits of bones on his land to further scientific research catapulted his search for scientists who would work with him and share his beliefs on the origin of the universe — that God created it with intelligent design. 

After working with a couple of different creation scientists, the Hansons finally found a team that fit, Carolyn said. Lee Spencer, who was a geological consultant from Oregon, went to the ranch to examine the dinosaur bones. He then got his colleague Dr. Art Chadwick, who was a professor at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas, to also come to the ranch. 

Chadwick went to the ranch in 1996, and he admitted that he wasn’t interested in dinosaur fossils. He was working on a project with fossil whales in Peru at the time. However, Chadwick recalled the moment he first saw what the unique desert landscape of the Hanson ranch had to offer, and it quickly changed his perspective. 

“When I opened the door of the truck, there were bones all over the ground,” Chadwick said, recalling that he was afraid to step on them. And that was just what was on the surface of the land. Chadwick said his first thoughts were that this was all scientific data that could be washed away and lost if nothing was done about it. 

“We’ve got to save as much of these data as we can,” Chadwick said. 

Thus began the Hanson Research Station and its taphonomic research project, which would only continue to grow from its humble beginnings, headed by Chadwick, who would direct the project for the next 20 years. 

The Hanson ranch has been the site of numerous discoveries, from thousands of bones to new techniques that brought paleontology into the 21st century. Chadwick said that the Hanson Research Station team was the first to use GPS systems to map bone discoveries in the bone beds. Previously, paleontologists had always drawn the bones on a grid, but Chadwick and his team discovered how they could use a GPS to record the position of the bone at various points to outline the specimen and then record all of that in a computer for a digital map of all the bones in relation to one another. 

“We’ve recorded the positions on over 30,000 bones,” Chadwick said. 

Jared Wood, a professor at Southwestern Adventist University, who became co-director of the project about three years ago, also commented on the GPS system they developed. 

“That really revolutionized paleontology,” Wood said. 

Wood explained to the News Letter Journal that the station’s primary objective is research, particularly taphonomic research, which deals with fossil deposits and how they were transported. The scientists involved want to discover the reason behind the large deposit of dinosaur bones in the Lance Formation, on which the ranch is located. 

From research and excavation over the years, it has been found that most of the bones in the main quarry are disarticulated, which means that they are jumbled and lack orientation. The bones are also deposited with small bones closest to the surface, getting progressively larger deeper in the layer. Another interesting fact, Wood said, is that most of the bones are extremely well preserved. 

The scientists’ theory is that a large number of dinosaurs drowned in a major catastrophe. The animals may have floated to a shore where they accumulated and decayed. At a later time, a secondary event moved and separated the bones. 

The group published a research paper last year about its findings in the main quarry, after more than 20 years of labor. The animals found in that quarry are predominately Edmontosaurus annectens, a species of hadrosaur, generally known as duck-billed dinosaurs. 

“We’re working on publications for the other quarries,” Wood said, noting that the more outlying quarries have some different properties that they are continuing to research. Wood said that those outlying quarries contain mostly triceratops. 

Several fascinating discoveries have been made at the research station over the years. Wood said that a 70%-75% complete Thescelosaurus skeleton was found. In addition to dinosaurs, several fossilized turtles have been found, including one that was about 90% complete. Chadwick told the News Letter Journal that, in 2001, some parts of the skull and body of a Nanotyrannus were found. As one of the rarest dinosaur finds, this was only the second-known specimen.  

Another important mission of the Hanson station is to conduct credible science from a biblical viewpoint. 

“We are creationists, yet we’re doing science,” Chadwick said, noting that the work they do at the station is considered credible by others in the same field, and they hope to continue working with other scientists. 

“I really want to collaborate with more scientists,” Wood said. 

However, beyond the paleontological and taphonomic research and findings, the team is also driven by a goal to bring dinosaurs to life to a wide range of people. The Hanson Research Station is a unique project in the way that allows almost anybody, no matter their experience, to come to the annual June dig and participate in hands-on fossil excavation. Whether one is wanting to receive college credits or to just go and enjoy the experience, everyone is welcome. 

Wood said that, as a child, he never imagined he’d be able to actually touch dinosaur bones. He wants to make that opportunity available to as many people as possible to bring that to life. 

“I’m really driven by my mission to get all types of people involved in this,” Wood said. “That’s just really rewarding to give kids that chance.” 

Wood added that there’s something special about how kids’ faces light up when they get to hold a T-rex tooth for the first time. 

Growth could happen in the near feature as the team is hoping to build a field station to accommodate more people, Wood said. 

Chadwick and Wood both said that they are honored to be part of such a significant project. Chadwick said that Newcastle is like a second home to him, and he appreciates the people here. He also appreciates the Hanson family and their continued support. And for the people of Newcastle, he said, they can be fascinated by the rich treasures that lay right in their back yard. 

“I’m just humbled to be part of something that has an impact around the world, both in science and the Christian community,” Wood said.

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