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Mammoth party: Scientists reflect on historic find

Published: Thursday, May 2, 2013 10:06 a.m. CDT

(MCT) ELSAH - Eminent scientists, students, faculty and members of the Principia College community gathered Wednesday afternoon to commemorate the on-campus discovery more than a decade ago of a mammoth known simply as "Benny."

From 2002 to 2012, students excavated the 17,000-year-old Jeffersonian mammoth remains as part of a geology class taught by Janis Treworgy, professor and director of the mammoth project since 2000.

"This project has been the opportunity of a lifetime for me and hundreds of students," said Treworgy, who noted that Benny has served as the college's "unofficial ambassador" to the community. Since his discovery, more than 9,000 people have visited the campus for tours and talks.

Named for Benny White, the backhoe operator who inadvertently uncovered a mammoth tooth, Benny was discovered in 1999 by a crew seeking to relocate a manhole cover near one of the college's dormitories.

To commemorate the site of the excavation, Treworgy and Principia President Jonathan Palmer took part in an unveiling of a bench made from oak lumbered on campus with concrete sides. An attached plaque details the discovery.

"In the courses, students learned how to excavate bones, recovering more than 150 of them, how to clean and prepare them for study and display, as well as many facts about mammoths and the Ice Age," she said to a crowd of more than 50 people. "But they also learned to dig deeper and acquired skills that they could apply in other aspects of their lives, including how to make careful observations, put forward and test hypothesrs, draw conclusions in a logical way and to separate observations from interpretations."

On hand to witness the unveiling were Jeff Saunders, a paleontologist and mammoth specialist, and three other colleagues from the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, serving as advisers on the project.

Along with the articulated cranium, tusks and upper teeth, the other significant skeletal elements that have been excavated include both upper arm and leg bones, a lower arm and a lower leg bone, both shoulder blades, and a number of vertebrae and ribs.

Former student Eric Lines said the opportunity to "actually interact with the subject matter in a course" was eye-opening.

"For me and many others, Benny was just the impetus to cause us to get excited and gain knowledge about a subject matter outside the norm," Lines said. "It is this broader perspective that allows us to appreciate the world around us, and I think this is a noble accomplishment."

Following the unveiling, guests had the opportunity to view Benny up close in the college's Science Building, where work soon will begin on the final phase to prepare the bones for permanent exhibition in the Atrium Lobby.

"For me, the most exciting and challenging excavation event happened during the summer of 2005, when we removed the skull block from the site and moved it inside the Science Building," Treworgy recalled.

Then in 2007, workers turned the skull block, which was upside-down and encased in dirt and plaster to keep the bones from shifting. The block was rotated 180 degrees so that students could continue removing the dirt matrix from the top of Benny's skull while on-site excavation continued.

The skull, which is extremely fragile, has been stabilized with metal struts, spray foam and a special material called butrar. The tips of his 6.5-foot-long tusks have been wrapped in plaster to prevent breakage.

Treworgy and her students have determined that Benny was a mature male mammoth, from 39 to 43 years old. He would have stood about 10.7 feet tall at the shoulder, weighed 6 tons and ate about 300 pounds of vegetation per day, according to the project's website, www.prin.edu/mammoth/.

Once the remains are completely readied, Benny will be displayed in a way that replicates how his skeletal remains were found, rather than attempting to partially reassemble his bones.

"We will have professionals work with us who will do a loess effect, duplicating the wind-blown sediment he was buried in," Treworgy said. "This gets away from having to get Benny out of the jacket that supports him."

At this point in the project, Treworgy wasn't sure how many of his bones could be incorporated into the exhibit, emphasizing instead the educational merits of the planned exhibit.

"I love teaching in the field with an experiential focus, so I will miss this project," she said. "I will continue to give tours to extend the educational benefits of the project, because Benny is a gift to education that can keep on giving."

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©2013 The Telegraph (Alton, Ill.)

Visit The Telegraph (Alton, Ill.) at www.thetelegraph.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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