Buried Treasure

From Issue: Discovery 11/1/2003

Most of the time, we think of buried treasure being something like gold or silver that is buried in a wooden chest. But there are other treasures buried in the ground. Fossils are buried treasures that can be worth millions of dollars, and can change the way we think about the past. Wouldn’t it be exciting to walk through your back yard and spot something sticking up from the ground that looked like a dinosaur fossil? What would you do? How would you dig it up? Would the fossil break as you tried to get it out of the ground? Would you send it to a museum, or get to keep it at your house?

Once a dinosaur fossil is discovered, there are many things that must be done in order to make sure that it is dug up properly. In fact, scientists known as paleontologists are trained to know exactly how to remove fossils from the ground. Paleontology is the study of ancient life (paleo comes from the Greek word meaning “ancient” or “old,” and ology means “the study of’).

 Paleontologists take their job very seriously-and they work very slowly and carefully. When dinosaur fossils are found, the location is marked on a map. Then, the scientists begin to take pictures of the entire area. Sometimes huge bulldozers are used to remove large mounds of dirt. Other times, the fossils are embedded in rock layers. Paleontologists use picks, hammers, and chisels to chip away at the rock around the fossils, being very careful not to harm the actual fossil. Digging up fossils can take many years. In some cases, the fossils are covered with a type of glue to keep them from falling apart. If the fossils are very large, the researchers often put plaster casts around them in order to protect them when they are moved. Then, large cranes can be used to lift them out of the dig site.

As each fossil is being removed, scientists make careful notes and photographs that show which bones are connected. These photographs and notes are crucial to the outcome of the find. Many times, the bones will be shipped to a busy museum where they may not be put together for several years. If the notes and photographs were not done right, then the fossils would be almost impossible to assemble.

Often, more than one museum would like to dis­ play the fossil. In that case, artificial plaster molds of the bones can be made. Most of the dinosaur skeletons we see a museums today are made from plaster molds, and are not the actual fossils. The next time you walk through a museum, remember all the steps that were taken to get those fossils there. And, if you happen to find some important fossils one day, take special care of them. Who knows? They might get to go in a museum someday.

Fossils are exciting because they tell us about creatures that lived in the past. Dinosaurs are one group of these fascinating creatures. Dinosaurs capture the attention of kids and adults. Scientists study their bones, and learn all kinds of interesting facts about these animals. Some dinosaurs ate meat, while others ate vegetation. Some dinosaurs were ten times as big as an elephant, and others were about the size of a dog. From studying dinosaur fossils, we learn where they lived, how big they were, and countless other exciting things. However, since we find only fossils and a few remains of the dinosaurs, there are many things we cannot know. Much of the information we have about dinosaurs has come from looking at their bones, and trying to decide how dinosaurs would have moved, hunted, eaten, and lived. In the years to come, scientists will probably find more dinosaur fossils, and learn that some of their ideas about dinosaurs were exactly right-while other ideas were not correct. But one thing that will not change is the fact that God created these creatures alongside humans only a few thousand years ago.


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