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Behold the Mammoth

As you may remember, a beautiful mammoth fossil was discovered in Serbia a couple of months ago. I promised I’d try to go and see it myself on my recent trip to Belgrade. And I did get to see it. But the story is more fun than just that…. ;-)

First, I tried to get in touch with Dr.Miomir Korać, the Director of the Archaeological park Viminacium to ask for permission to photograph the fossil as well as to interview him. After a couple of e-mail addresses bounced, I got what I think is the correct address…but got no response.

Once I got to Belgrade, I asked my contacts there about this and, as is usually the process there, a friend of a friend of a friend was willing to take me to the site. They also tried to contact Korać, as well as their own bosses, but nobody returned their calls. It is vacation time in Serbia right now, and people are not easily reachable (even by cell phones, not to mention the Web – Serbia has a distressingly low rate of Internet use for Europe). So, what to do? They decided to take me there anyway, and deal with the bosses later. Thus, I will not use their names or photos here (in case they get in trouble) and I told them that I am still interested in talking to and interviewing both Korać and their bosses if they want to contact me.

Why all this worry about bypassing the protocol? Because the fossil is in the middle of a huge open-pit coal mine Drmno (you see, there are maps and satellite images all over the Web), near Kostolac, a mine that provides something like 1/8th of electrical power of Serbia and is thus of strategic importance. For all they knew, I could have been an American spy! But fortunately they trusted the friends of friends of friends that I was not.

So, last Thursday, I got up early and went to the bus station. I took a bus to Pozarevac, a trip I took a million times as a kid. But this time, it was different. The bus was new and modern and clean and comfortable and smelled good. The music was discrete and not the worst of the worst of the newly-composed “folk”. The bus also started the trip exactly on time (to the second!) and arrived exactly on time. Not whenever the bus driver felt inspired to drive as it used to be once upon a time. Capitalism, baby!

It took a couple of hours in Pozarevac until our car that was to take us to Drmno arrived. So we sat in a cafe and got to know each other….over four huge shots of home-made slivovitz! I did not even have breakfast yet! I tried to dilute it by having a couple of big Turkish coffees, a couple of Cokes, some mineral water and a couple of handfuls of peanuts, but still, it was a tough and heroic deed.

Instead of going to Viminacium or even the town of Kostolac, we went straight to the mine (where we had yet another shot of brandy). The office building is nice, large and clean – and powered (yes, right next to all that coal) by a large battery of solar panels. The titles on all the office doors we passed indicated to me that quite a lot of science (mainly geology, but also stuff like vibrations, etc.) is going on there.

Then we got in a jeep and went into the mine itself. I took a lot of pictures of the mine – it is huge and it looks very tidy (I’ve seen a bigger one, Kolubara, when I was a kid, and remember it being, in my childish eyes, quite a mess). As such pictures may compromise (at least in some eyes) the national security and since they are not too related to the fossil, I will not post them here. But here is one, taken from a considerable distance (as much as my little camera could zoom in), showing just a small segment of one side of the open pit – the arrow points to the enclosure where the mammoth is:

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As you can see, there are at least 50 meters of the mine ‘wall’ hanging right above it – something that mine engineers are now trying to figure out how to secure against sliding, as the mammoth will stay in the spot and be seen by tourists.

The fossil was discovered in a part of the mine that is not in use any more – the coal extracted now is deeper down in the pit. It was found in a layer of yellow sand by a bulldozer driver for a local road-paving company that has a contract with the mine to come in and take away, for free, the sand and gravel they need for road construction. He was happily bulldozing the gravel when he heard a ‘clang’ noise at the blade. He immediatelly stopped the machine, went down to see and, upon seeing a small tip of something that looked like a bone, decided to call the mine bosses who, in turn, called the people from the Archaeological park Viminacium. The archaeological treasure of the area is a source of everyone’s pride there, of course.

It turned out that this is an amazingly well-preserved and almost completely articulated fossil of Mammuthus meridionalis, the Southern Mammoth that is thought to have migrated from North Africa to Southern Europe around 2 million years ago and is probably the ancestral species of all the other, younger species of mammoths found in the Northern hemisphere. The Southern Mammoth had much shorter and finer hair than the later Woolly Mammoth and probably went extinct when the next Ice Age appeared in Europe.

Being a much older species, the Southern Mammoth has not left as many or as complete fossils as the Woolly Mammoth either. Several have been found around Europe (Spain, Bulgaria, Sweden) and one has been mounted and is on display at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris. Thus the Serbian fossil, with its exquisite level of preservation, will be carefully studied by Serbian and international teams of scientists for years to come.

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This fossil, found at the depth of 27 meters, was about 4m high, 6m long and weighed about 10 tons. It is a female and was named ‘Vicky’. There has been probably no big tectonic activity in the area for about 1 million years – how old this one is estimated to be (the more precise measures of age will be performed soon) – as earthquakes would, over time, have disassembled a fossil embedded in sand.

The fact that the fossil is in sand is on one hand a great gift – cleaning up is easy and fast – but on the other hand it is a big headache as well – how do you move it!? If it was embedded in rock, they could cut the entire slab out and move it to a museum for cleaning and restoration. This is a major mine, close to major roads – there is plenty of heavy machinery, people who can competently use it, and engineers who can figure out how to do it. This is not like finding a dinosaur in the middle of nowhere – technology is at hand and can be used on the spot. But this fossil is not embedded in rock – it is in sand. So what can one do?

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First, they could disarticulate the skeleton, take each separate bone to a museum and rearticulate it there. That would take a lot of people, a lot of effort and a lot of time – and something would be lost in the process: the exact position and location of the fossil in the place where it was buried. Another way would be to freeze the sand around it, lift the whole slab and take it to a museum where the sand would thaw. This they think is too risky – the freezing and thawing may damage the fossil.

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So, the mine and the museum struck a compromise. The fossil will stay in place. The mine will secure the 50 meters of overhanging soil above the fossil and build two roads: one for the tourists who come to see Vicky, the other for the mine to use for driving around its heavy machinery into the pit. The museum will finish the cleaning and the analysis of the fossil and build an enclosure that will protect the fossil and accommodate the visitors (I am assuming that a museum shop will be built to bring in some revenue).

If any of my palaeontologist readers have better ideas for either preservation or moving, leave them in the comments or contact me. They are all ears.

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Right now the fossil is protected from immediate weather and light by a small canvas tent, which also means that I was not able to take pictures from a distance greater than a couple of feet. I had to crouch to get inside and could only take close-shot photos. I also could not find a good object to include in some shots as a size reference. But I took a lot of pictures from many angles and I hope you can see how wonderfully intact and well-articulated the fossil is. The rest of the pictures are under the fold, followed by a YouTube video (not shot by me) where you can see the fossil as it looked when it was first shown to the media:

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Comments

  1. #1 Zach Miller
    July 17, 2009

    My gosh, what a beautiful fossil! Thanks for taking and posting your pictures!

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    July 17, 2009

    Nice!!!!

    Reminds me of a four-tusker I dug in Africa once. Bigger, but I think your mammoth might be in better shape.

  3. #3 HP
    July 17, 2009

    Regarding preservation and/or moving, you might want to get in touch with the bloggers at The Excavatrix. They extract and preserve Pleistocene fossils found in a natural asphalt matrix (not sand, but not stone either). They work on the famous La Brea Tar Pits, so there’s about 10 decades’ worth of experience and best practices to draw on.

  4. #4 John McKay
    July 17, 2009

    Wow. What a fantastic set of pictures. And. what amazingly well preserved specimen. Next time I’m over there, I have to see it.

  5. #5 Monado, FCD
    July 18, 2009

    Wow, it’s big! Next time, though, throw in a pen or a shoe so it’s easier to get some scale. I pictured it as much smaller until I started to see artifacts and people around it.

    Is it an actual fossil, bone, or sub-fossil?

    Thanks for posting all the pictures and the video. I liked your adventure.

  6. #6 doug l
    July 18, 2009

    Fascinating and the vid, while in Serbian (I presume), was very good visually at covering the site and the find in some detail and it IS impressive and really gives the viewer a sense of scale.
    @Monado, FDC #5 asked if it is an actual fossil or a sub-fossil? What’s a sub-fossil? Would that refer to its being not-mineralized completely? I think I see those two words used almost interchangeably but I’m not sure if that’s quite precise based on the word’s etymology. It certainly looks like it’s a real fossil and a beautiful one at that. I love those in-situ museum concepts like the WarmSprings Mammoth site in South Dakota’s Black Hills. One would have to wonder how many other similar sites might still remain uncovered around there and how many in the past must have been barely noticed and not preserved or noted. Cheers.