What It’s Like to Dig for Dinosaur Bones


“I hope you’re ready to open up a 50 MILLION YEAR OLD TOMB!”

This is what my host, a 72 year-old rancher named Fred, excitedly says to me as we drive his truck up a rocky hill 30 miles out in the middle of rural Montana. It’s 7:30 am, and for the first time in my life I’m about to go digging for dinosaur fossils. 

“Now you be sure to watch out for rattle snakes,” he tells me. I ask him if he ever carries anti-venom with him.”No, I do not.” What would he do if I were to get bit? “Well I’d have to pick ya up and carry ya outta here…… Probably wouldn’t kill ya.”

And so begins my adventure.

Methods May Vary

If you’re accompanied by a paleontologist on a dig, you can expect that you’ll be preserving the specimens you find in plaster jackets since any bone could yield a scientific discovery. From there, they are carefully packed away and transported to the lab for study.

Fred is a rancher and not a paleontologist, so he takes a more happy-go-lucky approach. He and his wife are cattle ranchers who happened to stumble across some bone sticking out of a hillside in 2009. Upon finding several more bones in that location, Fred proceeded to plow into the hill with his backhoe in an attempt to expose more fossils. Those he found to be promising were drenched in penetrant-stabilizer (superglue on steroids), wrapped in foil, and arranged in the bed of his truck. Unluckier specimens were deemed ‘junk bone’ and chucked with gusto down the hill.

Ironically, the location Fred discovered turned out to be one of the most prolific producers of exceptional, ground-breaking fossils that Montana had ever seen… which brings us back to my adventure.

Fred digging into the Hell Creek formation

Blood Turned to Stone

Fred and I finally pull up to the dig site he’s prepared. A large formation looms before us surrounded by what appears to be a trench dug by Fred’s backhoe. I look down and there’s a large chunk of bone at my feet. Dinosaur bone.

It’s solid and thick, and it looks to be part of a large femur. A vivid, red line runs through the center of what used to be the bone’s marrow; which had long since been replaced by a mix of iron and other minerals. I put the hefty chunk of what Fred had obviously deemed ‘junk bone’ into my collector’s box (a tackle box Fred has given me).

Bird Teeth

The dig officially begins, and Fred sets me up on a ledge he’d created along the side of the formation. He hands me some glue and a knife, and instructs me to pour glue over anything I think looks like bone.

I take the knife he’s given me, and begin gouging it into the dirt as you would with a spade. At first I’m not sure what to look for, but as I keep going I begin to see shiny, flat, black objects; which turn out to be fossilized scales from gar that swam in the ancient network of rivers that once ran through the area. Eventually I come upon a shiny, dark object that looks similar to a tiny shark’s tooth. Fred excitedly informs me that this tooth actually belonged to a bird, and was a remnant of when they first began splitting off from dinosaurs. Who knew?

Lucky Fred

As the day wears on I continue to find bits and pieces of unidentifiable bone. Fred is having much more luck than I am (he’s notorious for this), and he continues to strike gold in the form of two Tyrannosaurus Rex teeth and several large bones. I begin to feel nervous that I may not find anything else. Everything looks like a jumble of rock and dirt to me.

As we’re packing up to leave for the day, Fred wanders over to check on me, and immediately spots something under my foot. I turn my attention to the spot and the two of us begin to dig out the mysterious object. After a lot of glue and tedious digging, we pull out a two-foot long bone. Fred thinks its a hadrosaur rib, but we later discover it to be an ischium. Either way, I’m thrilled.

Ischium bone I found still in the matrix
Ischium after I cleaned and prepared it

Airport Security

The two days of digging go by far too quickly, and before I know it I’m back on a plane to Houston. I carry with me parts of a raptor vertebrae, turtle shells, triceratops teeth, a large ischium (part of a pelvis) from an unidentified dinosaur, several ribs from a hadrosaur and even pieces of T-rex teeth. All of them are carefully packed in my suitcase, and only a few of them have to be personally x-rayed in the airport by confused security officials. I consider it a win.

To sum it all up, the trip was amazing. I knew it would not be my last, and the rancher and his wife who hosted me had become my new friends. I knew I’d see their beautiful 8,000 acre sprawl again, and turns out I was right! (to be continued in another post) 



One Comment Add yours

  1. Roxanne Jay says:

    Enjoyed your post. Keep on digging!

    Liked by 1 person

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