Indiana State Museum Digs

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Location: Indianapolis, Indiana, United States

Located in White River State Park in the heart of Indianapolis, the Indiana State Museum is a wonderful place to find everything you never expected. Whether you are a visitor to the state or a life-long Hoosier, this world-class institution will allow you to explore Indiana’s past, present and future through artistic, cultural and scientific exhibits. Starting with the birth of earth and tracing Hoosier history into the 21st century, the museum offers an eclectic and ever-changing adventure. Constructed of all Indiana materials including limestone, sandstone, steel, brick and glass, the museum’s exhibit space covers 72,000 square feet, and the organization maintains a collection of more than 400,000 artifacts. From the soaring Great Hall showcasing Robert Indiana’s INDIANA obelisk to 92 pieces of sculpture representing the 92 Indiana counties, even the building itself is a work of art. The museum is the crossroads of everything interesting, educational and unique about the state. The museum's collection began in 1862. The new building opened in 2002.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Summer 2006

For nearly 100,000 years – during both glacial and interglacial periods – the bones of countless animals have accumulated in the Megenity Peccary Cave. The Indiana State Museum has recovered hundreds of thousands of these remains, the largest and most diverse record of changing animal life in the state.

The Megenity brothers were boys in the 1960s and were told sternly to stay out of a cave that was hidden away on their property. So, of course, they went right in and began discovering bones of unknown animals. Later on, as teachers, they brought their students back. In 1987 some of those unknown bones made their way to IU Bloomington via a former student attending college. A professor at IU contacted Ron Richards, Chief Curator of Natural History, at the Indiana State Museum.

And that led to what is now almost 20 years of consecutive digging. The goal is to empty the cave of sediment by going in for one or two weeks each summer.

Each chamber, informally named by staff and volunteers who dig the cave, captured differing conditions at various times during glacial and interglacial climates.

In the Woodrat Room, seeds, bones, and butter knives were buried together. Generations of wood rats collecting odds and ends left tangled records for paleontologists to unravel.

The Microfauna Room held skeletons of ancient otter, tapir, and thousands of small creatures. Unwary animals fell and drowned in the water-filled chamber, and their skeletons remained largely untouched under a blanket of mud.

The Peccary Room trapped intruders, such as dire wolf, in its pit. Because the area was accessible for 100,000 years, remains were disturbed over millennia by erosion, rummaging animals, seeping water, and disintegration.

Many different types of animals have been found in the Megenity Peccary Cave, but as its name implies, peccaries, relatives of pigs, appeared to have been primary inhabitants. Remains of over 500 of the extinct flat-headed peccary (Platygonus compressus) have been recovered from the cave, yet only a single complete skull has been found.

The dig process itself is unglamorous and dirty. If a peccary tooth were to be tracked on its path from muddy cave to the museum’s display case, it would begin in a bucket, encased in fine, damp clay. Staff and volunteers begin by chunking out clots of mud from a mapped grid. The mud is dropped into a bucket and hauled by other staff and volunteers up ropes, through tight squeezes, over large boulders, and finally makes it outside the cave for the first time in thousands of years. Then the bucket gets hauled, with many others, 200 yards away, to the screening station. The screening station, a tick and chigger infested flat area at the forested crest of a rise, consists of several sturdily framed window screens. Staff and volunteers work the clots of mud through screens with hoses, bagging up the debris that doesn’t go through. Finally, the many bags are carried up a steep half-mile hill to the vans, to be brought back the museum, rewashed, sorted and finally stored, awaiting analysis.

This year, the dig runs from July 17 to July 28, and involves both museum staff and volunteers. Some people go for only a few days, while others spend the whole time at the dig.
We’ll be reporting back each day with descriptions of the different duties that people fulfill, interesting finds, and the strange things that always happen with these sorts of affairs.

Peggy Fisherkeller
Curator of Geology
Indiana State Museum


For information now, visit the digs section of our website. And don't forget to watch the video about the Bothwell Dig from summer 2005, where the bones of at least seven mastodonts were uncovered. Click on the "Bothwell Video" tab to watch.