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.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

MEGENITY CAVE DIG
Day 11 (Last Day), July 27, 2006

We’re out of the cave! Not only are we out of the cave, we’re off the site. There was a ton of work to do, but everyone put it into overdrive and we finished up – about 80 buckets of screening, pulling gear out of the cave and from around the rock shelter, mapping the newly dug areas, hauling all our equipment to the top of the cliff. Last day is always a bear and this was as tough as any, but we’re out. Got back to the hotel about 8 p.m. Indy time and took a looong hot shower. We all got together for a nice dinner (as always in southern IN, Chinese tonight) and now finishing my last blog entry. We’ll head for home in the A.M. The blog was fun – interfered with my sleep and with my ... unwinding ... but it was fun. Hope it was worth a look and not too rambling. Maybe we’ll do it again sometime. In the meantime ...

Our chief curator of Natural History, Ron Richards, is the force of nature behind this project. He’s been organizing the dig, plotting our strategies, driving the workers, finding out what we’ve learned and conveying new knowledge to visitors for 20 years. I thought it proper that he sum-up what we did this year and what we hope to accomplish next season. The following paragraphs are ... essentially ... his words:

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During our annual field seasons we deal with many unpredictable circumstances. With all of the rock, and mud and water; with all the blood, sweat and tears some of the crew may loose sight of our ultimate goal. When you’re not seeing immediate and sexy results like dire wolf skulls or cave bear femurs, it’s easy to get discouraged. Long-term, what we’re looking to accomplish is the excavation, with extensive sampling, of an entire limestone cave. Completing this ambitious task will allow us to interpret the life & environment of Indiana’s Ice Age perhaps more completely than this has ever been done before. A cave often preserves remains from environments that are not usually preserved at typical paleontology dig sites. For example, lake deposits in northern Indiana. primarily preserve aquatic life. The extensive sampling at Megenity Cave will allow us to map the remains of practically any animal whose remains ended up in the cave.

The remains that we have discovered so far, over the course of 20 years of digging, date from over 100,000 years ago to the present. Many of the animals are from the 25,000 - 35,000 year old period and include animals such as the flat-headed peccary, dire wolf and beautiful armadillo that are now extinct. We also find animals that no longer occur in Indiana: yellow-cheeked vole, artic shrew and northern bog lemming (but are in some cases common in northern Canada).

We began excavating deep in the cave’s lower levels, gradually moving, room-by-room, toward the entrance. The first 10 years of the project dealt with the lower levels, the last 10 with the upper rooms. We are now on the final phase of the project, excavating the rooms nearest to the entrance. So far in the Twilight Room we’ve gone thru deposits of the last 8 - 9,000 years. Next season we’ll again enter the Ice Age; 25,000 – 35,000 year old deposits. We’ll plunge deep into the room where we anticipate a great diversity of animal bones. It would be great to find sloth, jaguar or tapir remains – maybe even signs of a great saber cat. This year’s excavation has basically set the table for next years feast. We’ll be ready. Any frustrations will be long forgotten and we’ll be as optimistic as ever.

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We’re on the way home! We’re tired, beat up, worn out, homesick and done with Megenity Cave for another season. Most of us won’t think much about an expedition for the next several months and then we’ll start looking forward to ‘07. For now; family, our own beds (sleeping in a little), pettin’ the dog, home cookin’ and everything that goes with it are our priorities. Oh yeah, there’s that mastodont in Marshall County we’re supposed to go get in August. Most of us should be healed up by then ...

R. Dale Ogden
Chief Curator of Cultural History
Indiana State Museum & Historic Sites

MEGENITY CAVE DIG

Day 10, July 26, 2006

A.M. was much like yesterday -- muggy and still only more so. It’s getting Hot. But, the rain we need is supposed to come tomorrow in torrents. Just in case, we moved the big truck all the way to the empty field at the edge of the woods to make sure it doesn’t get stuck in the mud. It’s a smart move, but it means carrying any equipment we want to take off the site every night an extra couple hundred yards. Just want you want to do at the end of a hard day – lug heavy . . . stuff . . . an extra couple hundred yards. We also moved the two porto-lets (which, only Michelle uses anyway) for the same reason. It’s a tight turnaround in the woods and John smacked the crap out of a very large tree with his truck in the process. Seemed to do lots more damage to the tree than to his truck.

ISM camera crew, Leslie & Ben, showed up around 11:00 to shoot some footage for documentary and whatever else purposes. Katherine, one of the other cultural history curators, came in close behind. Leslie’s shot film at a couple of digs and, I think, had been in the cave before. Ben and Katherine had never been in any cave. It’s always fun to have newbies to show around. Like anything else, you get used to it and everything becomes familiar and you kind of forget how extraordinary the expedition really is. It’s nice to be reminded by the fascination easy to spot in the newcomers’ faces. Leslie and Ben shot lots of footage and Katherine helped out at the screens. Leslie also took every opportunity to remind me just what an evil slacker I really am. It’s always comforting to know that you have the loving support of your colleagues. Speaking of which, Rex had to bail today to attend a meeting in Indy. The cave is a much different atmosphere absent his . . . um . . . colorful(?) persona. He’ll be back late tonight.

Digging has been generally uneventful. No new bone finds worth bragging about. Mostly scraps and more recent (a few hundred to a couple thousand years old) odds and ends that appear to have washed into the cave. We do seem to be opening a “new” passage out of the cave. We’ve been looking for a second entrance almost from the beginning. There’s much too much material scattered throughout the rooms to have all come in from the entrance we know. Some things probably washed into the pits directly by way of deep water channels, but there must have been at least one more “main” entrance. This new opening off to the left of the Twilight Room looks like the best bet so far. O.K., I know this is a little esoteric but, in the absence of dire wolf skulls this year, it’s how we get our kicks. Just humor us a little.

Digging might be done for this season. Grids got squared up today, levels were finished off and scattered rubble was pretty much cleared away. We’re at as good a place as any to stop for now. Doesn’t mean we’re finished – not by a long shot. There are over 100 buckets yet to wash and breaking down will take at least ½ a day. We’re winding down, but the most burdensome work remains. And as usual, there will be more than a few surprises along the way I’m sure.

R. Dale Ogden

Chief Curator of Cultural History
Indiana State Museum & Historic Sites

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

MEGENITY CAVE DIG
Day 9, July 25, 2006

A.M. was muggy and still. Cicadas drowned out the cardinals and the flycatcher. Far off whistle of a freight train, an annoyed Canada Goose somewhere out on the lake, occasionally the sound of an industrious woodpecker. More flies buzzin’ around than yesterday. Shadows in the canopy of 2-3 relentlessly circling turkey vultures. It all had kind of a Steinbeck quality to it. Really felt like late July in deeeep southern Indiana. Humidity dropped in the P.M. and it turned out to be a beautiful day. We could use some rain. The spring that feeds the screening stations is running a little slow. Doesn’t matter if it rains or not when you’re underground.

As you can probably guess from what obviously had my attention in the A.M., I started above ground – catching buckets like yesterday. We did over 100 buckets today, though, so it was no wuss job this time around. An extra 20 buckets means about an extra 700 lbs. of lifting. We worked today. Lots of buckets is a catch-22. Psychologically, it feels good to be moving a lot of dirt – makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something, and it keeps everyone busy and warm underground. On the other hand, lots of buckets means you’re digging fast, which probably means you’re not being too careful because you’re not seeing anything in the dirt to be careful with. When a skull, or some such is found, bucket-hauling practically grinds to a halt as the diggers go to gentler tools and methods. Anyway, today we moved a lot of dirt.

Had the chance to do a little sight-seeing. Move a few hundred tons of sediment out of a cave and you create a whole new cave. There are 12 foot pits where paths used to be and a couple of pretty good climbs have turned into belly crawls. There’s a new passage from the Squeeze into the Wood Rat Room. Its only about 15 feet long, but you have to lie on your stomach, stretch yourself out to become as skinny as possible and take your helmet off and push it ahead in front of you. And, you have to turn your head sideways to fit. It all interferes with your light, so you can’t really see where you’re going. The passage bends a little to the right, too. It’s not a straight shot. Only takes a minute or so to get through, but it really gets your heart rate up. No one has to do it. The passage doesn’t really go anywhere you can’t get to by an easier route. It’s just fun to see if you can do it. I mean, come on, it’s a cave for cryin’ out loud.

Had to go up to French Lick after we got back to the hotel (about 20 country road miles) to meet with a collector who’s loaning me a movie poster for an upcoming exhibit. I am, after all, still the Chief Curator of Cultural History. I have to spend some time on my real job and not dabble entirely in this hobby. My friend Peter in French Lick is a real trip, so’s this particular movie poster (it was worth the journey). But, that’s not what this blog’s about. Maybe we’ll get to that story some other time. Anyway, it’s another late night and I’m exhausted (not to mention a little homesick). Looks like the hotel room situation worked itself out and we’ll be here through Friday. More tomorrow.

R. Dale Ogden
Chief Curator of Cultural History
Indiana State Museum & Historic Sites

Monday, July 24, 2006

MEGENITY CAVE DIG
Day 8, July 24, 2006

Another beautiful day to be hangin’ out in the woods. All the more so because it’s a Monday and not a Saturday. Blue sky, 80 degrees, gentle breeze. Life is good.

This is my 18th season at Megenity. I’d been at the Museum for a couple months in the summer of ’86 and I didn’t even know we did this kind of stuff, so I missed Pig Dig I. Last summer I was returning from a break in Carolina when I got a cell call to pull off the cave trip and head straight to the Bothwell Mastodont dig near Hebron, Indiana. In between I joined the crew in Crawford County every summer for 17 years. It’s good to be back.

As familiar as it is, it’s a lot different cave than it was the last time I was underground. We’ve dug out past the Squeeze, past the chasm where I fell and broke my left elbow in a moment of spectacular stupidity a few years back. All the way to the Twilight Room where you can see a hint of daylight coming in from the cave mouth. It’s a bit surreal . . . familiar, yet foreign.

I got in on Saturday and some of the others had already been here 5 days. I understand the last couple have been more of the same – pulling off the Holocene rubble that washed in from the cave mouth to get down to the Pleistocene bone bed. 80, 3.5 gal. buckets of mud and rock today. It’s a little tedious. You don’t see anything sexy at the digging – no skulls, or jaws, or carnivorous incisors, not even a good femur now and again. Not much in the screens, either – unless you count muskrat skulls or rabbit pelvises. Tomorrow should be a good bone day and if not tomorrow, the day after. In the meantime . . .

I’m feeling a little guilty. The work to get the sediment out of the cave isn’t near as hard as it was when we were digging in deep pits at the back of the cave and we have a pretty big crew this year – 10 to 12 every day. So far, I’ve had kind of the wuss job. In the morning, I catch the buckets as they come out of the cave on a roller system and hook them on a tram that takes them to the base of the rock shelter where they’re carted about 100 yards to the screens for washing. Only about a bucket every 5 minutes, so mostly I sit on a rock and listen to the thrush who’s not happy to have me there, look around the woods and daydream. It ends up being about 1,000 pounds of lifting, but it’s spread out over 3-4 hours . . . kind of the wuss job.

In the afternoon, I trade with the guy pulling buckets up a slope from the dig site to the cave mouth – about 25 feet – by rope. A little more work, but not much. At least I’m in the cave. Don’t put too much stock in that feeling guilty crock, though.

Don’t ramble – more tomorrow. Uber volunteer John Waddell brought his I-Pod & we had tunes for the first time – Zeppelin, Meatloaf, Annie Lennox (I’d say Eurythmics, but I don’t know how to spell it). Pretty sweet. Bill got stuck in the Bat Room entry passage and Rex had to get him out. More than a little funny. I got suckered into exploring the “new” passage between the Squeeze and the Wood Rat Room. Exhilarating. More tomorrow.

R. Dale Ogden
Chief Curator of Cultural History
Indiana State Museum & Historic Sites

Sunday, July 23, 2006

MEGENITY CAVE DIG

Day 7, July 23, 2006

Yikes, what a day! The dig crew spent the day in the “Twilight Room” of the cave. We took out 2 levels of material that had washed in from the mouth of the cave. This stuff had tons and tons of large cobbles and limestone break-down that had to be pick-axed and hammered. By the end of the day, we had excavated some 55 buckets (5 gallon) of material and had carted out some 15 buckets of rocks.

The biggest rule of cave digging was broken today and there was hell to pay. One of the dig crew stated that they had to use the bathroom. We are never allowed to mention such a thing… always slinking out of the cave with excuses like “I’ve got to call my broker.” Leaving the cave for any reason is a pain in the Heinie. Between climbing out of the cave and getting all of your gear “adjusted” any back and forths are avoided at nearly all cost. The unlucky soul who did not remember our rule was forced to sing old Led Zepplin songs to the rest of the crew.

The screening crew had a good day. They came across some good Peccary (an extinct form of wild pig) bones. They also scored a couple of rattlesnake vertebra, woodchuck skull fragments, and some so-far unidentified bits and pieces. All in all, the weather was spectacular and it was a beautiful day to be under ground!

Michele Greenan
Archaeology and Natural History Collections Manager
Indiana State Museum

Saturday, July 22, 2006

MEGENITY CAVE DIG
Day 6, July 22, 2006
Today was an extremely busy day for the field crew. We began by laying out a grid inside the "Twilight Room" of the cave. It’s critical to know where you are digging so we outline perfect 50x50 cm squares throughout the passage we are working on. Each square is given a specific number so that when we dig stuff up, we can label them in accordance to their square. This is tough stuff in a cave and we spent much time climbing around the cave - in and out of it’s crevices to drop plumb-bobs from our base line (our central reference line). The dig crews legs got totally bruised up.

After lunch, we started digging our newly gridded area. This was wickedly strenuous since our first levels of material to dig consisted of giant rocks and cobbles, which had to be broken up by pick-axe and carried out of the cave by the bucket-load. Needless to say, by the time we finished for the evening, we were extremely worn-out.

Michele Greenan
Archaeology and Natural History Collections Manager
Indiana State Museum

Thursday, July 20, 2006

MEGENITY CAVE DIG
Day 4, July 20, 2006

Today’s my last day at the dig—I left after the gas in pump ran out around lunch time. I was still screening buckets today, and I think we did pretty well for the morning, finishing up the buckets from yesterday morning. Plenty more where that came from, though. That’s how it is. In fact, Ron (Richards, Chief Curator of Natural History) is a big fan of having too much to do (in life and screening buckets)—he thinks that it puts the fire in yer belly if you can’t see the end in sight. So, while we screened 27 buckets, there were about 50 or 60 more waiting in the cave. And it’s only the 4th day!

I promised more about peccary yesterday. I was hoping that we’d have found a shiny, gemmy tooth by this time, but to tell the truth, the things that we’ve been finding in the screen have been fairly usual. The diggers have been finishing up back areas in the cave, for thoroughness only. Nothing too fabulous is in the dirt that has been dug, but to be scientifically rigorous, everything’s got to come out.

So, on to peccaries. Although Ron’s not yet analyzed the bones that have been washed and sorted back at the museum, but he’s got a fairly decent general idea of the way of things at the cave. Based on the bones, it appears that peccaries, the little wiry-haired pigs, probably lived in the cave for thousands of years, on and off. They lived in herds, and probably drew predators. It seems strange to me that larger animals (not just peccaries) would make their way into the back of the cave, because many of the rooms are difficult to access, but with many tens of thousands of years of cave occupation, the random one would, and get stuck. Of course, bones would also get washed in back, with sediment. We have evidence of both.

Now, on to people. People doing field work act differently than people working in an office environment. Just like we’re doing a study of past animals and climate in our cave, a bored person doing the monotonous job of screening can do a sociological study of Homo sapiens stuck together, away from home. My favorite part is that certain people take on rolls that they’ve had for twenty years. One person is the phrase and story master: “Pig diggers, back in county” was a headline in a local newspaper, and now that is repeated in the van before the dig starts, religiously. Others take on the roll of comic relief, and there’s always a scapegoat. Then we go back to work at the museum, and we interact normally again.

Tomorrow, Michele Greenan, our natural history collections manager, is going to be the new blogger. A trained archeologist, she’s been working in the cave, mapping.

Thanks for reading!

Peggy Fisherkeller
Curator of Geology
Indiana State Museum

MEGENITY CAVE DIG
Day 3, July 19, 2006

Today was not a cave day for me. A couple new people showed up, who I had a sneaky feeling wouldn’t be screening. So, moved out of the cave coveralls and put on the big plastic apron and I screened dirt. The screeners are the end of the line on a dig. There is a temptation to be lazy about the screening—leaving little bits of dirt in the buckets or in the screen. But here we get to the part about why buckets are god.

The entire point of an excavation is to bring home relevant material that is associated with data. Each bucket coming out of the cave is mapped—sometimes one bucket equals a mapped unit, and sometimes several buckets equal a mapped unit. Throughout the entire process of shoveling dirt into a bucket, moving a bucket from cave to screening station, and finally running the dirt through the screen to retrieve just the coarser material, we’re very careful 1). To keep the mapped data associated with the sediment, and 2). Not to mix units by cross contamination.

Quite a bit of effort goes into getting this dirt out of the cave, and finally to home. If the sediment’s been compromised by mixing, or has been separated from its defining information, then its just expensive dirt that we brought home, and not even on our boots.

So, we must not be lazy screeners. And we weren’t. We went through at least 50 buckets today between the three of us. At first, we found very little, just rocks. But then, we started pulling out little bat bones, then rodent bones and teeth, and what I believe to be parts of peccary. It’s a real joy to find shiny wet bones, after smooshing through loads of mud. We even found a bonus fossil—a spine from a Paleozoic shark that came out of the cave ceiling rock, about 350 million years older than peccary and bats and rodents.

So, again a good day. We had a longer day than the others. We didn’t get back to our hotel until 7, but ended the evening with a picturesque car trip to a German buffet.

Tomorrow, a little about cave formation…

Peggy Fisherkeller
Curator of Geology
Indiana State Museum

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

MEGENITY CAVE DIG
Day 2, July 18, 2006

Good day today. We had eleven people working, and because it was the first day, we weren’t all busy all the time, but good progress was made in preparation for tomorrow.

Even though I’ve been going to this dig for several years now, today was actually the first day that I worked in the cave. Considering it was a nice, ambient 55 degrees or so in the cave, I think I lucked out. That compared to the steamy 95 degrees that it reached outside.

So, we spent much of the morning moving gear into the cave. First, buckets, then other gear, like mapping equipment and digging tools. Finally, our trusty Denver, who is in fact an exhibit fabricator at the museum, and who has been coming on this dig for ages, began setting up the tram system, and those of us around followed directions.

Why, exactly, a tram system? The cave is actually a fairly long cave, and toward the front is a lengthy, straight section that goes down and up and way down, and back up. So, the train tracks are made for buckets. This brings me back to the thought that I had yesterday about the custom-built nature of the things that we use here. This little tram system that we use, built of two-by-fours, is only used on this dig, and was made as a solution. Once the diggers start digging, the buckets full of dirt move their way, via human chain, through tight squeezes, over boulders, until they reach the tram, where the bucket is hooked onto a rope and pulled up, into the twilight.

This day, once the digging began, I was the bucket hooker, and I sat most of the day wedged between some rocks there. It was actually a fairly easy day for me, because I didn’t have to move around much, and the digging is always slow on the first day.

Other people were working outside, moving the buckets down the hill, to the little tractor, to pull the buckets over to the screening station. Just as the screeners started getting into the groove, the water pump froze up, and the backup pump had to be pulled out of the van.

After this slight glitch, things started moving more smoothly for the screeners, and they were still running dirt through when the cave crew came up into the light. We ended at about 6 today, and had dinner at a nice Chinese place.

Tomorrow, why buckets are god and other tidbits.

Peggy Fisherkeller
Curator of Geology
Indiana State Museum

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

MEGENITY CAVE DIG
Day 1, July 17, 2006

Just do. Yoda-like, that was said today, as we were sweating, and dragging and hauling gear from the vehicle. That’s about all that a person can do with a delivery truck full of sharp and pointy and heavy tools that need to get down a slick, rocky hill (the gear needs to get down, not the delivery truck). This is our first day, the unloading and setting-up day, of our Megenity Cave Dig. Though we will be stinky, and sore, and tired, and sometimes bored by monotony, depending on our job, I think that I can speak for all of us here, volunteer and staff alike, in saying that we look forward to much of the two weeks down in southern Indiana.

I do have to reiterate that everybody was fairly stinky by the end of the day. Some were stinkier than others.

One of the things that strikes me most about the set-up for this dig, in its twentieth year, is the well-honed nature of the gear that comes along. I’m a relative newcomer to this dig—this is my fourth time here, over my six years at the museum—and I’m continually impressed with the custom-built tools, just for this cave. There are wooden ladders that fit exactly in cave passages, screening stations whose posts fit exactly in holes from last year, and trees that are always used to string up tarps and zip lines. New eyes looking in get the feeling that each plank and each set of hose attachments have been carefully tested, with the duds getting tossed in the trash, and the winners brought along for the next year.

After we got all the gear down the hill, we began setting up the screening station. A massive tarp was strung up between trees, and a little stream down below the hill was dammed. Using several hoses and barrels, an artificial pond was created, from which we pump water back up the hill to the screening station. The tarp protects the screeners, mostly from rain and falling ticks, because the trees are thick enough that the sun is not such a problem. The water we use to rinse the cave mud through screens, and the bones of animals are bagged up and brought home.

We even encountered wildlife in the woods today. Several ticks were found, and four tiny toads were making a home in a log that we had to drag from the road in the woods, to make way for the two porta-potties.

The other thing that amazes me about this dig is that is represents a really pure form of scientific inquiry. This is no wimpy lab science, but hard, backbreaking labor done on behalf of obligation and intense curiosity. And its not just a few intellectuals who’ve been working on this project, but dozens and dozens of museum staff and volunteers with diverse backgrounds. We’ve had homemakers, children, a prison warden, carpenters and historians along. Everyone who comes is at least marginally interested in learning about this unique facet of Indiana.

So anyway, that’s day one. We got done fairly early today and after showers at the hotel, went on to a nice dinner at a local German restaurant. We’ve left the internal cave set-up for tomorrow. That’ll take about half the day, and then the dirt will start moving and we can begin our treasure hunt. I’ll keep you posted!

Peggy Fisherkeller
Curator of Geology
Indiana State Museum