The King Mastodon Excavation Project

By Dr. Julie Morrow
Arkansas Archeological Survey
ASU Station - Jonesboro


Figure 1. Upper jawboneIn April 1999, Mr. George King brought large bones to the Arkansas State University Museum. Found by Mr. Joey Smith during routine dredging of Little Bay Ditch, near Bay, Arkansas, the large bones were identified as Mastodon (Mammut americanum). The bones included several ribs, vertebra, and a partial maxilla (upper jaw) with one tooth row intact as well as tusk fragments (Figure 1). Mastodons are ice age animals that became extinct about 11,000 years ago. Mr. King told John Thomas, Station Assistant for the Arkansas Archeological Survey's Jonesboro Station at ASU, where the bones were found (Figure 3). I named the King Mastodon Site, after Mr. George King, and assigned an Arkansas State Site Number following the Smithsonian trinomial system: 3CG1093 (3=Arkansas, CG=Craighead County, and 1093=the 1093rd site recorded in Craighead County). I visited the site with Thomas, and Tony Marshall, a long time avocational archeologist from Jonesboro, shortly after the bones were brought to ASU. We excavated a cut bank profile several feet into the ditch bottom to explore and document the sedimentary deposits from which the bones were retrieved. Additional bone fragments, nutshells, leaves and wood were recovered from gray sandy clay at the base of the profile.

Figure 2.  Mastodon castSeveral days later, a celebration was held at the ASU Museum in honor of their recently acquired mastodon cast (Figure 2). During that event, some of the mastodon bones Mr. King had brought to the museum were displayed for public viewing. I contacted the landowner of the King Mastodon site, Mr. Steve Cox, to gain permission to monitor the site in order to recover additional bones and investigate their context. Constant monitoring of the site was necessary throughout much of the summer of 1999 due to dry conditions that resulted in increased irrigation and run-off. We found many bones eroding out of a gray sandy clay at the bottom of Little Bay Ditch. Tony Marshall was responsible for much of the site monitoring (Figure 4). Bones were kept under cool, humid conditions at the AAS-ASU station laboratory to prevent mold growth and cracking. The Chemistry Department at ASU kindly provided us with some de-ionized water to treat the bones to prevent mold growth while they were slowly drying in the lab.

Figure 6. Water diversionWith help from archeologist Dr. Henry Wright (University of Michigan-Ann Arbor), I applied for funding from the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration who awarded emergency funding to the project. A team of researchers was assembled to study various aspects of the site and a civil engineer was sought to assist in making the excavation safe. Mr. Dan Mulhollen of Mulhollen and Associates in Jonesboro, Arkansas was contacted at the suggestion of Dr. Charlotte Jones, former director of the ASU Museum. Mr. Mulhollen's engineering firm surveyed the King Mastodon site and provided significant assistance with the excavation design. In September, Mr. Mulhollen and I met with Judge Dale Haas to ask for assistance from Craighead County Road Department. Several weeks later, they approached the Quorum Court with their request for assistance. The Honorable Dale Haas and the Craighead County Quorum Court approved of the County Highway Department's involvement in the King Mastodon Excavation Project. The Department of Arkansas Heritage provided travel expenses to bring consulting scientists Dr. Stephen Jackson and Dr. Roger Saucier to the site during the excavation project.

Figure 8. The dig siteWith funding secured, extensive preparations for the King Mastodon Excavation Project began. Equipment was assembled and volunteers were called. The site needed to be "dewatered" in order to safely retrieve the bones from the bottom of the ditch and beneath the overburden of the extant cutbank. Two levees and a water diversion system were expertly built by the Craighead County Highway Department (Figure 5). After extensive earthmoving, the water diversion system was completed by the highway team (Figure 6). On Sept 29th, during the dirt work prior to the excavation, a right humerus (forelimb bone) of the King Mastodon was encountered by County Highway worker Horace Thompson during track hoe excavation. This find helped the archeological team know precisely where to shore-up the excavation area at the bottom of the ditch with steel fenceposts and ¾" plywood (Figure 7).

Figure 10. Moving sediment to be screenedAdditional pumps and water-screening systems were configured on Friday, October 1 and the first full day of excavation was Saturday, October 2nd (Figure 8). Arkansas Archeological Society members from all across Arkansas and other states assisted ASU personnel with the digging and screening of sediment from the King Mastodon site (Figure 9). Several mastodon bone and tusk fragments were found during the first weekend. With the help of over 70 volunteers (Figure 10) including many Arkansas Archeological Society members, crew chiefs Mike Evans and Jared Pebworth (Figure 11) of the Arkansas Archeological Survey and AAS Station Assistants—Larry Porter, Milton Hughes, and Marion Haynes—kept the site excavation going until October 14th (Figure 12).

Figure 13. Taking plant specimensWe were also fortunate to have three prominent scholars of late Pleistocene (ice age) studies participate in various aspects of the research at the King Mastodon site. Stephen Jackson, paleobotanist from the University of Wyoming assisted in recovery of plant remains from the gray clay beneath the mastodon bones (Figure 13). Dr. Roger Saucier oversaw the Center for Earthquake Research and Information (CERI) personnel extracting sediment samples with their Giddings core rig (Figure 14). Radiocarbon expert, Dr. Tom Stafford also visited during the excavation project (Figure 15). One of the highlights of the excavation project was the day that National Geographic photographer Kenneth Garrett visited us (Figure 16). As luck would have it, we recovered the nearly intact lower jaw of the King as well as a tusk fragment, numerous complete vertebra and ribs, and a proximal ulna (lower forelimb). A picture of our crew excavating the King's lower jaw was published in the April 2000 issue of the National Geographic magazine. Our excavations penetrated about three feet below the water level in Little Bay Ditch.

Figure 17. Extracting dentine from a mastodon toothDuring his site visit, Dr. Tom Stafford of Stafford Research Laboratories in Boulder, Colorado extracted a sample of dentine from one of the teeth in order to get an accurate date for the King Mastodon (Figure 17). He conducted radiocarbon analysis on small portions of two different teeth. Both radiocarbon dates indicate an uncalibrated age of about 12,000 years. No evidence of human association could be determined from the remains or the context. The geological context of the mastodon bones was reworked sandy alluvium-as evidenced by a 1920's lipstick case, Asian clams, and an 8-track cassette tape. And for the die-hard pre-Clovis advocates, no wishbone shaped structures or human footprints were observed either. We managed to retrieve approximately 50 percent of the elements of the King mastodon. Because the majority bones were so tightly concentrated and are relatively complete, well-preserved, and have little abrasion, it is unlikely that they were transported very far.

Figure 14. Geological coringSeveral possible hypotheses could account for why we encountered only a portion of the mastodon skeleton. Only a portion of the mastodon carcass may have been quickly buried by sediment and the portion that did not get buried may have decayed or been utilized by humans or animals. Some bones of the King Mastodon may have been located outside of our excavation limits. Some bones and bone fragments may have been encountered by past ditch dredging and could lie in previous spoil piles along the edges of the ditch or were partially dredged up.

The King Mastodon Project was an unqualified success because we were able to 1.) recover so many more elements of the mastodon, 2.) greatly raise the awareness of archeology on a local and regional level, and 3.) bring together volunteers, scholars, and community leaders to achieve a common goal---to preserve the past for the future. We are in the process of cleaning, analyzing, photographing, and measuring bones, and preserving them with special chemicals. Based on the degree of wear on his teeth, we know the King was between 20 and 30 years old when he died. We also know that he lost his left tusk at least several years before he died, but there are many things we have yet to discover about this amazing late ice age animal. After our studies are completed, the King Mastodon will be curated in the Arkansas State University Museum. We hope the King will eventually be exhibited at the museum.

Figure 18. The bridge crew from CCHDWe owe the success of this project to many individuals and organizations, including Mr. Joey Smith, Mr. George King, Mr. Charles Frierson, the National Geographic Society, Craighead County Judge Dale Haas, the Craighead County Quorum Court, the Craighead County Highway Department (Figure 18), the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the Arkansas Archeological Society, Mr. Steve Cox and Mr. Jim Moore, and Mr. Jim Spurlock (landowers), Dr. Charlotte Jones, Mr. Dan Mulhollen, Dr. Arch Johnston and the Center for Earthquake Research and Information, Betty Grant and Sylvia Scheibel who administered finances, Mr. Billy Forrest, and Mr. Bill Jordan and the many volunteers who generously devoted their time to the project. In accordance with an agreement with the landowner, the Craighead County Highway Department graciously put the site back to its original configuration after we completed the excavations. I thank Mary Farmer for all her help and for sending me copies of slides she took during the project. The project would not have even been possible without the assistance of the County. Dr. Roger Saucier died, suddenly, a short time after his visit to the King Mastodon site. Inarguably one of the most important geologists of the 20th century, Roger Saucier devoted much of his long and illustrious career to geological investigations that have greatly aided archeology. This project is dedicated to his memory.

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