8: Whose Place is This, Anyway?

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Wyoming, USA
© A. Shinya
Jim Tynsky, Fossil Excavator

Our excavation site in Fossil Basin lies on private land. This is good for the Museum because it allows us to obtain clear title to all the fossils we bring back, as opposed to working on federal land. In contrast, vertebrate fossils collected from Federal land, even under permit, remain the property of the Federal government (e.g., the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.), and would only come to the Museum on long-term loan.

The quarry we work in is currently owned by the Lewis family of Fossil, Wyoming, and leased to a commercial fossil excavator, Jim Tynsky. Together, Jim and his son Robbie are third and fourth generation "fossil diggers" in Fossil Basin. Both the Lewis family and the Tynsky family kindly allow me and my crew excavate fossils for the Museum, and for that I am grateful.

Fossil Basin has a long history of both scientific and commercial fossil collecting. Scientific ("research-oriented") collecting dates back to the mid-1800s, the basis of major publications by paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope and physician Joseph Leidy. Commercial fossil collecting in the same area goes back at least as far as the late 1800s, with colorful characters such as Lee Craig, who used to sell fossil fishes to folks passing through on the railroad.

Craig, otherwise known as "Peg-leg Craig," used to scale the steep cliffs with one leg, using a gnarled wooden stick that served as a cane. He'd then work the exposed rock outcrops on the side of the cliff with his hammer and wedge, peeling off the layers of limestone, much the same way we do today. He worked the beds in the hot sun for almost 40 years starting in 1897, and a number of his fossil fishes ended up in museum collections. There are photographs of fossil collectors working in the area who preceded Craig, but their names have been lost to history.

The relations between commercial and scientific fossil collectors is an interesting and complex one. The creation of a commercial market has put some fossils out of financial reach for museums. On the other hand, the large development of commercial quarrying in the Fossil Basin area has produced a sample of material a hundred times larger than what could have been excavated by scientific expeditions alone. Consequently, in localities like Fossil Basin, the net effect of commercial development has been positive.

That's not to say that it has worked out well everywhere. But in formations where the fossiliferous layers are extensive and productive, and the commercial excavations have been controlled and responsible, the commercial and scientific interests have produced a positive synergy. I've certainly felt that with the Tynsky family over the years.

Enough reflective thought for a while. It's time to get back to getting ready to leave Wyoming. More soon,

© A. Shinya
Lance and Rob
Public Domain
Edward Drinker Cope
Public Domain
Joseph Leidy
Imogene Powell
Lee Craig