Feature: October 9, 1996

Digging Fossils and Forging Friendship in the Utah Desert

In July 1941 my classmate John Boyd and I drove across the continent in an aging Packard convertible. Our ultimate destination was a boulder-strewn mesa in the desert of central Utah, 110 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. Although no one suspected it at the time, the slopes of this mesa contained a spectacular concentration of fossilized dinosaur bones from the Morrison Formation of the late Jurassic Period.
What was known, at least to a handful of local ranchers, was that some large pieces of bone might occasionally be found weathering out of the soft limestone near the mesa's base. But not until Lee Stokes *41, a native of the nearby village of Cleveland, Utah, came to Princeton as a graduate student did major scientific interest in the site begin to take shape. Stokes asked his thesis adviser, Professor Glenn L. Jepsen '27, why Princeton's otherwise well-provided Natural History Museum in Guyot Hall had no dinosaur. "They are a little too rich for our blood," Jepsen answered, the going price for dinosaurs then being $50,000. Stokes, a frugal Mormon with a strong work ethic, convinced Jepsen that he might get a dinosaur out of his home grounds for far less.
After some promising exploratory digs in 1939 and 1940, Malcolm Lloyd of the Class of 1894, a Philadelphia lawyer with a strong interest in paleontology, provided funds for what promised to be a full-scale excavation during the summer of 1941. John Boyd and I were the two geology majors asked to participate.
First on our itinerary, however, was a visit to Mount Lassen National Park, in northern California, where I did some summer skiing near the mountain's summit, while John, an accomplished lepidopterist, chased butterflies in the woods near our campground. The manner in which he captured them surprised me. Not for him the bounding chase with an outstretched net that is the effete popular image of the butterfly collector. Rather, John, who was tall and lean and walked at a fast clip, might suddenly swoop his net through the air with a deft circular motion, catch an unsuspecting butterfly, fold over the hoop of the net to prevent its escape, and gently pop the butt end of the netting into a cyanide jar. It was as though the butterfly had simply been subtracted from the atmosphere-one moment fluttering brightly through the woods, the next lying inert in the jar.
After three or four days at Lassen we began the long drive to Utah. To pass the time, we fell into mock cowboy dialogues in which John became "Slim" and I "Shorty." "Well I'll be hornswoggled, if that ain't a sight!" was one of John's favorite utterances.
Along the way we stopped in Reno, Nevada. Striding into Harold's Casino and past the slot machines in our best western gait, we opted for some blackjack, the one game we knew how to play. Or so we thought. But to our chagrin, we were banished from the table after one round. The dealer, as it turned out, had signaled to a perky young lady dressed in an imitation buckskin shirt, rodeo boots, and an oversized Stetson, who proved to be Harold's official gambling instructress. Very politely, she took us aside to explain that in the West the game was played fast and without any talk. (We had exclaimed "Hit me again!" and "Standing pat!," much to the astonishment of the other players, who communicated with the dealer by subtle hand motions.) We repaired to the nearest bar to soothe our ruffled spirits. When I suggested we might do better to investigate Nevada's other legalized distraction, Slim agreed: "Reckon so, Shorty, reckon so."
After two weary days on the road we arrived at the excavation site. It was evening, and there to greet us were Professor Jepsen, Lee Stokes, and Malcolm Lloyd, along with Lee's younger brother, Grant, and his friend Don Hansen. John and I were shown to a huge sandstone boulder with a pronounced overhanging edge. Jep, as we took to calling Jepsen, told us this was the ideal place to pitch our tent. Thanks to the overhang, the tent would be completely shaded from the fierce afternoon sun. Already in place were a large steel drum of drinking water and a hook to hang our flaxen water bag. There was also plenty of shaded space to store our canned foods and drinks, Jep told us. He wanted us to be as comfortable as possible because we were to be the around-the-clock guardians of the site. This way, at night the Stokes brothers and Hansen could go home to nearby Cleveland, while Jep and Lloyd returned to the Mission Tourist Cottages, in Price.
That evening, left to ourselves, John and I surveyed our new home. My first impression of the great sheltering rock was one of impermanence. It seemed to be balancing precariously on a rather small base, I thought, as though it might easily be dislodged by the slightest tremor. John said no, you could see the boulder was well grounded and had probably been in place for millennia. Then again, we could hardly ignore the jumble of equally large rocks that had obviously cascaded down the slopes of the mesa that loomed over us.

The sight that greeted us the next morning was a 30-by-40-foot pit excavated down to two levels. At the upper level, about three feet from the top, Stokes and Hansen hacked away at the soft rock with light pickaxes and geologist hammers. At the lower level, Jep, Stokes, and Lloyd sat or worked on their hands and knees with chisels, ice picks, mason's trowels, and small paintbrushes. Around each of them were encircling clusters of dinosaur bones, dark gray or black against the off-white of the Morrison limestone.
The fossil bones-vertebrae, femora, a large sacrum, ulnae, pieces of skull-were plain to see. Jep explained that John and I were to open up a new section of the quarry, as Stokes and Hansen were already doing. This meant pickaxing about two feet of overlying rock and carting it away in wheelbarrows, an exercise known as "removing the overburden." After getting two feet down, Jep insisted that we get on our hands and knees and carefully chip away with chisels and awls until the fossil-bearing layer was reached. To do otherwise, he said, would risk destruction of priceless and perhaps yet unknown evidence of life in the long-ago past.
By midafternoon we had cleared a significant portion of the area assigned to us. Jep had allowed us to remove any small whole bones we encountered-all the while watching us, I suspected, out of the corner of his eye. Fossil bones or parts of bones appeared to be everywhere, mixed in a remarkable density and disorder. Even with such a wealth of opportunity, John seemed to have a knack for uncovering more interesting material than I did. That first afternoon, he came upon part of a large jawbone with all its teeth intact, a find that brought Jep and Lee Stokes over for an inspection. My first find, by contrast, was the better part of a rib bone. Although it was not whole and just one of many of its kind, I gloried in this beautiful object more than 145 million years old.
The next day, John and I began clearing a new section with gusto. Too much gusto on my part, for I soon swung my pickax too far down into the fossil-bearing rock. With one resounding chunk I dislodged the metatarsal bone of a small carnivorous dinosaur and sent it flying across the quarry close to Malcolm Lloyd's head. It was a nice-looking bone, dark black and just the right size for a large dog, I remember thinking, and it hit the opposite wall of the quarry with a clatter. Happily, it remained essentially undamaged. Nevertheless, this was a serious malefaction in Jep's book. A stern taskmaster, he sentenced me to removing overburden for the remainder of that day and all the next. To do so, I had to shovel a wheelbarrow full of waste rock and wheel it up an earthen ramp and down a gully to a dump site 50 yards away. At first I went through the motions with a kind of madcap zest, charging full tilt up the ramp and then barely controlling the wheelbarrow as it careened down to the dump. But the second day, with the temperature climbing over 100 degrees, I found little joy in my humbling task. John, however, tried to cheer me with consoling words between each trip. "Here, old pardner," he would say. "Have a drink of this delicious warm lemonade."
After I returned, properly penitent, to the excavating team, the days settled into an agreeable routine. Professor Jep busied himself numbering bones and plotting their location and relative positions on a large master chart. Malcolm Lloyd, 67 years old at the time and a model of patience, might sit for an hour or more in one place wearing a white, round-brimmed tennis hat as his only protection from the sun while he cautiously reassembled fragments of broken bone. The Stokes brothers and Don Hansen, all of whom had previous experience at the site, worked with professional skill. Still, there was more than enough for John and me to share in the finds. Only when we came across what seemed to be parts of a larger body unit-a pelvis, a skull, a leg-did we ask for help. Of special interest to Professor Jep and Lee Stokes were some more well-preserved mandibles, much like the one John had found on our first day, with all their teeth in place. Such complete jawbones were rare, Jep told us, and might provide new light on dinosaurian tooth growth and replacement.
In the late afternoon, after the others had departed, John and I would drink warm beer while we decided what new mixtures of canned goods we might concoct for supper. As the afternoon wore down into evening, our home-under-the-rock turned agreeably cool, and the glaring landscape of the mesa's rockslide became magically tinted with shades of rose and ocher. The hot winds died and an absolute silence, the special silence of desert places, enveloped us. We slept peacefully.

As the excavation progressed, Jep became ever more convinced that we were witness to a dinosaur burial ground where titans of the late Jurassic Period had been trapped in great numbers and forced to fight to the finish. There were bones of brontosaurs and other giant plant-eaters; there were also bones of meat-eaters much like the fearsome Tyrannosaurus. All were commingled in a puzzling manner. The remains of the carnivores outnumbered those of the herbivores by more than two to one, exactly the opposite of what was found in other Morrison deposits in Utah and Colorado. Prominent among the former was a fierce-looking flesh-eater with a large head and long teeth, known as Antrodemus. Many of the bones of these carnivores were whole and undamaged, while those of the herbivores tended to be fragmented.
This much evidence led Jep and Stokes to believe the quarry site might have been a soft area or sinkhole in the mud bottom of a shallow lake. From the stratigraphy it was known that a vast floodplain had extended over all the Morrison sites, which stretch from New Mexico to Canada. The late Jurassic was a relatively dry period, and it was easy to imagine a scenario in which water-loving plant-eaters like the giant Camarasaurus prowled the plain in search of gradually shrinking lakes and ponds. Wading in, they could easily have become mired in the mud. A few of these huge animals, bellowing in rage as they struggled to get free, would have been enough to attract fast-running bipedal carnivores like Antrodemus.
I have always imagined the end of this scenario as a kind of dinosaurian Götterdämmerung : the dragonlike hiss of the carnivores springing into action, the roars of pain and the snap of broken bones as the attackers tore into their easy prey, then predator and prey together sinking into the mire, bloody heads and necks weaving in a fateful duel. Finally, all would be quiet, with pterodactyls gliding over the landscape of rotting corpses, which eons later an invading sea would cover in a tombstone of shale.
How much of this scenario might prove true through further digging was something John and I did not stay to witness. After about three weeks Jep took us to Fossil, Wyoming, a whistlestop in the southwestern corner of the state which has since disappeared from most road maps. Here we would experience a different kind of field work, Jep explained, with a formation known as the Green River Shale. This light-colored rock from an Eocene lake bottom held many beautifully preserved fossil fish as well as some reptiles and plants. The site was high up on a hill and delightfully cool, the shale could be easily separated, and the fish it contained cut out and framed to hang like pictures on a wall.
Following a week of this pleasurable work, John and I stuffed some fossil fish Jep had let us keep into the back of the Packard convertible along with my skis, John's butterfly gear, and some newly purchased cowboy jeans and started the long drive home. September saw us back on campus for the start of our junior year. Professor Jep was already hard at work sorting and tallying the results of the summer's dig, while Lee Stokes was writing an article for Science announcing a new quarry in Utah containing "a large deposit of well-preserved dinosaur bones, heretofore undescribed." There was already enough material, he concluded, to mount a composite skeleton of Antrodemus.
John and I pursued our undergraduate careers through the autumn, that best of all seasons at Princeton. We were happy to be done with required courses and could now focus on the departmental subjects that most interested us. Then, too, we had the seasonal joys of football games, marching bands, club parties, and lazy Sundays for drinking milk punches or strolling under the elms of Prospect Avenue. Then on one such Sunday-a gray day when fall was fast giving way to winter-we learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and knew that our lives would be irrevocably changed. Soon the administration announced an accelerated term schedule. There would be no summer vacation, and juniors could plan to graduate the following winter.
On February 3, 1943, a class of 240 accelerated seniors and more than twice that number of anxious parents and relatives gathered in the University Chapel for our graduation ceremony. John Boyd, however, was not with us. Like many students in those restless days he had chosen not to wait for graduation. As the oldest son in a family with a strong military tradition, he had enlisted in the Navy at the earliest opportunity. Less than a year later, in November 1942, John's ship, the destroyer U.S.S. Barton, was in a task group steaming toward a Japanese battle force en route to the Solomon Islands. In a wild night battle in confined waters the Barton took two torpedoes amidships, one of which almost certainly ignited her magazines. She sank in a matter of seconds. John, a stern gunner, was one of the few men able to swim off. After a night in the water the survivors were picked up by a cruiser and taken to the Marine Hospital on Tulagi Island. John walked ashore unassisted, complaining only of fatigue. But on the third day, doctors making their morning rounds found that Seaman First Class John Boyd had died during the night. Internal injuries from underwater concussions, which typically cause little or no pain and show no outward symptoms, were judged the cause of death.

In February 1961, almost 20 years after John and I journeyed to Utah, a mounted skeleton of Antrodemus was unveiled in Guyot Hall. Measuring 40 feet from its jaw to the tip of its long counterbalancing tail, the mount became the museum's centerpiece. Its preparators wisely chose to portray Antrodemus in an alert pose, its hind legs spread as if it were about to break into a sprint and its small forelimbs poised for grasping. The gigantic head with its sickle-shaped teeth was turned in a leering grin, as if looking for its next victim.
As paw noted at the time, the mount was not a case of "three bones and twenty barrels of plaster," as Mark Twain is said to have remarked after his first view of a museum dinosaur. Indeed, there was no need for imaginative reconstruction of Antrodemus's missing skeletal parts, for it was "all bone except for [parts of] its plastic skull."
Worldwide recognition has come to the Utah quarry since our summer digging there. After the war, Princeton no longer participated in the excavations, but they were continued and expanded by the University of Utah under Lee Stokes and James Madsen, Jr. The site has yielded many more bones of Antrodemus, so many that its osteology is the best known of any dinosaur. But in the years since our dig, one regrettable change has befallen this noble beast: the name Antrodemus, which derives from the Greek for "cave spirit" or "cave demon," has been synonymized to Allosaurus, or "other lizard." Thus, one of the most fanciful names in dinosaur taxonomy has been replaced with one of the dullest. This happened in the late 1960s, when certain paleontologists claimed that Antrodemus was one and the same as Allosaurus, a dinosaur named and described in the 1890s by Yale paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh on the basis of a few skull parts and vertebrae. One may suppose that the pioneering Marsh, who described many new dinosaur species, simply grew weary of the naming game. The lumping of Antrodemus with Allosaurus was never challenged in taxonomy's high court, the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, and "other lizard" it remains.

he quarry was designated a U.S. National Landmark in 1966 and renamed the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry to honor both the locale and Malcolm Lloyd, the alumnus and philanthropist who made the first excavations possible. My wife and I visited it in the summer of 1993. After touring the visitors center we spent some time gazing down at the University of Utah's more recent excavations. Then, while my wife rested in our air-conditioned rental car, I set out alone to find the sheltering boulder where John Boyd and I had pitched our tent 52 years before.
At first I had trouble finding the right boulder. There seemed to be so many more-in the intervening half century, others had obviously tumbled from the mesa's sandstone ridge. Then I saw the overhanging, balancing rock we had called home. It had not budged an inch and was still firmly grounded, just as John said it had always been.
I sat down in the rock's shade and took a long look at the slope of the mesa in front of me. The afternoon sun beat down as hotly as ever. The tumbled rockslide of the mesa presented as harsh and glaring a landscape as before. The whole brought on a wealth of sweet-sad memories of that joyful and carefree summer just before the war. I wanted to stay there, to be left with my thoughts until the sun sank lower and the desert rocks took on more pleasing colors from the late afternoon's slanting light. But soon my wife was blowing the horn, beckoning me to be on our way.
On the journey back East I kept thinking about all the distinctions that have come to the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry and the good work the University of Utah has done to unearth and interpret its fossil bounty. By contrast, Princeton's part in the story is small and now largely forgotten, and its recently renamed Department of Geosciences no longer supports vertebrate paleontology. In 1964 the department donated much of its Cleveland-Lloyd material to the University of Utah, and in 1985 it gave most of its remaining fossils to Yale University and the Smithsonian Institution.
The department also truncated the Natural History Museum to make room for an expanded library. Yet Antrodemus, the "cave demon" also known as Allosaurus, remains a commanding presence. I like best to visit it on Saturday afternoons during the football season, when I am sure to be alone and an uncharacteristic quiet pervades Guyot Hall.
It is at these moments, while gazing at the magnificent Antrodemus, that I wish most that John were with me. I can see him looking over our dinosaur with rapt attention, noting every detail.
"I'll be hornswoggled, Shorty, if that ain't a purty sight," he would say.
"Reckon so, Slim, reckon so."
We might then head off together, looking for new sites to conquer. Or perhaps a fast game of blackjack.

William W. Warner '43 is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay (1976), and Distant Water: The Fate of the North Atlantic Fisherman (1983), which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. A recipient of the Smithsonian Institution's Exceptional Service Award, he lives in Washington, D.C.