A marvel of unpreparedness

Elmer S. Riggs, vertebrate paleontologist at Chicago’s Field Museum, was also a poet who crafted whimsical verses inspired by his prehistoric trade. His admiring granddaughter, Marian Maas, proudly delivered a selection of these unpublished rhymes to historian Paul D. Brinkman at an interview at the Field Museum in 2000. Below are two examples with unknown dates of origin.

The Tragic Apatasaur

The Apatasaur grew so big and fat,
With never a shield to cover his slat.
His teeth were short and his claws were blunt,
And he was not built for the fighting stunt.

The robber-beasts fell on his helpless hide,
And they sliced him long and they sliced him wide:
They reveled and fattened on his cumbrous bulk
And left him stranded: a helpless hulk.

Naught but his frame was left beside
The mud-flat there at the ebbing tide.
When the waves came in and covered him o’er
With sand from the deep, and mud from the shore.

The ages passed with their work and play,
And a bone-digger came on a lucky day.
To the crumbling cliff where Apatasaur lay.
He picked and he shoveled and he dug him out:
A creature to be wondered and talked about.

Then they mounted him in the relic hall
Hung with creatures great and creatures small.
And they pointed him out from all the rest
As a marvel of UNPREPAREDNESS.

-Elmer S. Riggs

A bone digger and his Apatosaur in the relic hall
A bone digger with his Apatosaur in the relic hall

Riggs’ second poem has no title:

I am the geological
Scissors and Paste
I piece together
what the centuries waste
I dig in the rocks
and I delve in the sand.
I gather strange creatures from sea and from land

I am the geological
Scissors and Paste
I piece together
what the centuries waste
I dig in the rocks
and I delve in the sand
I gather strange creatures
from sea and from land.

-Elmer S. Riggs

A scan of Riggs' original manuscript
A scan of Riggs’ original manuscript

-Transcriptions, writing, and technical support supplied in part by Michelle Sclafani.

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Last Chance Theropod

On the very last day of prospecting, I turned up a few bones of a theropod dinosaur. The crew was in good spirits given how rare theropod remains are here and how significant they are to our research. The following day I further explored the site with the hopes that more bone would be hidden in the hill. Indeed I was able to expose a metatarsal and a few other fragments before being chased off by lightening storms. We collected a few bones from here, which will hopefully be enough to figure out what kind of theropod we’ve found. As heartbreaking as it is…. The rest of the bones (whatever there may or may not be here) will have to remain in the hillside while we secure excavation permits to come back next year. 

In the meantime we’ve dubbed this site Last Chance Theopod, both for the stunning view across last chance desert and because we found this site on the last day of prospecting. 

View from Last Chance Theropod
 
 

Hiking Till Death Do Us Part

One of our goals this expedition is to find new dinosaur sites to excavate next year. After four unsuccessful days of hiking around southern Utah looking for sites, the team spent four days prospecting the Mussentuchit for new sites. Feeling mind-numbingly exhausted after hiking up and down steep hills for 4-5 miles a day for many days straight, I began to see the lack of luck taking a toll on the team. The only saving grace for prospecting for days in end without reward…, the outstanding views!!

The colorful badlands of Jurassic and Cretaceous sediments

The best part of the hike ; what a view!
 
Finally the team got a break yesterday when I spotted a limb bone of a theropod trailing down the hillside. Typically digging into the hill produces no trace, meaning the bone was isolated and entirely weathered out. This time there was actually bone sticking out of the hillside when I dug in. Today, I’ll be digging further into the hill with the hopes that more of the skeleton resides within. 

Khai scrambles up a precarious slope in search of bone.
At last, a bone horizon to explore.

Jacket Pulling Day

The best and worst part of packaging up a carefully excavated block of dinosaur bones is knowing that the fossils are protected and ready for transport back to the museum.  It’s a great feeling to know that these specimens are ready for preparation and study after weeks of digging and a dreadful anticipation knowing that you have to get them back to camp to load into the field vehicles before that can happen.  Today we assembled a team to pull a 500 lb block of juvenile Eolambia bones (skull, pelvis, hindlimb, vertebrae) from Suicide Hill, up a mudstone hill, a sandstone cliff, and back to camp.  All in all things went smoothly and we’ll be happy to see this one opened up in the prep lab.  If you’re around, come watch it being prepared in the Paleontology Research Lab at the NRC.

Preparing the jacket of bones for transport.
Preparing the jacket of bones for transport.
Jacket pulling team, all smiles BEFORE the big pull.
Jacket pulling team, all smiles BEFORE the big pull.

Storms Greet Us Back In Camp

On our first couple of days back in camp we were pummeled with massive storms… lightening that nearly took out a few of the crew as they crossed the high hills and then an awe inspiring hail storm.  These videos say just about it all!

Grape-sized hail anyone?
Grape-sized hail anyone?

Southern Utah Team Wraps Up

Two of the best parts of the southern Utah prospecting split of were the wildflowers and the incredible vistas.  Fossils?  Well, that turned out to be less incredible than we were hoping.  Still on our fourth day of prospecting we turned up some good finds, including tons of turtle, a croc skeleton, and a claw from a new species of theropod.

Some finds from prospecting: turtle shell, petrified wood, a gastropod, and some bone fragments
Some finds from prospecting: turtle shell, petrified wood, a gastropod, and some bone fragments
Wildflowers
Wildflowers
Scouting new outcrop is always best from a high vantage point
Scouting new outcrop is always best from a high vantage point

After the last day of prospecting, the southern Utah team wrapped it up and headed back to central Utah to meet up with the rest of the crew.  We hear told that several jackets are ready for the taking!

A theropod claw turns up on the last day of prospecting...
A theropod claw turns up on the last day of prospecting…
Saying goodbye to some beautiful prospecting
Saying goodbye to some beautiful prospecting

 

 

Marian Maas reflects on her grandfather, Elmer S. Riggs

Marian Maas was a beloved wife, mother and grandmother and a kindergarten teacher who loved history. In her retirement, she collected and restored antique dolls. She passed away in late May of this year.

Marian was also the granddaughter of Elmer S. Riggs, a vertebrate paleontologist at Chicago’s Field Museum from 1898 through 1942. In the summer of 2000, she met with historian of science Paul D. Brinkman at the museum to discuss her late grandfather.

Following an exhaustive tour of the paleontology collections and exhibits, Paul and Marian retired to the former’s office to discuss Elmer’s family life and personality. As Paul explains at the beginning of the interview, there is a great deal of information in the written record about Elmer’s work, but comparatively little about his personal life. Fortunately, Marian was eager to talk. She spoke about her grandfather and his family for more than an hour. She was very fond of him, remembering him as the person who got her interested in science. According to Marian, Elmer was the glue that held the family together:

“He was family oriented, and we spent lots of Christmases there [with Elmer in Chicago] or they came to us for Christmas. So, we had a very strong family feeling that he kept together even with three different wives, you know. [Elmer widowed three times.] They fit in, and I never knew anything about their families; it just seemed like once they married him they were a Riggs along with everybody else. They were in our family, not theirs anymore. That’s kind of the way that seems.”

Riggs family portrait ca. 1933 with Elmer and Fannie in the middle
Riggs family portrait ca. 1933 with Elmer and Fannie in the middle

In her childhood, when Elmer still worked for the Field Museum, he would take Marian and her sisters on tours of the exhibits. She remembered how he “always welcomed us here [at the Field Museum] also, you know, and … every time we came to Chicago we always had to come here to see some of our old friends, you know, some of the old exhibits.” For her eighth birthday, Elmer gave Marian a prepared sheep’s skull with all of the individual bones festooned with neat pen-and-ink labels. Recollecting her gift in later years, she thought it was “rare for a grandfather to send an eight-year-old girl a sheep skull for her birthday, but it was perfect as far as I was concerned.” Marian went on to collect skeletons herself, remarking that even though her family did not have enough money to purchase mounted sets, she and her sister (with the assistance of their father) would create their own from carcasses found near their home.

In listening to the interview, one gets the feeling that Marian truly believed Elmer made an effort to visit the family as often as he could. He appears in many of the photos she brought to the interview, especially from the time she lived in Michigan. When Paul asked her about how her family felt about Elmer, Marian had quite a bit to say:

“Grandfather was always so imposing, and he always seemed serious and deliberate, and so we respected him, and not only did he have this fantastic job that we thought was so neat … but he was just a very imposing person otherwise, and … we did respect him and obey him without question even though sometimes it’s hard to keep quiet in the apartment or something. I remember asking him once why he was bald, and he said oh, cause his hat wore his hair away. Well, I couldn’t figure that out because where the hat was, the hair was, but he didn’t get upset by my question. He answered it, and … he did talk to us, and … didn’t talk down to us, and he was not only willing to bring us to his work and so on; like I say, bounce us on his knee, and sang to us.”

Marian even shared a touching family letter from 1913 written by Elmer to his young sons, who had been living with an uncle since the tragic death of their mother in 1906. She picked it out from a stack of papers she had copied for Paul. She hoped that his personal papers – including poetry and other miscellaneous writing – would paint a fuller picture of Elmer’s humanity. The letter explains that he would soon be marrying Fannie Smith, that she would be a new mother to the boys, and that they could move back home with him and be a family again.

“There is one [letter] in there that’s extra sweet. It’s to his two little boys in 1913, and it’s telling them that he’s got a new apartment for them to come live with him because they’ve been living with aunts and uncles … since their mother died, and … he talks about he’s going to fix up a room just for them, and maybe even Santa Claus will come visit, and best of all, you’re gonna have a new mother, and she’s gonna love you and take care of you, and so on. So, I hadn’t known that existed until I got it ‘til recently, and that was a real sweet letter, you know.”

Elmer Riggs, Fannie Smith, Robert and Hal at the Smith Farm ca. 1914
Elmer Riggs, Fannie Smith, Robert and Hal at the Smith Farm ca. 1914

Marian went on to talk about how she vacationed with her cousins often, and believed her father Calvin Harold “Hal” and his brother Robert were very close. They even sailed together in their retirement:

“And then later when he built catamarans and a trimaran, and then he raced catamarans, and he got Rob interested in it too. So they sailed together a lot after daddy retired. So they were quite close, and always got along quite well, and the family spent a lot of vacations together. So I knew—was very close to most of my cousins for that reason. So they were close.”

-Transcriptions, writing, and technical support supplied in part by Michelle Sclafani.