How the U.S. Army ended up with a huge collection of dinosaur bones
The U.S. Army plays a lot of roles. But dinosaur collector? That’s one no one expected. The military organization is more commonly known for “Preserving the peace and security and providing for the defense of the United States”. So you might be surprised to learn that they have quite an extensive collection of fossils.
Even more surprising? It totally happened by mistake. Here’s how the U.S. Army ended up with a priceless collection of archaeological treasures:
The Army Corps of Engineers
The United States Army Corps of Engineers can be traced back to 1777 when there were just one engineer and two assistants. It was almost immediately disbanded in 1783, only to be reestablished in 1794. Despite the rocky start, the Corps is now thriving with over 37,000 civilian and military personnel.
From the beginning, the Corps has been tasked with building locks and dams, flood control, beach nourishment, improving river navigation, and more. Their goal is to “strengthen our Nation’s security by building and maintaining America’s infrastructure.”
That flood control stuff, though? That turned out to be WAY more complicated than first expected.
The Flood Control Act
It all started in 1936 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed the Flood Control Act, meant to improve rivers and other waterways for flood control. This monumental project led to the construction of countless dams and levees, including the Kinzua Dam and the Optima Lake Dam.
Logically, all of that flood control required a LOT of digging. And what happens when you dig giant holes all over the place (especially near water sources)? You find a ton of weird stuff. It just so happened that the Corps found a giant load of archaeological treasure.
What’s that mean for them? Well, the U.S. Army now owns a whole lotta dinosaur bones.
According to Jen Reardon, an archaeologist with the Corps, “The majority of [the Army’s] archaeological [and paleontological] collections have come from the construction of the hydropower and flood control projects that happened in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. In the 70s, for example, the Corps blasted through earth and rock to build an emergency spillway for the Caesar Creek Lake dam in Ohio. The work shattered layers of shale and limestone to expose an ancient seabed approximately 438 million years old, studded with brachiopods, bryozoa, and crinoids.”
What exactly do they own?
According to Nancy Brighton, a supervisory archaeologist for the Corps, “The U.S. Army Corps has collections that span the paleontological record. Basically anything related to animals and the natural world before humans came onto the scene.”
While many of the fossils are left behind on the job site, the Corps does keep certain (highly valuable) specimens. One of the most famous is “Wankel’s T. Rex”, named after the fossil hunter who discovered it.
Kathy Wankel just likes to hunt for cools rocks. She wasn’t expecting to make any Earth-shattering discoveries. But it was on one of these outings, at Fort Peck Reservoir in Montana, that Kathy saw a tiny little bit of something interesting sticking up out of a slope. She says that, almost immediately, she was able to make out the pattern of bone marrow in the bit of fossil.
She and her family couldn’t stay long on that particular day, but about a month later, they headed back to the spot, chipped out the bones, and lugged them home in a beer cooler. Kathy washed them off in the kitchen sink and the rest, as they say, is history.
Because the fossils were found on Army land, the bones belonged to the U.S. Over a series of years, they dug out what would end up being a 38-foot-long Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, almost 90% intact. Today, it’s still known to locals as “Wankel’s T. Rex”, but to the rest of the country, it’s the nation’s T. Rex.