Bones remain in science museum: Mastodon skeleton found in 1984

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 25, 2004

[3/20/04]Twenty years ago, a small crew from a Jackson museum poked and probed with fingers, trowels and shovels in the muddy soil between Interstate 20 and Pemberton Boulevard to recover the remains of a prehistoric mastodon.

Their goal was to create a display of the remains of an ancestor of today’s elephants. So where are those bones today?

They remain in the paleontology laboratory at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, said George Phillips, curator of paleontology.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

When Dr. Eleanor Daly, who was associate curator of paleontology at the museum at the time, unearthed the bones near where Shoney’s is today, she said she hoped they could be used to create a display of a whole skeleton of the huge, woolly beast. But, Phillips said, budget cuts when the museum moved into its new building on Riverside Drive in Jackson have prevented work on the display.

Mastodon skeletons are not rare in the Vicksburg area, and one was found as far back as the late 1860s on the Wash Green property, off Halls Ferry Road near what is now Waterways Experiment Station. Green displayed the remains for a number of years before they disappeared.

In the 1950s, a young man found what was identified as a mastodon tooth in the same Pemberton Square area where the skeleton was unearthed in March 1984. In the 1960s, developers were working on a shopping area on North Frontage Road where Post Plaza now stands and discovered another set of remains. Those, however, were in such poor condition it was decided they could not be recovered.

Information from the museum was that the bones found were from an elderly bull that died near a spring after its lower teeth abscessed. Scientific dating techniques indicated the animal lived 16,000 to 17,000 years ago.

The excavation lasted from March to May 1984, and the team recovered more than 60 bones or fragments, including a pair of tusks that measured 7 feet 4 inches long.

Even with the idea of a display halted by funding constraints, Phillips said he has not forgotten about the old bones.

“They are still on the floor in our collection space,” he said. “People can see them.”

Phillips then explained the bones will have to be treated with a preservative called polyvinyl butyral before anything else can be done. And the intervening 20 years have been an advantage, he said, because the bones have dried out completely and will take the preservative solution well when time and money are available.

Even when the bones are preserved, he said, he doesn’t want to create the display from them.

“I want to make casts,” Phillips said, adding the casts would be used for molds to make display bones.

That technique would allow a more durable display and also allow the museum staff to fill in missing pieces with replicas from other skeletons.

“I’m trying to build a volunteer base in paleontology,” he said, adding the volunteers could do much of the work.