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Equipment Required to Search, Excavate and Preserve Fossils of Dinosaurs

"There are many fossils of dinosaurs embedded in the earth. Here is a list of the equipment required to search, excavate and preserve fossils."

Dinosaurs big and small roamed the earth millions of years ago. Meteor strikes, volcanic outbursts, and floods covered the skeletons and bones of these ancient beasts. These skeletons and bones were covered with river sand, ash, lime and mud. Time, extreme heat and pressure changed the layers to sandstone, limestone, shale, and mudstone. 

Over time these skeletons got embedded in the stone it was lying in. They disappeared from the naked eye. Wind and water erosion changed the earth’s surface and started to expose the Dinosaur bones again. Scientists and the public alike are searching for the remaining traces of these ancient beasts.

Paleontologists study for years to earn a doctorate in the study of dinosaurs. Based on their knowledge of where these ancient beasts roamed, they can try to find fossils of dinosaurs. To enable them to do this, they need special equipment to search, excavate and preserve fossils of dinosaurs. In each phase, you require a different set of equipment. Let’s have a look at the equipment needed for the various stages:

Equipment to Search, Dig For and Preserve Fossils of Dinos4

Finding a Dinosaur Fossil

In the past, finding dinosaur fossils was very much like searching for gold. Paleontologists first did the prospecting in the area. They reckon there might be fossils of dinosaurs. While walking over the area, they keep their eyes glued to the ground to find fragments of fossils on the surface. If they get so lucky as to find a small piece of fossil, they will very gently sweep away the earth around that area to determine if there are more fragments. If they find more pieces, they will start with the excavating process. 

In more modern times, the Paleontologists used x-rays to help them get images of the surface forms. These days, Paleontology uses high-speed computers, large databases, and very sophisticated analytical equipment to help them search for possible dinosaur fossils. Large databases of the Cambrian radiation, the Great Ordovician Biodiversity Expansion, and the extinction at the Permian’s end also help paleontologists determine where to look for dinosaur fossils. 

The use of these technologies helps them to find the right areas to search for the fossils. The latest technology used to help with finding dinosaur fossils is the use of 3-D scanners. CT-scanning gives paleontologists a detailed three-dimensional internal imaging of the earth layers and fossil remains. The fossils show up without removing them from the surrounding stone. The use of the latest technologies can help a paleontologist excavate the fossil with limited damage. 

Equipment to Search, Dig For and Preserve Fossils of Dinos4

Excavating a Dinosaur Fossil

After finding evidence of a possible dinosaur fossil, you need special equipment to excavate the fossil. Excavating a dinosaur fossil is a time-consuming job as great care must be taken to try and keep the fossil intact. It can take you months and even years to excavate a single dinosaur fossil. Your aim would also be to try and excavate as much of the fossil intact. Where CT scanning indicates that a fossil is embedded in a big stone block, an excavation team can use large tools like compressors and feathers and plugs to dislodge it from the stone bank. 

Cranes are used to remove the entire block and place it on a truck to take it to a laboratory. The area is so remote or stone ridge flat that you can not excavate a block most of the time. You need to revert to the old digging around the fossil with hand tools. Here is a list of the hand tools that you may find in a paleontologist’s Field Kit:

GPS

The GPS is a handy piece of equipment in remote areas. Prospecting can lead you far away from your camp. The GPS ensures that you don’t get lost. You can document the coordinates in a field book with every site you find. Having the coordinates of a find means it is easy to find again. 

Walkie-talkie

The sites indicated for possible dinosaur fossils are normally very remote. Most of the time, there are no mobile phone networks available to communicate with each other. When one team is excavating one site, you may have another team doing parameter prospecting. You would need a walkie-talkie to keep up communication with each other.

Camping Spades

When you start, small camping spades are used to remove loose sand and vegetation in the area. This is useful for clearing around the solid stone.

Chisels

The dinosaur fossils are embedded in stone. It can be sandstone, limestone, or mudstone. The stone can crumble easily or be extremely hard, depending on the natural heat and pressure it was exposed. You would need a variety of chisels to chip away the excess stone to expose the fossil. Bigger chisel heads are needed when you are far away from the fossil and smaller ones as you get closer.

Rock Hammer

As with the different size chisels, you would also need different weight rock hammers. You will also need different head shapes and sizes. You want to feel comfortable with the rock hammer in your hand because you may chip away using it for the entire day.

Probes

While excavating, there may be areas where you would need long thin probes to open deeper areas where you are restricted by space. This can be done with screwdriver-handled points and dental picks, which can be used as a fine-tipped drill.

Brushes

Brushes are very important. Depending on the size excavated, you would need different size brushes. You have to keep the chiseled and drilled area clean to see what you are doing. While brushing, you can also blow on the area to keep the dust away.

Swiss Army Knife or Fork and Spoon

Remember that you may work in remote areas while excavating. You would need these basic utensils to eat your lunch. But that is not all. Swiss knives have interesting probing parts that can be used in the dig. The spoon is very handy for digging out sensitive areas.  

Vinac

Vinac is a consolidant you use to stabilize cracking and crumbling fossils until you get to the controlled environment of the Fossil Prep Lab. It’s a thin water-like solution of vinyl beads and acetone. Vinac can be removed with a non-harmful solvent back at the laboratory. There the fossil can be re-constructed with the correct adhesives.

Markers and Plastic Bags

While excavating dinosaur fossils, you may get pieces of bone. Plastic bags and markers are used to put all the pieces together in one bag and mark it properly with all the important information. Information on the markers can be: date found, measurement, GPS coordinates, which part of the bone or fossil, and the condition of the bone (fragile, very fragile, or extremely fragile).

Tape Measure

Before putting any bones, fragments or other parts of the fossil in a bag, you would need a measuring tape to measure the length and width. You also need to measure different distances in the quarry, depending on how the fossil is lying. This is to determine where you must dig to expose more parts of the fossil. 

Equipment to Search, Dig For and Preserve Fossils of Dinos4

Preserving Fossils

To prepare a fossil to last for perpetuity, a laboratory would need specific equipment. The preparator needs these tools to complete the exacting tasks of exposing the fossil and preserving it for our children. This equipment is used in the different steps required to preserve the fossil:

Micro Preparation Equipment

  • A Stereo Dissecting microscope is an essential part of the equipment. You would need x1 and x5 objective lenses. The focal range required is from x6-8 to x40. 
  • When you are working with different size fossils, you need a boom arm for the microscope to allow you to move the microscope over a specimen. The boom arm should have a heavy base, an upright and a boom arm. Ensure that the Microscope does not topple over when you extend the boom arm. 
  • Fibre optic illuminators are used to light up the fossil. The recommended lighting to use when working under the microscope is a combination of branch and ring lighting.
  • In the laboratory, you will make use of trays and workboxes around a specimen. This will ensure that any fragments that fall from the specimen are collected.
  • Micro-prep equipment is also like high-speed steel drill blanks and needles shaped with either fine points or chisel-shaped points used for cutting and scraping. With these tools, you also use pin vices to hold the pins and an air pedal with a tube blowing air to clean the working area.

Macro Preparation Equipment

  • To prepare large materials, air-powered (pneumatic) tools are used. These tools get their air from an air compressor. You must ensure that the air compressor is big enough to run a few tools simultaneously. When using an air compressor, you also need air hoses, Airline pressure regulators, air dryers, inline filters, quick release couplers and lubricators.
  • Airscribes are little jack-hammers that are held onto the stone to clean small flakes away from the bone or fossil. You would require different size airscribes for bigger or smaller applications.
  • Rotary flexible shaft tools can be used to remove very brittle material from the fossil delicately. These would include minute dental burs and larger diamond burs.
  • An electric bench grinder and diamond wheels are used to sharpen or shape the other small probes.
  • Specimens can retain a fine film of dust. This can be easily removed using microabrasion, such as a fine stream of sodium bicarbonate.

Molding and Casting Equipment

  • Adhesives and casting resins must be precisely measured. You need a sensitive digital scale or a triple beam balance to measure the quantities.
  • To prevent air bubbles in molding, rubbers and casting materials are de-aired before their application. A vacuum chamber is used for the de-airing process.
  • You will require a vacuum pump to create the vacuum in the air chamber.

Miscellaneous Equipment

There are other miscellaneous equipment you may need:

  • Pneumatic wheeled carts are very useful in moving larger specimens. They are versatile in that they can lift up and down to place the specimen in a position where you can effortlessly work on it.
  • Lifting and rolling tables are very useful for the preparator to reach all sides of a large dinosaur fossil.
  • You use sandbags of different sizes to support your hands and wrists when working under a microscope or to steady a specimen.
  • Basic woodworking tools like a jig-saw, drill, hand saws, and a heavy bench vice also come in handy. Larger equipment like a table saw and a drill press is sometimes used.
  • Rock hammers and chisels are used in the field, but they are also used in the laboratory.

Equipment to Search, Dig For and Preserve Fossils of Dinos4

Final Thoughts

Finding, excavating and persevering dinosaur fossils is a time-consuming process. It can be very rewarding to look back at this ancient beast you brought back out of the stone. Can it be financially viable to spend so much time looking for and finding a dinosaur fossil? Looking and finding fossils is legal. Excavating them is legal as long as you have the landowner’s permission. Can you make money out of a dinosaur fossils find? For sure. Stan, the famous Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, was bought for $31.8million at auction in 2020. A Triceratops skull discovered in Montana in 2008 was sold for $250,950.

Deon Hattingh

Deon Hattingh

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