Story by Rod Charles
Vacay.ca Deputy Editor
DRUMHELLER, ALBERTA — The gentleman I am standing with is holding a petrified egg in one hand and a rock-hard, twisted clump of feces in his other and I have to admit that I’m enthralled.
Sounds weird, I know. There’s nothing appetizing about a petrified egg. And usually the only time feces gets my attention is when I’ve made the mistake of accidentally stepping in some.
But there’s nothing ordinary about these artifacts that Royal Tyrrell Museum executive director Andrew Neuman is holding. Both came out of the backsides of dinosaurs and for the paleontologists who work here, the artifacts are much more than what they appear. They are a peek back into time, a tiny but not insignificant piece of a puzzle that shines a light on the story of our planet and the animals that once ruled it.
Make no mistake, though, prehistoric droppings aren’t the only attention-grabbing storyteller at Tyrrell Museum. There are fossilized plants and animals, those petrified dinosaur eggs and ancient fish that literally look like they’re swimming in rock. And for big and small kids, don’t worry — there are also the razor-sharp teeth of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and intimidating raptor claws that will make you look up and offer a quiet, heartfelt prayer of thanks that these animals are extinct. And these artifacts are not on loan from some other museum — everything you see here is harvested from the surrounding region known internationally as the Canadian Badlands, an area so rich in dinosaur fossils and deposits that paleontologists are literally tripping over them. In these parts, it’s not news for a contractor, construction crew or camper to call the museum with an interesting find.
The Badlands are the perfect place for a fossil hunter like Neuman. A Tyrrell Museum lifer, he began his career in 1986 as a collections manager and curator of fossil fishes and has never looked back. A friendly, easygoing man unafraid to unleash an occasional corny dinosaur joke, Neuman is clearly in his element as we go for a tour behind the scenes to a room known as the Unprepared Collections Facility. Neuman is doing his best to be professional but I can see underneath his exterior is a kid in a giant candy store and I can’t say I blame him. Every inch of this white, bright warehouse is lined with thousands of numbered bones and plaster casings of all shapes and sizes. I couldn’t tell you the first intelligent thing about paleontology, and I’m excited at the vast collection of fossils in this room alone.
Canadian Badlands are a National Treasure
Admittedly, this is a part of the museum that most people don’t get to see. But it does reinforce the richness of the fossils in the area and the sheer amount of volume of stuff that comes through these doors every year. Neuman explains that if the museum were to stop looking for bones today, it would take about 30 years for existing staff to catch up on the backlog in the Unprepared Collections Facility. And that’s what makes the area a national gem for all of us — not just those in the dinosaur-hunting business.
At the time of my interview with Neuman, the museum had four teams out in the field examining fossil finds. A chill goes through my body as I realize I am surrounded by artifacts and fossils that were in the ground longer than the earliest human being was alive. Give the golden oldies like the Pyramids of Giza, Ba’alat Gebal and L’Anse aux Meadows their due, but these fossils tell a story of our planet long before human beings were even out of the starting blocks.
For paleontologists, the Badlands of Alberta are the perfect storm for bone hunting and it’s a big reason why this museum is such a treasure. Neuman explained that there are lots of fossils in the region, but there is also the infrastructure in place to deal with the fossils.
“If you were to go to some places in Mongolia or China, you would find just as many fossils but they probably don’t have the infrastructure to deal with it in the same way,” says Neuman, adding that Canada is very blessed to have a facility that can process these treasures. “There are also many large fossil deposits in Argentina and several places in South America, but it’s the same problem — many regions simply lack the means to collect, analyze and store them.”
Our next stop is a fan favourite, a room officially known as the preparation lab, unofficially referred to as the fish bowl. It’s an area where members of the public in the exhibits area can view the lab as the fossils are prepared through a window.
“What most people don’t know is about two-thirds of the building is actually behind the secured doors and this glass window where we have the warehouses and the fabrication rooms, shops, storage, offices and labs. Most people don’t get a chance to see that except through video presentations in our auditorium, or this glass window,” says Neuman.
It’s a room full of trinkets, air cleaners, and sharp rock-cutting and chipping tools that look like they belong in a dentist’s office. Besides each table is a small, plastic toy dinosaur, which the paleontologists use to guide them as they gently chip away the stone. One of the coolest sights of the day was watching Neuman use a pencil to show me the exact location of a ridge on what appeared to be a Talarurus while a child looked at his demonstration through the window. It was amazing watching the child as his brain clearly linked the plastic toy to the giant, unfamiliar piece of rock sitting on the table.
The museum has several exhibits that the family will enjoy, including Mammal Hall, Burgess Shale and Cretaceous Alberta, where you can get a look at provincial legend (no, not Wayne Gretzky) Albertosaurus sarcophagus. Another popular exhibit is Lords of the Land, highlighting some of the most rare, fragile, and scientifically significant pieces from the museum’s collection — including J.B. Tyrrell’s initial Albertosaurus discovery.
MORE ABOUT TYRRELL MUSEUM
Address: 1500 North Dinosaur Trail, Drumheller, AB (see map below)
Phone: Toll free in North America (outside Alberta) – 1-888-440-4240; 0utside North America – 403-823-7707
May 15-August 31: 9 am-9 p.m.
Open seven days a week.
September 1-May 14: 10 am-5 pm (Tuesday through Sunday)