LANCE CREEK , Wyo. (AP) — The sun was minutes away from being straight up, high noon, the hottest hours of the day to come. A breeze, earlier cool and welcoming, threatened to become prairie wind — dusty and dry, sucking every drop of moisture from lips and the grass.
It was great for the sagebrush and cactus, though.
A neighboring ranch hand warned of an unusually high amount of rattlesnake activity in this area of Niobrara County, but on the first two and half days of the dig, nobody saw one. Instead, the 12 volunteers dug up a biting red-headed centipede, spotted a funnel cloud and walked over an animal's hole several times before noticing the black widow which had claimed it. She was bigger than a quarter.
"One thing about this job, you probably couldn't pay people to do it," said Steve Pfaff, a volunteer at the Tate Geological Museum for 10 years and one of 70 who will help dig Lee Rex over the next four weeks.
It takes a small army of volunteers to extract a Tyrannosaurus rex encased in an 18-foot-long rock. On June 13, 11 volunteers started the first shift along with the Tate crew and the hired help. They came from Casper, Oregon, Illinois, Minnesota, Virginia, Georgia, Canada and Denmark. Most arrived on Sunday to help set up the camp, erecting a small village on the Wyoming badlands — 10 tents, 7 vehicles, 2 RVs and a pop-up camper.
By the next morning, they had worked through rain, chilling wind and still heat — 83 degrees under the shade tent. A lightning storm chased them to their cars.
If you think digging dinosaurs is fun, or interesting, or something you'd like to do at least once, think about this: The summer is only going to get hotter and drier. Volunteers will sleep in tents, haul their own water and food, and, if they feel the need, carry five gallons of water down a cactus-covered hill to the camp shower. This dig could produce the best T. rex specimen from Wyoming, or it could yield little more than what's already been found.
The volunteers know this and signed up anyway.
Four have been digging for 13 years with the dig coordinator at Tate, prep lab manager J.P. Cavigelli. They helped explore the site last summer and dig around the rock: Linda Aschenbrenner, 62, of Lakemoor, Ill.; Sara Voorhees, 41, of Arlington, Va.; Taecey Cowart, 50, of Clarksville, Ga.; and Mary Johnson, 46, of Montreal, Canada.
All met during a dig with the University of Montana's Camp Makela in 1998. They've dug together at least once a summer since. Lee was their second T. rex.
"All the museums want a T. rex. It's a sizeable animal. It's a strange animal. It's a monster of an animal," Aschenbrenner said, sifting buckets of dirt for stray pieces of cervical ribs - small bones high on a T. rex neck that give J.P. hope that a skull is buried somewhere at the site.
"It's always the reunion," Voorhees said, explaining why she comes. "But I certainly enjoy sitting in the dirt for a week and taking out my frustrations on concretion. How do you beat the scenery and no cell phones? How do you beat the badlands and their stark beauty?"
Johnson met John Sunesen of Bogense, Denmark, five years ago in Iceland. She told him about digging on Dee the Mammoth, and he said he'd break his right arm to get in on something like that. This winter, Johnson wrote him about Lee Rex. Sunesen and a friend volunteered for a week.
The work was back-breaking a times and tedious at others. The water-proof tarp and thick layer of dirt put on Lee Rex to protect it through the winter had to be re-dug and removed. Cactus and sagebrush were chopped or shoveled to clear the work area. The whole site was measured, flagged, divided into one-meter squares and labeled. Bucket by bucket, dirt surrounding Lee was inspected, removed and sifted or tossed over the fence.
Lee is the seventh T. rex found in Wyoming, none of the specimens more than 20 percent complete. There are 300 bones in a complete skeleton and, by the second day, about 34 bones had been collected from Lee Rex, with more likely encased in the rock.
Cavigelli discovered the site in 2005 while digging for Triceratops pieces on Frill Hill, a mound close enough to cast a shadow on Lee in the morning sun. He noticed a few vertebrae in the ground, but had no idea what kind of animal he'd found. The discovery went to the back burner as the Tate Geological Museum turned its focus to Dee the Mammoth.
When Cavigelli finally investigated the site, he knew he'd found something big. Being part of it is why the volunteers came.
"J.P., I think I've got something here!" said Jorgen Nielsen of Odense, Denmark.
A finger-sized piece of rust-colored bone stretched from the middle of a grid square to the one adjacent, underneath ground that had yet to be excavated. It was about the width of a neck rib, which is another clue to where Lee's elusive skull might be.
Cavigelli patted Jorgen on the back. It was the second solid bone the crew had uncovered since June 11.
The work ahead would be slow, careful and precise. Dirt would be moved with a pocket knife and paintbrush. But the volunteers knew the dig was heating up, and not only because of the sun.
Sunesen took pictures of the bone — which technically started in his hole, even though Nielsen uncovered it.
Sunesen hunts for fossils in Denmark along the beach, fascinated with the idea of ancient life lying there, waiting to be picked up and put in his pocket.
"This is the first sign of life this side of the hole," he said. "Well, we came the farthest. I think we are entitled."
The volunteers will probably leave the site sweaty, dirt crusted in their ears and with greasy hair sticking to their necks. They will also see skies stretching from hilltop to hilltop, wake to the meadowlarks and king fishers, possibly see a double rainbow following an afternoon thunderstorm.
And there is this:
"Do you like to gamble?" asked Michael Pedersen of Hopkins, Minn., explaining why he will participate in six digs around the country this year.
You put a quarter in, and another, and another. Suddenly the machine erupts with the sound of the win. That's what hunting fossils is like to him.
"You dig, dig, dig. It seems like you dig for days. Then, TING! Guess what? There it is," he said.
"I'll take that over a slot machine any day."
Information from: Casper Star-Tribune - Casper, http://www.trib.com
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.