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Underground trenching leads to million-year-old find

Executive Director Julie Stein of the Burke Museum, Washington’s only museum of natural history and culture, shares information about some of the fossils found in the Yakima Valley, with Sunnyside Daybreak Rotary President Nick Friend. Stein was the guest speaker at the Rotary Club meeting today.

Photo by Julia Hart.
Executive Director Julie Stein of the Burke Museum, Washington’s only museum of natural history and culture, shares information about some of the fossils found in the Yakima Valley, with Sunnyside Daybreak Rotary President Nick Friend. Stein was the guest speaker at the Rotary Club meeting today.

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Among the fossils shared with the Sunnyside Daybreak Rotary Club this morning were the teeth of a mammoth found near Granger (front left), as well as a prehistoric shark tooth (far right).

When the Columbian mammoths roamed the Pacific Northwest more than 11,000 years ago, there were no hi-rises blocking the horizon.

So imagine the surprise of a backhoe operator minding his own business earlier this year, digging a trench in Seattle’s South Lake Union District only to encounter a lost member of the mammoth family.

Julie Stein, the executive director of the Burke Museum located in Seattle, shared the amazing story of the discovery of the mammoth’s tusk from the underground parking garage construction site with the Sunnyside Daybreak Rotary Club this morning.

Maybe the most fascinating part of Stein’s presentation was that she was on the scene of the unusual urban find and aided in the rescuing of the tusk.

Stein said the Burke Museum scientists had less than 24 hours in which to rescue the nearly 15-foot long tusk, and that was just the first challenge.

“The tusk was the consistency of a wet noodle so it was no easy task to remove it from the underground trench,” she said.

She explained that the museum paleontologists had to wrap it in a plaster cast and then the gigantic fossil had to be reinforced with 2x4’s.

“When I arrived on the site to check on the recovery process, the crews told me they were out of plaster,” she said

She said the plaster emergency called for a trip to the local Home Depot, which was closed, “...but the staff had heard about the mammoth find and called for the store manager.”

Crisis one averted.

Once the tusk was ready to be moved, it required a monster crane to lift the tusk from its deep burial spot. The Seattle winds created a second momentary challenge before the precious find was lowered to the waiting flatbed of a truck, ready to transport the tusk to the Burke Museum, Stein explained.

The tusk is now on display at the University of Washington campus-based museum still wrapped in its plaster cast.

“It will take about two years for the tusk to dry in order to knit itself back into bone,” she explained.

In the meantime, since its Feb. 11 discovery, the Columbian mammoth tusk has been named “LULU (Lucky Lake Union) the Mammoth,” by an 8-year-year-old South Lake Union girl.

Stein said the tusk is just one of more than 15 million objects of natural history found in the state and from around the world and held in trust by the Burke Museum.

The museum was founded by a couple of young Seattle men wanting to reserve a few ancient bugs they found back in the late 1800s. Today, more than 125 years later, the museum continues to collect and preserve natural history discoveries which are stored in Washington’s only museum of natural history and culture.

In addition to storing the fossils of animal and plant life, the Burke offers classroom presentations via the Burke in a box programs, available to school districts throughout the state, as well as is the Burke Mobile program, Stein added.

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