Heaven Is a Hole of Dirt

The Spitsbergen Mesozoic Research Group has become a bit ambitious. Every year each hole we dig in search of fossils becomes deeper, or wider and bigger than the last. Our two week field season in the Arctic is coming to an end and we have found enough material of 247 million year old creatures to keep us busy for several years. 

By Aubrey Jane Roberts and Victoria Engelschiøn Nash

The team has been excavating the “Grippia” bone bed, which was a dig site we started last year. The purpose of this expedition was to remove as much as we could from a 2-5 cm thick layer of rock, which is full of bones and teeth from fish, reptiles, amphibians and sharks. We nearly bit off more than we could chew with the size of the hole. The quarry ended up being about 44 square meters, which required us to move about 70 metric tonnes of shale to get to the bone bed. This was of course all done by hand and has taken most of the time and manpower of the expedition to accomplish.

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This 360-degree image reveals the “Grippia” bone bed excavation site. (Photo by Jørn Hurum)

As the bone bed continued into the mountain slope, we had to remove a large section of the hill to get down to the bone bed layer. After digging approximately 1.5m down, we slowed down and removed the last few centimetres more carefully to avoid accidently shovelling out part of the bone bed. We uncovered section by section to have areas where we could still move freely and place the excavation equipment.

A close-up of the detailed excavation by Pat and Victoria. A vertebra is visible poking out of the bone bed layer. (Photo by Jørn Hurum)
A close-up of the detailed excavation by Pat and Victoria. A vertebra is visible poking out of the bone bed layer. (Photo by Jørn Hurum)

Lying in a hole for several hours in a massive suit is not the most comfortable thing in the world. But aches and pains disappear when you are painstakingly excavating fossils bit by bit. Well, at least until you stand up and the blood returns to your legs. The finds just got better, bigger and more well-preserved the further we excavated into the permafrost.

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The Omphalosaurus jaw, found by Tanja. (Photo by Achim Reisdorf)

Tanja became super excited when she discovered a jaw piece of an Omphalosaurus—a strange reptile that would shock dentists round the world. The jaw of Omphalosaurus has teeth erupting at all angles. We have been lucky enough to discover numerous bone elements from this animal, and hope to learn more about this enigmatic reptile.

Tanja presents her Omphalosaurus find enthusiastically. (Photo by Achim Reisdorf)

After two weeks of digging we have about 50 bags filled with sediment and fossils. The expedition has been a success, and we are all excited about studying our finds in detail back in the lab in Oslo. Now all that is left to do, is to fill in the hole and erase any trace of our presence in the Arctic wilderness of Flowerdalen.

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Meet the Author
Aubrey Roberts is a graduate student in paleontology, working with National Geographic Emerging Explorer Jørn Hurum and grantee Gareth Dyke. She writes from the field and the lab with a new take on very, very old things. Her main field of work focuses on ancient marine reptiles from Svalbard (Norway).