A Study in Patience

Written by Jack Alger, HMNS Paleontology Intern

Jack Alger, HMNS Paleontology Intern

Jack Alger, HMNS Paleontology Intern

This summer I bring dimetrodons back to life.

No, life has not found a way, I’m not extracting DNA from inclusions found in amber; I work in the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Sugar Land. It’s a small brick building with a splendid collection of history both recent and prehistoric whose residents stand 30 feet tall and have razor sharp teeth.

Every weekday from 9 in the morning to 1 in the afternoon I sit behind a large table, stare through a lit magnifying glass, and with implements of dentistry I carefully extract the bones of Diego, a 280 million year old dimetrodon, from the hard north Texas rock.

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I am an exhibit.

Visitors of the museum who meander all the way back to the Paleozoic section have the opportunity to watch me work and to ask me questions about anything they please, thankfully usually pertaining to my work. One of the most common questions and comments I get deal with patience. “Wow, that seems really tedious” or “How do you have the patience for that? I certainly couldn’t do it” to which I grin and laugh politely with a “yes it is detailed work for sure”.

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After a few weeks of these comments I would like to make a few comments on the work myself and let you in on some of my secrets on being patient.

My first task upon arriving as the new Paleontology intern for the summer was to sift through the context dirt that once surrounded Diego and now filled a half dozen catering trays stored in a small closet in the museum. I would pick out a pile of dirt half the size of a golf ball and search for the microscopic bones hidden among the dirt often spending hours without finding anything. Now you may be saying “How could you keep your focus and stay patient when you had so much work to do?” To which I answer now “one rock at a time”.

I never thought about the amount of dirt in the tray nor in the closet, I just focused on my little pile, combing through it as if I might find a diamond or some other jewel (being an unpaid intern, this seemed like the greatest outcome) and after just a couple weeks I had finished looking through every single tray in the closet. This early lesson in discipline set me up perfectly for my real job, fossil prep. Now when I attack a bone I don’t think about trying to get all the rock off and reveal the entire bone. No, that would drive me insane. Instead I focus on pushing back the rock a micrometer at a time. Under intense magnification I watch flakes the size of a grain of sand that appear to me to be the size of paving stones come off in bunches. In rare cases large flakes of rock that covered half the bone come flying off in a single touch of my tools and I am filled with such elation that may surpass ever seeing the Texans win a Super Bowl from the sideline. My first lesson in patience is to focus on the little things, take small victories, microscopic even, so that when something big happens you are surprised and filled with joy.

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Now I would be a liar if I said my neck never ached and I never got frustrated with lack of progress, so this is my second lesson. When I begin to feel weary from hunching over the desk or when I become irate at the stubborn rock encrusting my precious Diego, I change my pace. I get up and stretch; I walk around the room and study the fossils on display. I get a drink of water, or I simply rotate the bone and take a different perspective on the situation, attacking at a different and hopefully more prosperous angle. I chuckle to myself every time I change the angle of the rock and where it was once impossible to cut through, large chips start to fly off the bone. Lesson two is when the impatience starts to creep in just take a deep breath, stretch, then change your perspective and you’ll be amazed at the result.

Four hours a day, that’s how long I work. It’s not a long time in the grand scheme of things, but those 360 minutes can feel like 3,000 if you get impatient and watch the clock. During my workday I try not to look at the time more than 4 times because nothing will drive you more insane than watching time slowly crawl onward. They say a watched pot never boils, well a watched clock never ticks. I have come to believe that a minute spent staring at the clock feels slower than an hour spent doing something. So next time it’s 4:30 on a Friday and you’re caught up with all your work don’t just sit at your desk and watch the little clock in the corner of your monitor, don’t even sit around, go clean the break room, go talk to someone in your office who is also done with their work, do something productive and engaging that you normally don’t do and next thing you know it’ll be 5 o’clock and your weekend has started.

Anyone can be patient and everyone can be impatient, patience isn’t something you’re born with its just something you do, like a sport you have to practice to get better. So next time you start to feel impatient just focus on the little things, change your perspective, and don’t look at the clock and you’ll start to notice life get just a little easier.

Discover new secrets of ancient Egypt with guest lecturers

This week, more than 400 folks interested in all things ancient Egyptian are making their way to Houston for the 66th Annual Meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt. Running from April 24 to 26, this is the first year the conference is being held in Houston, and perhaps it has something to do with the beautiful new Hall of Ancient Egypt at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

HMNS is excited to host a public three-part lecture featuring leading Egyptologists Dr. Salima Ikram, Dr. Josef Wegner, and Dr. Kara Cooney, who are in town for the ARCE conference. At the museum, each expert will give an update on his or her latest research project.-o6cwMJsxKVXL0Xx6UZa2Dl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVvK0kTmF0xjctABnaLJIm9

You don’t have to be an academic to attend the lecture, or to register for the meeting. ARCE welcomes all fans of ancient Egypt, novice to authority. The lecture will be held Wednesday, April 22 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $18 to the public and $12 for HMNS members.

Online registration for the ARCE meeting is now closed, but on-site registration at the DoubleTree Hilton Downtown Hotel will remain open from April 24 through the end of the conference.

Read on for more details about HMNS’s guest Egyptologists.

 

Divine Creatures, Animal Mummies Providing Clues to Culture, Economy and Science f3638a_3053bb27e037f77cbc56ea0f4b110a8c.jpeg_srz_305_260_85_22_0.50_1.20_0
by Salima Ikram, Ph.D., American University in Cairo

Animal mummies were amongst the least studied of Egypt’s treasures. Now scholars are using them to learn about ancient Egyptian religion, economy, veterinary science and environmental change. The world’s leading expert on animal mummies and founder of the Animal Mummy project at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Dr. Salima Ikram, will present the different kinds of animal mummies and explain what we can learn from them.

 

 

 

Secrets of the Mountain-of-Anubis, A Royal Necropolis Joe_Egypt
by Josef Wegner, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

The ongoing Penn Museum excavations has recently identified a royal necropolis at Abydos. A series of royal tombs located beneath a sacred desert peak, the Mountain-of-Anubis, belong to over a dozen pharaohs include Senwosret III and the recently identified king Senebkay. Dr. Josef Wegner will review the latest findings from the necropolis that spans Egypt’s late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1850-1550 BCE).

 

 

 

21st Dynasty Coffins Project, Recycled Coffins Offer the Socioeconomic InsightKara_Cooney_examines_Egyptian_coffin_
by Kathlyn (Kara) Cooney, Ph.D., UCLA

Dr. Kara Cooney will give an overview of the 21st Dynasty Coffins Project which studies the amount of “borrowing,” or reuse, a given coffin displays during this period of turmoil and material scarcity and seeks to contribute to the understanding of socioeconomics in ancient Egypt. Equipped with high definition cameras and working in cooperation with museums and institutions in Europe and the United States, Cooney takes her research team to investigate, document and study coffin reuse in the Third Intermediate Period. The data acquired will be compiled into a comprehensive database available to Egyptologists everywhere.

Putting the pieces together: Civil War exhibit helps marine archaeologist identify shipwreck artifacts

USS WestfieldTo prepare for an assault on the Confederacy by water, privately owned boats were purchased and converted into war vessels by the Union Navy. Among these were almost two dozen ferryboats that were converted into gunboats.

A particular Staten Island ferryboat named Westfield, originally owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, ended up down the road in Galveston Bay — for nearly 150 years. She wrecked at the conclusion of the 1863 Battle of Galveston, one of the most unusual battles of the Civil War.

After her purchase by the U.S. Navy in 1861, Westfield was armored and converted into a gunboat. Westfield saw significant Civil War action, participating in battles at New Orleans, Vicksburg and other places along the Gulf Coast. Her destruction at the Battle of Galveston on January 1, 1863, was one of the most important and dramatic events of the Civil War in Texas. The Confederate victory won back the port from Union forces. The port stayed in Confederate hands the remainder of the war, and saved Texas from the damaging effects of occupation and battle suffered by other southern states.

In the fall of 2009, a team of marine archeologists, working under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, supervised the recovery of artifacts from this unique “fighting ferryboat.” It was a massive and challenging project. The team recovered tons of artifacts — including parts of the ship, a 4-ton Dahlgren cannon and personal effects of the crew.

Immediately after the artifacts were recovered from the bottom of the Galveston Bay, the conservation phase of the project began. Upon surfacing, artifacts undergo an immediate stabilization process to prevent further deterioration. This is the beginning of the long course of conservation work ahead. The desalination process, in which artifacts remain submerged in water, can by itself take six months to two years. After that, artifacts are treated with numerous conservation techniques, depending on the item’s material make-up.

Many of the artifacts that have completed the conservation process at the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University are on display with the Discovering the Civil War exhibition at HMNS.

In March, several members of the USS Westfield Project were at HMNS for a lecture: Robert Gearhart, Principal Investigator; Amy Borgens, State Marine Archeologist with the Texas Historical Commission; Edward T. Cotham, Jr., project historian and author of Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston. With the group was also Justin Parkoff, who is currently working on conservation of artifacts at the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University.

While at HMNS, Parkoff toured the Civil War exhibition and experienced a eureka moment while viewing the artifacts on display from the Nau Civil War Collection. He spotted a Union belt buckle with a familiar shape.

Parkoff had been working on conserving two seemingly unrelated artifacts from the Westfield wreck site, but no one had been able to identify what they were — until now.
“This is exciting because we have so few personal artifacts from Westfield,” Parkoff explained.

Below are the two recovered artifacts.

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Below is a photo of a replica buckle, identical to the one on display at HMNS from the Nau Collection.

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Want to learn more about excavating and conserving shipwrecks?

Join HMNS for an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the Texas A&M Conservation Research Laboratory on June 16. After learning how researchers locate shipwrecks and recover items from the wreck site, tour the labs to see the different stages of artifact conservation. Starting with indistinguishable concretions, from small specimens to large sections of a ship, you will see how items are transformed in lab treatments.

Our guides are Dr. Donny Hamilton, director of the Conservation Research Laboratory, and Justin Parkoff, graduate student from the Texas A&M University Nautical Archaeology Program. Considered the leading research institution in the world for shipwreck archaeology, teams from Texas A&M have located, recovered and conserved shipwrecks from around the world.

Click here for more information and to purchase tickets. Tickets availability is limited. Advance ticket purchase is required.

Don’t miss the chance to see Discovering the Civil War before it leaves Houston. The last day on view is April 29.

Tasty Treats: snacks to revive the weary fossil-hunter

Our guest blogger today is Gretchen, a volunteer at the HMNS who traveled with the Paleo team to Seymour in June. In addition to helping the team excavate in the 120 degree heat, Gretchen acted as head chef, feeding the hot, tired, and dirty diggers at the end of each day. In today’s blog, Gretchen shares with us her best recipes to keep up your energy in the field.

As the chief chef, bottle washer and Dimentrodon digger in Seymour for the week of June 2-7, I was asked to share some of my field recipes with you all!

When you are out digging in the Permian red beds it is important to keep your energy levels high. The best way to do so is to eat home-made cookies! Now, to make sure it will stand up to field conditions, you have to find a cookie recipe that is:

  1. Easy
  2. Not too “crumbly”
  3. Very tasty — even after it has sat in 100-degree temperatures in a zip-lock bag in the back of our truck for days!

The hands-down winner and first runner-up are:

Easy Peanut Butter Cookies

1 (14 ounce) can of sweetened condensed milk

¾ cup peanut butter

2 cups of biscuit mix

1-teaspoon of vanilla extract

1 bag of either (choose one) chocolate chips or chocolate chip/peanut butter swirls.

a plate of cookies
Creative Commons License photo credit: djloche

Combine the sweetened condensed milk and peanut butter in a bowl. Beat with an electric mixer at medium speed until blended. Add biscuit mix and vanilla extract and mix well. Put small amounts of the mix on a cookiesheet (1 teaspoon of mix should do the trick.) Flatten with a fork (If you are up to it you can make a pretty crisscross pattern with the fork! But nobody notices this extra effort in the field so it’s up to you!)

Bake at 375 for 6 to 7 minutes or until slightly golden in color.

Cool on a wire rack.

These cookies are yummy and virtually indestructible!

The runner up favorite was:

Newport Desserts 4lb. Lemon-Fruit Cream Bars1
Creative Commons License photo credit: monstershaq2000

Lemon Crispies

¾ cup of shortening

1-cup of sugar

3 large eggs

2 cups of all-purpose flour

¾ teaspoon of baking soda

1/8 teaspoon of salt

2 (3.4-ounce) packages of lemon instant pudding mix.

Beat Shortening at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy. Gradually add sugar, beating well. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Combine flour and the remaining 3 ingredients; gradually add to shortening mixture, beating well. Drop dough by rounded teaspoonfuls onto lightly greased baking sheets. Bake at 375 farenheit for 8 to 9 minutes or until cookies are lightly browned. Cool one minute on baking sheets; remove to wire racks to cool completely.

I also made traditional “Toll House Cookies” that are a crowd favorite. Just buy a bag of chocolate chips and follow the recipe on the back!

For dinner (with leftovers for lunch the following day) I like to make soup. You can get the soup prepared; put it in a crock pot on low when you leave for the day in the field — and when you get back to the Ranch the soup is hot and ready to go!

I was lucky on this trip that on my way to Seymour I stopped by a roadside farmer’s stand just outside of Dublin, Texas. (For you trivia buffs, the question is: “What is Dublin, Texas world-famous for?” The answer will be at the end of the blog.) At the stand I was able to purchase sweet potatoes (or yams, I can never tell), red potatoes, yellow squash, sweet onions, peaches and fresh eggs. I incorporated these fresh ingredients in my cooking all week long. It’s cool when you can see the garden that your produce came from and the trees that the peaches were pulled off of and the chickens whose eggs you are enjoying. You know that everything is farm-fresh. A real treat for us Houston City Dwellers!

The hands-down favorite soup of the week was:

Monterey Chicken Soup

3 Tablespoons of Olive Oil

1 & ½ medium onion, chopped

2 large garlic cloves, minced (I used 4, garlic is good for you!)

3 (4-ounce) cans of green chilies, diced. (Look for “Hatch Green Chilies” — they are the best and the hot ones are HOT!)

2 yellow squash cubed *

3 red potatoes cubed *

3 teaspoons chili powder

2 teaspoons ground comino

3 teaspoons oregano

12 cups of chicken broth

3 (14&1/2-ounce) cans of tomatoes, diced with juice

4 cups of chicken cubed (I used about 8 thighs cut up.) You can use pre-cooked chicken.

4 cups of frozen corn, thawed (If I had found good-looking corn-on-the-cob I would have scraped the corn from the cobs and used that. Unfortunately, my roadside stand did not have corn – to early in the season.)

2/3 cups of cilantro

Salt and pepper to add some taste

*Not in the original recipe, but with my roadside stand I found that they added great taste to an already great soup!

Heat oil, onion and garlic until transparent. Add chilies and spices and cook for one minute. Add broth and tomatoes and bring to a boil. Add chicken, corn, extra vegetables, and cilantro. Cook 30 minutes or until potatoes and/or chicken is done. Season with salt and pepper for taste.

I served a wonderful Corn Casserole with the soup; which was great the next day for breakfast too!

½ cup of butter, melted

1-cup of sour cream

1 egg

1 can (16-ounce) of whole kernel corn, drained

1 can (16-ounce) of cream style corn, UNdrained

1 (9-ounce) package of corn muffin mix

1 cup of grated cheddar cheese

In a large bowl, mix together butter, sour cream and egg.

Stir in cans of corn and corn muffin mix.

Spoon into a 9-inch square pan (or 2 quart casserole dish)

Bake in a 375-degree oven for 45 minutes or until golden brown.

Remove from oven and top with cheese.

Return to oven for 5 to 10 minutes, or until cheese is melted. Let stand for 5 minutes and serve warm.

Although I really enjoyed cooking for the crew, nothing beats sitting in the hot West Texas sun, digging and brushing carefully through the Permian soil looking for the bones of reptiles and other animals long extinct! We found some pretty cool bones on this trip; including a huge claw and some very tiny bones of an unknown animal!

P.S. Dublin, Texas is the home of Doctor Pepper! You can purchase Doctor Pepper made from the original recipe there. The whole town is covered with Doctor Pepper signs and murals. Dublin is well worth the trip off the main highway to visit.