165-million-year-old skull endures delicate moments at new home

Photo by Dean Humphrey—Paleontology experts John Foster and ReBecca Hunt-Foster unload a skull of a jumbo triceratops Monday at the Dinosaur Journey museum in Fruita, which acquired the skull from Brigham Young University.

Turning over the 165-million-year-old skull of a jumbo triceratops encased upside down in plaster is a task of, well, dinosaurian proportions.

Dinosaur Journey paleontologists, assisted by Rick Charlesworth, owner of Lower Valley Welding and Performance, and his boom crane, accomplished the job Monday, though not without some worrisome moments.

Dinosaur Journey acquired the skull in a trade with the Brigham Young University Museum of Paleontology. John Foster, curator of paleontology for the Museum of Western Colorado, and ReBecca Hunt-Foster, the museum’s resident expert on ceratopsians, hope to unveil the triceratops on Wednesday, which is not coincidentally National Fossil Day.

Phase One of that project, however, was daunting.

The skull was placed decades ago upside down at the Provo, Utah, campus, where one replica of the creature’s head was made. The cast hangs on Dinosaur Journey’s wall, but the museum leaped at the opportunity to get the real thing.

At 9 feet, the skull’s shield, the large, tilted plate behind the head, is at least the world’s widest such specimen and quite likely the tallest, as well, Foster said.

To get the creature and its trademark horns and shield on display, Charlesworth fashioned a webwork of belts to lift and tip the skull over onto a cart designed by Rob Gaston of Gaston Designs in Fruita to display it horn side up.

Charlesworth’s doubts about the strength of the 30-year-old scaffold surrounding the skull were validated as the base bowed and began to splinter when he lifted the scaffold up the beak end, hoping to keep the shield, now mostly fiberglass filler for the real thing, from dragging along.

Hunt-Foster shuddered as the lumber creaked, then covered her eyes as it slipped slightly.

“I just want to see her treated right,” Hunt-Foster said of the skull.

The slip snapped off the well-preserved occipital condyle — a round piece of bone about the size of a shotput suspended from the top of the vertebrae like a uvula. In life, the occipital condyle marked the end of the brain stem, where the spinal cord began, and had nothing to do with the throat.

The bone struck the concrete but otherwise held together, meaning that Hunt-Foster can glue it back into place for display.

In exchange for the triceratops skull, BYU got some bones collected by Brooks Britt and Rod Scheetz when they worked for the Museum of Western Colorado.

Britt, now paleontologist for the BYU museum, said the massive head discovered in 1962 by Jim Jensen was a spectacle from the beginning.

Jensen found it near the surface after seeing two brown stains in the dust of the Hell Creek formation, a layer that contains creatures of the late Cretaceous period, the final chapter in the age of the dinosaurs.

The stains led to what remained of the horns and then to the rest of the skull, which was slowly chipped from the surrounding rock and soil, mounted in plaster and hauled out on the back of a 1957 pickup, which had a narrow bed.

Once he placed the skull atop, not inside the bed, “Jensen painted false eyes on it, just to freak people out,” Britt said.

Only now is the skull being prepared again for public display, sitting back inside next to a display of daggerlike teeth that belonged, as Foster noted, “to its nemesis, Tyrannosaurus rex,” top predator of the later Cretaceous.


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