Among the dinosaur bones being studied at Thanksgiving Point’s Museum of Ancient Life, are bones from its own backyard.
Rick Hunter, paleontologist at the museum, and a team of scientists and volunteers, excavated Pleistocene Epoch horse bones Tuesday from the backyard of a home just down the street. Hunter learned of the bones last week when a Thanksgiving Point member, Laura Hill, approached him on a visit to the museum.
Hill and her family, who live in a neighborhood near Eagle Crest Elementary in Lehi, were preparing their backyard for landscaping and grass in September. The backhoe they were using unearthed some bones in the hill behind their Lehi home. The Hills thought the bones were maybe 100 years old — a horse or cow from early Utah pioneers. Laura Hill said she was shocked when, a few months later, she better understood what they’d found.
Hunter said the bones are 14,000 to 16,000 years old, from the Ice Age. It is extremely rare to find a mammal — especially a horse — from this time in history, because Utah was covered by Lake Bonneville. While that seems like a long time ago, the bones are rather young. They haven’t even fossilized yet.
“They are basically dehydrated bone,” Hunter explained.
As such, they are very susceptible to damage. The hill behind the Hill’s home is sandy, and the bones have been well-preserved there. The sand kept the bones moisturized, Hunter said, and now that they’ve been dug out, his team has to control how fast the bones dry out.
“If they dry too fast, they will crack and fall apart,” Hunter said.
Once the bones fully dry out, Hunter’s team can put consolidants on them that will preserve and harden them.
The bones are already sharing their stories, though. Hunter has found evidence of arthritis in the horse’s vertebrae and possibly bone cancer in one ankle.
“That tells us this animal lived to a fairly old age. We don’t know yet, but we might be able to tell by the teeth,” he said.
The Thanksgiving Point team spent Tuesday excavating the bones. The horse — which Hunter described as about the size of a Shetland pony, but built stockier — was mostly a complete skeleton. The horse was laying on its left side with its front legs tucked under and back legs straight out.
“This is some of the best articulation I’ve seen,” Hunter said, explaining that means the horse’s bones were still intact. “It tells us that the sediment covered it almost immediately after it died. The thing was just beautiful.”
Hunter also is excited about how much bone he and his team have to work with.
“In dinosaurs, if we find 20 percent of the bones, we’re excited,” he said Thursday as an assistant chipped rock away from a large dinosaur bone in the lab. “But we have more of this guy. I estimate we have about 85 percent of it here.”
Hill’s children and nearby neighborhood kids all got to participate in the archaeological excavation, with Hunter guiding them and teaching them along the way.
“It could not have been cooler for my kids. They were so good with them. It was fun to have them here,” Hill said of Hunter’s team. “It totally inspired my kids to be into paleontology and archaeology. It’s all become really real.”
Once Hunter’s team has fully documented, preserved, repaired and reassembled the bones, Hunter expects it to go on exhibit at the museum. That may not be for at least a year. But it already has a name.
“Because of the family, we’re calling it the Hill Horse in honor of them,” he said.