Craig Dr. Jan J. Roth, of the Sundance Research Institute, said he’s about to embark on a project that has renewed his passion for archaeology and paleontology: the discovery of what he thinks are the remains of a Columbian mammoth inside Craig city limits.
He announced the discovery during a Craig City Council meeting earlier this month.
“I haven’t been this excited for a long, long time,” Roth told council members. “It’s a very unique opportunity for the city of Craig to have a mammoth site.”
The Columbian mammoth, a slightly larger cousin of the woolly mammoth, roamed from Alaska to South America beginning 1 million years ago, Roth said.
The animals stand more than 14 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh 8 to 10 tons, and it’s thought they became extinct about 12,500 years ago.
Roth, 70, first became aware of the discovery in 2009, when friend Bruce Timberg was making improvements to one of his properties in the Old Craig View subdivision near 12th and Pine streets.
“He was digging up the lot where he wanted to install a raised water line and came across some rocks he thought looked unique,” Roth said. “He called me to take a look, and I could tell that what he found were the remains of mammoth tusks.”
During the initial discovery, Roth said several remains were recovered from the site including a lower jawbone, complete with teeth, and numerous tusk pieces.
Those items are in the possession of the Moffat County High School science department.
It was Roth’s dedication to his business that prevented him from excavating the mammoth remains when they first were discovered three years ago. Roth said a full-scale dig was not planned at the time because his power pole inspection business, Sundance Line Inspection, had him spending months at a time out in the field.
“I wasn’t in a place where I could dedicate the time to a dig,” Roth said. “But things have changed, my expenses are low, and I want to spend more time in Craig. I think the circumstances are better now to see what else we can find.”
On May 7, the Sundance Research Institute, in partnership with the Moffat County and Steamboat Springs high schools’ science departments, will begin exploring what other treasures are hidden beneath the site’s surface.
Moffat County science teachers Amber Clark and Heather Fross and Steamboat Springs science teacher Charlie Leech are spearheading the project.
“From an educational standpoint, we were really excited when Jan called us and said our students would have an opportunity to participate in an archaeology, paleontology dig,” Clark said. “The high school jumps on any opportunity to provide students with hands-on experience to not only broaden their thinking about the world, but maybe to encourage a career in the sciences.
“No textbook can teach that.”
The proposed site encompasses four vacant lots on a hillside on the east end of Pine Street — a few dozen yards from where the initial remains were first discovered.
Roth wants to focus the dig across the street because it is not uncommon during the decomposition process for the head of any large animal to roll downhill and be discovered a short distance away from the rest of the body’s remains.
Beginning May 10, 36 Moffat County students will begin the excavation process by defining the dig site and removing the first 3 to 5 feet of topsoil.
“This is a huge opportunity for our kids to participate in real science,” Fross said. “You really can’t get an understanding of how science works until you actually get to do it.”
“Kids never get a chance to touch and feel things,” added Clark. “Museums have wonderful exhibits, but they are always hands-off. When kids get the chance to actually touch and feel things like this, as a teacher, you can see them experience that aha moment.”
Roth expects to find the remains of two or three mammoths at the site, but the real treat would be to discover evidence of early humans.
It’s a controversial theory in archaeology and paleontology circles that early man roamed the planet at the same time as mammoths, Roth said.
But some of the remains at the Craig site contain “strikes,” or scratch marks in the bones that could be evidence of early human activity during the Pleistocene period, he said.
If human activity can be proven, it not only would be a major discovery for the archaeology community, but it also could be a major tourism attraction for Craig, Roth said.
“There are a lot of things in this county that people are completely unaware of, and that’s the essence of this whole project,” Roth said. “Scientifically, this could be an important discovery, and education for the high school kids is extremely important. That was my goal in doing this.”