Jan Roth, left, of the Sundance Research Institute, explains to Steamboat Springs High School sophomore Nick Vaughan how to identify the different types of fossilized plants discovered in rocks excavated from a potential Columbian mammoth site in Craig. The first day of the dig did not yield any mammoth remains, but Roth was encouraged by plant fossils and another discovery of what could be a hearth site.

Johnny Walker/Courtesy

Jan Roth, left, of the Sundance Research Institute, explains to Steamboat Springs High School sophomore Nick Vaughan how to identify the different types of fossilized plants discovered in rocks excavated from a potential Columbian mammoth site in Craig. The first day of the dig did not yield any mammoth remains, but Roth was encouraged by plant fossils and another discovery of what could be a hearth site.

Steamboat, Craig students begin exploring potential mammoth site

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— It only took a few hours before a potential Columbian mammoth fossil site in Craig began unveiling its hidden treasures.

Although it will take many months and a lot of hard hours before Craig and Steamboat Springs high school students reach the depth where the remains of as many as three mammoths could be located, the site is already producing exciting discoveries, including an array of fossilized plants and a potential hearth site.

On Wednesday, more than 30 students from Steamboat Springs High School put their shovels into the ground at the mammoth dig site near 12th and Pine streets in the Old Craig View neighborhood.

Connor Mayo, a Steamboat Springs High School senior, first discovered what could be a hearth site, which are the remains of a camp or cooking fire.

“Our first theory was the neighbor down the street just dumped his ashes on the ground, but as we dug deeper we found more and more ashes,” Mayo said. “The soil was an orangey-red color, which means the fire had to have been burning for over 24 hours, so no one could have just thrown their ash there and turned the soil that color, presumably in the dead of winter.”

In addition to the color of the soil, Jan Roth, of the Sundance Research Institute, and Charlie Leech, a science teacher at Steamboat Springs High School, believe the hearth site has potential because it was discovered 2 feet below the surface.

Although not the first sign of Columbian mammoth remains, Roth said if the ashes are from an actual hearth it could be an important discovery nonetheless.

“It’s not what we came out here for,” Roth said. “Considering how deep it was it could be close to 2,000 years old, which would mean people were in this area a long time ago.”

Roth, Leech and Moffat County High School science teachers Amber Clark and Heather Fross first unveiled plans to explore the site during a Craig City Council meeting in April.

The effort is a collaboration between the two high schools, but with the semester rapidly coming to a close it's unlikely students will explore the site again until fall, Fross said.

Leech thinks the timing is to their advantage because a lot of homework and preparation still need to be done.

“There’s only been one professional journal article on the geology of this area, so even the experts don’t know a lot about what took place here,” Leech said. “There’s a lot of diplomacy we need to do to make sure we’re not stepping on toes and that people are OK with what we’re doing.”

In addition to fossilized plants and the discovery of a potential hearth, Leech said students spent most of Wednesday exposing the rock fascia to build a geological timeline of the area.

“If we’ve got mammoth here, great, but how many and how old are they?” Leech said. “The science takes time; it’s painstaking, but the kids made a lot of progress today.”

Despite the semester coming to a close, many students voiced an interest in exploring the site more during the summer.

Nick Vaughan, a Steamboat Springs High School sophomore, is one of the students anxious to return.

He was one of the first to pick up a shovel when students arrived and he was the last to put one down when it came time to leave.

“It’s a great learning experience,” Vaughan said. “It’s exciting when you pick something up and discover something like all of the plant fossils we found.”

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