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VCU Archaeology

Bone, Tooth, and Tusk: Peale’s Bones, Franklin’s Tooth and Jefferson’s Claws

by Bernard K. Means

Like many other scholars, I had grand plans for research projects during summer 2020. I planned to return to the Western Science Center, especially following a discussion with its director Dr. Alton Dooley at the Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists meeting in February, which was held at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum. And, I wanted to return to the latter as well to work with Dr. Josh Bonde and his team. I hoped to do a return scanning trip to the Maryland Historical Society to finish 3-D scanning fossils associated with the first scientific excavation in U.S. history, the recovery of mastodon bones by Charles Willson Peale. I even envisioned a road trip that would take me to the paleontological site of Big Bone Lick State Park in Kentucky (the source for many fossils collected for Thomas Jefferson and many, many others), then to the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery to see their new Egypt exhibit (to which I contributed, along with forensic anthropologist Terrie Simmons-Ehrhardt and Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) alumnae Mason Smith) and 3-D scan some more megafauna, and on to Pittsburgh to work with colleague William C. Johnson on the Monongahela culture, and also do some 3-D scanning at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Coved-19 of course put all these and other ambitious plans on hold. Certainly I did not think my field school with Germanna Archaeology could work as a digital endeavor.

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Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Field trip for the Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists meeting in February 2020

Given what I then thought would be a busy semester, I decided to use the funding I had obtained for research travel during the Spring semester break in 2020, rather than during the first part of the summer months as originally intended. My actions were accidentally prescient, because if I had waited, I would have been unable to make my week-long research excursion to Philadelphia: travel and the funding itself would have been endangered. Even as I worked in Philadelphia 3-D scanning fossils and artworks, concerns with the spread and impact of Covid-19 led to VCU restricting out-of-state travel while I was in the city—but, since I was already there, I was able to complete my work.  I confess that in early March I did not realize that this pandemic would soon hold the world in its tightening and frightening grip, but, throughout the week, and from its inception, there was a palpable and growing sense that Covid-19 was more dangerous than it was then being portrayed. 

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I took the train to Philadelphia and witnessed at the onset of my journey that people were beginning to alter their behavior in response to the pandemic—the Amtrak car I was in had noticeably fewer people on it than I would have expected on a normal Monday. In addition to running between several cities on the East Coast, the train also was used by commuters.  Most of the people in my area of the train car were a high school group headed to spend their Spring Break week in New York City. Throughout the journey, their chaperone received calls canceling the tours that they had scheduled in the city. 


Bootherium bombifrons skull collected by William Clark for Thomas Jefferson

Why was I traveling to Philadelphia? With support from the VCU Humanities Research Center, I was here to conduct some research on the founding fathers and their obsession with the fossils of Ice Age megafauna, especially mastodons (an extinct relative of elephants) and giant ground sloths. This project is entitled “America’s Founding Monsters: How the Newly Established United States Used Fossils to Face an Existential Threat to Its Developing National Identity.” In the project summary, I wrote

This project involves travel to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to examine documents and Ice Age animal fossils associated with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Wilson Peale related to Ice Age animals perceived as integral to defending claims that the physical nature of the Americas had a degenerative effect on transplanted Old World people, plants, and animals. Although this topic has been covered in American Monster, Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose, and The Legacy of the Mastodon, these works focus almost exclusively on individuals involved in describing the Ice Age animal fossils and not the fossils themselves. These works are also inaccessible to lay audiences, and certainly are not suitable for general educational purposes. The proposed project will expand on documentary research and create three-dimensional (3-D) scans of fossils held by the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (ANSP), Pennsylvania. Some relevant fossils were scanned at ANSP in 2018 as part of a VCU Seed Grant project, and a mastodon tooth that belonged to Benjamin Franklin was 3-D scanned in 2016 in Philadelphia. The proposed project will create a popular summary in textual and graphic forms with associated object-based lessons that integrate the humanities (history and archaeology) with the natural sciences.

In addition to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Charles Willson Peale, I developed a subsequent interest in the work of Peale’s fellow artist William Rush. Rush had a role in fabricating missing mastodon bones out of wood that were needed to reconstruct a mastodon skeleton from the bones that Peale had recovered in 1801 from New York state.

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One of the Megalonyx claws sent to Thomas Jefferson in the late 1700s being 3-D scanned at ANSP

Once I arrived in Philadelphia, I walked with my two suitcases from the 30th Street Station to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University ANSP) in Philadelphia, a distance of a little over a mile. One suitcase held the NextEngine 3D scanner, while the other had my clothes and the Go!Scan 50 scanner. The Structure Sensor scanner that clips to my iPad Mini was in my backpack.  I probably looked a bit like a vagabond. Although they were understaffed, Dr. Ted Daeschler, Associate Curator and Chair, Vertebrate Zoology, at ANSP graciously provided me with space to work with my scanners and of course access to the items I was here to 3-D scan. 

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3-D scanning another of the Megalonyx claws sent to Thomas Jefferson

I focused on 3-D scanning fossils from Ice Age megafauna that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson, including the type fossils for the giant ground sloth known now as Megalonyx jeffersonii—although Jefferson himself thought/hoped that they belonged to a giant and fierce lion.  These bones were sent to Jefferson in the late 1700s from a cave in what is now West Virginia. I actually scanned some of the fossils from this giant ground sloth during a research trip to Philadelphia in December 2018 as part of a VCU Seed Grant entitled “3-D Digital Ice Age Mastodon and Mammoth Skeletal Remains,” but the claws that gave Megalonyx its name—Megalonyx means great claw—were out on loan during that trip–I did 3-D scan a resin cast of the larger claw.

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Mastodon molar collected at Big Bone Lick by William  Clark for Thomas Jefferson

In December 2018, I also 3-D scanned some fossils at ANSP that had been collected by William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) in 1807 from Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, a famous and well-known paleontological site. On this return scanning venture, I 3-D scanned some additional mastodon fossils collected by Clark for Jefferson. 

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Saurocephalus lanciformis maxilla fragment collected on August 6, 1804 as part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Speaking of Lewis and Clark, I also captured in 3-D the one fossil in ANSP’s collection from the Lewis and Clark expedition, that of a Cretaceous-era fish (Saurocephalus lanciformis) maxilla fragment collected on August 6, 1804.

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Megalonyx claw with intact finger nail was recovered from Big Bone Cave, Tennessee.

One of my favorite aspects of working behind the scenes in a museum’s collections area is the chance to view wonders that I might not otherwise have a chance to see. One fossil laying on a cart to be put away was a Megalonyx claw so well preserved that the nail covering the claw was intact. I asked Dr. Daeschler if I could 3-D scan that fossil, and he readily consented.

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Megalodon tooth sent to Thomas Jefferson.

The last fossil I 3-D scanned at the ANSP was a megalodon tooth, e.g. the tooth of a giant, extinct species of shark (contrary to a recent movie and a devoted group of conspiracy theorists who insist the shark is still alive in the ocean depths). This fossil had been given to Jefferson in 1806 by Dr. William Reid, who knew of Jefferson’s interest in fossils (this was not a secret to anyone). This particular tooth was from the Racehope Estate, Cooper River, South Carolina, which are categorized as coastal  plain sediments dating to the Miocene-Pliocene. Unfortunately, the 3-D scan of this tooth is incomplete as I ran out of time before the end of Wednesday. I knew Wednesday would be my last day at the ANSP as concerns about the impacts of Covid were strengthening. On a future research trip I can 3-D scan the missing portion of the tooth. All of the ANSP  3-D scans can be seen here: https://sketchfab.com/virtualcurationlab/collections/academy-of-natural-sciences 

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Independence Hall

On Thursday, I spent the first part of the morning meeting with Debbie Miller of the National Park Service at Independence National Historical Park. Debbie took me over to Independence Hall to the closed second floor, where Charles Willson Peale once had his Philadelphia Museum, and where the first mastodon skeletal mount once stood.

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The Long Room was once used for the Peal’s Philadelphia Museum

Debbie also took me over to Second Bank of the United States where numerous Charles Willson Peale portraits are on exhibit.  After a brief and unrelated but fun tour of the Museum of the American Revolution—a spectacular museum that I want to return to once I go back to Philadelphia—I walked over to St. Peter’s Church to see Charles Willson Peale’s grave, after I found out that this is where Peale was buried. 

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The grave itself is somewhat unassuming, but I was pleased to see it as I am spending quite a bit of my time these days trying to immerse myself in the world of Charles Willson Peale.

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Frame reconstruction in Franklin Court

Next on my itinerary was Franklin Court. Franklin Court is where my interest in the fossils associated with the founding fathers began. In August 2016, I spent a week in Philadelphia 3-D scanning artifacts from Independence National Historical Park for an exhibit and outreach efforts for the National Constitution Center. While there, I asked NPS Archaeologist Jed Levin if they had any mastodon bones, and he said yes, in fact, they had a mastodon tooth that belonged to Benjamin Franklin that had been found in Franklin Court. Jed very graciously arranged for the mastodon tooth to be removed from its exhibit at Franklin Court so I could 3-D scan it. The tooth was removed at the end of one day after the museum closed and I 3-D scanned it the next morning so it could be back in place before the museum opened to the public. For some inexplicable reason, I never went to Franklin Court itself on that trip, nor on subsequent trips—even though I walked by this historic site’s entrance multiple times on each visit to Philadelphia.

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Real mastodon tooth that belonged to Ben Franklin and a 3-D printed replica

So, I resolved on this trip to see Franklin Court and the mastodon tooth as it is exhibited.  Franklin Court is definitely worth your while—I liked how the museum is arranged around different aspects of Franklin’s life and interests. I also later walked over to Franklin’s grave, but the burial ground where this was located had closed earlier in the day over Covid-related concerns.

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Giant paint brush near entrance to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

By Friday, Philadelphians showed noticeably greater concerns about how their lives would be disrupted by the pandemic. Long lines extended out the doors of area grocery stores, as people rushed to buy supplies. I decided to walk from my hotel in Old Town Philadelphia to the city’s Central section to visit the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). PAFA was co-founded by Charles Willson Peale and fellow artist William Rush, among others, in 1805, a mere four years after Peale excavated and exhibited the mastodon in his Philadelphia Museum. Rush helped with this effort by carving replica wooden mastodon bones, two of which I had 3-D scanned during my December 2019 trip to Baltimore’s Maryland Historical Society–once home to a different mastodon skeletal mount created from some bones of a second mastodon Peale had recovered in 1801. A two-story paintbrush in front of the museum made PAFA easy to find.

I’m just going to state right now that PAFA is probably one of the best art museums that I have ever visited. The artworks range from those created by founders Peale and Rush to stunning contemporary works. Some works were edgy and others more staid, but even the latter were contextualized in a way absent at many other museums. Sadly, because of concerns over Covid, I was one of a very small number of visitors that I saw during my hours there.  This was a bit fortunate in retrospect, as I had the opportunity to use my Sensor Scanner to 3-D scan wood and terracotta sculptures created by William Rush, including his self-portrait and a bust he made of his contemporary Caspar Wistar. Caspar Wistar helped correctly identify the Megalonyx bones sent to Jefferson as being from a giant ground sloth and not a great lion and he also was consulted by Peale during the reconstruction of the mastodon for the Philadelphia Museum.

The Sensor Scanner generates a lower resolution than either the NextEngine 3D scanner or the Go!Scan 50 I had used earlier in the week, but it is very portable and works attached to an iPad or iPhone. When I return to Philadelphia, I hope to arrange with the appropriate curators to make higher resolution scans of the sculptures— and scans that fully capture these works of art. Because the sculptures were behind glass, I was not able to capture their back sides. As I left PAFA, I stopped by the museum store. The two women that operated the store stated that they had few visitors that day, and that the museum was closing at the end of the day because of Covid-19; as the day wore on, more and more institutions in Philadelphia—and elsewhere of course—announced that they would also close. The objects I 3-D scanned from PAFA can be seen here: https://sketchfab.com/virtualcurationlab/collections/pennsylvania-academy-of-fine-art

Saturday I had set aside to go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and see paintings by Charles Willson Peale, members of his family, and other eighteenth century artists, but that museum of course had closed its doors the day before. I decided to move up my return trip to Fredericksburg from the evening to midday. There were even fewer people on my Amtrak train than on the trip up, which of course makes sense. I do look forward to the day I can return to Philadelphia and so many other places—but the safety of those who work at all of these must be ensured first.


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