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Annual paleontology dig attracts many loyal volunteers eager to help find bones buried near Woodburn High School.

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Woodburn High School biology teacher Dave Ellingson (left) has been helped by a variety of longtime volunteers like Deb Shannon (right), who has been coming to the dig site for nearly 10 years.The history of Woodburn's annual paleontology dig dates back to the late 1980s.

Well, technically, it goes back much further — 13,000 years — to the end of the last ice age. Since then, the creek bed that snakes through town outside Woodburn High School, had remained relatively undisturbed until the city was doing some repairs on a nearby sewer line and found bones — a lot of bones.

"Those bones are on display now at the library," said Woodburn High School biology teacher David Ellingson.

Ten years after the initial discovery, representatives from Oregon State University came to the site and began excavating, looking to use the site as a jumping off point for a grant from the National Science Foundation. That also happened to be the first year Ellingson was hired at the high school, and he was eager to join the hunt.

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Oregon State University professor Vaughn Walton visited Ellingson's classroom and inspects the skull of a Bison Antiquus excavated from the dig site more than 10 years ago."I went down there, introduced myself, said I'm the new biology teacher here at the school," Ellingson said. "They said if you help us with this grant and this dig, we'll help you get a Master's Degree."

These days, it's Ellingson leading the digs. Twice each year — once for the public in August and again for students in September — the Woodburn science teacher leads adults and kids alike down to the creekbed. Each year, he excavates a new section, digging down 10 to 15 feet to reach the rich wetland bogs that once blanketed the area thousands of years ago.

While the vast majority of the bones found are small creatures — frogs, muskrats, fish and the occasional duck — he famously hit pay dirt in 2008. He unearthed the skull and of a Bison Antiquus, an extinct species of bison that lived in North America until around 10,000 years ago. More bison bones were found, and the partial skeleton sits completed in his classroom. Two years later, another bison skull was discovered.

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Countless volunteers from around the region provide helping hands at the annual Woodburn dig, either sifting through material by hand or with metal screens.As news of the finds spread, volunteers from around the community, the state and even the country began to take notice. Over time, Ellingson's digs have grown to vast teams of volunteers — most of whom have little to no experience. Some have built their experience over the years, while others come with unique skills that add to Ellingson's annual digs.

"That's the great thing about this project and what it's kind of evolved into," Ellingson said. "Before, it was just me and a bunch of freshmen roaming around here looking for bones."

Click here to read the rest of the story in the Woodburn Independent.


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