A community built out of bones
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.
"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.
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."
He points to Joe Cantrell, a Beaverton-area photographer who takes hyper-detailed photos of bones, insect carapaces and seeds that are found. He uses a technique called stacking, which involves taking dozens of up-close pictures of a specimen, then using a computer program to combine the pictures and eliminate the parts that are out of focus to create a seamless photo revealing millimeter-sized detail too small to see with the naked eye.
"Joe is a miracle worker when it comes to photography; some of the best pictures we've got out here are from him," Ellingson said. "Some of the pictures I got that I use for presentation are his pictures."
Ellingson has seen volunteers travel from the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles to come up and identify bones. Members of the Oregon Archaeological Society frequent the site each year to lend their expertise and time to sift through the immeasurable amount of soil that hides the tiny easter eggs.
"It's just kind of spread to where it's so many different community members," Ellingson said. "A lot of them come out while we've had the kids come out. It's just good to have adults, professionals in different careers. They're incredibly generous and kind. They're the nicest people around."
As the community builds around the dig site, so too does that interest. Oregon Public Broadcasting ran a story on Ellingson's dig on July 5, and the PBS Kids show, Dinosaur Train, featured Ellingson and the site in an episode that was scheduled to kick off its fifth season on Monday, Aug. 26.
And if you missed this year's event, mark your calendars for Ellingson's next public dig in August, 2020. The rest of that bison skeleton and several more are somewhere down there and are waiting for the next future paleontologist to find them.
"I think there's a lot of people who have always wanted to do that, but don't know how or where," Ellingson said. "That's why I do it, to give people that opportunity."
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