Dr. Jan J. Roth, of the Sundance Research Institute, discusses the discovery of Columbian Mammoth remains during Tuesday night’s City Council meeting. An archaeology/paleontology dig is scheduled to begin May 1.

Photo by Joe Moylan

Dr. Jan J. Roth, of the Sundance Research Institute, discusses the discovery of Columbian Mammoth remains during Tuesday night’s City Council meeting. An archaeology/paleontology dig is scheduled to begin May 1.

A mammoth discovery: Scientist: Prehistoric remains discovered in Craig

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This Columbian Mammoth dentary — lower jaw complete with teeth — was recovered a number of years ago from the Old Craig View subdivision at 13th Street and Pine. The Sundance Research Institute, in partnership with Moffat County High School and Steamboat Springs High School, is planning an archaeology/paleontology dig to begin May 1 that could unearth the remains of as many as three mammoths.

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“There are a lot of things in this county that people are completely unaware of, and that’s the essence of this whole project. Scientifically, this could be an important discovery, and education for the high school kids is extremely important. That was my goal in doing this. But at the same time, this is an asset for the community.”

— Dr. Jan J. Roth, Sundance Research Institute

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 believes are the remains of a Columbian Mammoth inside 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 one million years ago, Roth said.

It’s believed the animal, standing more than 14 feet tall at the shoulder and weighing anywhere from eight to 10 tons, became extinct approximately 12,500 years ago.

Roth first became aware of the discovery in 2009 when a friend, Bruce Timberg, was making improvements to one of his properties in the Old Craig View subdivision near the intersection of 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 a number of remains were recovered from the site including a dentary, or lower jawbone, complete with teeth, and numerous tusk pieces.

Those items are currently housed with the Moffat County High School science department.

A full-scale dig was not planned at the time of the discovery, Roth said, because his business demanded all of his attention.

“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.”

Roth, 70, was born and raised in Mount Harris.

As a child he was interested in animals and spent as much of his free time as he could exploring nature.

He even became an avid falconry enthusiast and a self-taught taxidermist.

When it came time to go to college, Roth had aspirations of attending Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. But in the fall of 1965, Roth’s father loaded him up in the family car and dropped him off at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

While studying zoology, Roth held a number of jobs including security guard at the University of Colorado’s Henderson Museum of Natural History. It was also while working at the Henderson Museum that Roth received an education in museum quality taxidermy.

In 1969, he earned his bachelor’s degree in zoology. He continued to study at Boulder until 1974, earning a master’s degree in biology specializing in comparative anatomy in 1972 and a Ph.D. in biology with a focus on reproductive endocrinology in 1974.

After school, Roth traveled east to Washington, D.C., where he held a position as senior staff fellow studying paleontology at the Smithsonian Institution. He was later transitioned to participate in a joint Smithsonian/National Institutes of Mental Health research fellowship on paleo/neuro endocrinology.

Endocrinology is the study of hormones, Roth said.

But in 1980, Roth grew tired of government bureaucracy and moved to Craig.

Research scientists weren’t in high demand at the time, so Roth leaned on his knowledge of taxidermy to earn a living. He opened up a shop in the basement of Craig Sports where he constructed mounts for area hunters for 27 years.

In 1985, Roth created the Sundance Research Institute, a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization, and opened a natural history museum at the Centennial Mall.

About 15 years later, Roth closed the museum and dissolved organization. He relocated to a ranch a few miles north of Lay and in 2001 started Sundance Line Inspection, LLC, a power pole inspection company.

The demands of the business required Roth spend months at a time out in the field. It was his dedication to his business that prevented him from excavating the mammoth remains when they were first discovered three years ago.

Roth recently restarted the Sundance Research Institute and has reapplied for 501 (c) 3 nonprofit status with the state.

On May 7, the Sundance Research Institute, in partnership with the MCHS and Steamboat Springs High School science departments, will begin exploring what other treasures are hidden beneath the site’s surface.

Amber Clark and Heather Fross, MCHS science teachers, and Charlie Leech, Steamboat Springs High School science teacher, 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 pitched on a hillside located on the east side 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.

Samuelson True Value Hardware & Lumber, 456 Breeze St., is donating a skid steer for the first phase of the project, which entails defining the dig site and removing the first three to five feet of topsoil.

Beginning May 10, 36 MCHS science students will begin the excavation process.

“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 man.

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 at the time of the Pleistocene period, he said.

If human activity can be proven, it would not only be a major discovery for the archaeology community, but it could be a major tourist attraction for the city, 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.

“But at the same time, this is an asset for the community.”

If there is a major discovery to be had at the corner of 12th and Pine, Roth said the cost of excavating the site could become expensive quickly.

Fross and Clark are currently accepting equipment donations at the high school. Required items include shovels, trowels, brushes, work gloves, knee pads, shaker boxes with soil screens, trays, bins, buckets, wheel barrows, safety goggles, compasses, graph paper, spray chalk and string.

Residents interested in making a financial donation may also do so through the MCHS science department until the Sundance Research Institute’s 501 (c) 3 application has been approved by the state.

The project could take as long as two to three years to complete, Clark said, which could present opportunities for the Craig community to get involved.

For more information, contact Clark at 826-6589 or amber.clark@moffatsd.org; or Fross at 826-6589 or heather.fross@moffatsd.org. Email is the preferred method of contact.

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