Woolly Mammoth Excavation and Lab Work

submitted by

Dr. Janis D. Treworgy Principia College
Author Profile

students participate in authentic research project w/ scientists
students learn scientific process through experience
students participate in all aspects of the project including problem solving

Learning Goals

  • origin and evolution of mammoths
  • mammoth habitats, functional morphology, social structure
  • Pleistocene Epoch
  • glacial geology
  • other mammoth discoveries
  • coexistence of mammoths and humans
  • extinction of mammoths

Geologic Skills:
  • stratigraphic concepts - correlations and fossils
  • concepts and limitations of radiocarbon dating
  • taphonomy - what does the distribution of bones, condition of bones, paleosol tell us
  • sedimentological concepts - grain size analysis of matrix and interpreting rates of deposition; sample collection

Higher Order Thinking Skills:
  • hypothesizing demise of our mammoth from what they are learning about taphonomy, sedimentology, stratigraphy and the info they have at hand
  • justifying the significance of this project in a progress report to a hypothetical funding agency
  • give tours of the site and lab to school groups of all ages

Other Skills:
  • exposure to scientific literature
  • having to write a scientific piece (progress report to a hypothetical funding agency
  • excavation and bone prep skills
  • learning to plaster jacket bones in field and remove jackets in lab
  • learn teamwork
  • learn that research involves a lot of grunt work (e.g. site maintenance)


Instructional Level:
undergraduate entry level

Skills Needed:

Role of Activity in a Course:
the field and lab experience is 80% of our contact time; 20% is for lectures, discussions, videos, tests

Data, Tools and Logistics

Required Tools:
  • requires something to excavate - real or fake (buried chicken bones, plaster casts, etc.)
  • tools available at hardware store - masonry trowels, picks for detail (varies with type of matrix)
  • mapping - compass, measuring tapes, digital camera

Logistical Challenges:
  • having supplies for everyone
  • small groups are best for training purposes and for supervising; big classes should be divided into groups of 3-4; each group assigned a specific area to work in (e.g. a 2 x 2 m area)
  • weather can be a problem - a shelter is great


Evaluation Goals:
I want them to know some basic information about mammoths and the Ice Age and specifics about our mammoth, the Ice Age in Illinois at that time, significance of our find, history of our dig

Evaluation Techniques:
I give weekly quizzes on the readings.
I hear them give the tours - two students give a tour together; this tells me the most about what they know.
The progress report tells me how well they have synthesized the geologic principles and can explain the significance of our find.


In this course students are excavating a woolly mammoth found on our campus. They also prepare (clean and consolidate) the bones in the lab. The learn about mammoths and the Pleistocene through lectures, readings, videos, visiting scientists, and a field trip. The students are excited about finding new material and cleaning bones for display. They get asked questions by their friends as well as in the tour so they work hard to learn the material so they can be an "expert." They become very protective of the site and the lab. Through this authentic research they become eager learners.


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