Kristin Catherwood, Director of Living Heritage
"The landscape is saturated with story." I use this phrase often in my community work as a challenge for all of us to contemplate as we move through our days. This year has been a noteworthy one for paleontology in Saskatchewan as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Scotty the T-Rex's discovery, his (or her) designation as the world's largest T.Rex skeleton, and the installation of a new Scotty replica at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina. The latter raised some questions, since there is already a Scotty replica in Eastend, home to the T-Rex Centre (where Scotty's actual remains are also stored). Does Scotty "belong" to Eastend, near where theossilized skeleton was discovered? To the province of Saskatchewan? To the nation of Canada? When paleontologists unearth remains in present-day Saskatchewan, they do in fact "belong" to the province, specifically to the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. In our contemporary world, this is how we make sure fossils are properly categorized, made available for research, and safeguarded for the future. But in the context of the fossils themselves, whether the tiniest of insects encased in amber, a redwood tree's leaf pressed into stone, or a triceratops' horn nestled in a bed of sandstone, all of them alive and then dead millions of years ago, the idea that they now "belong" to our current institutions is really just that, an idea. In a conversation about this, Heritage Saskatchewan's CEO Ingrid Cazakoff commented, "heritage belongs to the land." This phrase ran through my head in tandem with my own, "landscape is saturated with story" when I attended Fossil Fever at Grasslands National Park on August 15, 2019.
Fossil Fever is led by Dr. Emily Bamforth and a team of paleontologists from the Royal Saskatchewan Museum every summer in the East Block of the park. Members of the public are invited to take part in ongoing paleontological excavations and to learn about the heritage of paleontology in Saskatchewan. This requires actually getting to the dig site, which includes a hike through the stunning "badlands" geography of the park. With the paleontologists on hand to guide our eyes, we discovered that remains from the fossil record are literally at our fingertips in the park, thanks to its unique geological makeup, composed of the Frenchman Formation and Ravenscrag Formation, which reveal the evidence of ancient life in abundance. We learned about the Cretaceous Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event boundary (formerly known as the Cretaceous-Tertiary [KT] Boundary), which represents the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, a pivotal event in the Earth's 4 billion and some timeline. Scientists from around the world come to Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan to study this line in the Frenchman Formation, a place where, in Dr. Bamforth's words, "you can put your finger on the time when dinosaurs went extinct." The first recorded dinosaur find in Canada happened in what is now the park in 1874, when the International Boundary Commision was marking the border between the new country of Canada and the United States. In 1962, the most complete triceratops skeleton in Canada was unearthed here for the Canadian Museum of Nature, where it is housed to this day. During my visit, we visited this former quarry site. The landscape in that place has been altered - a new formation arising from the overburden of the excavation. The history of paleontology in Saskatchewan is another story contained within the land itself.
That night, Dr. Bamforth gave a presentation about unicorns, and how we can understand more about paleontology from the example of those mythical creatures. She wove together elements from mythology, folklore, the Bible, history, and of course, paleontology in her presentation to tell the story of the unicorn. I went away from the presentation, my head swimming with this blend of science, art, history, and literature, crawled into my tent and slept deeply. I awoke the next morning as the sun was just rising over native prairie hills to the east, the full moon just setting over the badlands to the west. I shivered as a realized that such a celestial event has occurred here over the billions of years the earth's history, that 66 million years ago, the dinosaurs would have been privy to the same sight, that the 45 million year old redwoods that grew in a much wetter version of what is now Saskatchewan were nourished by that same sun. The indigenous peoples who flourished on this land for millenia, living amongst those hills may have greeted the morning sun in much the same way I did -- with reverence.
The land itself has changed immeasurably -- the hills that I see now, which seem ancient and unchanging, were carved by glaciers a mere 10,000 years ago. The sandstone formations in the badlands of the park erode at a rapid rate of 2 centimeters a year. The land changes itself, and I have not even touched upon the changes humans have wrought upon it, especially in the eyeblink of time since settlers arrived on railroad tracks with ploughs to turn that prairie soil. And yet, the land, in all of its shifting forms, has borne witness to that constant change. It carries physical memories of lives lived, it offers us lessons from the past, it holds all the stories of what has come and gone, though we may only ever know a mere handful of them. Our heritage, all of it, belongs to the land.
"Prehistoric Heritage." Heritage Saskatchewan Blog.
Paleontology in Saskatchewan. Royal Saskatchewan Museum.
T-Rex Discovery Centre. Royal Saskatchewan Museum, Eastend.