Portland State and mastodon bones

“How about a fish story?” Dr. John R. George asked when he answered the phone. “I caught a 15-foot-long great white shark that held the world record for the largest shark [caught] for 20 years.

“How about a fish story?” Dr. John R. George asked when he answered the phone. “I caught a 15-foot-long great white shark that held the world record for the largest shark [caught] for 20 years. I still see one of his teeth on television programs once in awhile.”

George, a retired dentist who will be 79 on Nov. 1, braved two wars and Bering Sea research when the Alaskan fur seal treaty was broken, but reporters are still contacting him about a class he took at Portland State in 1962 for easy credit.

“I ended up digging through hard pan in April rain that was falling as fast as I could bail it out,” George said.
When the instructor called on him in class to ask about the subject of his project, his mind was racing.

“I’ll dig up a mastodon,” said George, and everybody laughed.

George and classmate Ron Sund recovered nearly half of a mastodon skeleton that included two legs, a spine, many ribs, skull fragments, molars and a tusk.

Danny Gilmour, a 33-year-old current Portland State graduate student in archeology, is writing his thesis proposal and picking up where George left off.

When George was a kid, Charlie Roberts, a marshal in Tualatin, found the mastodon bones but mistook them for an elephant. Roberts later gave George a jawbone with two teeth in it and a rib that he used for a doorstop, George said.

George and Sund dug and probed the earth for two days before picking up Roberts in a Ford Model T and taking him to a Tualatin swamp area. Roberts, who had difficulty walking by then, pointed with his cane to a spot under a Hawthorn tree and, two hours later, George and Sund found a piece of the mastodon.
George and Sund received “A” grades in the class.
“I grew up across the street from the La Brea Tar Pits in California,” Gilmour said. “It was my playground as a child.”
The tar pits, which have been around for centuries, hold hundreds of different types of animal bones and fossils.
Encouraged by his advisor, Dr. Virginia Butler, Gilmour looked into the Tualatin mastodon bones.

As far back as the 1870s, Tualatin pioneers discovered a huge jawbone that the Smithsonian examined and deemed prehistoric.

“My project is more than Tualatin,” Gilmour said.

A mammoth was found in McMinnville recently. Fifteen extinct animals recovered from the Willamette Valley include two mastodons, two mammoths, bison and several extinct western horses that were about the size of grizzly bears approximately 10,000 years ago, Gilmour said.

Some bones were found in Sherwood around two years ago, Gilmour said. A report was made of a discovery in Dayton. Gilmour wants to unite isolated discoveries in the Willamette Valley.

Oregonians are interested and no recent synthesis has been done. Gilmour wants to bring information together in a thesis.

Being able to study these remains and recover the bones is like opening a window to the past, Gilmour said.

Twenty years ago, the mastodon bones were radiocarbon dated at 11,280 years old, give or take 100 years, Gilmour said. Due to drastic improvement in technological knowledge, he would like to have them radiocarbon dated again.

Over the years, the bones have spent time at Portland State, the Portland Zoo and in storage at a city maintenance building.

George discovered the mastodon bones about four blocks from the Tualatin library, where the bones are currently on display.

Gilmour called the exhibit museum quality. Tualatin wanted to display the mastodon bones properly and designers even had the glass blasted to look like grass.

Gilmour hopes to complete his thesis by Christmas of 2010.

“I want to make a contribution to the body of knowledge of the environmental and archeological history of the Willamette Valley,” Gilmour said.