Boneyard

Ken Barnes wants to keep his dinosaur fossils near home.

Every time you move something, you find another bone,” murmurs Ken Barnes as he tips back his cowboy hat and rummages through the jumble of fossils, mud, and rock at his feet. The fifty-year-old shuttle driver and boatman for Far-Flung Adventures in Terlingua is standing in a gulch in the middle of what was once a lush tropical coastal plain where dinosaurs browsed during their heyday, 80 million years ago in the Cretaceous Period. Now it is a bountiful boneyard that harbors the remains of the only dinosaurs found in Texas. Barnes’s discovery, which he stumbled across in 1988 while searching for petrified tree stumps on private land near Big Bend National Park, is considered by University of Texas paleontologists to be a very important quarry—the fossils are in good shape, they are well preserved, and many of them are rare.

Barnes’s find only proves how serendipitous such windfalls can be, even when a dinosaur-rich quarry is right underfoot. As a Brewster County surveyor for twenty years, the lanky, chain-smoking Barnes knew most of the scrabbly landscape by heart; he could read the inclines and declines in this ancient delta like a book. He had surveyed much of the land himself. It wasn’t unusual to come across pieces of dinosaur bone—Barnes’s two sites were just three miles from where the most complete pterodactyl wing was found. But Barnes knew he had a mother lode when he noticed piles of bones, exposed as the weather gradually eroded the hill.

If a bone prospector had tried to predict where such a bonanza might be, Barnes’s sites—which he keeps secret to prevent depredations by rock hounds and black-market entrepreneurs—would have been logical candidates. The Big Bend area is at the lower end of what was once the Cretaceous Sea, a waterway that cut a swath from the Gulf of Mexico through Canada. In the last twenty years the most breathtaking dinosaur discoveries—especially of the hadrosaur, the bones of which Barnes found—have been made along this sweep. The fifty-foot-long duckbilled hadrosaurs weighed in at seven tons, migrated in herds, and despite their size, were probably agile and intelligent (the Big Bend skeletons, reaching thirty feet and around six tons, were those of adolescents).

Barnes has also unearthed parts of a type of ceratopsian—a horned rhinoceroslike herbivore with an elaborate frill around its neck—that so far has been discovered only in the Big Bend. The array of bones indicates that the creature died on the spot, and Barnes is convinced that the skull—the most significant part of a dinosaur find—will surface. Barnes has found a juvenile ceratopsian frill that Tim Rowe, an associate professor of geological sciences at UT, calls “the best example ever found.”

From the looks of the area, with its arid landscape and spiky foliage, it is hard to imagine that this was a fertile delta. Barnes’s sites are remote, reachable only by a jolting drive over unyielding and eroded terrain, followed by a mile-long desert hike that meanders through gullies and over raw rims of plateaus. The plateaus and jutting angles are typical of a West Texas panorama—except for an anomalous bulging ribbon of huge bentonite humps. Into the soft, gooey clay of these enormous formations Barnes has delved to expose the bones. With low-tech equipment—a roll of toilet paper for swaddling fragile fragments, a hand-me-down awl for chipping away mineral deposits, homemade chisels, a barber brush, a small syringe for blowing away dust, Elmer’s glue for temporary fixes, and a field book for recording the finds—Barnes has single-handedly ferried enough specimens to fill his small rock house in Terlingua. He has long since abandoned his mattress to tibias, femurs, ribs, and jawbones. In the living room, shelves stand full of boxes of smaller bones, and a bank of tables against the wall serves as a preparation station.

As an amateur geologist and dinosaur hunter, Ken Barnes knows the past, but the future is an unanswered question. So far, he has managed his excavations alone, consulting with UT paleontologists who have visited his digs, even learning vital restoration techniques over the phone. But the relationship between pro and amateur can be tenuous. As UT’s Robert Rainey admits, “Many of our finds are made by amateurs who eventually donate their work to us.” Once bones are donated to a university or museum, though, they are taken away from the site to be prepared and preserved before being studied in a lab or perhaps being put on display far away from the original environment. Sometimes they get lost. Tim Rowe concedes, “The history of universities is to let their collections deteriorate.” That is exactly what Ken Barnes doesn’t want to happen: “The whole point of my work is to keep the bones here.” He has his eye on an abandoned shell of a Terlingua schoolhouse as the ideal resting spot for his fossil collection.

Both Rowe and Rainey hope that Barnes will turn over his specimens to UT or to some other institution. Of course, they could circumvent Barnes and go directly to the landowners who really own the bones, but that would be bad form. Still, considering the fate some finds meet at the hands of amateurs, that is sometimes necessary. In Barnes’s case, Rowe says, “It’s up to Ken to decide.”

In a perfect world, Barnes’s dream of a museum is noble, but, as Rowe remarks, “I’ve been around long enough to know it won’t work. Ken doesn’t have a chance in hell of pulling this off.” But the specter of the Big Bend pterodactyl wing is always on Barnes’s mind. A local friend viewed a copy at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and was surprised to learn that the original, which is in storage at UT, had been found in his home county. Says Barnes: “I don’t want that to happen to these bones.”

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