Debra Baker admits she wasn't too excited when she was sent to investigate a bone found by three boys playing in Elmer Thomas Park.
Leaving the archive area of the Museum of the Great Plains on an unusually rainy week in mid-July, Baker, the museum's archaeologist, fully expected to see something like a prairie dog bone. Instead, she came upon a boy shaking with excitement as he used both hands to cradle a huge leg bone.
Almost two months later, the museum has the bone confirmed as the remains of Bison antiquus (the forefather of today's modern buffalo) and the boys and museum staff are excitedly putting the finishing touches on preparations for an archaeological dig in Elmer Thomas Park.
Museum Director John Hernandez shakes his head in amazement and Baker laughs outright as they recall the moment they realized the boys had found something significant, later confirmed by three experts (including the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey) to be the bones of a long-time prairie resident, remains that are 8,000 to 10,000 years old. Evolution forced Bison antiquus to make way for today's bison, but they still existed within human history, which means the site will be investigated for both animal remains and evidence of human habitation, Baker said.
And, because of the proximity to the Museum of the Great Plains, Hernandez said he expects that whatever is found at the dig site will become part of his museum's collection.
"It needs to be here," Hernandez said, noting the site was found near the museum, which also has the facility to preserve the remains.
"We're a repository," Baker said, indicating other items that museum archaeologists have found and preserved over the years.
Museum officials are being cautious about commenting on the location of the find, except to say that it is within walking distance of the museum, but once the site is established it will be fenced in and marked with warning signs with the federal penalties attached to violating archaeological dig sites. Because that site will be within Elmer Thomas Park, the museum is working with the City of Lawton's Parks and Recreation Department to craft a memorandum of understanding to set the work perimeters. Parks and Recreation Director Kim Shahan has said the site won't affect the recreational aspect of the park and the City Council is expected to approve the memorandum of understanding when it returns on the agenda.
Once that has been set in place, Baker said, plans will proceed with establishing the dig site. She admits she's excited and so are the boys; while Patrick Lewis has since moved from Lawton, Christopher and Leelannd O'Sullivan will be part of the dig once it begins. Baker said it is a fitting reward for what is an astonishing find and said Christopher has been checking almost daily to see when the dig will begin.
Hernandez said that once the staff got over its surprise, he fully expected the bone to be confirmed as a mammoth, an ancient animal that, while not common, has been found in several sites in the Lawton area, including a find decades ago when Lawton Public Schools was excavating to build what is now Shoemaker Center on the west edge of Elmer Thomas Park.
Hernandez said he was startled when the bones (in addition to an upper leg bone, the museum has parts of vertebrae and a bone that would have been within the hump on the bison's back) that he was certain would be a mammoth were confirmed as Bison antiquus. A display in the museum vividly illustrates the difference: Bison antiquus was about one-third larger than today's bison and heavier (average weight: 3,600 pounds), and its horns resembled today's Texas longhorns, rather than the short, curved horns seen on bison in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.