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Cataloging the archives: Unearthing a type

This semester, one of the foci of the CLIR/UCMP Archive Project has been cataloging what are called “supplemental locality files.” These files contain materials (other than field notes) that are relevant to UCMP collections, such as polaroid pictures of fossil sites, letters of correspondence involving UCMP scientists, and environmental impact reports for land development proposed in areas with known fossil sites. As such, they are unique records of how collections came to be, and how collections have since been used for research, education, and protection of paleontological resources on public lands.

My work on the project is (1) to improve the preservation of these materials by rehousing them in archival-quality containers and (2) to make entries in the UCMP collections database to link the archive and collections records. The latter makes it possible for anyone interested in, say, the holotype of Cretaceous plesiosaur Hydrotherosaurus alexandrae to look up what archival materials exist in the museum that are related to the specimen (by following the “Link to Archives” in the specimen record or administrative locality record; alternatively, the search function of the Archon database can be used).

In this example, the supplemental locality file includes photographs (below) and corresponding negatives of the excavation site taken in 1937, photographs of prepared specimens, William Gordon Huff’s reconstruction of the animal, and type-written captions for the photographs that were perhaps prepared for an exhibit. When combined with field notes, pictures of excavation sites like these often carry important information on how skeletal remains were buried, which in turn can provide insights into the habits and habitats of long-extinct animals (learn more about this topic). Beyond their scientific values, these pictures preserve vivid images of field work in the early 20th Century, enticing those of us who study paleontology today to ponder on the history of the discipline and personal development of yesterday’s workers whom we hold in high esteem (read about Samuel P. Welles).

You can see a replica of the Hydrotherosaurus skeleton at the City College of San Francisco.

Stay tuned for more exciting “digs” from the Archive Project!

[Larger versions of the photos below can be seen on CalPhotos.]

Left: A scraper pulled by a mule was used to remove fragments of shale from the surface and expose fossil-bearing layers of rock. Center: The holotype of Hydrotherosaurus alexandrae was recovered in the Panoche Hills of Fresno County, California, in 1937 by a joint party from Fresno State College (now CSU Fresno) and UC Berkeley. Right: Samuel P. Welles (left) and Lloyd Conley extracted a block containing the neck of the plesiosaur. Welles, then a graduate student, later described and named the plesiosaur after UCMP benefactor, Annie Alexander.

Center: A caption associated with this photo reads ‘We put the heavy blocks on a sled to get them out of the deep canyon ...’ Left: ‘... then, with a tractor up on top and a long cable going through a pulley which was anchored to a large sandstone dike, we gradually worked the sled down the main canyon.’ Right: Albert Branch (left) and Welles are surrounded by plaster jackets containing fossils.

Left: The UCMP holotype skeleton of Hydrotherosaurus alexandrae, specimen number 33912. The 30-foot skeleton was prepared by two WPA workers over 18 months and was put on display at the Golden Gate Exposition in 1940. Right: William Gordon Huff's reconstruction of Hydrotherosaurus alexandrae.