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Museum closing ice age dig after 29 years

BUFFALO -- Each summer for 29 years, researchers and volunteers have meticulously scraped away layers of earth -- and time -- in a swampy western New York field, uncovering a treasure of mastodon bones, spear tips and plant fossils that have helped fill in the blanks about life in the ice age.

This past weekend, crews from the Buffalo Museum of Science were closing up shop on the annual three-week dig for the final time. The Byron Dig, named for the surrounding town, has run its course and will end. The Genesee County site 50 miles east of Buffalo will be filled in.

"It is unusual for an organization of our size to be able to run a research program such as the Byron Dig for 29 years," said Mark Mortenson, president and chief executive of the museum, which contributed funding for the project for 27 years, until shifting the financial burden to the science and research staff. It costs about $75,000 each year to stage the dig and process what's found.

After finding money to cover only some of the costs during the last three seasons and making fewer finds, the staff decided the 2011 dig would be the last.

That doesn't mean the discoveries will stop, said Dr. John Grehan, the museum's director of science and research. The field has proved to be one of the richest ice age sites in North America and its thousands of documented artifacts will provide a trove of information for years to come, he said.

"The value of this research lies some ways in the future use of the collection by researchers," Grehan said as the final dig wound down. "Digging itself is not the fundamental part of it, it's the analysis that will start afterward, and that's always going to be there and available, whether here or in other institutions."

Among the most remarkable finds have been the bones of an estimated 15 mastodons, hairy beasts that averaged a height of 6 to 10 feet at the shoulder and 15 feet from tusk to tail. The species died off at the end of the ice age some 10,000 years ago. Other surprises lying 3 to 4 feet below the surface have included the large front tooth of a giant beaver, another extinct species, and a bone from a California condor, a bird with a 9-foot wing span.

There have been much smaller fragments, too, such as a bit of cloth a handmade bead, and pieces of flint spear tips.

"The small stuff in some ways is more important because they often hold the clues of human activity," Grehan said.Experts first believed the site to be simply a watering hole for mastodons and other animals, given its wetlands location between two former lakes. But the current thinking is that a high salt content because of underground mineral springs attracted animals to what was, in effect, a sizable salt lick.

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