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Digging up the past

It’s sitting right in front of you, though you may not realize what you’re seeing: fossils, bones, the lingering echoes of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. But you don’t have to journey far away to see these remnants of the past — you can find these historical treasures right here in the Vail Valley. From prehistoric finds to the traces of people who lived almost 7,000 years ago, there are historic riches just waiting to be discovered in our extended backyard.

Cretaceous small rapter trackway walking left to right. Photography provided by Fossil Posse.
Cretaceous small rapter trackway
walking left to right.
Photography provided by
Fossil Posse.

Uncovering history

Billy Doran moved to the Vail Valley almost 30 years ago, but he made his first dino discovery in 2011. An avid amateur paleontologist, Doran has been fascinated by dinosaurs since a young age. With the advent of the Internet and the ability to research just about any topic imaginable, Doran was able to rekindle his passion for paleontology and indulge his curiosity. “There were a few areas that I had a hunch about here [in the Vail Valley] that are fairly remote that I’ve driven by or seen from the road or hiked around that just always seemed to have the quality of being possible fossil areas,” Doran says.

Doran did his homework: He went to museums and studied bones and fossils, learning what made them unique and what set them apart from regular rocks. He also studied the geology of the area — an important aspect for fossil and bone hunting.

“When I started looking the first few times, you might just call it beginner’s luck, but I found some stuff … right in Eagle County that looked like bone,” Doran says.

Doran talked to a few people, trying to verify what he had found.

He got some pushback: “They said, ‘Well, it’s unlikely because there are no dinosaur-bearing rock layers up in the high country of Colorado. Granted, there are dinosaurs all over Colorado, but not up in the high country, not up in the ski resort, mountainous areas.’”

digging_3But Doran persisted and experts confirmed he’d found a dinosaur bone, proving that just because something is not likely doesn’t mean that it’s impossible.

“Then, on that same day that I found the dinosaur bones, I also found footprints. So I was fairly certain that I had stumbled on something that was going to be pretty unique,” Doran says. Doran’s dinosaur adventures snowballed from there. He connected with experts at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science to learn more about what he found and what he was looking for; the Denver Museum of Nature & Science invited him on an expedition, which led to several National Geographic expeditions and eventually led to Doran’s photography being featured in a double-page spread in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.digging_2

In the years since his first discovery, Doran has found dinosaur fossils that span the entire Mesozoic era (the dinosaur era), which is broken into three periods: Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous.

“I’ve actually found fossils, either bones or footprints or both, that span dinosaurs from the beginning of the Triassic, about 230 million years ago, all the way to the end before the asteroid hit about 66, 65 million years ago,” Doran explains.

“It’s about a half a dozen, maybe six to eight different dinosaurs that we found tracks from and bones. And then shark teeth and shells and cool stuff like that.”

Yes: In addition to the echoes of dinosaurs, Doran has also found remnants from the ancient ocean that used to cover this area.

But it’s not just dinosaur bones and fossils that are found. In 1987, archeologist Kevin Black found what is now known as the Yarmony Archaeology Site north of State Bridge near the Colorado River.

Black was in the area surveying for road improvements when he uncovered the prehistoric habitation site, which is not uncommon — many of the prehistoric archaeological finds were discovered while making way for progress. Metcalf Archaeological Consultants, which specializes in cultural resource management, completed further excavations and found evidence of at least five separate occupations during the Archaic period (6650 BCE to 150 CE) and the Late Prehistoric period (150 to 1540 CE).

The most significant components of the site are two Early Archaic pithouse ruins, which are some of the oldest pithouses found in North America and are among the oldest in the Rocky Mountains. These pithouses are believed to have been used by single families, with the larger one dating to about 5300 BCE and the smaller one dating to about 5000 BCE. These circular, two- room dwellings included large, rock-lined storage cisterns and unlined fire hearths for storage and building fires for warmth and cooking. An array of artifacts were found in and around the pithouses, including bones from elk, bison and deer as well as tools like drills, knives and scrapers.

But it wasn’t just bones and stones that archaeologists found — they also found an unmarked grave. The female, believed to have lived to at least 60 years old, lived around 5540 to 5320 BCE, the same time period of the larger pithouse. Her burial is one of just a few in Colorado that predate 5000 BCE; after her secrets were revealed, she was reburied.

You can visit the site today — it was listed on the National Register of Historical places in 1991 — but it’s mostly undeveloped Bureau of Land Management land now. If you want to see the artifacts, you’ll have to visit the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder.

There are several ways that you, too, can find remnants of the past. Doran’s company, Fossil Posse, offers both three- and five-hour guided tours to local sites; he also offers a paleo- explorers camp for kids aged 6 years and older. But for those that prefer a solo expedition, Doran has some tips.

First: Know where you’re going. If you’re heading onto private land, make sure that you have permission from the owner; if it’s public land, you’re required to leave anything you find. “Everything I’ve found, it’s been on public land and it’s still sitting there,” Doran says. “It’s not legally allowed to be removed. You can definitely go to jail.”

digging_4

But beyond knowing the legal ramifications of fossil removal, Doran says that it really comes down to just knowing what it is you’re looking for — studying up on what you want to find. Knowing your space and your area. For example, if you want to find a footprint for a certain dinosaur, like a Tyrannosaurus rex, you need to find out where it lived, study the type of rock layers that it would be hidden in (late Cretaceous period layers, for the T. rex), etc. Another tip? Take a kid with you. Between kids and adults, Doran said that kids are better at spotting fossil finds. Part of it might be the fact that they’re lower to the ground and their eyesight is better, he jokes, but a key element to finding fossils is a touch of imagination.

“(Imagination) is a huge part of it because it’s a very short step between a rock that looks like a tooth and the tooth,” Doran says.

If you’re dinosaur hunting or fossil hunting, focusing on what you’re trying to find and even imagining it there can help you see the treasures that are hiding in plain sight.

There are so many elements that make digging into the past exciting: the thrill of discovery, the questions both answered and unanswered, imagining the creatures or people who once tread the same land. But Doran also sees paleontology as a time machine.

“You’re touching something that no human on earth has ever touched before — you’re the first thing to touch it,” Doran says. “You’re now part of this animal’s story, this animal that died 70 million years ago, 150 million years ago, 230 million years ago. All of a sudden, you’re making physical contact with this fossil crossing eons of time, which has always been a neat connection … to be in contact with something that is so overwhelmingly ancient is really amazing.”

From fossils and footprints etched into the mountains to ancient dwellings uncovered while making progress for the future, there are still plenty of hidden treasures waiting to be discovered in the Vail Valley. Who knows what might be found while digging up the past?