Published on May 15th, 2023 | by David Marshall


Episode 154/155: The Byron Dig

Following up on an initial discovery of ice-age remains in Byron, New York, in the 1950’s, Dr Richard Laub took on the task of systematically excavating the ‘Hiscock Site’ for the Buffalo Museum of Science. Fieldwork commenced in 1983, but as more and more fossils were discovered at the site, the ‘Byron Dig’, as it became known, would continue for almost three decades. In that time, countless numbers of significant Late Pleistocene and Holocene discoveries were made, including those of mastodon, caribou and bird remains, as well as a rich record of Paleoindian tools.

The Hiscock site proved to be incredibly challenging, not just in terms of physical excavation in its water-logged sediments, but also in developing an understanding of how this complex deposit had formed and evolved over the last ≈13,000 years. In many cases, it took years to figure out some of the details and whilst we have a good understanding of the site 40 years on, several questions still remain unanswered.

In this interview, Dick joins us to look back at his time leading the Byron Dig. As we work our way through each distinct layer of the deposit, he reconstructs the local environment for us and paints a picture of the flora and fauna of the relatively recent past.

Further details about the Hiscock Site, the Byron Dig and the history of its study can be found in Dick’s recent book: Two Acres of Time.

The Hiscock site was originally discovered in 1959 when landowner, Charles Hiscock, was repurposing the area to make a pond for waterfowl. During this process, he dug up some large bones and teeth which ultimately turned out to be from Mammut americanum, the American mastodon. The Buffalo Museum of Science was contacted and an limited excavation was carried out.
Image: Geologist Dr Carol Heubusch, at the initial probing of the site. Paralyzed from the waist down, she was able to excavate specimens from the waterlogged sediment atop of plastic sheet. It was her reports of these discoveries that first brought Dick’s attention to the site.
Credit: Buffalo Museum of Science
With the guidance of many colleagues and the assistance of numerous volunteers, Dick took on the task of fully exploring the site. Systems were set up to drain away water and procedures were put in place to systematically and methodically excavate the sediments, leaving no fossil, no matter how small unexamined.
Image: “Cobblestone road” marking the basement of the fossil-bearing deposit.
Credit: Buffalo Museum of Science
The sedimentology of the Hiscock Site proved difficult to interpret, but several layers quickly became apparent. These were distinct in their appearance and the assemblages of fossils differed in each.
Image: Wall of pit (1985) showing the simplified layering as understood at the time: (A) Dark Earth; (B) Woody Layer; (C) Fibrous Gravelly Clay; (D) Cobble Layer (the basement). At the bottom of the picture, a mastodon rib, excavated from within (C) can be seen lying on top of (D).
Credit: Richard S. Laub
Summary of the sedimentary layers of the Hiscock Site with their radiocarbon age ranges. Spaces between layers indicate gaps in the depositional record.
Credit: Richard S. Laub, “The Hiscock Site: Structure, Stratigraphy, and Chronology,” Bulletin of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences 37 [2003], figure 3.
The remains of the American Mastodon were by far the most impressive discoveries visually and numerous specimens, including complete tusks and jaws. One of the major differences between modern elephants and M. americanum is the direction of movement of the jaw, with the former moving forwards and backwards, whilst the later moves side to side. Their teeth and jaws were likely better adapted for browsing woodier material than elephants or mammoths.
Image: Comparison between the lower jaws of a mature Asian elephant (left) and an American mastodon (right).
Credit: Buffalo Museum of Science
One of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the site came from the discovery of a the left tusk of a mastodon that had been bevelled along its length. It had been nearly half worn away so that it possessed a ‘D-shaped’ cross-section. The pulp cavity (bottom), which would have sat within the jaw was also bevelled, suggesting the re-shaping only occurred after death. Put your hypotheses in the comments below!
Credit: Buffalo Museum of Science
Numerous Paleoindian artifacts were also recovered from the site. These included numerous stone points that had been repurposed into scrapers and other tools. Remarkably, evidence for the production of bone tools, and even an imprint of ancient fabric have been discovered from the site.
Image: (A) awl; (B) stone bead; (C) bone needle.
Credit: Buffalo Museum of Science
Dr Richard Laub as he could be found during any summer between the years of 1983 and 2011. It was under his guidance that the Byron Dig was able to go on so long and so completely preserve a record of this deposit for future study.
Credit: Richard S. Laub
Dick has written up the history of the Byron Dig and its scientific study in his book Two Acres of Time. Having read it cover to cover, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and would recommend it to anyone interested in fieldwork and the process of scientific discovery. (No, I’m not getting paid to say that).
Credit: Columbia University Press.

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