On December 23, 1953, two duck hunters spread their decoys along the banks of the Mississippi River at Choctaw Bar in Desha County, Arkansas. Whether or not the hunt for waterfowl was a success has been lost to history, but upon leaving, they literally stumbled across something which was to have far more lasting significance. Partially exposed in the sand and gravel was the huge jawbone of an extinct elephant. Chuck Thomas and Bob Fulmer of Greenville, Mississippi realized they had found something unusual and began to excavate it using the only tools at hand, their boat paddles. An identification was made. Pictures were taken. A story was written for the Delta Democrat Times. They called the Smithsonian to see “if they were millionaires,” but eventually this jawbone of a mastodon was donated to the Biology Department of then Delta State College.

Fortunately someone had the foresight to thumbtack this label onto the wooden platform built to support the jawbone where it remained for 53 years.

Unfortunately both Mr. Thomas and Mr. Fulmer are deceased, but their surviving relatives were able to provide much of the information necessary for the research into the history of this find.

I first met this fossil in July, 2006, at the behest of Professor Nina Riding of now Delta State University. It was truly in dire need of restoration. Over 50 years of exposure without preservation had caused extensive deterioration of the bone matter. This fossil had incurred practically no mineralization during its time in the River, probably as a result of its recent erosion from the River bank somewhere upstream. Essentially it was still just bone, enamel and dentin, tens of thousands of years old, covered with a fine green dust which, despite appeals to several paleontologists, remains unidentified. The bone was crumbling to splinters at the touch, the remaining molar was fragmenting and detached, but at 26 inches long and weighing 33 pounds it was a truly impressive fossil which was well worth saving.

I began with the molar. Using small picks and brushes, soap and water, I removed all the mud, sand, gravel, and green mystery dust. Since it was detached, it could be placed in an electric oven with a 75-watt light bulb screwed into the appliance light socket and a meat thermometer holding the oven door slightly ajar. By adjusting the opening in the door with the thermometer, I was able to keep the temperature generated by the light bulb at 140° F. Before applying Butvar 76 to a fossil, it must be absolutely dry inside and out. After 24 hours in the oven I felt this had been accomplished, and I then immersed the tooth in a solution of Butvar dissolved in acetone. I also dripped, poured and injected more Butvar solution into the exposed tooth roots remaining in the jawbone itself. Into the large cracks and fissures of the molar I squeezed 10 tubes of good old Superglue.

After washing and cleaning the jawbone I let it dry for 3 weeks. The decision had been made to preserve the jawbone itself with Elmer’s Glue-All diluted with water at a ratio of 1 gallon of glue to 2 gallons of water. A support structure for a plastic “envelope” was erected, using an inverted patio table and two long flat pieces of paneling placed parallel to each other leaning against the legs of the patio table. Into this was placed the plastic sheeting which would be gathered around the fossil to contain the glue/water mixture in as small a volume as possible. The glue was poured into the sheet plastic envelope until it covered the fossil. This job required at least four hands, so I enlisted the aid of my wife Freida, a veteran assistant and observer of many one-of-a-kind, single-use-only contraptions which I have had to construct over the years.

After it reached the saturation point we relaxed one end of the envelope to drain the glue mixture and allowed the fossil to dry overnight. Several days of dripping, brushing, injecting, sponging, and spraying more glue in varying dilutions (including full strength) followed to seal the many cracks and fissures in the bone surface and interior.

It was now time to attach the molar. I used Liquid Nails Heavy Duty Adhesive in a caulking gun to coat the underside of the molar and the exposed tooth roots remaining in the jaw. This adhesive happens to be a compatible color for painting to match the surface which would have to be reconstructed to replace the missing tooth root fragments. The enamel surface was in comparatively complete condition, so I decided to leave it intact. After securing the tooth in place, I filled in the voids with Liquid Nails, smoothed it to conform to the contours of the existing molar and let it dry 48 hours. Spot painting the fill with black and brown enamel paint thinned with mineral spirits completed the reconstruction.
To make a support structure for the eventual museum display, I poured a large quantity of thick plaster and shaped it into a long oval mound. I had previously wrapped the jawbone with Saran Wrap to keep it from coming in direct contact with wet plaster, and then set it in the desired position on top of the mound of thickening plaster to create an impression that would conform to the contour of the bottom of the jaw.

I painted the stand with a neutral tan, lined the center groove with tan fabric, coated the surface with Elmer's and sprinkled River sand over it. The final display will be mounted in a diorama assimilating a Mississippi River gravel bar, with other commonly found fossils and artifacts including Native American, Pleistocene and Eocene elements.