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Fossil Hunting Runs in the Family

For the week of Monday, July 10, 2017

On July 13, 1912, Charles H. Sternberg discovered his first dinosaur fossil in Alberta as an employee of the Geological Survey of Canada. While there, he and his family collected many fossils, which can still be seen at the Canadian Museum of Nature today.

Dinosaur digs were often isolated and difficult to reach. When the Sternbergs first arrived in Drumheller, they built a raft to explore the area before setting up camp near their dig site
© C.M. Sternberg, 1913 / Canadian Museum of Nature

Joseph Tyrrell first discovered dinosaur bones in Alberta near Drumheller in 1884. By 1911, American paleontologists were excavating huge numbers of fossils as part of the Great Canadian Dinosaur Rush (1911-19). These finds were then exported to United States museums such as the American Natural History Museum. The Canadian government became concerned about the quantity of fossils leaving the country and hired Sternberg to acquire bones for Canada.

Excavations became a family affair when Charles M. and Levi, Sternberg’s two younger sons, joined their father along the Red Deer River. His eldest son, George, was already under contract with an American fossil collector, Barnum Brown, whose dig was nearby. Competition between the teams was fierce, but with so many specimens to unearth their rivalry remained friendly, unlike the earlier “bone wars” in the United States.

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A fossil hunter, commonly identified as Levi Sternberg, preparing a plaster field jacket, ca. 1916. Burlap soaked in plaster protected the fragile fossils for shipment to museums around the world
© G. Sternberg / Canadian Museum of Nature

In 1913, the Victoria Memorial Museum opened its first fossil gallery. However, the Canadian government stopped funding fossil excavations during the First World War. Sternberg then began collecting fossils for the British Museum (which had secured private funding) in 1916. There, his team found an almost complete hadrosaur (a duck-billed dinosaur) skeleton with skin impressions. Unfortunately, the ship carrying the hadrosaur to England was sunk by German commerce raiders.

In 1921, Charles H. Sternberg moved to San Diego. Charles M. stayed with the Geological Survey of Canada while Levi collected fossils for the Royal Ontario Museum. After briefly working for the Geological Survey of Canada, George went on to collect for the University of Alberta, and later settled in Kansas.

Dinosaur Provincial Park, in Alberta, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On July 15, 2017, go outside to celebrate Canada’s Parks Day! To learn more about Joseph Tyrrell, a designated national historic person, read “Them Dry Bones…” in the This Week in History archives. The Victoria Memorial Museum, now the Canadian Museum of Nature, is a national historic site.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada, and be sure to visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada webpage. Explore Canada 150!

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