Making Friends with Mammoths from the Ice Age

Ruth Clemmer never dreamed that a mammoth from the Ice Age would be named after her. After all, she was a retiree from the world of finance. But today, Ruth has formed a bond with Clem – an extinct mammoth that inhabited the site where she regularly digs – some 26,000 years after he roamed the earth.

Ruth Clemmer Digging for Bones and Discovering Clem

Ruth Clemmer Digging for Bones and Discovering Clem

The Mammoth Site
Imagine traveling back to the time when Ice Age mammoths roamed the Great Plains of North America. And imagine a sudden collapse of a 60-foot deep sinkhole. Bubbling from the bottom, a warm spring percolates through the layers of limestone, creating a large, steep-sided pond. Picture thirsty animals venturing down to the water below. After drinking from this pond, the animals are unable to gain a foothold to escape. The sinkhole is a deathtrap. The mammoths are still buried there today. They are being unearthed one-by-one by volunteers from across the globe.

After retiring from a career in finance at AT&T, Ruth Clemmer took a road trip with a friend to Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. It was 2003. While in Hot Springs, Ruth saw a brochure for The Mammoth Site – the world’s largest mammoth research facility and active paleontological dig site. Ruth was intrigued, headed over, took a tour, and instantly fell in love with the site. She had no background in archaeology or paleontology whatsoever, but Earthwatch promised her the opportunity to participate in this dig to study animals. Unfortunately, when Ruth returned home, she couldn’t stay retired and accepted another finance position. In 2006, she retired for good, and knew it was time to start her true calling.

“I’ve always had an interest in dinosaurs and things, but I never did anything about it. ‘Wow, I would love to dig in there’ is what I thought from the moment I saw the Site.”

In July of 2007, Ruth joined her first two-week dig as part of Earthwatch’s Mammoth Graveyard expedition. The location’s conditions were ideal. The site was completely covered, blocking the sun, so as not to get too hot. Visually, the site is breathtaking. When you enter, you are faced by a huge room – the dig site. You are greeted by Sinbad, a giant mammoth skeleton just outside the entrance to a bone bed. A large building contains the entire site, enclosing it, and preserving the bones inside.

Since Ruth’s first visit, she has traveled from her home in Pennsylvania 11 times over five years to dig at The Mammoth Site. A mammoth named “Clem” become her pet project from the day she discovered his skull.

View of The Mammoth Site

View of The Mammoth Site

Discovering a Wooly Mammoth
The left tusk of a mammoth was discovered in 2003, right around the time Ruth first toured The Mammoth Site. It wasn’t until Ruth unearthed a skull in 2009 that something was named after her:

“The year I found Clem, I was assigned to prepare a tusk to remove it. That took us a week. All we did was prep that tusk. At the end of the week, the tusk was moved. Dr. Agenbroad [the lead scientist] wanted to take the area down – removing a thin layer of dirt at a time. It was a 6-foot by 8-foot area, maybe. It went slowly over the next week. We found two partial ribs in this big area. The last day, we all went to lunch. When I came back, I took one scrape. And I saw something odd. I got out my dental pick and started cleaning out the area. It kept getting bigger and longer. When the rest of the team went for break, I didn’t go. I kept digging to see what this thing was I found. Dr. Agenbroad eventually came looking for me. I asked if I could dig one more day while the rest of the team went on a field trip to a bison kill site. After all, I’d been on the expedition several times and had been on that field trip before. So I came in on Saturday to dig while everybody was gone. When everybody came back from the field trip, Dr. Agenbroad identified my find as a nuchal crest, or the top of a mammoth skull.”

Dr. Larry Agenbroad added:

“It has been an informal tradition that the excavation crews have named the better specimens, as they have been found. As of 1989 we could confirm that The Mammoth Site mammoths were all male, hence male names. For instance ‘Marie’ had to be changed to ‘Murray’ once the metrics proved it male, even prior to 1989. It would not fit to have a ‘Clementine’ so a male name signifying an acknowledgement for Ruth’s skull, was named ‘Clem’.”

The Skull of a Mammoth Named Clem

The Skull of a Mammoth Named Clem

Bonding with a New Friend from the Ice Age
Since Ruth Clemmer discovered the skull of Clem, she has grown attached to him. Other mammoths at the site have names, including “Napoleon,” “Beauty” and “Murray.” But only Clem bears her name. He is lesser-known than the other mammoths, since only the top of his face and one tusk are exposed – so far. There is still more work to do.

“Some day, when he is more exposed, people will say ‘This is Clem.’ It’s hard to see him from the visitor’s platform since he’s kind of in an awkward position. So people don’t specifically talk about him like they do the others, because the others are in plain view.”

Ruth hopes to change that by digging deeper.

“The final intent is to completely dig up Clem. Since my initial find, I have always worked on excavating around Clem. This has been my thing. And nobody works on excavating around him when I am not there.”

In 2010, Ruth spent four weeks excavating around the skull. It was during this time that it was discovered that the skull was attached to the tusk that was previously found in 2003. That was quite a discovery! And in 2011, on the first night of that year’s dig, she broke a bone in her right foot. This was quite ironic, considering the amount of time Ruth had dedicated chipping away at the bones of others. But this year, a healthy Ruth was back. At the end of the first two-week session, she again asked to dig while everyone went on the field trip. It was at this time that she found the second tusk.

“One of the goals now is to get to his teeth, as you can tell a mammoths age by his teeth – then we’ll know how old he is.”

A mammoth’s skull is huge, up five feet long. There are two feet between his eyes. Ruth uses just an inch wide paintbrush and a dental pick for her work.

“There is still an awful lot of dirt there to dig.”

Meeting Like-Minded Discoverers
“My friends all think I’m crazy. I pay good money to dig in the dirt. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I gotta do something. My mother and brother, they don’t get it either, why I spend so much time out there digging. It’s for me.”

Ruth has met several friends similar to her while on these expeditions.

“Two women started in the same year as me in 2007. Rebecca and Roberta. All three of us go back every year. We maintain friendship all year long. We have become good friends.”

To date, 60 mammoths (57 Columbian and three woolly) have been discovered as well as 85 other species of animals, plants, and several unidentified insects. The majority of these finds have come from people without formal training, but who have a passion for adventure and giving back – just like Ruth Clemmer.

“At first, this experience was entirely new. I had never in my life thought about it. I had been to museums with skeletons, but don’t know if I had ever seen a mammoth skeleton. When I walked into the site, it might have been the first time. This was something I wanted to do. Had to do.”

Ruth’s next Mammoth Graveyard trip is planned for July of 2013. Until then, you might be able to spot her driving around Pennsylvania. Her vanity license plate is: MA-MOTH.

Ruth Clemmer with her MAMOTH License Plate

Ruth Clemmer with her MAMOTH License Plate