Last Updated on June 29, 2015 by Jody Halsted
The Black Hills of South Dakota draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, yet only a small percentage of those visitors even know of the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs – the world's largest mammoth research facility. But this isn't just a museum showing you what has been found. The dig continues. And it's as fascinating for adults as it is for children.
Experience a Dig at The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs
Having never been to an actual archaeological dig site before, I had no idea what to expect. The Mammoth Site is set up for visitors to view the mammoths as they emerge from this fresh water sink hole, but watching the volunteers as they slowly removed loose dirt with spoons, brushed around partially exposed bones with paintbrushes, and carefully chiseled at mud dried for centuries with small tools more often found in a household tool kit, we quickly appreciated the patience this tedious task requires.
After our 30 minute tour of the dig, in which our guide introduced us to mammoths with names like Elvis, Clem, and Beauty, we were allowed to wander the site at our own pace. Slowly making our way through the site, the girls learned about different mammoth types, the geology that created the sinkhole, and that the dig will continue for 20-30 more years as at least 45 feet remain to be excavated.
During our explorations we met Carolyn, an Earthwatch volunteer from Wisconsin. “I never thought I would spend my vacation digging for mammoth bones,” Carolyn told us. Her sister Reynotta, a veteran of this- and other- digs, had convinced her to join her at The Mammoth Site. Known as ‘the Cadillac of digs' because of its indoor, temperature controlled climate and comfortable hotel lodging, Carolyn told us the dig is “a great first experience.”
While definitely not cheap – the volunteers pay for their travel and lodging – Carolyn said the experience was fabulous. “We are taught how to identify fragments on site,” she said, explaining that “fragments sound different and have small holes” through them.
Kids Can Dig, Too
The Junior Paleontology Program offers kids the chance to experience a dig. Taking place during the summer, this program fills quickly so I recommend advance registration.
Other Exhibits at The Mammoth Site
After touring the dig, the attached Ice Age Exhibit Halll is fascinating. Replica skeletons of Ice Age animals are dwarfed by the full sized mammoth model. But the most intriguing display to me was the mammoth bone hut. Giving the impression of prehistoric Lincoln Logs, these dwellings have been found in the Ukraine and are some of the oldest shelters known to have been constructed by pre-historic man.
Take the elevator down to the working paleontology lab. Seated behind windows, you can watch the paleontologists clean, repair and catalog the discoveries. Questions are encouraged and the paleontologists are happy to provide both simple and more in-depth explanations.
The Children's Room, adjacent to the gift shop, offers a chance for the kids to ‘dig' for fossils or do a crayon rubbing while you search for just the right souvenir.
As the only place in the world where both the Colombian and Woolly Mammoth have been found together, The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs should be on your Black Hills vacation itinerary.
The Mammoth Site is open year round. Visit mammothsite.com for hours, prices and special events.