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Home Rodcast 201711

Digging Up History: Exploring the History of UNI's Mastodon Tusk


It’s the 1930’s in Hampton, Iowa. You’re shoveling in a gravel pit, and you suddenly strike something hard. You’ve unintentionally discovered a 12 foot long, 600 pound Mastodon tusk!

How Did it Get to UNI?

When the Hampton Mastodon tusk was found, it became a source of town pride. The citizens paraded it around town, and it was kept in the schoolhouse for the children to learn about. The tusk was acquired by the University of Northern Iowa in 1933 under the direction of Doctor Emmett J. Cable, who conducted extensive research on it. During this time, the tusk was also preserved using material such as shellac, spackle, and varnish. After Doctor Cable’s research was finished, the tusk was put on display at UNI Museum in the 1960's. Unfortunately, over time the tusk has sustained breakage and water damage, both of which are reasons to resume research and restoration of the tusk.

How Old is the Tusk? Where Did the Mastodon Live? Where Did the Rest of the Remains Go?

These and more are the questions that UNI Museum is seeking to answer by collaborating with other departments and students during this three-year-long project. UNI Museum has been the recipient of a $306,258 heritage grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust, which has allowed this massive project to get underway. The grant has provided funds for the tusk to be cleaned, analyzed, preserved, and exhibited. The grant will also be used by UNI Museum to hire a conservator to come and work alongside students on the restoration and conservation of the tusk. Additionally, funds from the grant will be used to create a Culture Lab, a space where students will have access to state of the art museum technology to advance their research.

Student Involvement

Not only will this project be beneficial for preserving Students working with conservator on tuskan important piece of Iowa history, but it will also be a chance for students in a variety of departments to experience hands-on learning. Students and faculty from the departments of history, anthropology, art, chemistry, and geology will all contribute to the research and restoration of the tusk, helping to discover many of its best-kept secrets. These classes will be working with Assistant Director & Chief Curator of UNI Museum Nathan Arndt and Rod Library librarians throughout the process to create a unique learning experience.

Nathan Arndt, assistant director & chief curator, UNI Museum

"Providing students with the rare opportunity to be part of such an important project is something we are excited about. From removing the lacquer layers to preparing the digital exhibit, a UNI student will be involved. We hope to inspire the next generation of museum professionals with this project."

What Comes Next?

Another goal of UNI Museum is to keep the public informed about the progress of the project. Currently research on the tusk is being done in the anthropology labs provided by the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology. The public will be able to read about what each department is contributing to the project and will have access to a live webcam of the conservator’s work as well as interviews with the conservator. Additionally, the tusk will be 3D scanned to create an interactive computer model. This model will be placed next to the tusk's new display case so visitors can explore the different parts of the tusk while reading about its discovery and restoration.

Keep watching RodCast for more updates on this exciting Mastodon tusk project!

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