Tag Archives: mammoth

Fossil Rhythm

I saw one of my coworkers had a Saint-Saens CD and she let me borrow it. I remember dancing (using the word very loosely) to the ancient record of it my parents had when I was a little girl. I didn’t realize or remember that one of the movements was called fossils.


Apparently Ogden Nash was hired to write a series of short poems to go along with the movements. Some of them are pretty bad/badly dated. But the introduction one is excellent and I very much like the images of his fossils poem!



by Ogden Nash


At midnight in the museum hall

The fossils gathered for a ball

There were no drums or saxophones,

But just the clatter of their bones,

A rolling, rattling, carefree circus

Of mammoth polkas and mazurkas.

Pterodactyls and brontosauruses

Sang ghostly prehistoric choruses.

Amid the mastodontic wassail

I caught the eye of one small fossil.

“Cheer up, sad world,” he said, and winked-

“It’s kind of fun to be extinct.”


A charming reading and performance. And because I’m a sucker for the imagery: a series of fossil stamps from around the world set to the same piece. (Oh, and I want most of those stamps!)

Along the fossils theme–I visited the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits weekend before last. Had a few hours to kill before a family wedding so decided to go take a look despite everyone saying it was just a pit and not worth it.


Apparently they didn’t notice the museum you have to walk around to see said tar pits and not a one went in… It’s a nice little museum, I went in and goggled at the fossils they’ve found in the pits. They range from the huge Columbian Mammoth they have on display to the teeny mouse toes in their Fishbowl Lab to the vast quantity of dire wolf skulls on the wall…yes, dire wolves were real creatures and weren’t invented for fantasy novels….


Basically the tar pit is just that-natural asphalt. Animals would get stuck to the tar, and not all would be able to escape. Those that got stuck would attract predators and scavengers, and some of those would also get trapped. So it’s a whole ecosystem of life, predation and death from 11,000 to 50,000  years ago preserved in a smelly sticky mess! (How the La Brea Tar Pits Work for more details.)


I didn’t have enough time to take one of the tours, so I can’t vouch for those. But the atrium was lovely, and the displays were very nicely done. They have some assemblages of bird fossils and then a painting of what it might have looked like right behind it in the display case.

A short photo essay I found on the museum. (Their photos turned out better than mine!)


(Okay, the animatronic mammoth is seriously dated besides being the wrong species, but kids seemed to love it.)


So if you’re in the area and up for braving the insanity of traffic in LA, stop by and go inside. Take time to walk through the park too.

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Filed under Natural Science

A Mammoth (if slightly belated) Presidents’ Day

Thomas Jefferson is credited with being one of the first people to use mammoth as an adjective. While he might not have coined the usage, he was certainly integral to its popularity.

The Mammoth…

Mastodon fossils had been found in the United States, well, before it was the United States. In 1705 some large teeth had been found, which Puritan clergymen attributed to a race of giants destroyed in Noah’s flood. 

(Some historians think the ancients made similar assumptions about fossils they may have discovered. Apparently there are little to no references among the ancients about finding fossils, but much about finding the skeletons of heroes and monsters. There is a theory that at least some of the classical myths dealing with giants and monsters were originally inspired by fossil finds. One proposed derivation is that the large hole where the trunk would have attached in mammoth skulls led to the myth of the Cyclops with its one huge eye dead in the center of its forehead.)

In 1799 workers found large bones while digging on a farm in the Hudson River Valley. A number of local people started pulling bones out of the ground and housing them in the granary. Interest in them waned for a year or so, but eventually news spread to the American Philosophical Society and through them to not just yet president Thomas Jefferson.

Charles Willson Peale's Exhumation of the MastodonJefferson sent his friend Charles Willson Peale, the artist and creator of the first American art and natural science museum, to investigate. He was officially there to draw the fossils, but soon decided to acquire them and the rights to look for the rest. He eventually managed to get nearly a full skeleton, and in 1801 brought it back to his museum and gallery in Philadelphia. He spent months reconstructing it with the aid of naturalist Caspar Wistar. 

Years later Jefferson would have William Clark to continue the hunt for mammoth bones in the Hudson River Valley and elsewhere, partially in the hope of finding the parts missing from Peale’s skeleton.

…and the Cheese! 

The Cheshire Mammoth Cheese was a gift from the town of Cheshire, CT to Presisdent Jefferson. In a letter Jefferson described it as being 4’ 4 ½” in diameter and 15’ thick and weighing 1230 pounds.

The gift was both instigated and delivered by pastor Elder John Leland as a thank you from the local Baptist community to Jefferson for his stance on religious liberty and sustaining the division between church and state. The cheese was too big to be transported on a wheeled vehicle, so Leland brought it from Cheshire to Washington DC by sleigh.

Jefferson’s election was a tempestuous one, and he was often skewered by the federalist papers. A writer at the Hampshire Gazette derisively took the name of Jefferson’s famous creature and used it as an adjective to emphasize how ridiculous he found the giant cheese and its winding path to DC. Jefferson himself later used the term in a letter he wrote to his son-in-law describing the famous cheese. (note: Jefferson was morally opposed to elected officials accepting gifts, so he in turn made a gift of $200 to the town of Cheshire.)


Filed under Historical Facts and Trivia