André Costopoulos has been digging for bones in an animal cemetery – and no, this isn’t the plot of a Stephen King novel. The McGill University anthropology professor was called into action when a zoo an hour’s drive south of Montreal approached the university with a request to dig up some animal skeletons buried on the zoo’s property. The zoo, called Parc Safari, wanted to put the skeletons – of an elephant and a rhinoceros – on display.
Dr. Costopoulos jumped at the chance, thinking it would be a great opportunity for students taking his archaeology field studies course. The 17 students spent eight weeks at the site this past fall and learned much in the process.
First, the class discovered that the seven-year-old remains of the elephant and rhino were not yet decomposed, so they were left in the ground for now. However, they did unearth the skeletons of a Watusi African cow and two cranes.
As well, the students were able to document through their work how the burial practices and environmental conditions for these animals changed over time. “We can expect that as we look at more specimens, we will find differences in the way that they were kept and the way that their environment was managed,” says Dr. Costopoulos.
Currently, the students are preparing, preserving and assembling the Watusi and crane skeletons in their teaching lab at McGill. Dr. Costopoulos expects it to be quite an engineering project because the African cow is very robust with dense bones, a huge skull and broad, long horns. His students will also produce interpretation panels that will go on display with the animals. Their plan is to assemble the skeletons by this March for a small exhibit at McGill’s Redpath Museum and then bring the display to Parc Safari in May or June.
The students will continue their excavation of the zoo’s graveyard in the spring. Dr. Costopoulos hopes they’ll find the elephant and rhino remains completely decomposed, as well as new discoveries. “We’ve identified some of the areas where the highest densities of animal remains are. It’s 30 years of accumulation … so we can certainly continue for awhile.”