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Originally published February 12, 2014 at 9:16 PM | Page modified February 13, 2014 at 2:07 PM

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Burke Museum hopes for permission to retrieve mammoth tusk

The mammoth tusk unearthed in the South Lake Union neighborhood belongs to the company that’s building on the site, and it’s unclear whether it will allow the relic to be removed for study.


Seattle Times staff reporter

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Once, that Columbian mammoth whose tusk was found Tuesday in the Cascade neighborhood would spend most of its waking hours eating the grass found in the plains that made up the Seattle area.

It was a vegetarian, spending most of its waking hours munching 300 to 600 pounds of grass a day.

That was 16,000 to 22,000 years ago, in between ice ages here, when there wasn’t even an Elliott Bay or a Puget Sound. Just a vast area of a plain stretching to the ocean.

The Burke Museum is anxiously awaiting confirmation that it can go dig up the fossil that construction workers unearthed on an apartment project. Right now, the 4- to 5-foot tusk remains stuck in the ground, a sight for the curious and their smartphones in this South Lake Union area near Republican Street and Pontius Avenue North.

The museum hasn’t heard from the developer, AMLI Residential, a multibillion-dollar company that has built apartment complexes around the country.

Phone messages and emails left for the company’s Seattle spokesman have not been returned.

“We’d love to display it for our annual dinosaur day, March 8,” says Christian Sidor, the vertebrate paleontology curator for the museum. “There would be a lot of interest.”

The Columbian mammoth, after all, is our official state fossil.

Unless there is considerably more of the mammoth in that dirt that was 30 feet below the surface, says Sidor, it wouldn’t take long for museum workers to dig it out using hand tools.

No big holdups for the company that owns the land.

“Maximum of 12 hours, and that’s if it needs to be put into a plaster jacket,” Sidor says.

The jacket is similar to a plaster cast a doctor would put around a broken arm.

But, really, AMLI could go ahead and just demolish the fossil.

The state’s geologist, the state’s physical anthropologist and the state’s archaeologist all say they have no jurisdiction.

Sidor says he won’t even discuss how much the tusk is worth monetarily.

“These fossils should be in a public depository,” he says.

Still, all you have to do is type in “fossils for sale” on Google and numerous sites pop up.

In 2012, the National Geographic ran a story about the trade in mammoth ivory in Siberia, where the permafrost kept their tusks in pristine condition. A primo tusk weighing 150 pounds can fetch a hunter $60,000 and sell for considerably more in China, their prime market.

Our finds here are rarer and less well preserved, but over the years we’ve had our share.

A 1963 Seattle Times story tells about woolly mammoth fragments found at a dig at Sixth Avenue and Seneca Street.

Actually, says Bax Barton, a research associate in the Burke’s paleontology division, it was likely a Columbia mammoth; no woolly mammoths existed west of the Rockies. The Columbian mammoth was about the size of a modern-day African elephant and from the same family.

A 1961 Seattle Times story tells of the remains of a giant sloth “which may have weighed several tons” that were found in a peat bog by Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

That sloth now is on display at the Burke, where, curators hope, that South Lake Union mammoth will soon join it.

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com



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