A sharp eye and a lot of luck led to an interesting discovery at Pantex last month.
Workers excavating at the construction site for the new High Explosives Pressing Facility uncovered the jawbone of an ancient peccary, a prehistoric pig related to modern javelinas, but the discovery was nearly lost amongst the giant piles of earth.
“If we’d have taken another bucket of dirt out of the wall of that pit, we’d have never known they were there,” Don Lankford, contractor on the project, said of the bones. “We just happened to knock off for the day right there, and the next morning, the light was hitting the bones just right, and one of the workers spotted them.”
Lankford said the bones were imbedded about eight feet down in the walls of the excavation, with a color that nearly matched the surrounding dirt, so the proper light was crucial to the discovery. The bucket of the massive excavator would almost certainly have destroyed the bone fragments if it had taken another bite out of the wall of the pit, he said.
Plant Historian Monica Graham joined with plant wildlife biologist Jim Ray, geologist Mike Keck and other personnel to excavate the bones. Dr. Gerald Schultz from West Texas A&M University identified the bones as belonging to a Platygonus, an extinct genus of herbivorous peccary of the family Tayassuidae that roamed the area in ancient times. According to Ray, Platygonus were similar to modern species of peccaries (also known as javelinas) but were larger, likely reaching 290-360 pounds.
Platygonus became extinct at least 11,000 years ago, but the bones could be as old as 23 million years old.
Work crews were able to move to other areas of the HEPF site and continue excavation for the foundation and flooring of the facility for several days while the find was dug out and catalogued. Work on the HEPF was not delayed.
“We were very fortunate to find the bones and to be able to get in there and remove them without impacting the schedule on the HEPF,” Graham said. “It’s a win-win for everyone when we can learn about the ancient history of this site at the same time we are ensuring the future with this new facility.”
The HEPF is a $65 million, 45,000-square-foot facility that is being built to modernize the high explosive capabilities at Pantex. Ground was broken on the HEPF in August, and construction is expected to take about two-and-a-half years.
Pantex has policies in place that govern the excavation of paleontology sites. Graham said plant personnel have quite a bit of experience with excavation, having previously recovered historical remains from a site located near Pantex Lake, a playa northeast of the site. The peccary bones will be preserved and stored along with other finds from the site.