Weighing a whopping 3,000 lbs, the massive Tyrannosaurus rex skull in its plaster field jacket presented quite a unique challenge for our paleontology team. It would break ordinary lab tables and they needed to be able to rotate the fossil as they carefully remove rock from it.
The team enlisted the help of Michael Holland, Burke Museum fossil preparator, who has worked on T. rex specimens at leading museums across the country. Michael collaborated with Crucible, a workers cooperative based in Montana, to design and build a specially engineered cage to hold the “Tufts-Love Rex.”
Dubbed the “T. Rex Rotisserie Rack (TR3),” the equipment’s appearance lives up to its name, but instead of roasting a chicken, this rack is designed to hold up to 6,000 pounds of fossil. The device sits on a wheeled frame made of two-inch tube steel, which allows the Burke’s paleontology team to safely rotate the fossil as the work progresses. Each rod can be individually removed so the team can easily access any part of the skull.
“It’s sort of a case study, I think, in sort of how paleontology works which is ‘oh we need this,’ and whatever the ‘this’ is, it’s not an off-the-shelf thing you just run out buy. Sometimes you have to make stuff up,” said Michael.
The team moved the skull out of the paleontology collections room in the basement of the museum and squeezed it into the elevator to send it up to the Testing, Testing 1-2-3 exhibit where the rack was waiting.
They lifted the skull using chain hoists and were able to slide the skull jacket into the rack.
A difficult but rewarding process, the T. rex is now able to be easily rotated and moved during fossil prep. Each time the fossil is rotated in the rack, the team will apply rigid urethane foam between the rack’s bars and the fossil in order to create a custom cradle, distributing the weight across the bars and relieving pressure points that could potentially damage the skull.
The areas of the fossil that are bearing weight will continue to be covered in a plaster jacket that looks similar to a cast used to set a broken bone.
“It’s really a neat opportunity, because we literally just opened up the field jacket, and when people come, they’re going to see a big hunk of rock with bones in it that will gradually be emerging as our preparators keep working away to remove the matrix,” said Michael. “I’ve built four other T. rex skulls for museum exhibits, and the bones we’re seeing so far are among the best I’ve seen.”
Removing rock from around such a rare and large fossil requires skill and patience. The Burke’s team of fossil preparators and trained volunteers will spend the next several months uncovering the T. rex skull in the Testing, Testing 1-2-3 exhibit. Once all of the rock surrounding the bone has been removed and the fossils have been stabilized, the museum plans to display the skull in the New Burke Museum opening in 2019.
There’s still a long way to go before we have a complete T. rex skull on display, and we’re just getting started. Beginning August 12, the public can watch fossil preparation of the Burke Museum’s Tyrannosaurus rex skull “live.”
Plan your visit to see T. rex LIVE today!