Yi, Er, San!

Do not drive tiredly” read the signs on the expressway today. Sound advice. I write this blog tiredly but happily. I have just learned that the Phillies are going to the World Series! I have also come down off the mountain after a truly splendid day in the field. The temperature began at a chilly 5 degrees C (41 F) but the skies were clear blue. Fortunately for us there wasn’t a breath of wind. We set out at 8 a.m. flat once again and headed for the fossil field only 45 km from Lanzhou that Daqing and his crews discovered only a few years ago and which he and You Hailu (Ph.D. U Penn, 2002) are making famous. We crossed over the mountain on the expressway, and then exited into rural farmland where the 21st century is still only a rumor. We drove a mile or so up a dry stream bed that serves as the local thorofare, past stone wall-bordered corn fields now devoid of their crop. This bone-jarring ride afforded ample chance to contemplate the gorgeous fall scenery.

Excavation with a view

Excavation with a view

Daqing has inconsiderately found all of his fossils at the top of the mountains and never down in the valley. The bone level is at about 2200 meters of elevation, about 200 meters above the valley floor. It is a steep climb, best taken at a slow ascent for plump old guys like myself. But the climber is rewarded with a splendid 360 degree view of the surrounding lands. Part the way up the well-worn trail is a tent city where Daqing’s men live. His men are in the field from April to the end of October. They remain a little longer if the weather stays warm, or shorter if they have to chip too much ice from their wash water in the morning. We had lunch in camp before ascending to the bone quarry towering over our heads. There is a professional cook in camp, and he outdid himself by preparing six dishes for the guests instead of the usual two for the men.  It was delicious and satisfying; I was afraid I would have to be carried up the mountain. I made it, albeit it at a measured pace.

Al fresco high dining

Al fresco high dining

The quarry was a thing of beauty, a beveled surface in the bright red rock just below the crown of the hill. It glistened in the bright sun. The temperature was now probably around 60, and we stripped off layers of heavy clothing.  Daqing had a small army of blue-jacketed men at work. The filming was designed to show the various phases of the collecting process, with as much involvement of the four principals (Manning, Dodson, Li Daqing and You Hailu). The specimen in the quarry is the second known specimen of the great long-necked sauropod Daxiatitan, perhaps the longest dinosaur in Asia. Don’t worry, you didn’t forget this dinosaur from your youth—it was only described by Daqing and Hailu last year. Daqing has recovered one cervical rib that is 4 meters long–these were truly long-necked animals! Only a few bones were left in the quarry. One large block was already encased in a plaster jacket. Another section was almost ready to be jacketed.

Field jacket, Lanzhou-style

Field jacket, Lanzhou-style

As the quarrymen stood aside, we four picked up hammers and chisels and happily banged away. Later on Phil used an electric jack hammer powered by a gasoline generator and hastened the process. The target block isolated, we backed away and let the quarrymen encase the block in plaster and burlap. Phil and I marveled at the speed, efficiency and cleanliness of the process. I get covered from head to toe in plaster when I do it.

Phil's vibrating tool

Phil's vibrating tool

The other thing we marveled at was the size of the block, which Phil estimated at 2 tons in weight! The most arresting visual was the transport of a heavy block of some 3000 pounds straight down the slope in an absolutely controlled descent, with 14 men (including Phil!) hauling on ropes to the repeated cadence of the team leader barking “yi! (ee), er! (are), san!”, easily understood as “one! two! three!” And so the pyramids were built. This was a small block by Daqing’s standards. Last year he brought down a block that was 5 meters long and 1.5 meters high, the size of a small car—he takes no prisoners. This has to be seen to be believed—and you will see it, I promise! This might seem like a day’s work but a dinner scene was carried out in camp, and then we finally descended to our bus down a trail by flashlight under a lovely crescent moon. We left with a tremendous respect for the excellence of Daqing’s operation. It was a thrilling hands-on day. We arrived back at the hotel just after 8:30 p.m. We will be back at it in less than 12 hours.

3000 lb. jacket

3000 lb. jacket



  1. Kate said,

    October 22, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    Your descriptions make us all feel as if we were there. thank you.

  2. aime berman said,

    October 22, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    hi dr. dodson. you may not remember me…but i was a vet student many years ago (almost failed anatomy until you gave me a nicer group of students to work with)….i am back at penn and received word of your blog…exciting! sounds so fun! good luck. i was in china three times…it is my passion. i was an east asian studies major with a focus on mandarin chinese….please bring me next time! i am currently doing a shelter animal residency for three years here at penn and have been wanting to track you down for a while….good to see you are still on the dinosaur trail!! take care. aime

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