Things Carried

Estwing geological hammer

Every paleontologist carries this at all times. An incredibly versatile tool, it splits rocks, takes small geological samples, and clears rock debris from specimens.

Whisk broom

Gentle enough not to damage the bone, it is also forceful enough to get rid of the tougher debris. And it works as kindling for an emergency fire!

Brunton compass

Next best thing to a GPS, it's also a mini surveying device. It will tell you the position or the thickness of certain rock formations.

World War II bayonet

This belonged to my uncle Leonard during the war. And it's not for show: When I was prospecting on a butte recently, the ground started crumbling -- I plunged the bayonet into the rock to hoist myself back onto stable ground.

Antique transit

This is used to map rock formations at a site. You can later plug the measurements into a computer and actually see them in three dimensions.

Colt Navy revolver

It's a new reproduction, but the same style. It has taken down rattlesnakes, which I subsequently cooked for the field crew -- and they enjoyed them.

Asus computer

You can plug in your data and have a 3-D model of what you are studying.

Field journal

Any observations I have out there -- on the specimens, weather patterns, dig locations -- goes into the book. This helps me to establish trends.

Drafting set

It used to belong to my grandfather. You use compasses and a drafting set to plot all the things that you're recording with the surveying gear.

Magnifying hand lenses

Around my neck at all times, these hand lenses allow me to study individual crystal grains or individual tooth marks in a fossil. Almost as good as a microscope.

Whisk broom

Gentle enough not to damage the bone, it is also forceful enough to get rid of the tougher debris. And it works as kindling for an emergency fire!

Consolidant

Before you can take a fossil out of the ground, you have to saturate it with this glue to stabilize it -- it's basically like Super Glue. Bones are like thousands of shattered pieces of porcelain.

Marsh pick

The oldest thing in my menagerie, this pickax is an original Marsh pick -- designed by American paleontologist O.C. Marsh in the 1800s specifically for excavating fossils. I use it every single day.

Metric graph paper

Anything that we do that requires scientific precision and that we draft by hand uses this metric graph paper. It's the basis for our hand-drawn geologic maps.

Whisk broom

Gentle enough not to damage the bone, it is also forceful enough to get rid of the tougher debris. And it works as kindling for an emergency fire!

The Things They Carried

The Dinosaur Hunter

Interview by Jake Scobey-Thal | Photographs By Gesi Schilling

Robert DePalma, a paleontologist and curator for the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History in Florida, has led expeditions all over the Americas, including in Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Haiti, and Costa Rica. And when he returns from the field, the question he is most frequently asked is not about his new discoveries, but, rather, how he found his dig site in the first place. 

Robert DePalma

Even in 2014, the hunt for dinosaur bones still begins in the library: "The maps are where everything starts," he says. Color-coded to correspond with the geologic periods in Earth's long history, these diagrams have been the compasses for the world's fossil hunters for nearly 200 years. But until recently, scientists have taken little more than hammers, brooms, and graph paper with them on their travels to exhume and catalog the skeletal remains of ancient creatures.

In the past few decades, technology has revolutionized paleontology. Now, traditional techniques are augmented by cutting-edge machinery: Digital-imaging devices map geologic layers in three dimensions, 3-D printers produce copies of dinosaur bones, and satellite photos document where surface rock is exposed. In 2013, a team of scientists even used X-ray imaging to reveal the color of a winged dinosaur's feathers, possibly shedding light on the mate-selection process 150 million years ago.

For DePalma, this high-tech revolution has yielded tangible results: From 2004 to 2009, he and his team used micro-computed tomography scans to discover ancient insects preserved in opaque amber deposits in North America.

But these advances do not mean that the old-school gear is at risk of extinction. Most of the tools that DePalma packs for a field expedition are the same ones used by his predecessors. "We have some amazing opportunities to use the newest gadgets," DePalma says. "But there will always be a place for a pick and shovel."

Foreign Policy caught up with DePalma in March before his summer expedition to Montana and the Dakotas to learn about what he packs, both for research and survival, when he goes out for a dig.

Colt Navy revolver — It’s a new reproduction, but the same style. It has taken down rattlesnakes, which I subsequently cooked for the field crew–and they enjoyed them;
Field journal — Any observations I have out there—on the specimens, weather patterns, dig locations—goes into the book. This helps me to establish trends;
Estwing geological hammer — Every paleontologist carries this at all times. An incredibly versatile tool, it splits rocks, takes small geological samples, and clears rock debris from specimens;
World War II bayonet — This belonged to my uncle Leonard during the war. And it’s not for show: When I was prospecting on a butte recently, the ground started crumbling–I plunged the bayonet into the rock to hoist myself back onto stable ground.

Marsh pick — The oldest thing in my menagerie, this pickax is an original Marsh pick—designed by American paleontologist O.C. Marsh in the 1800s specifically for excavating fossils. I use it every single day;
Brunton compass — Next best thing to a GPS, it’s also a mini surveying device. It will tell you the position or the thickness of certain rock formations;
Drafting set — It used to belong to my grandfather. You use compasses and a drafting set to plot all the things that you’re recording with the surveying gear.