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Rocks beget treasures – or not

Becky Bosshart
Appeal Staff Writer
Kurt Molnar/Nevada Appeal Nevada State Museum curator of anthropology Eugene Hattori, Ph.D., discusses the impression of a woolly mammoth's tooth that was found in a large chunk of sandstone east of Carson City.
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A 30-pound sandstone rock sits on the floor of Eugene Hattori’s office in the Nevada State Museum. He is almost certain that an imprint on the edge of it was made by the tooth of an adult woolly mammoth that lived and died in a wetland east of Carson City, now a sand stone quarry.

As for the location of the tooth that made the impression – who knows? The imprint was discovered on the rock sometime after it was excavated during a construction project at the Nevada State Prison.

As the only anthropologist on staff, Hattori is often the recipient of perplexing artifacts and fossils.

“People bring me rocks they find while hiking,” he said while holding up a palm-size chunk of iron found in this area. “They found it and thought that it was a meteorite. It looks like it could’ve gone through space.”

Actually, it was Carson Valley.

Recently, a Carson City couple brought him a pair of prehistoric horse teeth they found while hiking. Hattori referred them to a paleontologist at the Keck Museum on the University of Nevada, Reno campus. The state museum doesn’t have a paleontologist or geologist on staff.

“We rely on the public to tell us the location of sites, but we caution them that it is illegal to disturb an archaeological or paleontological site,” Hattori said Monday.

If found on private land, the person is entitled to keep the object. But if found on state land, “we encourage people to donate it by informing them of the law.” He quotes Nevada Revised Statute and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979.

Hattori doesn’t carry a badge and a gun. He won’t confiscate objects if the finder puts up a fight, but he said that doesn’t really happen.

The couple who found the horse teeth along the Carson River will donate them to the museum, after their grandson shows them around.

About 25 times a year, someone visits Hattori at his office on the second floor of the museum, 600 N. Carson St., with what they think is an artifact or fossil. A popular find is ancient American Indian stone tools, which turn out to be naturally occurring rocks.

Hattori’s specialty is Indian artifacts, so he knows them when he sees them. His trained eye looks for signs of human manufacturing. He gets a fair amount of fossils – even though that’s not his specialty.

“Last year, part of a mammoth rib bone was found in Carson Valley. The person donated it, and we have it in a storage facility now.”

By far, the museum’s most famous mammoth discovery was made by Steve Wallman, who, while visiting the Black Rock Desert in 1972, found an imperial mammoth. The skeleton is on display in the museum.

Archaeological sites can be found in the most ordinary of places – such as the parking lot of the State Museum.

In 2000, excavators found about 500 coin dies, iron stamps used to strike coins made at the historic U.S. Mint in Carson City. Many of them were from 1876. Hattori said they were probably buried just to get them out of the way.

It turns out that likely wasn’t the only place they were buried. A contractor with a high-powered iron detector found about nine spots under the concrete walkway between the two museum buildings that will have to be excavated.

For now, the spots are marked by pink spray paint. They will have to be excavated before the museum starts constructing its new central lobby there.

— Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at bbosshart@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1212.