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Ancient bison skeleton finds a home in Jamestown

JAMESTOWN, N.D. - The National Buffalo Museum here is now home to Samantha, a complete bison skeleton that is estimated to be from 8,000 to 10,000 years old.Samantha is one of two complete bison skeletons that were found beneath the Snake River F...

Tom Barthel of Becker, Minn., assembles Samantha, a complete American bison skeleton at the National Buffalo Museum on Saturday. The skeleton was preserved beneath the sand and peat of Barthel’s Snake River Ranch and is believed to be 8,000 to 10,000 years old. Samantha is to be a permanent exhibit of the museum. Tom LaVenture / The Sun
Tom Barthel of Becker, Minn., assembles Samantha, a complete American bison skeleton at the National Buffalo Museum on Saturday. The skeleton was preserved beneath the sand and peat of Barthel’s Snake River Ranch and is believed to be 8,000 to 10,000 years old. Samantha is to be a permanent exhibit of the museum. Tom LaVenture / The Sun
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JAMESTOWN, N.D. - The National Buffalo Museum here is now home to Samantha, a complete bison skeleton that is estimated to be from 8,000 to 10,000 years old.

Samantha is one of two complete bison skeletons that were found beneath the Snake River Farm owned by Tom and Gail Barthel. The area in Sherburne County, Minn., southeast of St. Cloud, is in the Anoka Sand Plain that was created by sand deposits of receding glaciers around 12,000 years ago.

Samantha was assembled in 1998. She is a mature cow skeleton with a 28-inch horn span and measures about 6 feet high at the hump. That is about 25 percent larger than modern bison, with a horn core over 50 percent larger, Tom Barthel said.

"Sam" was on display for several years at the Becker (Minn.) Public Library where Gail is employed and then at the Sherburne County Courthouse in Elk River, Minn.

"It needed to have a permanent home someplace," Tom said about why they brought the skeleton to Jamestown. "It's a little big for the living room, and it ought to be someplace where people can see it."

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Tom said he visited the Smithsonian Institution and other museums to learn how ancient skeletons are assembled for exhibiting. He learned about building displays and using glues along with sealants to protect the old bones.

"It's just been a lot of fun," Gail said. "Kids bring their parents and grandparents and when they see it from the window outside they want to come in."

The process to bring Samantha to Jamestown began when Gail met Ilana Xinos, executive director of the National Buffalo Museum. The two were attending the National Bison Association conference in Denver earlier this year. Tom is a board member of the organization.

Tom agreed with Gail and Xinos that the National Buffalo Museum is an appropriate permanent home for Samantha. The Barthels said they will complete the donation process soon.

"I've been wanting a skeleton here since I started working at the museum, and that we have an 8,000- or 10,000 year-old skeleton is really amazing," Xinos said. "We are hoping to use this donation as a jumping-off point to get a modern-day skeleton to show the differences in size and things like that."

Samantha will be the oldest artifact at the museum, Xinos said. There is also a 10,000-year-old skull on loan and a replica of a 5,000-year-old skeleton. Samantha will help bring a biology and science component to the bison story to go along with the history and culture story, she said.

The second bison skeleton that was assembled by the Barthels in 2006 is a bull named Tatonka. It is now a permanent exhibit in the main hall of the Sherburne County Historical Society.

"We are hoping that some organization or educational institution will someday be interested and use them as a teaching or learning experience for children," Tom said.

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Samantha and Tatonka are unique in that most or all of the bones from the same animal were found in one location. The bison were likely trapped in wet sand or quicksand, Tom said, and over time around 10 feet of peat developed on top of the sand.

The swampy area trapped many bison in one place, he said. Numerous bones make it difficult to locate a complete skeleton.

Tom said the bison have thick bones that did not waste away in the peat. The bones are very dark from the peat, and bleached areas are likely from exposure to sunlight before the bones wound up under the sand and peat.

The 225-acre Snake River Farm is grazing land with about 1 mile of the Snake River running through it. The natural meandering of the river in high water years tends to expose new sand and unearths more loose bones and skulls, Barthel said.

There are likely hundreds of complete skeletons under the peat, Tom said, but they will remain undisturbed for posterity with the exception of university digs. The last archeological dig was conducted by St. Cloud State University in 1984 when Samantha was discovered.

The Snake River Farm raises and sells grass-fed bison, beef and pastured hogs in a prairie and woodland setting. The ranch also adopts mustang horses and train them to ride and work.

Tom Barthel of Becker, Minn., assembles Samantha, a complete American bison skeleton at the National Buffalo Museum on Saturday. The skeleton was preserved beneath the sand and peat of Barthel’s Snake River Ranch and is believed to be 8,000 to 10,000 years old. Samantha is to be a permanent exhibit of the museum. Tom LaVenture / The Sun
Ilana Xinos, left, executive director of the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown, talks with Tom Barthel of Becker, Minn., who is assembling Samantha, a complete American bison skeleton at the museum on Saturday. The skeleton was preserved beneath the sand and peat of Barthel’s Snake River Ranch and is believed to be 8,000 to 10,000 years old. Tom LaVenture / The Sun

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