Sometimes life can throw you curve balls but its what you do with them that can make all the difference. A simple problem such as a flat tire occurs thousands of times a day across the globe. In this one particular instance, a flat tire led to one of mankind’s greatest discoveries.
What the team never expected, however, was that the discoveries final fate would be determined by years of government red tape, intense negotiation, and millions of dollars. And all of this was because one summer a team of diggers got a flat tire on the way home…
It was the scorching summer of 1990, and a group of paleontologists from the Black Hills Institute had come out to the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation to look for fossils. The area was located in western South Dakota, near the city of Faith and the diggers had paid the Native American owner of the tract $5,000 to excavate on his land.
Pickings were slim as far as fossils were concerned and as the long, hot summer dragged on, the team was unsure if they’d find anything of note. Thankfully, the end of summer brought a mild bonanza of bones. The group had discovered a trove of scattered duck-billed Edmontosaurus bones and were finally leaving, having accomplished something…
It was August 12, and as fate would have it, the team’s time in the Black Hills would be extended somewhat by the unwelcome surprise of a flat tire on their truck. With few options and a whole host of tired, dusty paleontologists aching to get back to civilization, the majority of the group made their way into town to try and get the truck repaired.
The Titular Sue
While the rest of the group were waiting for the truck’s flat tire to be fixed, Sue Hendrickson, one of the Institute’s archeologists, decided to explore the area. She had extra time now, after all, and they hadn’t gotten a chance to check the nearby cliffs for any fossilized remains. As she walked along the base of the cliff, Sue stopped to pick up what appeared to be a small piece of bone…
Where’d They Come From
Sue looked around, trying to find where the rest of the animal’s remains might be hiding. As she looked up, she observed some larger bones sticking out of the cliff wall. Large bones were a good sign. Perhaps the area wasn’t completely tapped out of fossils after all. She returned to camp, bringing with her the exciting news and the two small pieces of bone.
A T. Rex
Sue reported the discovery to Peter Larson, the president of the Black Hills Institute who had also been present for the dig. Larson’s experience was such that he knew almost immediately, by the bones’ distinctive color and texture, what Sue had found: she had discovered the remains of a Tyrannosaurus Rex…
Job’s Not Done
The team examined the site and uncovered many more visible bones that Sue, in her excitement, had simply walked past, including some vertebrae. Within hours, Sue, Larson, and most of the crew was digging again. They ordered extra plaster and began cataloging their increasingly numerous fossils.
Although most previously discovered T. Rex skeletons were usually missing over half of their bones, Sue Hendrickson’s dinosaur was almost entirely complete. “Sue”, as the Tyrannosaurus was eventually named, was a record 90 percent complete by bulk. Amazingly, more than 200 of Sue’s bones were preserved. Some of which had never been found before…
Heads of Tails
Sue’s skeleton included the most complete T. Rex tail ever found. It also had the only two Tyrannosaur arms ever found. Her enormous skull, nearly 5 feet long, is one of the largest ever and contains the longest T. rex tooth yet known. This foot-long and razor sharp tooth would have been perfect for tearing apart Sue’s duck-billed prey, likely the Edmontosaurus the team uncovered a few weeks earlier.
How’d She Die?
Judging by her bones, which include some broken ribs and an injured arm, Larson and his team believe that Sue had a difficult life. Nevertheless, her immense size made it clear that Sue was a very old predator who just got sick and died after living a long, full life. Paleontologist speculate that she could have even been 100 years old when she died. Yet her remains outlasted her by millennia…
Sent for Study
Once the group had completed excavating the bones, each piece was carefully covered in burlap and coated in plaster to be sent back to the offices of the Black Hills Institute. There, the on-site paleontologists would clean the bones thoroughly and prepare them for display. There was just one problem: the bones might not have belonged to them.
Not long after the fossils had been found and transferred to the Institute, the land’s owner, Maurice Williams began to complain that he hadn’t been paid for them. According to Larson, Williams had already been paid for the remains, in the amount of the $5,000 the Institute had paid him to excavate on his land. Williams wasn’t buying it. That was the cost to dig, not the cost for a T. Rex…
Maurice Williams was claiming that the money he’d been paid was for the chance to dig, not for any fossils found on his land. As a member of the Sioux tribe, Williams claimed the bones were the rightful property of the tribe because they had been uncovered on tribal lands: lands that had been deeded to his people long before Larson and his team had come to dig there.
There was a catch, however. According to Larson and his team, the property that the fossil had been found within was held in trust by the United States. As such, the fossil technically belonged to the government. It belonged to neither the institute nor Mr. Williams. In 1992, the FBI came in and seized the fossils from the Black Hills Institute until the rightful owner could be determined…
The True Owner
A lengthy, three-year-long trial ensued. By the time it was over, the court decreed that Maurice Williams was the rightful owner of Sue. As a beneficiary, he was protected by the law against an impulsive selling of property. In short: his land, his bones. Sue’s remains were returned in 1995.
Selling Off Sue
In time, however, Williams realized that owning a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, while a great conversation piece, was not very lucrative. He decided to sell the remains and contacted Sotheby’s to auction off the fossils. There were many who were concerned that the result of this sale would mean the bones ended up in the basement of some private collector…
The Field Museum in Chicago wanted Sue. They needed to make sure that such a remarkable specimen was taken care of and displayed, not tucked away to be appreciated only by the super rich. There was one problem, though: they didn’t have enough money to compete with some of Sotheby’s high rollers. The needed some help securing funds.
Call in the Corps.
With nowhere else to turn, the museum sent an open request to companies and private citizens to help them financially. Amazingly, the California State University system, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, McDonald’s, Ronald McDonald House Charities, and some individual donors all agreed to assist the museum in purchasing Sue at the auction…
October 4, 1997, would become known as the day that dramatically changed the market for dinosaur bones, as if they weren’t a rare enough or valuable enough commodity already. The auction began at $500,000 and ended less than ten minutes later with the Field Museum having purchased the remains for a cool $7.6 million.
Not Her Head
Today, Sue is on display at the Chicago Field Museum, although her head isn’t part of the fossil display. This is because the real one, a 600-pound skull made of rock, is sitting on the balcony overlooking her. We don’t blame Sue for having a big head, though. She’s obviously very popular, even millions of years later.