Ashfall dedication

SUSAN J. WELLER, University of Nebraska State Museum director; Dr. Kirk Johnson, a paleontologist and the director of a Smithsonian museum; and artist Gary Staab stand with the life-size battling rhino sculpture at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park near Royal that was dedicated Saturday. 

ROYAL — Different places have different specialties when it comes to fossils, and Nebraska's is a period of time about 35 million years ago.

In fact, 90 counties have produced fossils of some kind and Nebraska fossils are among the special ones — and found in museums around the world.

So said Dr. Kirk Johnson, the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, in his speech Saturday at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park near here.

He was at the park to speak at the dedication ceremony of the its new bronze statues.

The statues depict two rhinos battling and a tortoise looking on from a few feet away. They were funded by the Theodore F. and Claire M. Hubbard Family Foundation, and represent the most common fossils found at the site.

Other speakers at the event included Susan J. Weller, the director of the University of Nebraska State Museum; Brian F. Hastings, the president and CEO of the University of Nebraska Foundation; and Ronnie Green, University of Nebraska-Lincoln chancellor. The invitation-only event was attended by about 100 people and catering was provided by The Uptown Brewery in Stanton.

The bronze statues were made by Gary Staab, an artist who has spent more than 25 years making accurate replicas of fossils and the natural world. He has other work displayed in museums around the world, including some at the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln.

Staab said part of his creative process was measuring some of the fossils at Ashfall before he started crafting the life-size sculptures. The rhinos weigh about 3,500 pounds and the tortoise about 350.

Johnson said he was there because part of his job as the director of a national museum is to help other museums across the nation. It's also appropriate because Ashfall is a Smithsonian affiliate.

But it's always been a goal for Johnson to visit the park — one that took him 36 years to realize.

"If you're a paleontologist, you want to be at Ashfall. Straight up," he said.

Johnson said Ashfall may be the most important fossil site in North America because the fossils are so well preserved. He said the fossils at Ashfall are such high quality that they're well-known in the world of paleontology.

The fossils were created when a volcano in Idaho erupted millions of years ago. The ash drifted to Northeast Nebraska and slowly killed and then preserved the animals. Left behind were 3-D remains because the ash buried but didn't compress them, which is what happens to most fossils.

"It's been everything I hoped it would be," Johnson said. "This is not just a cool Nebraska park; it's a cool world park."

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