Beyond the camp, day one: prehistoric giant tortoise and crocodiles

02/09/2014

Our plan for the next few days is to go in the field to scan giant tortoise, crocodile and elephant fossils dated at 1.8 - 2 million years old.

At the break of dawn, we set off for the Sibiloi National Park, home to these prehistoric giants, the largest and most valuable findings outside the National Museum of Kenya. Richard and Meave Leakey found and excavated the fossils several decades back, but they were too large to be moved to a laboratory or a museum. The fossils are almost two million years old. Time and weather conditions have caused visible damage to them. Our 3D scanner will record their current condition, before it worsens further. Replicas of the fossils will be created from the 3D models and will replace the original remains, which will be safely moved to a museum.

The trip to the first site took us several hours. There is no road. There are trails and ATV tracks, but no roads. It was very bumpy, so I decided to hold the scanners in my hands to safeguard the calibration.

The first object to be scanned was a huge crocodile skull. The rather large size of its jaws suggests that it ate mammals, not fish. The last time Louise visited the site was about 7 years ago. The skull is the only piece of the “collection of giants”, around which no walls were built to protect the fossil from the weather conditions. We spent about 30 minutes trying to find it, and once we did, felt depressed at its condition: the skull was smashed and overturned. It is quite heavy (around 10 pounds of fossil stone), so it’s clear humans were involved.

We moved the skull to the shade, because the noon sun and the stones around made scanning difficult. Despite the intense heat, the sand in the air and the uneven surfaces, the 3D scan came out pretty well.

A 3D image of a crocodile skull

While we were busy with scanning, Louise and her colleague visited the old camp (founded by her parents), to collect the keys to the building where the other fossils were stored. As soon as we finished the skull, we headed over to see a crocodile skeleton.

Louise Leakey with the crocodile fossil she helped excavate as a child

This wonderfully preserved complete crocodile skeleton was discovered in 80s. Louise participated in the excavations as a little girl. In contrast to the previous crocodile, the jaws of this one are much narrower, which suggests that it ate only fish.

1984: Louise and Samira help their mother Meave excavate a crocodile

A building was erected around the excavated fossil to protect it from corrosion, but it didn't help much. The skeleton was in a bad state: the ribs were broken, bones cracked. Sand and birds played a part too. Louise sacrificed her own toothbrush to clean the crocodile, because we’d left all the tools at the camp. Funnily enough, close to the site there is a tree whose branches locals use to brush their teeth. We also used some to clean the "pet" (as TBI researches call these fossils).

Scanning a 1.8 million year old crocodile in 3D.

The entire skeleton was scanned with Eva in 20 minutes. Particularly small areas, such as the spine and some of teeth, we scanned with Spider.

The crocodile digitized and textured in 3D

The next to be scanned was a giant tortoise. Scanning was relatively simple, Eva worked like clockwork, and the only obstacle was the battery of the laptop. It has a 1.5 h capacity, and we spent a long time charging the laptop from a diesel generator. It took us 30 min to accomplish scanning. The Autoalign algorithm facilitated the post-processing: assembling the geometry inside the shell manually could be difficult, so we did it automatically.

Louise and Denis scanning the Giant Tortoise

We still had time to scan the elephant fossils, but Louise decided not to risk it and we set off to a camp before it darkens. The camp was built by her parents, and later presented to the National Museum of Kenya. It was supposed to become a base to clean and treat the fossils. However, it has not seen any development, and the local staff have no funds. Nevertheless, they provided us with a place to sleep and helped us recharge our electronics.

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