The Burke's Bare Bones

Uncertain documentation prompts an investigation of the fossil collection at the University of Washington's natural-history museum.

For more than three years, the official museum of the state of Washington has been refusing to answer questions about the source, nature, and legality of many items in its collection of more than 42,000 fossils, ranging in size from field mouse to whale. Last week, at long last, the University of Washington administration moved quietly but decisively to blow the murk away from the Burke Museum. Fossil experts from three institutions in Western America were invited to Seattle to look over the Burke's collections and report whether the objects in question appeared to be what they were labeled to be, from the areas they are claimed to be from, and, properly labeled or not, whether they were collected legally in the first place.

These are not questions often addressed to scientific institutions supported by tax dollars. But as Seattle Weekly disclosed two years ago (see "Another UW Skeleton," April 2, 2003), scientists with Montana's Museum of the Rockies and the Bureau of Land Management were openly airing suspicion that the Burke's curator of vertebrate paleontology, John M. Rensberger, had collected specimens from terrain under their mandate without getting the necessary federal permit. When they began to look into the matter, UW administrators discovered that the problem went deeper. Not only were there specimens in the collection for which paperwork was missing, many others lacked even an indication of where and when they were collected, and still others were labeled as coming from places where it seemed impossible that they could have been found.

A fossil is scientifically useless if you can't trust its provenance—the where, when, and by whom of its discovery. All it takes to render a whole collection useless is the suspicion that a few items in it may not be what they're claimed to be. If the Burke was to amount to anything more in the future than a field-trip destination for hundreds of thousands of middle-schoolers, something would have to be done.

The first step came with Dr. Rensberger's retirement in 2004, after more than 30 years in control of the Burke collection. Irregularities in Rensberger's conduct were not cited as directly involved in the earth sciences prof's departure (he was ripe for retirement, being over 70 at the time). But Rensberger did acknowledge to university investigators that he had failed to get a permit for a two-day dig at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in 2002, saying that he was unaware a permit was needed.

Recent attempts by Seattle Weekly to reach Dr. Rensberger for comment about these issues have been unsuccessful.

The University has never publicly acknowledged the far more serious allegations about Rensberger's collecting on more archaeologically significant public lands elsewhere. But stonewalling ceased to be an option with the appointment of up-and-coming paleobiologist Christian Sidor to Rensberger's old post and the almost simultaneous confirmation of archaeologist Julie K. Stein, a specialist in Northwest Native American culture, as the Burke's new director. Neither could long tolerate being responsible for an institution under a cloud and with a possibly flawed collection.

Even before their appointments were made public, Arts and Sciences Dean David Hodge and his subdean for science, Ronald Irving, had worked out a plan to clean house among the Burke collections. They sent out a call to scientists who had questioned the legitimacy of the Burke's collecting on their particular turf and invited them to Seattle to examine the Burke's long-sequestered fossil collection for themselves. The experts, who arrived Nov. 7 for a week of intensive burrowing through the collection and its records, are Pat Leiggi, a dinosaur digger with Montana's Museum of the Rockies, and Ted Fremd from Oregon's John Day Fossil Beds, one of the world's richest sources of mammal remains. While they were at it, Hodge and Irving invited an observer from another center of North American fossil-collecting, Laurie Bryant, a retired Bureau of Land Management paleontologist from Wyoming.

After their week in Seattle, the three returned to their home bases to mull their findings, compare what they found at the Burke to items in their own collections, and draft their report, which Irving expects to see sometime early next year. The best conceivable outcome would be a report giving the collections a clean bill of health, but the scrappy condition of the Burke's fossil database, already openly acknowledged, offers little chance of that.

Nobody likes to contemplate what a worst-case outcome might be. Dr. Rensberger's Hanford outing was rated a misdemeanor, but some fossils are so valuable on the international black market in antiquities that the feds have become less shy about pursuing felony convictions for people found in violation of the stringent rules governing major discoveries. The cloud over Dr. Rensberger's reputation is bad enough. What if it turns out that the collection he spent 30 years building is scientifically worthless?

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