Gigantic discovery: Mastodon remains found during city project

Sometimes, you find something you’re not even looking for.

That was the case for workers with Atlas Excavating, who recently discovered the remains of a mastodon at a farm in Seymour.

The workers were digging on property owned by Joe Schepman and his family on the city’s east side, installing sewer lines as part of a $15.5 million project when the discovery was made last week.

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Schepman owns the property with his sister, Sue Nehrt, and her husband, Tony, and their aunt and uncle.

The remains, which were unearthed on an easement for the sewer, include the majority of a tusk, part of a jawbone with teeth, two upper leg bones, a vertebrae, a joint and part of the skull. The tusk was split into two pieces and together made up about a third of the tusk.

“The weight of them is unbelievable,” Schepman said as he took pieces out of his truck. “When the tusks were on the animal, they were about 9 feet long if you can imagine that.”

The mastodon remains belonged to a male estimated between 40 and 50 years old when it died, Schepman was told. The animal died between 10,000 and 13,000 years ago and weighed between 12,000 pounds, he said.

Schepman was paid a visit from Ron Richards with the Indiana State Museum, who was able to tell its age by the teeth. He said Richards determined the sex by the size of the tusks.

“He told us we had about a third of the skull,” he said.

Richards said the animal would have stood between 9 and 9½ feet tall.

“There are only about one or two discoveries each year in Indiana,” he said, adding they’ve been discovered in nearly every county. “It’s actually not as common in the southern part of the state. It’s also a little unique to find this many bones from the same animal in this area.”

Richards said most of the discoveries are made during construction projects.

The part of the skull found looks similar to a honeycomb, and Schepman’s son, Brad, said he was interested in why it looked the way it does. He was told it was so the animal could raise its head with the weight of the tusks.

Brad said the discovery was amazing.

“It was a very big animal, and it’s amazing to think about what was here before us and how we don’t think anything about it,” he said.

Richards took the vertebrae, which they believe was broken when it was unearthed, to determine its exact age. Richards will send it to a facility, which will use radiocarbon dating to see how old it was when it died.

Mastodons were prehistoric animals often compared to the look of a woolly mammoth but were smaller. They’re distantly related to elephants.

The animals were similar to an elephant and had a trunk, two curved tusks and brown hair. The animals grazed and thundered through the area but disappeared about 10,500 years ago, scientists estimate.

It’s pretty common to find the remains in Indiana, as nearly all counties throughout the state have had discoveries, according to the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites.

Joe’s brother-in-law, Tony Nehrt, told him the discovery had been made. At that time, Joe was farming at another property and didn’t think too much about it, but he told Nehrt he would go check it out.

“When they said they found bones, I had no idea we were talking anything like this,” he said. “I thought maybe it was older bones or cow bones, but clearly, that’s not what I have here. It’s totally amazing to me.”

The two agreed the best thing that can happen is if the state museum takes them to be displayed.

“It would be so cool for a kid from here to go to the museum in Indianapolis and see these bones and the tusk and know they were found in their hometown,” Brad said. “As a family, we’d like to see them go where they can be enjoyed by everyone.”

Before they are accepted as part of the museum’s inventory, they must go through a committee, Joe said.

“That committee has to decide whether they want them or not,” he said. “I would like to see them donated to the museum.”

Until then, the Schepmans have to keep them in bags provided by the museum to preserve them. They said the bones already have changed since the first they saw them.

“It’s amazing to think about something this large roaming around this area,” Joe said.

This isn’t the first time the remains of a mastodon have been found in Jackson County.

Clyde Wilson of Brownstown found teeth, two tusks and part of a jawbone of a mastodon in November 1928, according to a Sept. 20, 1929, report in The Tribune. He found them while trapping for fur along a dredge ditch south of Tampico.

Wilson and the Brownstown Lions Club kept the discovery a secret until it was unearthed and later donated to the state museum.

According to the report, the tusks were about 8 feet long and curved.

That report included other findings of what was believed to be remains of mastodons in Jackson County. The report included part of a jaw, tooth and backbone found years earlier in the Muscatatuck River.

Max and Clark Thompson found a mastodon tusk while dredging gravel in Cortland, according to a Tribune report March 17, 1949. It was found in about 30 feet of water in a gravel pit operated by the Thompsons.

A unique discovery was made May 20, 2002, south of Vallonia when a local contractor unearth the skeletal remains of a Native American. Experts estimated the remains were from 4,000 to 7,000 years prior to the discovery.

In nearly 38 years at the state museum, Richards said he has not been to Jackson County for a mastodon before. He has investigated reports of elk antlers.

“I think people are interested because these are big things from a forgotten time,” he said. “People find them interesting because they were real, they were here and they’re every bit as much a Hoosier as I am.”