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Tu Tu Tuala tusk and teeth return to Tualatin

The mastodon remains that launched a monthlong dig in 1962 will be displayed at the Tualatin Heritage Center
by: Jaime Valdez, HISTORICAL TUSK — Dr. John George of Raleigh Hills will loan an 11,300-year-old mastodon tusk for permanent dispay at the Tualatin Heritage Center. George and Portland State University classmate Ron Sund excavated the mastodon from a Tualatin field in 1962.

TUALATIN - Grasping the molars with his fingers, Dr. John George rolled a set of 11,300-year-old mastodon teeth in his hands.

'You can even see the tartar,' George, a retired dentist, said as he ran his fingers over the teeth's, enamel stopping when he felt divots and suggesting the rough patches on the teeth likely came from years of being used as a door stop.

The skeletal display of Tu Tu Tuala, Tualatin's mastodon, was erected in Tualatin City Hall in 1992, 30 years after George and his Portland State University classmate Ron Sund dug up the skeletal remains in a field where the south parking lot of Fred Meyer is now located.

But the display isn't complete. It lacks a tusk found during the dig and a set of molars that essentially started the entire mastodon search project in 1962.

'I'm getting old,' said George, 76, as he watched museum consultant Sam Shogren begin work on a display case for the old teeth. 'I thought (the tusk and teeth) belonged here in Tualatin. Remember, it's been here for over 11,000 years.'

George, who now lives in Raleigh Hills, is loaning the tusk and teeth for permanent display to the Tualatin Heritage Center. The Tualatin Historical Society will host the first public viewing of the rare tusk and molars during a fund-raiser Friday, Oct. 27, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the heritage center, 8700 S.W. Sweek Drive. Tickets are $25 per person. The event will include a reception and wine tasting.

'Dig up a mastodon,' George had said in 1962. The phrase was a desperate attempt to think of a research project off the top of his head as the professor pressed students for their topics. George's professor was skeptical, and even George admitted he wasn't quite sure where to start to dig up a mastodon or if it even existed.

All he really remembered were the rants of Tualatin marshal Charlie Roberts, who 18 years earlier had showed young George a set of giant teeth which were being used as a door jam at the time.

'He showed me those teeth and told me elephants used to walk around here, and I thought he had been drinking,' George said, laughing as he remembered the stories.

George and Sund, under Roberts' direction, spent one month digging up the mastodon bones that lay buried in about 3 feet of dirt in a Tualatin field where Fred Meyer now stands. They started in April, and the rainy conditions made it necessary for one man to bail out water from the hole while the other dug out more dirt. Only about half of the skeleton was retrieved.

George and others believe that the rest of the bones were destroyed by years of plowing and farming on the land. It was irrigation work done by Roberts that uncovered a set of mastodon molars. It was those teeth that stuck in George's head as he desperately racked his brain for a geology project. Roberts later gave George the teeth. George visited school after school displaying the mastodon skeleton.

It was sometime after the dig and during George's tour of local schools that the mastodon tusk began to break.

'Pop, pop, pop,' George said describing the noise he heard coming from the tusk as it lay on the dining room table days after the skeleton was excavated. Exposure to the air was causing the tusk's enamel to buckle, George said.

George called experts at the Smithsonian and at Oregon State University and asked how he could save the tusk. Both organizations said the same thing, 'No one had ever saved one.'

As a dental student, George had an idea. He hollowed out the pulp end of the tusk - the tusk had been broken into two pieces at the dig site because of its immense weight. George then dug out the enamel and filled the tusk with dental stone, wrapped it in copper wire and glued the outside of the tusk using Elmer's Glue.

Today the tusk is still in two pieces. The outer shell of the pulp end shows light brown lines where the dental stone has expanded. The pieces are heavy. For the last several years George has kept the teeth and tusk in a safe where he keeps track of every crack and missing piece.

The display case at the Tualatin Heritage Center will include security measures to protect the historic artifact.

'I didn't want this ending up on somebody's mantle,' George said of why he didn't include the pieces with the mastodon display at the City Hall.

Tu Tu Tuala (meaning grandmotherly) was believed to have been 8 feet tall and 12 feet long and weighed close to 3 tons. She is believed to have died at the age of 27 (according to the rings on her tusks) from a combination of old age and sinking down in the swamp, according to the city's Web page.

George's historical contribution to the center is the third major donation the center has received since it opened this year. The center will also have on display an Atfalati Indian grinding bowl, pestle and arrowheads donated by Margie Pohl Larsen and eventually an old wooden spoon carried by a family on the Oregon Trail.