Ohio Museum Moves Massive Mastodon

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For more than a decade, visitors to the Ohio Historical Society’s Columbus museum have been greeted with a stark reminder of Ohio’s prehistoric past. It’s Conway, a ten-foot tall mastodon whose been stuck in a less than flattering pose. Now museum curators are moving the massive beast – which is a three-day project. Conway got his name from Ohio farmer Newton Conway, who discovered the bones of the mastodon on his Champaign County farm in 1887. For years he’s been featured in a main exhibition hall at the museum. Bob Glotzhober is the museum’s senior curator of natural history. “We have the Conway mastodon which lived in Ohio during the ice age somewhere between 10,000 and 18,000 years ago,” Glotzhober says. “And we’re in the process of trying to move him to adapt him to the new entrance that we’re working on creating.” Curators at the museum want to reposition the mastodon because, as it stands now, his backside is the first thing visitors see as they enter the main ground floor gallery.

“When they first come walking in they saw his rear end,” Glotzhober says. “And so we’ve wanted to turn him for probably 15 years but it’s a long complicated process to do it so now is when we’re finally doing it.”

The procedure was going smoothly Thursday. By noon Conway’s legs had been taken off and curators and crew were moving scaffolding into place to remove the mastodon’s tusks and head. But disassembly did not go without a hitch Glotzhober says:

“As they were assembled in 1894, the state of the art was to drill holes through the live bone and put bolts through those holes. No curator today would dream of doing that because it destroys part of the bone. But in taking them off, the legs which weigh a couple of hundred pounds, in order to get that bolt out of the hind leg into the pelvis for instance, the one bolt was twisted and curved so we had to very slowly lower and twist and follow the curve to get it out so that we wouldn’t break some of the bone in the process,” Glotzhober says. When he was alive, Conway probably weighed between four and five tons and was probably about the size of one of today’s African elephants. And just like elephants he was a herbivore. What became of the mastodons, according to Glotzhober, is a mystery.

“The last ones were gone roughly the end of the ice age, 10,000 years ago. There’s a series of conflicting debates as to whether paleo- Indians killed them off, in the blitzkrieg of moving into the country and killed them; or whether it was the climatic change; both of those models have some problems. A third model has been proposed that there was some kind of super-virus that attacked them; there’s a number of other theories out there as to what might have brought it and it’s probably a combination of some of those,” Glotzhober says.

But thanks to a 19th century Ohio farmer, Conway the Mastodon remains. The project has attracted curious members of the public along with a few of Newt Conway’s descendants; among them great-grandson Charles Virts.

“Well we wanted to see the Conway mastodon moved and just watch Bob Glotzhober do his job here and are really appreciative of the Ohio historical society taking such good care of the mastodon,” Virts says.

If all goes well, Conway will be reassembled – standing in the right direction – ready to greet visitors to the Ohio Historical Society museum by the end of Saturday.

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