The Dead Elephant

As told by Tom Baker (t.baker19@GENIE.COM)

To all members of the mailing list Arch-L

Which I hope puts this story in the public domain!

...let me tell you about the time Dennis Stanford, the Smithsonian's paleoIndian expert, hauled a dead elephant around Washington, D.C. and thereby got himself into trouble with the police.

Dennis and I went to the same university, at the same time, although he was a graduate student and I only an undergrad. When he passed through this area a few years ago with a traveling Smithsonian road show, lecturing about ancient stone tools and demonstrating how they were made, I met him again and we fell to reminiscing about the old alma mater, especially mourning the passing of a great little pub near our campus where students used to gather in the old days.

That's when he told me about the elephant. He had been wanting, he said, to try out on an elephant some of the ancient stone tool designs that he was replicating, to gain insights into how ancient hunters may have butchered mammoth. Mammoth being scarce nowadays, the next best thing he could think of was to acquire a dead elephant. He communicated his desire to the Washington Zoo, which told him that it had no dead elephants lying about the place at the moment but would keep him in mind. True to their word, the zoo people did call him back some time later when one of their elephants died, and told him the carcass was his for the taking, only he had to move it himself.

And there was the rub. At that time Dennis was one of those people who, for one reason or another, has never moved a dead elephant, and he wasn't sure how to do it. The problem stumped him at first, he admitted, but he soon figured out a way: he sawed it into smaller chunks (with a chain saw, I think), and piled the parts into a rented U-Haul van. As he was motoring across Washington D.C. with his truckful of elephant, taking it to the place where he wanted to conduct his experiments, blood from the meat started leaking under the doors of the van and dripping onto the street.

While Dennis was halted at a stoplight, the driver of an adjacent car noticed this blood-dripping van, and he also noticed its driver. Dennis Stanford is one of those large, gentle, bearlike men who make such good professional wrestlers, but with his tousled black beard and hair, and his piercing eyes, he resembles no one so much as Rasputin of Czarist Russia. In fact, if it must be said, Dennis looks more like a mass murderer than most mass murderers do themselves.

Accordingly, anyone seeing Dennis Stanford for the first time while he is driving a blood-dripping van around town does not automatically say to himself, "Here, no doubt, is some fellow innocently transporting a dead elephant, or some such thing, across town." Instead he thinks, "Here is a bona fide hatchet murderer, or fiend, tidying up the scene of his latest massacre, and hauling a truckload of his victims off to the nearest canal for disposal."

The good citizen accordingly raced to a telephone and reported the bloody horror roaming the streets of the U.S. Capitol, and soon the police cars were converging on Dennis Stanford, who viewed this development, as he does everything else, with equanimity and unconcern. Dennis is a true archaeologist, with his interests focused so deeply in past that trifling affairs of the present like police dragnets and arrests do not disturb him.

Dennis was halted and detained, and while he looked on with mild interest, the gendarmes, prepared for the worst, opened up his van, and of course found nothing more sinister than a dead elephant inside. However, they demanded explanations. And so, with an absolutely straight face, Dennis told them that it was only a roadkill that he had stopped to pick up that morning on his way into town. And if you knew Dennis Stanford, you would not doubt that that is exactly what he told them.

Dennis later did some interesting things with that dead elephant, hooking up his stone tools to computers with strings, so that every movement he made with each tool was recorded and analyzed mathematically. He also studied the wear patterns on the tools, and their effects on elephant bones and flesh. I remember him saying that for all the hacking he did with those stone tools, the wear on their edges could not be detected, even microscopically. I don't remember where he wrote this all up. I only wish I had his full address so that anyone who cared to could ask him for details. (one thing Dennis likes to do is discuss experimental archaeology). I know that he was recently, and I assume still is, the Chairman of the Anthropology Department of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

Tom Baker