Wading around in deep mud on a blustery, cold day does not sound like conditions that would inspire a
generous gift to the Museum, however, this wasn’t just any mud. When Peter and Cathy Dea visited the Ice Age
site near Snowmass Village in 2010, they knew they were a part of something that nearly defied description.
“Hand digging for mastodon, bison, and sloth bones unearthed a passion within our family and guests who were at the site,” said Peter Dea, past chair and current member of the Museum’s Board of Trustees. “This real-life treasure hunt, where every other shovel full of red dirt revealed a mystery of the Ice Age, gripped us and truly epitomized the act of discovery.”
Cathy Dea recalls being “in the right place at the right time” at the site when an enormous Ice Age bison (Bison latifrons) was revealed. “My life began to change before my own eyes as I gently scraped the layers of dirt from her with a bamboo scraper,” she said. “She spoke to me in a very loud spiritual way, saying you have found us, now you need to share me with the world.”
Within days after a bulldozer operator overturned some interesting looking bones at a construction site high in the Rockies on October 14, 2010, Museum scientists realized that something extraordinary had been uncovered. News of the discovery went global, and the effort was soon dubbed The Snowmastodon Project. Assisted by dozens of Museum staff and volunteers, such as the Deas, the scientists eventually pulled more than 6,000 bones from 50 different species, including the largest accumulation of American mastodons ever found. The specimens have been extensively studied and a major scientific paper about the project will be published this fall.
The Deas and their sons, Drake, Austin, and Cort Carpenter, all had a chance to work at the Ice Age site and wanted to share the power of their experience in a tangible way. Thanks to the Dea Family Foundation, a magnificent new bronze sculpture of an American mastodon (Mammut americanum) will be permanently installed outside the Museum. Internationally acclaimed artist and conservationist Kent Ullberg sculpted the life-size replica, entitled Snowmastodon, which makes its public debut in October.
Creating Snowmastodon brings Ullberg’s relationship with the Museum full circle. The Swedish-born Ullberg was working at the Botswana National Museum in Africa in 1969 when he guided a field crew from our Museum during a collecting expedition. In 1972, Ullberg’s new Denver friends invited him to visit the Museum, and while here he sculpted animals for a couple of dioramas. Two years later, he moved to Denver and began supervising the development of Botswana Hall. He was one of the masterminds and the sculptor of the cheetah-impala diorama, a visitor favorite.
In 1976, Ullberg left the Museum to pursue his ultimate dream of becoming a bronze wildlife sculptor. Today, Ullberg’s work is widely collected, and his monumental sculptures are displayed in major cities around the globe. He resides in Texas but maintains a studio in Loveland, Colorado.
Ullberg worked on Snowmastodon for about two years. Ullberg examined actual Snowmass fossils and consulted with leading mastodon expert Dr. Daniel Fisher and Museum paleontologists Dr. Ian Miller and Dr. Kirk Johnson to develop a physiologically accurate mastodon. To Ullberg, art is about communication, so he pays particular attention to the animal’s facial expressions and how the sculpture is oriented. He decided to place the mastodon in a less aggressive stance because Ullberg wanted to convey his passion for nature through the mastodon.
Snowmastodon arrived at the Museum in late September. The behemoth was loaded onto Ullberg’s custom trailer and made its way down Interstate 25, going around overpasses to accommodate the sculpture’s massive size and protect it from damage. Ullberg said getting the piece into City Park was particularly challenging, given all the tight turns, trees, and power lines.
In its new home, Snowmastodon is sure to bring much pleasure to the millions of Museum and park visitors who will see and touch it each year. “We are thankful to the Museum for an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Cathy Dea. “Hopefully the bronze mastodon will bring wonder to others as it looks toward the west to where it roamed thousands of years ago.”
A dedication ceremony for Snowmastodon took place Thursday, October 23, 2014. This new Museum treasure’s permanent home is at the northwest corner of the building, near the main entrance.
Photo: Ullberg with the sculpture's foam structure, which is covered with clay and used as the basis for creating the molds for the bronze casts.