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He Spotted This Sticking Out of the Mud Years Ago in the South Dakota Badlands ... And It Just Sold for $7.7 Million at Auction

  Seven years ago, dinosaur fossil hunter Walter Stein found a bit of something poking out of the mud. That led to a chain of events that re...

 Seven years ago, dinosaur fossil hunter Walter Stein found a bit of something poking out of the mud. That led to a chain of events that resulted in a 67-million-year-old Triceratops skeleton being sold in October at auction for $7.7 million.

Stein operates a business called PaleoAdventures and has been fortunate to turn his training as a paleontologist and his passion for finding dinosaur relics into a career that has spanned 25 years, according to the Black Hills Pioneer.

“Every time you find a skeleton, it’s a celebration. We do a little victory dance in the badlands whenever you find something cool,” Stein said of the Triceratops he dubbed “Big John.”

“It was certainly an honor to find this beast and help bring it back to life, so to speak. When I was 6, I dreamed of heading west and digging dinosaurs, so every day I get to do this, I’m living my dream.”

Big John made it into the Guinness World Records as the largest documented skeleton of a Triceratops dinosaur at just over 23 feet long and almost 9 feet high.

But in 2014, all of that was in the future as Stein explored a ranch in southwestern Perkins County, South Dakota.

“I drove to a patch of badlands, jumped out of the truck, and within maybe 10 to 15 minutes of searching, I found the skeleton,” Stein said.

“One of the first bones I noticed was the remains of a brow horn going into the mud. It was in rough shape, but I could immediately tell it was from a Triceratops, and a big one at that.”

Then came the real work – excavating the bones.

“You don’t just find some bones and throw them into the back of a pickup truck,” Stein said. “It’s a long process and a lot of hard work.”

Digging took about two summers of work by him and his team, Stein said.

“I even hired an excavator to come help take some of the overlying rock off of the top to make it easier to get to the bone-bearing layer,” he told the Black Hills Pioneer. “Getting Big J out of the ground was a group effort.”

Science could tell him something about the history of the skeleton.

“One day, 67 million years ago, our Triceratops died out on a muddy floodplain near a river system,” Stein said. “Shortly after, the river flooded its banks, dumping a bunch of mud and debris around the skeleton. This covered portions of the body, like the one shoulder and arm, but left other parts sticking up in the air.”

Scavengers and stream currents did a number on some parts of the skeleton.

“Eventually, these were covered with a second layer, but this time sand,” Stein said. “The bones in the mud were buried first and (as a result were) much better preserved. The ones up in the sand, like the horns and frill, were exposed longer and not in as good of shape.”

“In short, the skeleton was what we paleontologists call disarticulated but associated,” Stein said, with one main pile of bones and one secondary pile nearby.

Then came preparing the bones.

“With just me doing most of the prep work, it was an incredibly slow process,” Stein said, adding that it took him about a month to finish work on the left lower jawbone. “This was a big dinosaur, too, with heavy bones.”

For six years, Stein tried to interest a museum in the bones, but he had no takers. Finally he sold what he had — about 40 percent of the skeleton — to an Italian company that assembled the skeleton, fabricating the missing pieces. The company then cashed in and sold the skeleton at auction in Paris.

“Once we sold the skeleton to the Italians, we were out of it,” Stein told the Black Hills Pioneer. “I’d like to say we were millionaires right now, but we aren’t. We sold the skeleton for a small fraction of what they got at auction.”

Stein said he has one regret.

“Unfortunately, because of the auction format, (the skeleton) was picked up by a private bidder and not a museum,” he said. “I would have felt better about it had it gone to a museum. Hopefully, the new owner will put it on public display somewhere soon, so others can love the specimen like we did.”

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