Crowdfunding Research at the Burke Museum


Burke Museum curator of vertebrate paleontology Christian Sidor wants to bring a Triceratops to Seattle. An archeology team is trying to figure out what's inside a mysterious vessel that washed up on the Washington coast (see article for more on the mystery vessel).  And they're turning to a crowdsourcing startup to help make it happen.

Mircroryza uses a model similar to to raise money for research projects, where individuals can chip in to fund and track the progress of specific focused projects.   Learn more about the mystery vessel project and the triceratops project below, re-published courtesy of

Bring a Triceratops to Seattle

Interview with Christian Sidor, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture
In 2008, my team was doing fieldwork in the Cretaceous Lance Formation of eastern Wyoming. We discovered several bones of a Triceratops skeleton on the surface, including a jaw bone, vertebra, ribs, and part of the skull, but didn't collect them. We want to return to the site to collect these bones and begin a large-scale excavation this summer, which we expect will lead to more of the skeleton. The ultimate goal is to put a Triceratops skeleton on display at the Burke Museum.

How do you plan to excavate the Triceratops and bring it back to Seattle?
First, we will apply for an excavation permit from the Bureau of Land Management. This special permit is necessary because the Triceratops is on public land. We plan to excavate over an area of approximately 150 square feet (10' x 15'). Once we have the permit, we will head out to Wyoming with a group including Burke Museum staff, museum volunteers, as well as graduate and undergraduate students in paleontology. Depending on how complete the skeleton turns out to be, the dig could take between 1-3 weeks. Once the skeleton is back at the lab, preparing it for display will take a lot longer!

How do you define success?
Finding a Triceratops skeleton complete enough to put on display would be 100% success.

What do you plan to share with your backers?
I would engage donors with updates from the field and then the lab, as the specimen is prepared. Realistically, updates from the lab could go on for about a year. We would also invite everyone who donated to either a Burke Museum 'behind-the-scenes' night, where they could see the fossil excavation they supported, or to Dino Day, where it will be on display for the general public. Obviously, the latter two events would be great for Seattle residents.

What is the risk associated with a project like this?
If funded this project will succeed, but to what degree all depends on how much of the skeleton is still buried.

What does this project depend on in order to be successful?
We will definitely need some luck. It's a good sign that we could already see a jaw and other bones on the surface, but who knows how much more in still covered by rock? If we're lucky, the fossils we found will only be the tip of the iceberg and the rest of the skeleton will be under the small adjacent hill.

What inspired you to pursue this project?
This seems like a perfect fit for Microryza, as we are assured of some degree of success already (we already found the fossil) and this could translate into something that people could see on display in the near future.

Who is impacted by this project?
The Burke Museum is primarily a UW research institution, but serves Washington residents and visitors through its exhibits and public programs. Our single most popular day is Dino Day, where we bring dinosaur fossils out for the public to see, as well as to interact with museum students and staff. If funded, I expect that we will have this Triceratops specimen on display at Dino Day 2013.

What are the next steps beyond this project, when it succeeds?
This project has the potential to generate a tremendous legacy. Triceratops is an iconic dinosaur, and the Burke Museum would love to have a more complete specimen on display. Beyond the public aspect of the project, dinosaur fossils are used in a number of classes at the UW, so additional Triceratops material would be used for years to come while we train undergraduates and graduates in paleontology, evolution, and the history of the Earth.

Why does this project matter to you?
The vertebrate paleontology collection at the Burke consists of about 50,000 specimens. Of these, about 90% are fossil mammals, so dinosaurs and other fossil reptiles are greatly underrepresented in our collection. This means that our displays aren't are good as they could be, but also that I'm limited in what I can use in the lab of my paleontology classes.

If you could tell your donors any one thing, what would it be? Seriously, anything.
Paleontology doesn’t get funding.

Dr. Christian Sidor is the Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture and an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Washington. He earned his Ph.D. and M.S. in Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago and his B.S. in Biology at Trinity College.


This ceramic vessel was found in 2003 by Steve Sypher on the shore of North Cove in Grayland, Washington. It is sealed, with a watertight cap, and is about ¼ full of an unknown liquid. Steven contacted the Burke Museum in 2003 to help identify the vessel and Peter Lape, Curator of Archeology, suggested that it might be a drinking vessel that was aboard an Indonesian trading ship. When the Sypher family brought the vessel in again in June 2011, Stevan Harrell, UW Anthropology Faculty, noticed two Chinese symbols stamped on the vessel. One of those symbols translates to 'sheng' which means to rise. He was not sure what the vessel could have been used for so he emailed a colleague at a maritime museum in China. The only thing his colleague could suggest is that it is not a southeast Chinese (Fujian) pot. He wondered if it might come from a kiln in northern China. A staff member at the Wing Luke Museum thought it likely to be a food container.

Research Questions

The Burke invites YOU to provide expertise – have you seen anything like this? Crowdsourcing will be a critical aspect of quickly and efficiently honing in on possible original place of manufacture. Typically, archeologists determine where a vessel might have been made by conducting comparative and typological analyses, as well as chemical tests of the clay and temper. We propose hiring a UW Archeology graduate student to conduct an extensive literature review and contact archaeologists and ceramic experts in China, Japan, Taiwan and Southeast Asia. A UW Archeology graduate student will also conduct x-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis to determine elemental composition of the vessel body and the separate seal cap. Once potential locations are identified, the XRF data will provide specific details to pinpoint the manufacture location.

When was this vessel made and how long has it been floating in the Pacific? Typological research will be conducted as part of the literature review and in collaboration with international colleagues to answer these questions. If these approaches do not yield a date, we will potentially use, thermoluminescence dating. This is a destructive process, requiring the removal of some of the vessel (5 mm thick and 3 cm in diameter).
What is inside? The first step will be to have this vessel x-rayed. If the contents appear to be residual foodstuffs, a small sample will be extracted through a small hole drilled from the base of the vessel for chemical analysis using mass spectrometry.

Was this vessel used for food, water or other liquid storage? Was it used in trade, as a container for a ship’s crew or some other use? Content analysis and the collaborative research conducted by the UW Archeology graduate student will provide answers.

How did this vessel get to the Washington coast? How can this artifact contribute to our understanding of ocean currents? We will be consulting with the oceanography department to aid in this research.

Laura Phillips is the Archeology Collections Manager at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington. She earned her M.A. in Museology from the University of Washington and holds a B.A. in Anthropology from Colorado College.
Peter Lape is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Curator of Archeology at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington. He earned his Ph.D. from Brown University.


Return to April 2012 Newsletter


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