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The restoration of a Pleistocene mammal collection from Berlare

(Nieuwdonk Quarry)

A unique fossil fauna from the last Ice Age

Monday 12 April 2021 - (Day 1)


Today, we started our first day of restorations in Cultural Centre 'Stroming' in Berlare. For the conservation of this unique collection, we follow an extensive step-by-step procedure. We treat all pieces against pyrite decay and dehydration. We pay extra attention to fragile pieces and consult with each other on how to achieve the best results. We use an arsenal of different chemical products to help us strengthen the pieces, neutralise pyrite and restore the fossils to their former glory. Today, the president of the local historical society of Overmere paid us a visit. He brought along a highly pyritised piece of mammoth tusk in a plaster mould, as well as a box of shark teeth found between the fossilised layers of the old quarry.  These special pieces are vital parts of information to reconstruct the depositional environment of the former quarry of Nieuwdonk.

Tuesday 13 April 2021 - (Day 2)

Good progress has been made in the treatment of the Nieuwdonk collection. In the course of the morning, both regional and national press took an interest in our project. Several interviews were given for television and radio, who wanted to broadcast our activities. During the afternoon the first large fossils were treated with mono-ethanolamine thioglycolate and rinsed with ethanol. The restoration of the large mammoth tusk inside the gypsum clamshell is going well thanks to the highly appreciated work of Jef Segers, who also worked on the mammoth of Dendermonde in 2017. A lot of work still has to be done but slowly a routine is taking over. We look forward to the rest of this week.


Wednesday 14 April 2021 - (Day 3)


Today we were able to work thoroughly on the majority of the small specimens that were stashed in fifteen cardboard boxes. As requested by dr. Mietje Germonpré (RBINS) we sampled some enamel for future carbon dating (picture). François has proven himself to be a fantastic limner over the past few days. Today we completed a small mammoth tusk that was severely broken. In the future, this particular specimen can easily go on public display. Our mammoth tusk inside the clamshell has been treated with Mowilith and gained more stability. Most of the sediment was dug out of the plaster clamshell and underwent a serious metamorphosis. We sampled the original sediment so we can look for small shells or other biogenic remains that might tell us more about the depositional environment. We also found out that besides mammoths the collection also holds fragments of the straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus). These rare finds are some very nice additions to the Pleistocene fauna from Nieuwdonk. There is still a lot of work to do, but slowly we are getting there.

Thursday 15 April 2021 - (Day 4)

We are glad to see that several people responded to our call in the local press and social media to bring in fossils from the former Nieuwdonk quarry. In particular we would like to thank Mr. and Mrs. Schneider from Gijzegem, who collected mammal remains in the 1970’s while working in the quarry. For almost 50 years they kept a box in one of their stables containing rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis) teeth, vertebras, costal fragments, tusk fragments and molars, and remains from several vertebrates. They kindly offered to add these pieces to the collection and we gladly accepted their generous contribution. Today we didn’t manage to treat all the specimens from the cardboard boxes, so tomorrow it will be a crucial day to give these big bones their treatment before visits will take place during the weekend. There are still 8 massive mammoth bones to be preserved and restored.      


Friday 16 April 2021 - (Day 5)


The challenge we faced today was primarily focused on treating the large mammoth fragments from the Nieuwdonk collection. As some of the specimens were heavily affected by pyrite decay, we treated them with a mono-ethanolamine thioglycolate solution. The rather unpleasant odor that is released during this treatment was countered by wrapping the specimens partly or completely in tinfoil. After a few hours, the dark purple solution informed us of the large quantities of pyrite that residing inside these large fossilized bones. To get rid of the associated discoloration, we rinsed with ethanol and 2-propanol. During the afternoon we received the visit of Pleistocene mammal specialist Bjorn De Wilde whom we invited to take a look at the collection. He was able to help us out with some of the preliminary identifications and spotted the presence of Stephanorhinus kirchbergensis (Merck's rhinoceros) and Ovibos moschatus (Muskox). We kindly thank him for his enthusiasm and helpful expertise. By the end of the day, we re-arranged the setup of our laboratory to guide the people who will visit us this weekend.  

Saturday 17 April 2021 - (Day 6)

The first day of guided visits was a great success. During the course of the day (between 9h00 - 17h00), around 25 groups of visitors got the opportunity to visit our temporary preparation laboratory in the main concert hall. It was a joyful way of having a corona-safe encounter with the people of Berlare, Overmere, and the surrounding municipalities, to talk about ice age remains under their feet. When discussing paleontology with the visitors, we were amazed by the number of shark teeth that have been collected by many people over several generations. We look forward to the visit of Frederik Mollen, who will classify the shark teeth remains found within the Nieuwdonk quarry. Today we got help from two of our collaborators who were introduced to the whole restoration process. Around 90% of all the specimens are ready and nearly all of the chemical treatments are finalized. Tomorrow a new day with new visits will take place.


Sunday 18 April 2021 - (Day 7)


Today we welcomed around 25 separate groups of visitors who came to visit our temporary laboratory. We would like to thank everybody who took the time to pay us a visit and show interest in our activities. We would like to specifically thank Frederik Mollen, who took the time to identify most of the associated shark teeth fauna found within the former Nieuwdonk quarry. In total, Frederik was able to distinguish around 18 different species from which 15 species are Eocene in age and 3 species are Oligocene, Miocene, or Pliocene in age. An important find because we have no lithological proof of any Oligocene, Miocene or Pliocene deposits in the region. We would like to thank Leen De Greve from 'CC Stroming' as well for all the effort she has invested into this project so far.  

Monday 19 April 2021 - (Day 8)

A new week after a busy weekend. Today we took the time to clean and re-arrange all of our equipment and materials. This way we can finalize the remaining specimens next weekend without spending too much time looking for our goods. This morning dr. Mietje Germonpré from the Royal Belgian Institute of natural sciences came to visit the Nieuwdonk collection. She had already seen parts of it during her studies in the 1980s, but never in its entirety. Dr. Germonpré gathered osteometric data on the canine mandibulas, as well as the deciduous mammoth teeth present in the collection. The gathered data will be compared to existing data in order to confirm the presence of Canis lupus (wolf) in the collection. She also spotted some additional bite marks on a few specimens. We thank her kindly for taking the time to visit the collection. We are back in the preparation lab next weekend, stay tuned!


Saturday 24 April 2021 - (Day 9)


After a short 5 day break, we are back in the lab to finalize the last preparations. In the meantime we received the confirmation of dr. Germonpré that one of the right lower jaws falls within the range of a young female wolf (Canis lupus), the other specimens are domesticated ancestors of modern European dog breeds, probably Holocene in age. The weekend promises to be a busy one. Around 50 groups subscribed to visit our laboratory and several fragments required extra treatment. Fortunately we can count on several people helping us out. Joining us to document our restorations in a graphical way is Gaëtan Vanparys. He helped us out on some of the restoration activities and took the time to make some nice drawings of all our collaborators working on different stages of the restoration. At the end of the day we had a small celebratory drink to thank all our collaborators.     

Sunday 25 April 2021 - (Day 10)

The final day of our restoration project. Today we can count on the expertise of Marc Spolspoel and Jef Segers to treat the last Mammoth femur we've been using to illustrate  the poor condition in which the majority of the specimens in this collection found themselves. Joining us for a crash course in restoration techniques is Shana Van Hauwermeiren (MSc.) a young student in paleobiology who will research the Nieuwdonk collection for her master thesis. Shana took the time to get acquainted with both the theoretical and practical side of the restoration. Around 5:00 PM the last pieces were done and the restoration project was finalized. We dismantled the laboratory and safely stored the most important pieces of the collection. We are taking the time to get some well-deserved rest and plan a weekend in the coming month to commence with the second phase of the project: setting up the inventory. 


Saturday 15 May 2021 - (Day 11)


The second part of our Nieuwdonk project started today. This weekend, the complete inventarisation of the Berlare collection was carried out by 7 people working in a production line fashion. The first step involved the addition of a new code to each specimen. The second step consists of measuring the dimension of each specimen. Next up, pictures from different angles are taken. The following phase consists of describing and defining the anatomical part to which the specimen belongs, as well as adding a (temporary or final) identification. After this, all data is entered into our database and the specimen is wrapped up again for storage. Today We managed to document over 200 specimens. Tomorrow we hope to document every specimen. For some problematic specimens, we will ask the esteemed help of our (international) colleagues.  

Sunday 16 May 2021 - (Day 12)

A total number of 317 registered specimens were documented this weekend. The majority of them consisting of mammal remains from the last glacial and interglacial. Other objects comprising the Nieuwdonk collection include ichnofossils, stone tools, and iron (Fe) concretions. In the following weeks, we will update the database and make sure to add additional information for all specimens. We will also provide an online overview for each specimen once the database is peer-reviewed by our colleagues. We would like to thank Leen De Greve for the professional and hospitable reception over the past few months. We always felt very welcome and we are truly grateful for the unique opportunity we received to convert this private collection to a public one. The Nieuwdonk projection however doesn’t stop here. On the 28th of May, we are giving a lecture to the historical society of Overmere concerning the Nieuwdonk collection. Also, 2 papers will be written with focussing on this project.


Saturday 28 August 2021 - (Day 13)


Today we had the honour to invite Dick Mol (cf. picture), Bjorn De Wilde Albert Hoekman and Romain de Moor to Berlare for an extensive review of the Nieuwdonk collection. A lot of new observations and changes were recorded in our digital database which will be shared with the public soon. We are truly happy to see that a few exceptional specimens from the Belgian Pleistocene are now described and part of collection open for future research. We would like to thank our international team for reviewing each specimen and carefully taking the time to discuss the anatomical, taphonomical and other features. This collaboration is what makes scientific research worthwhile. The last stage of this project is within sight.

Saturday 27 November 2021 (Day 14)

After many weeks of writing we bundled all of our observations into two report of ca. 492 pages. All documentation as well as the complete overview of the Nieuwdonk collection has been printed and handed over to the municipality of Berlare in hardcopy. An open access version of the inventory and documentation can be found here on the website (in Dutch). All data will be accessable online for everyone who is interested the collection. In the future we hope to incorporate a digital database into the website for more user friendly access. Two papers have been accepted for publication in the Netherlands and the UK and will be available soon. The temporary exposition (february 2022) of the collection as well as the lecture (29/01/2022), is the next big thing for the Nieuwdonk collection.

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