Ancient Wyoming

Authors Kirk Johnson (left) and Will Clyde discuss their book “Ancient Wyoming: A Dozen Lost Worlds based on the Geology of the Bighorn Basin” during the Lunchtime Expedition Series on July 28 at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Reconstructing lost worlds in the Big Horn Basin is the focus of a new book by authors Kirk Johnson and Will Clyde.

The two authors were the featured speakers for the Lunchtime Expedition Series at the Draper Natural History Museum. The lecture took place at the Coe Auditorium in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West on July 28.

This was the second lecture of the month in the series. There will be no presentations in August due to a symposium in the auditorium.

“Their book publisher called us at the last minute and we were happy to fit them in,” said Draper Museum Curatorial Assistant Bonnie Smith of the extra session in the Lunchtime Expedition Series. “It’s been a busy month for lectures.”

Johnson and Clyde alternated at the podium as they painted a picture of the distant past. The title of their book is, “Ancient Wyoming: A Dozen Lost Worlds based on the Geology of the Bighorn Basin.”

“Most people see the Basin as an obstacle on their way to Yellowstone Park,” Johnson said. “I got sick of it, so we wrote the book.”

Relating his fondness for rocks, Johnson got a laugh out of the audience while saying he doesn’t look at the road while driving. Instead, he checks out all the cool rock formations along the highway.

“Out in the Basin, you’re driving through time,” Johnson added.

Fascination with rocks led Johnson to become a geologist. He’s currently a Director of the Smithsonian’s Natural Museum of History. The author also hosts the Nova television series, “Making North America.”

Johnson fell in love with the Bighorn Basin over three decades ago. He discovered the wonders of the region while a student in 1981 at the Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association field station in Red Lodge, Montana.

“There’s a lot of geologic time there,” Johnson said of the Basin. “It’s an amazingly complete stack of ancient history.”

Studying rocks is like reading a history book to these scholars. They ponder the stratified formations and try to paint a picture of what the landscape looked like long ago.

“I live to read earth’s history in rocks instead of books,” Clyde said. “The Bighorn Basin has

retained an amazing record of earth’s history. It’s the best place in the world to study the past.”

Dolomite is the primary type of rock found in the Basin and its high acidic content tends to dissolve animal remains. Still, fossils from the distant past can be found and some of them are spectacular.

Many of these fossils are from ancient sea creatures. The authors explained this part of Wyoming has been under the sea at least a dozen times over the millennia and the mountain phase is a recent phenomenon.

Dinosaurs also once roamed the Bighorn Basin, along with many other species which are no longer present on the landscape. These included large flightless birds, miniature horses, camels and mammoths.

Fossils of a long-necked dinosaur have been found in the area around Shell. The proximity to a shallow, inland sea brought many types of animals to what is now the State of Wyoming.

“The entire Basin is chock full of fossils,” Clyde said. “As geologists, we like to move through time quickly.”

This allows the scholars to study layers from the time of the dinosaurs to the end of the last Ice Age. They also wanted to include in their book a chapter on the Super volcano, which lies only 50 miles to the west of Cody.

“We wanted to make sure we included this event, the last major eruption of Yellowstone some 640,000 years ago,” Clyde added. “That was another episode in the history of the Bighorn Basin. Our readers can see how different the Basin has been over thousands of years. There has been an incredible diversity of environments.”

Although the formation of Heart Mountain isn’t in their book, Johnson and Clyde did touch on the subject during the question and answer period after the lecture. The mountain was originally located near Cooke City, Montana, until a detachment fault caused it to slide into the Bighorn Basin.

Final comments from the authors touched on the immense time spans which they study. They related to the audience the extremes of this planet’s climate. In the past, the Earth has been completely covered in ice, but also once had forests stretching all the way to the poles.

(Scott Kolb can be reached at

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