The Bone Collector
07/24/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
For six hot weeks a decade ago Sue Hendrickson and a team of fossil hunters prospected the South Dakota badlands. But with just two days left before they were to leave, something seemed to call her to take one last look. The team's truck had a flat, and a spooky fog blanketed the hills as she trekked off alone and on foot. Eight miles out, she came to a cliff she had never explored. After a few moments she noticed bone fragments on the ground. Tracing them upward, she beheld three perfectly articulated vertebrae of what she immediately knew was a Tyrannosaurus rex. "I was in total disbelief," says Hendrickson, who jokes that after 67 million years, the dinosaur cried out to her because it was tired of waiting to be discovered. "She knew we were going to leave, so she got desperate."
The 42-ft.-long T. rex proved to be the largest and most complete ever found—and the crowning achievement of Hendrickson's remarkable career. Now the dinosaur is finally on display and drawing thousands of visitors daily to the Field Museum in Chicago. And Hendrickson's reputation for finding treasures—ancient shipwrecks, prehistoric butterflies, fossil saber-toothed tigers—is acquiring mythic proportions. "She's a combination of Indiana Jones and John the Baptist—people who thrive in the wilderness," says paleontologist Robert Bakker. "It's her calling."
Indeed, Hendrickson, now 50, is never more at home than when she's out in the field and on the hunt: "It's hot and sweaty or cold, and you're filthy, but to me it's a passion." Though she enjoys painstakingly digging out and revealing bones from eons past, she says "it's the thrill of discovery, not the money," that delivers the real rapture. "Finding is the thing."
Even as a shy child in Munster, Ind., Sue Hendrickson was forever searching. "I was always walking with my head down," she says. "I'd go up and down the alley and poke the wire trash burner behind our house, looking for treasures." As a quiet but rebellious teenager, the second of three children of Mary, a retired teacher, now 82 and living in Seattle, and Lee, a railroad purchasing agent who died in 1982, Hendrickson first sought solace in folk music, Buddhism and French philosophers. But nothing quenched her growing need to flee the confines of a conventional hometown. At 17, she took off with a boyfriend and $25 on a three-year cross-country odyssey. "She's a very good role model," says her mother, "for those that don't quite fit the mold."
By the late 1960s Hendrickson began to find herself and find what made her happy, diving for tropical fish and then for salvage in the Florida Keys. "I loved spending eight, nine hours in the water. It was a whole other world," she says. Then in 1976 she ventured to an amber mine in the remote mountains of the Dominican Republic, where she was captivated by the sight of perfectly preserved 23-million-year-old insects. "It was like someone had just stuck an insect in it five minutes ago," she says. With characteristic intensity, Hendrickson plunged into the study of amber and soon became an invaluable field worker, helping to build several significant amber collections and discovering three of only six butterflies ever found in amber. "She's irreplaceable," said David Grimaldi of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. "She has rounded up some of the best pieces in the world."
Studying fossilized insects soon led Hendrickson to her next passion—digging for dinosaurs, an interest she supported through the 1980s by diving for lobsters. (She never made less than $200 a day, she says, adding, "I was very efficient. I could think like a lobster.") In 1985 paleontologist Peter Larson, whose Black Hills Institute finds, studies and prepares fossils for museums and collectors, invited her to join his team working at a quarry in South Dakota. A romance soon blossomed, and they began to spend time working together whenever they could.
Hendrickson's discovery of Tyrannosaurus Sue, which has been named after her, was a fitting finale to her sixth season hunting with Larson. Because the two, who have remained close friends, had recently agreed to part and go their separate ways, she was bursting with emotion that August day in 1990, as she turned over her find to Larson and his Black Hills Institute. "Sue was my going-away gift to him," Hendrickson says. "What else can one give a paleontologist?" Larson was dumbstruck. "Holy cow! These are Tyrannosaurus bones," he screamed. "How did you find them?" Hendrickson credits mere luck, but others say she is guided by studious training, uncanny instinct, a keen eye—and sheer stubbornness. "What would stop others doesn't stop her," Larson says.
For 17 days after she found the dinosaur—one of some 25 T. rex fossils that have been unearthed—Hendrickson, Larson and other team members spent 16 hours a day extracting Sue's skeleton with rock hammers, digging knives and half-inch-long X-Acto blades. The work was particularly grueling for Hendrickson. She was still recovering from a hysterectomy, necessitated seven months earlier by cervical cancer, which left her unable to have children. Whimsically, Hendrickson came to think of "Sue" as the child she had always dreamed of having. "She looked like she was grinning as if to say, 'You found me!' " she says.
Her elation soon evaporated. In 1992 a complex legal dispute over the ownership of Sue broke out among the federal government, the Black Hills Institute, the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe and the rancher on whose property the fossil was found. Sue's bones were confiscated and put into storage. "It was like taking the Mona Lisa and throwing it in the gutter," says Hendrickson, who worried that the bones would disintegrate. The dispute was eventually resolved after a federal court ruled that the bones belonged to the rancher.
Fortunately, Sue weathered those years as gracefully as she did the previous 67 million. In 1997 Sue was sold at auction to the Field Museum, for $8.3 million. With an extraordinary 90-plus percent of its bones intact, the fossil has awed the experts. "She's so beautifully preserved, it blew my socks off," says paleontologist Bakker. "I can imagine her hunting in the moonlight, like a 10,000-lb. roadrunner from hell, fleet of foot, agile and graceful, a giant ground hawk, a five-ton eagle."
Hendrickson wasn't idle while her namesake was in storage. Concentrating on underwater exploration in recent years, she was part of the team that mapped and identified Cleopatra's palace near Alexandria, Egypt, and helped excavate a 500-year-old Chinese shipwreck in the Philippines. Also, like Sue, she's found a permanent home. In 1998 she built a house in a remote village in the Bay Islands on the Caribbean coast of Honduras. She shares her six rooms ("It had to have a coral reef out the front") with seven dogs, five cats, any number of iguanas and parrots and a steady stream of friends and family. She's also planning another underwater adventure this summer—searching for a ship belonging to Cortez that went down off Cuba in 1521. "I'm lucky," she admits. "I think about what I want to do and I do it. Almost no one has that freedom."
Barbara Sandler in Chicago