In the Fayum with Elwyn

Patience, Persistence and Devotion
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Jun 9, 2009

"One thing that amazes me about Elwyn Simons is his combination of skill and luck," says Blythe Williams, a Duke adjunct associate professor of evolutionary anthropology and one of many younger scientists who cut their professional teeth in the gritty, hot and timeless environment of Egypt's Fayum desert assisting Simons in his fossil collecting.

Fossil eggPrithijit Chatrath (left) and Elwyn Simons hold fossil egg in their lab.

Back when she was a University of Colorado graduate student, Williams vividly remembers taking a recreational day off to accompany Simons to a nearby valley. "He began walking through the desert, and then suddenly he reached down to pick up what turned out to be the hind limb of a whale that had never been found before," she says. "And that was on a picnic!"

Richard Madden, a longtime Duke research associate in evolutionary anthropology who was a graduate student in the Fayum in the early 1980s, recalled the painstaking way Simons would revisit a small cliff where a crocodile skull was slowly "eroding out," each time coating the fossil with another layer of preservative to stabilize it.

"I remember one time he was sitting there working and some songbirds landed on him," Madden says. "If you are quiet and patient, and move very slowly, desert birds will approach you. That's what the mood is like in the field. Collecting out fossils requires patience, persistence and devotion. You can't push it. You can't accelerate it. It has its own time."

Richard Kay, now a Duke professor of evolutionary anthropology and former department chairman who was Simons’ graduate student back at Yale, never got to the Fayum until years later because the Arab-Israeli War had suspended collecting.

When he did, as a fellow faculty member, Kay says he was impressed by Simons' ability to weigh where to allocate scarce collecting resources. "On one side were risky enterprises that had a low likelihood of yielding anything but could open up a new vista if anything was discovered," Kay says. "The other possibility was going back to the same old thing."

While Simons was not adverse to trying "greener fields," he also had the knack of finding new things in old places, Kay added. "That is a characteristic of Elwyn that isn't common. I did not have as much stick-to-itiveness as he did."

In the rugged Fayum, there were sudden sandstorms so severe "that we had to fall to our hands and knees to feel our ways to our tents," Williams recalled. Kay remembered nights spent on top of a truck to keep away from  jackals, scorpions and vipers. There were also exploratory trips across territory laced with land mines from World War II combat, he says.

Simons was treated with a "universal feeling of respect" by day, and at night around the campfire he became a spellbinding raconteur, Williams says. "Elwyn would start telling fantastic stories about other paleontologists he had known, or just about life in general. He was a riot."

"I can remember smoking Cuban cigars we had picked up in Europe and talking into the night," adds Kay. "Elwyn would be disappointed if you wanted to go to bed at 11 o'clock."

Madden recalled other suppers around field campfires under "magnificent stars" where "we would turn cans and cooking pots into drums and our Egyptian coworkers would begin dancing." Would Simons play the drums? "No," Madden says. "But he might have danced."

Monte Basgall is a senior science writer in the Office Of News And Communication

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