The mummy is no longer the Louisiana Art & Science Museum’s oldest resident.
That title now belongs to Jason, a 66 million-year-old triceratops skull, which was moved into the museum’s Universe Gallery on Wednesday afternoon after a ride from Tucson, Arizona.
“This is one of the most complete triceratops skulls ever found,” said paleontologist Thomas Lindgren, co-consulting director of the Natural History Department at Bonhams auction house in Los Angeles, who traveled with the skull to Baton Rouge.
“Everything is intact. If we scanned it, we could see the nasal cavities,” he said.
Jason is named for Jason Phipps, the rancher who discovered the skull in August 2011 while driving cattle through his Montana spread in the Hells Creek Formation area. The fossil went up for auction in New York but didn’t sell, so it was sent to Lindgren’s GeoDecor studio for restoration.
Sometime later, he received a call from Raising Canes Chairman and CEO Todd Graves.
“I’m a collector of historical things and artifacts,” Graves said Wednesday. “I’ve always been interested in dinosaurs, so I started doing some research. Tucson is a place known for paleontologist, gemologists and astronomers. That’s when I found Tom.”
That’s also when Graves purchased Jason, had him restored and shipped to the Louisiana Art & Science Museum. The skull tentatively is on loan for two years.
“We talked about two years, but it may stay there longer,” Graves said. “Or it might go to another regional museum after that. But the Louisiana Art & Science Museum was the perfect place for it, because it’s both an art and science museum.”
The skull measures 5 feet by 7 feet and weighs nearly a ton. Lindgren estimates it to be about 66 million years old — which is why it displaces the museum’s mummy as the facility’s oldest artifact — the mummy is only 2,400 years old.
“What’s neat about this skull is that it’s 95 percent intact,” Graves said. “I’ve seen other skulls that were only 50 percent and had to be reconstructed. This one is amazing.”
The only part of the skull that isn’t original is the lower jaw, which was discovered on the same ranch in 2007. The jaw dates from the same era as the skull and is a perfect fit.
“This skull was found in a stone nodule with minor distortion,” said Lindgren, who has appeared on HGTV’s “Designing for the Sexes” and “Cash and Treasures.”
“An intact fossil of this kind helps provide clues for scientists about the physiological structure of dinosaurs,” he said.
Graves began talking with Elizabeth Weinstein, the museum’s curator and director of interpretation for art, in 2014.
“He had his assistant call me, and we were grateful that he thought of us,” Weinstein said. “We’re always looking for unique things that inspire people, and we’ve all grown up with this mystery of the dinosaurs who inhabited the Earth before us. Every museum wants the two greatest mysteries to exhibit — a mummy and a dinosaur. Now we have both.”
Graves doesn’t want to tell how much he paid for the fossil, saying only that it was a “substantial amount.”
“But it holds value,” he said. “The first time I saw it, it was literally sitting on top of a shipping crate. Today is the first time I’ve been able to walk 360 degrees around it and see the whole thing.”
The skull not only has been restored but is installed on a stand specially designed by Lindgren. Its eye sockets and nasal cavities are packed with the Montana sand in which it was found, which helps in the skull’s preservation.
Lindgren rented a moving truck for the trip to Baton Rouge, not trusting a shipping company. He covered the truck’s floor with foam and drove the truck himself. A forklift removed the skull and wheeled it through the museum’s kitchen into the Universe Gallery, where it will be lighted at night for passersby to see.
“This unprecedented loan provides a unique opportunity for locals, indeed Louisiana residents, to see an intact triceratops specimen up close and learn more about these fascinating creatures of the past,” Weinstein said. “And I don’t think any other museum in the state has a piece like this. What child hasn’t imagined the excitement of discovering and excavating a dinosaur? This experience is sure to inspire more than a few budding paleontologists.”