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The bone collector

Times Staff Writer

Harley Garbani excused himself, ducked out of the room and returned with a savage set of 6-inch teeth and claws.

“Take a look,” he said, displaying the finer, if sharper, points of a Tyrannosaurus rex. “If he picks you up with these, you can kiss your butt goodbye.”

That fate seems unlikely these days even if Garbani’s home is more appropriate to, say, Jurassic Park than the trailer park in Hemet where he lives. Moving from room to room is a journey of a few feet spanning millions of years.

On every shelf, in every drawer, in old cigar boxes lie bones, skulls, teeth and horns, along with hundreds of early Indian artifacts. Battered journals chronicling a lifetime of discoveries are piled in closets.

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For decades this 84-year-old plumber turned fossil hunter has prowled North America’s deserts and badlands searching for that odd glint or sparkle in the sandstone, the protruding bone or sun-blasted skull.

He’s staked out anthills, relieving the insects of tiny prehistoric teeth they were lugging to their nests. He’s dug up duck-billed dinosaurs. He’s unearthed woolly mammoths in Baja California, and he has sweet-talked wary ranchers into letting him scour their land for bones.

In 1966, Garbani found the world’s third and most complete T. rex, a fierce-looking skeleton now locked in mortal combat with a triceratops at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. He discovered the triceratops as well.

Along the way, the painfully humble, slightly stooped collector has become a paradox: one of the nation’s foremost paleontologists who isn’t a paleontologist, an amateur whose work dwarfs that of professionals.

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“I don’t like the word amateur,” said Bill Clemons, a curator at the Berkeley Museum of Paleontology and longtime friend. “He’s an avocationist.”

Whatever the term, Garbani is revered by scientists who speak in near-mystical terms of his facility for finding fossils.

“I am not a superstitious person, but Harley has a sixth sense about where things are found,” said David Archibald, a professor of biology at San Diego State University who has worked with Garbani. “I have seen him walk along and find a one-inch jawbone.”

Paleontologist Lowell Dingus, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, devoted an entire chapter to Garbani in a book about dinosaur-hunting.

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“He has figured out from his decades of experience which kinds of beds, which kinds of rocks to look into to find fossils,” he said. “He is a remarkable collector, the best I have seen in the field, by far.”

Though there may be a bit of intuition involved, Garbani’s gifts more likely spring from a keen eye honed growing up on a ranch near Gilman Hot Springs in the San Jacinto Valley.

There at age 8, he made his first find.

“It was a large point, like part of a knife or spear,” he recalled. “I was trying to catch a pony and I came across it. I was hooked ever since.”

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When his dad drove an earthmover, young Harley followed to see what it would kick up. One day something big and white emerged.

“It was petrified bone, a femur. It came from a very large camel from the Pleistocene Age,” he said. “I was 9 and had a collection going.”

He amassed dozens of smooth rocks used by early Indians to grind acorns and chisel arrowheads, which he kept by a flower garden.

“I knew them all by name,” he said.

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As he grew older, Garbani began hunting fossils in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park area. He found prehistoric camels, ancient fish, mastodons, enormous birds, saber-toothed cats and a giant ground sloth with its desiccated hide attached.

Elsewhere, he found scattered pot fragments and painstakingly reassembled them. The result is one of California’s most complete collections of Indian pots, or ollas, experts say, numbering about 75.

Garbani’s tactics were fairly elementary. He looked for what didn’t belong in a landscape. He scanned the geology. For human artifacts, he sought out water or remnants of water -- dry stream or lake beds. For fossils, he headed for badlands and sediments.

His eyes did the rest.

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“Once you find your first fossil, your eye will focus and will know what to look for,” he said. “It was just a hobby. I was a plumber for 12 years in San Jacinto and made a living at that. Whenever I had free time, I’d go out.”

He was often accompanied by his two sons, David and James.

Garbani gave his fossils to the Anza Borrego park visitors center, which handed many over to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

Impressed, the museum hired Garbani in 1965 to locate its first T. rex. He quit plumbing and headed off with his family to eastern Montana to begin digging.

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In the little town of Jordan, Mont., Garbani hung out at Hell Creek Bar, where he employed charm and free booze to loosen up ranchers before questioning them about the local landscape.

“I once met this guy who was sitting there in a rocking chair wearing this big damn 10-gallon hat,” he recalled. “I don’t think he even got out of his chair to shake my hand. He said, ‘Come with me’ and took me to his ranch and showed me a fossil triceratops he had found.”

Apparently everyone in town had seen dinosaur bones. Rancher after rancher was soon inviting Garbani around to show off their discoveries. Many finds were impressive, but none was the coveted T. rex, the voracious 20-foot-high, 40-foot-long meat eater whose name means “Tyrant lizard king.”

Then Garbani met the late Lester Engdahl, who described some odd bones he had seen around his ranch. Sensing that his quarry was near, Garbani immediately began searching the area. One day he spotted a toe bone sticking up from a riverbank.

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It was July 27, 1966. He recorded the momentous discovery in one of his journals.

“About 3 p.m. over north of the dam, I ran into what I believe is limb and tarsal and two toes of the hard to find rex,” he wrote. “The size of the foot bone is amazing.”

The entry ends casually with a note about an Indian grinding stone.

It took two years to extract bones from rock, but what emerged was one of the best-preserved specimens of T. rex ever found. Its 5-foot skull and legs were largely intact. There were also ribs and a jawbone full of jagged teeth. He found a smaller T. rex beneath it.

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“My rex had a real good skull,” Garbani observed. “It was pretty heavy to see this size of a jaw with teeth. It was quite a thrill.”

A replica of the jaw sits in a corner of his house. He later found the world’s smallest triceratops skull, a mere foot long.

By now Garbani was working full time for the museum, with a mission to locate and prepare skeletons and fossils. He did both with uncommon vigor but insisted that the specimens be sent to his house so he didn’t have to drive to Los Angeles.

“Harley is remarkable at preparing bones,” said Mike Greenwald, a research scientist at the Museum of Geology in Rapid City, S.D.

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“In some cases the sand grains have to be taken out individually from them. I remember when Harley found some dinosaur eggshell fragments. He took them home and prepared it in three dimensions. It’s the most remarkable preparation I have seen.”

Seven prehistoric animals have been named for him, including: Geomys garbanii, an ancient pocket gopher; Elomeryx garbanii, a kind of hippopotamus; and Thecelosaurus garbanii, an ostrich-like dinosaur.

More recently, he agreed to lend his collection to the new Western Center for Archeology & Paleontology in Hemet, not far from his home. He already has dozens of items on display at the museum, which opened in October. The facility sits near Diamond Valley Lake, where thousands of fossils were unearthed while the reservoir was being dug in the late 1990s.

“The idea of a museum was enhanced by Harley coming forward and saying he would need a place to put his fossils,” said Jerry Uecker, a member of the museum board of directors. “All of his collection will come to us eventually.”

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Garbani may be a bit of a dinosaur himself. He’s getting older, his feet don’t hold up like they used to, and he’s probably the last of a kind.

Yet the white-haired Garbani, who sports bushy sideburns, has no intention of becoming extinct before his time.

It’s true that he doesn’t roam the desert on all fours swiping teeth from ants anymore.

He can’t hike up canyon after canyon or crawl along winding riverbanks. But he still works. Every day, in fact, he spends hours of quality time with heaping bags of dirt sent from Montana.

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It’s part of the research being done by paleontologist Clemons. Garbani helped discover a rich deposit of bones from mammals that lived a million years after dinosaurs became extinct.

The bones are minuscule, coming from creatures that would make a dormouse seem large and ungainly. The teeth are sometimes a millimeter long. The bones must be carefully weeded out of silt and soil from the site.

And so in his small studio, Garbani dons his plastic jeweler’s glasses and methodically sorts the dirt.

“The teeth will often shine,” he said, peering so closely that he nearly smudged his nose on the sample. “There’s a crocodile, that’s an alligator tooth, there’s a crocodile scale, fish, salamander....”

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Finally he located a tiny, perfectly intact tooth from an early shrew-like mammal. He held it up with a small flourish, then resumed sorting.

Rebuilt ollas lined the shelves around him, some missing fragments. Resting in drawers were small treasures such as arrowheads, figurines and medicine stones used by Indians to heal the sick.

Garbani likes his fossils but loves his artifacts. He speaks of them almost reverently.

His favorite find wasn’t the mighty T. rex but a delicate arrowhead from South Dakota.

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“It’s perfect,” he said quietly. “A beautiful, complete arrow point made of quartz.”

His artifacts were all found on private property so as not to run afoul of laws that now protect Indian relics in parks and on public lands, he said.

His wife, Mary, an avid collector herself, is Garbani’s biggest fan.

“Harley is the most modest man I have ever known,” she said. “And he has nothing to be modest about.”

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Garbani is resolutely low-key about his accomplishments and isn’t offended by the word amateur. He says his biggest thrill is piecing together a shattered pot or scattered dinosaur skeleton.

“I like putting broken stuff back together,” he said. “It’s my way of bringing them back to life.”

So what’s left for a collector who has already bagged a T. rex, a triceratops and hundreds of other prehistoric beasts?

Garbani thought a moment.

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“I would like a good painted olla,” he said. “That would be nice. Two or three would be even better.”

david.kelly@latimes.com


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