Spotlight Iowa City: She really digs her job


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Sarah Horgen likes to dig. Whether it’s 120 degrees outside or the ground is frozen and topped with a layer of snow, she said, she loves everything that comes with archaeology.

“It’s really not for everybody,” the 29-year-old said, sitting in her office framed by golden-painted walls, an Ice Age 3-D poster, and pterodactyl that serve, rather fittingly, as decorations. “There are plenty of people who think we’re nuts, because we probably are, but we love it.”

Horgen created an exhibit in 2004 for the Tarkio Valley Sloth Project, which excavates and analyzes a giant sloth family found in Northboro, Iowa, a small town in the southwest corner of the state. Horgen’s role in the dig didn’t end there, though.

Archaeologists finished at the dig in September 2009 after six years of labor in which they could only dig four to six weekends per year. They also faced some hardship because the site is on a riverbed, which impeded the project for about a year and a half because of a high water.

Since the discovery of the first bones in 2001, the project has broken records. The dig has resulted in the second most complete adult sloth ever found and the second most complete juvenile ever found. This is also the first time three sloths that have ever been uncovered at the same site.

“We’re able to look at things that no other sloth site has been able to evaluate just because of the information,” Horgen said. “We’re hoping that it becomes the most well-researched sloth site ever.”

Despite what they have already learned about the rare species, Horgen hopes to become more educated on the growth patterns and social behavior of the sloths after further analysis.

The 5-8 brunette also finds the amount of student work to be an important element of the project.

They participate in the digging process, in the labs, analysis, and facilitating outreach programs.

“It’s been a fantastic experience for students that they’re not going to get anywhere else,” Horgen said.

When Horgen isn’t traveling the state for outreach programs about the Tarkio Valley Sloth Project, she works as the education and outreach coordinator at the UI Museum of Natural History. She is in charge of museum tours and education programming, and she oversees student staff and volunteers.

Despite seeming overwhelmed, Horgen’s assistants — Meghann Mahoney and Holly Berg — said she’s very fun and easy to work with.

“She creates an exciting atmosphere,” said Berg, 26. “We’ve had days where we’re here for 14 hours. And even though I’m tired, during the day it’s been a very comfortable commodity.”

Helping Horgen with tasks such as writing grants and press releases and training staff, Berg and Mahoney admire all the work she does to make everything function smoothly.

“She’s amazingly dedicated,” said Mahoney, 23.

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