It’s going to take me three years to unearth this rhinoceros fossil, but that’s okay — he’s been waiting five million years for me to come along.

This particular fossil is of ‘Papaw’, part of a newly described species (Teleoceras aepysoma) from this site. He was very, very old when he died, around 30. He has arthritis in his knees. His teeth are broken. He’s got gouges in his front tusks, probably from fighting. This species is shorter than modern rhinos, but weighs as much or even more, around 2,000 kilograms.

After spending so much time with him, you start to get connected. You wonder about his life and times. Sometimes I chat to him as I dig: “You’ve got all your ribs together. You’re doing great.”

I’m working at the Gray Fossil Site in Gray, Tennessee, which was discovered in 2000 when a construction company tried to improve an intersection. They took off the top of a hill, found black clay and started hitting fossils. Since 2007, we’ve been operating a museum in addition to a dig site. Tourists can come and see the fossils right in front of them.

In Papaw’s time, this site was a watering hole, so many animals would congregate here. Besides the rhino, we’ve found a new species of mastodon (Mammut sp. nov.); a species of red panda (Pristinailurus bristoli) and many tapirs (Tapirus polkensis).

We avoid digs during the frost, so over winter I’ll be spending my time cleaning and categorizing the fossil fragments and putting the pieces back together to eventually reconstruct Papaw’s full skeleton.

I got a geology degree at East Tennessee State University and considered a PhD. But I decided to become a lab and field technician after I saw my advisers turn up at the dig site, see us working, and say “Oh, I wish I could dig, I’ve got to go back inside to write a grant.”

I decided that wasn’t for me. I’m happier here, chatting to Papaw and digging up bones.