By Knolan Benfield
In May 2000, while widening a road, a Tennessee highway crew hit pay dirt. The ground they turned over had a peculiarly dark color the men had never seen before. Scientists were called in, and what they uncovered was so important the highway crew did not dig there again.
Instead, geologists unearthed the mother lode, a fossil find of a lifetime. Hundreds of fossils appeared, forming a strike unlike any other in the eastern United States.
Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist was notified of the find, and he directed that the road be rerouted around the fossils. Paleontologists from East Tennessee State University (ETSU) took over the site. A museum was built, where today the public can visit the remains of some of eastern Tennessee’s earliest inhabitants.
The fascinating finds are now revealed at the ETSU and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum at Gray Fossil Site, which opened in late August 2007 just outside Gray, Tennessee. The museum is approximately 2 miles south off Interstate 26, not far from where I-26 intersects with Interstate 81. In its first year alone, it attracted 115,000 visitors. This is a place not to miss.
So, what exactly did the paleontologists find at the site? For starters, expect to see specimens of rhinos, alligators, a large saber-toothed cat, and many more former fauna and flora. But do not expect dinosaurs. This is a Miocene Epoch site that dates back 4 million to 7 milllion years, a very long time after the dinosaurs were already gone.
All the fossils were found in an area smaller than five acres, which sediment cores have shown to be between 100 and 140 feet deep.
Scientists have learned that this place was once a cave, and when its roof collapsed, it became a sinkhole. The watering hole attracted a variety of animals. Herbivores came to forage on the greens, and the carnivores came to eat the herbivores. Every now and then one of them would slip into the deep pond and drown, not to be seen again for millions of years.
Danny Davenport, a guide and program assistant at the site, put the large number of fossils found in perspective when he said, “If the pond lasted 5,000 to 10,000 years and only one animal a year drowned or was killed, that would be 5,000 to 10,000 remains that could be here.”
Mr. Davenport started as a volunteer at the site in 2001 and recently became an enthusiastic employee. He is enjoying job security: “At the rate of recovery, it will take about 100 years or more to exhaust this dig,” he said.
Digging up a fossil is only the beginning. The rhinos on display in the museum took nine weeks to extract from the mud, but required two years to assemble and prepare for display. “There’s already a five-year backlog of lab work to be done just on what has been dug up to date,” Mr. Davenport said.
With an almost endless vein to mine, how do the paleontologists decide where to dig? Core samples are drilled to establish the boundaries of the find. Already, digs at the bottom of the hills filled with water; digs on top of the hills yielded the rhinos and scores of other species. Because of the large number of mammals, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds discovered, paleontologists believe the current dig is on the shore of the former pond.
Remember the weird, dark dirt that caught the eyes of the construction crew working on the road back in 2000? The dirt is dark because it is full of organic matter and iron oxide that was deposited underwater in a low-oxygen atmosphere. That’s a good thing, because this dark clay helped preserve these animals for millions of years. Layers of clay are easily sliced away to reveal all of these finds “” rather than cutting through hard, solid rock as in other fossil sites. It makes it easier to get to the specimens, but it also means they are more fragile than fossils found in rock.
The interactive museum and hands-on lab is a public playground that is great for the kids and grown-ups. It’s educational as well. Here you may test your ability to recognize parts of ancient plants and animals. See if you can assemble scattered small bones into a complete skeleton. You can dig in the clean, simulated dirt to search for fossils while seated comfortably at a table.
Outside, you can take a guided tour to the dig site. Just beyond the fence surrounding the site, a state highway seems to be on a collision course with the museum. At the last possible spot, the road swerves around the site, then curves back onto its original path and on to I-26 less than two miles away. After seeing what one can imagine as a narrow escape for the fossils, the group is escorted to the labs to watch as scientists clean and study what has been discovered so far.
Walks-ins are always welcome at the old watering hole. As a matter of fact, facility staff are looking for people to help with field excavation, in the preparation lab, in visitor services “” you name it. They are also happy to make the acquaintance of those who just want to drop by for a visit to see what this state-of-the-art museum and exciting fantastic fossil find is all about.
Visiting The Site
The museum and dig site are open year-round, daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (closed on major holidays). Special programs are offered throughout the year for children. A program that lets adults unearth fossils, called “Dig for a Day,” will run again in 2009 from July 1 to October 30. Check the museum Web site for details.
Exhibit hall admission is by donation ($3 per person suggested). A guided tour of the dig site, the paleontology lab, and the collection space “” plus admission to special temporary exhibits “” is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors 65 and over, and $7 for children ages 5 to 12.
For more information, visit www.grayfossilmuseum.com or call (866) 202-6223; (423) 439-3659.