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Going Places: Explore the past at The Natural History Museum at the Gray Fossil Site

Katherine Scoggins • Mar 25, 2013 at 1:24 AM

I love surprises: I feel an immediate rush whenever I come upon something wonderful and unexpected. It happened earlier this month, during a storm. I was driving the back roads of Gray, watching out for cars and trucks pulling into the roads, trying to read signs between the sheets of rain. I looked cautiously to my right, then to the left when - BAM - I spot it. "It" is the Gray Fossil Site rising up from the surrounding hills and farmland. As many times as I’ve visited the site before, it still takes me by surprise. The unique red clay colored bas relief wall and fountain, aptly named The Watering Hole, was overflowing.

At the front desk, I meet two volunteers and Jennifer Barber, who recently became the marketing and publications manager. We walk through the current temporary exhibit, "Hatching the Past," which runs through June 1. From a large dinosaur egg to a tiny hummingbird egg, this exhibit illustrates how eggs serve as many animals’ first homes. The Scott M. Niswonger Temporary Exhibit Hall is very interactive with specimens hidden in walls, dig pits located around the room, and interesting facts and "finds" peppered throughout the exhibit.

Upon exiting, we come almost face-to-face with the "visiting dignitary" of the Fossil Site, Triceratops. Jennifer quickly explains that this guy is not a permanent fixture, he is just on loan and is staying a little longer than originally planned.

"There will never be any dinosaur remains found on this site," says Jennifer, "but since so many children and young people learn about fossils and paleontology from reading and studying about dinosaurs, it just makes sense to have one to greet the guests."

We take the elevator up to the second floor and look out onto the observation decks that overlook the dig sites. I notice a number of large, yellow bags piled up around the edges of the pits.

"That is sediment that was removed as the site was excavated," says Jennifer. "It will all have to be ‘screened’ (sifted through) to make sure that everything is found and collected."

We go back into the main building and walk around the upstairs collection rooms where students and professionals are busy cleaning, preserving and cataloging recent finds. There are large white cabinets in one of the rooms.

"Most cabinets," says Jennifer, "are full of fossils that have been found here on the site, but we also house items from other sites, such as Saltville, Va."

Now might be a good time to try and explain the scope of this work. When you enter into the upstairs section of the building, you can look through windows and view preparators, collections staff, volunteers and students working diligently in the preparation lab and collections room putting fossils back together and cataloging them. The fossil site itself is accessed from this level and it is HUGE - over 130 feet deep and encompassing five acres. If excavation continues at its current rate, according to Dr. Blaine Schubert, Director, Center of Excellence in Paleontology and Natural History Museum, it would take thousands of years to put a serious dent in it.

"The fossil site was discovered by accident in May of 2000 by road construction crews," explains Schubert. "The site is actually a series of sinkholes formed by the collapse of an underground cave, which resulted in a bowl-shaped site for animals to gather, eat and drink. The site is 4.5 million years old and contains remains of a diverse ecosystem of plants and animals. Research has shown that this area was sub-tropical and forested back then. The two most common animals are turtles and tapirs, and it is known as the largest tapir site in the world (over 100 individuals so far). The site also preserves saber-tooth cats, red pandas, plants with Asian affinities, venomous lizards, short-faced bears, shovel-tusked elephants, alligators, ground sloths, rhinoceroses, and camels, to name a few. Because the site is so unique in terms of its age, location, size and preservation, many of the organisms are completely new to science and have never been found anywhere else on earth."

On Aug. 31, 2007, the visitors’ center opened and welcomed more than 250,000 visitors over the next five years. The dedicated and successful work at the site resulted in the creation of the nation’s only Center of Excellence in Paleontology, the development of a Geosciences Department, and led to ETSU having one of the largest Master’s degree programs in Paleontology in the world.

The ETSU and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum Visitor Center at the Gray Fossil Site is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (winter hours) and Mondays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (summer hours). For more information on exhibits, admission charges, volunteer opportunities, special events or for directions, visit the website www.etsu.edu/naturalhistorymuseum, or call 866-202-6223 (toll-free) or 423-439-3659 (local).

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