Estimated at 4.5 million to 7 million years old, the Gray Fossil Site is the sole Miocene Epoch site in this part of the country.
GRAY - The Gray Fossil Site's visitors center is not quite ready to open, but members of the East Tennessee State University Foundation will get a preview today.
The foundation will conduct its annual membership meeting at the center, offering members a tour of the center well before it opens to the public late this summer.
Exhibits and labs at the mammoth facility are still taking shape, but today's guests will see murals depicting many of the specimens found on the site, including shovel-tusked elephants, short-legged rhinoceroses, tapirs, a red panda, a ground sloth and a saber-tooth cat, in the site's ancient wetland habitat.
Foundation members also will see one fully assembled animal replica - a modern alligator skeleton fashioned to resemble a fossil, much like the alligator specimens found on the site.
The tour also will take guests upstairs to the center's labs, where ETSU researchers will demonstrate cleaning and other preparation techniques on fossilized specimens.
The university's scientists and technicians in the Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology are poised to officially take up residence in the center's new labs over the summer, moving from a much smaller location on the main ETSU campus.
"It's going to be great to have the space," said Jeff Supplee, a preparator in the Center of Excellence. "We're so stacked up in the basement of Brown Hall.
"We'll be able to spread out, and as more things get added to the prep lab, we'll have some new equipment. It's going to be great. We'll probably start moving the collections next week.
"In the prep lab, we're hoping to have a few more renovations done before we move in there, but we hope to move in there by August."
Dr. Blaine Schubert, an assistant professor in paleontology, looks forward to the opportunity to leave digs in the site's fields adjacent to the center and immediately enter the research and preparation labs.
"It's so exciting, because it's so rare for one thing," Schubert said Wednesday. "With most paleontological sites, you have to travel a great distance between your facility and where the site really is."
Because the center is half museum and half research facility - another rare commodity - it will allow visitors to view how the scientists work both in the field and in the labs.
"We're excited about that because the public can really see what we're doing," Schubert said. "We're always here. We're always out in the field or in here."
Officially dubbed "The East Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum and Visitors Center," the 33,000-square-foot facility was funded in part by an $8 million federal transportation grant.
Tennessee Department of Transportation road crews discovered the site in 2000 as they widened and rerouted portions of Tenn. Highway 75 near Daniel Boone High School.
Estimated at 4.5 million to 7 million years old, the Gray Fossil Site is the sole Miocene Epoch site in this part of the country. It is home to one of the world's richest deposits of fossilized tapirs.
Gathering at the site at 11 a.m. for today's meeting, foundation members will tour the facility after lunch.