One of the beauties of homeschooling is that I get to schedule my own field trips. Last week we drove about 2 hours to the Gray Fossil Museum in Gray, TN. This was part of our earth and animal science class. Gray Fossil Museum is located on one of the only Miocene fossil digs in the US – if I remember our tour guide correctly. The fossils found are from 4.5-7 million years old and there are many, many more fossils to dig up. She told us that they are estimating that there is about 300 years worth of digging fossils and about 700 years of processing/cleaning those fossils left to do.
Do this for me, reader. Picture in your mind what the landscape would look like where a fossil dig is. Are you picturing lots of earth dug up, areas roped off in grids, lots of tools littering about? Well, that’s not what I saw. When the tour guide started the tour with, “Look around you, this is our site,” my first thought was, “where?” All I saw was a big hill with some weeds and plants growing on it. Definitely not what I was expecting.
I won’t bore you with all the details, but Monkey and I learned quite a lot about fossils; digging them up, preserving them, making plaster casts and the storage of them. We learned that they have many, many tapir fossils, an alligator fossil and an elephant fossil, some red panda fossils and rhino fossils and even a saber tooth cat’s tooth. We also got to dig in the dirt some – Little Man loved that! They have a tent set up with screens to filter dirt through to try and find a fossil. Someone in our tour group found a bone about the size of a large shooter marble. The hands-on part of the museum had different kinds of puzzles for the children to put together – even bone puzzles: a leg bone (in 5 pieces) and a rhino’s three-toed foot with about 11 pieces.
Their temporary exhibit was all about predators and included sharks, big cats, birds and dinosaurs. It was also very hands-on and I think Monkey and Little Man had fun.
Here are pictures that Monkey took while there:
This is what they call the Elephant Pit. They are in the process of digging up an elephant skeleton and it is also where the first fossils were discovered – a hip and socket joint of a different elephant. They use the bobcat to carry dirt away, not to actually dig. They have tiny trowels for that.
This is a better shot of the same spot. The black clay that you see was the first indicator during road construction that there might be something below ground worth saving. People were actually working on this dig that day, we just happened to catch them on their lunch break. If you can see the blue flags around a piece of plastic – there’s a plaster cast under there of the elephant they’re working on extracting from the hillside.
This is the Rhino pit. They have found two, I think, adult males and a fetus. They haven’t yet found the female, but they feel certain she’s in there somewhere. They haven’t dug in it in a while and, yes, they do want water to fill the pit. Some of the fossils haven’t completely fossilized and are still fragile. The water keeps them moist so they don’t dry out and get brittle. When they’re ready to dig again, they drain out the water. The big rocks that you see are what they believe are from the cave in that made the sinkhole. It’s the sinkhole where the fossils are all found. One of the theories for why there are so many different animals in this area are that there was a forest fire (they’ve found old fossilized burnt wood) and as the animals fled the fire, they fell into the sinkhole. Anyway, the rocks weigh tons but they won’t use machinery to remove them – the vibrations from the equipment might damage whatever fossils are still underground.
See all those yellow bags? That’s dirt. Whenever they find a fossil, they save the dirt that was found around it. Each bag is labeled and set aside to be gone through at a future date.
A red panda fossil found onsite. This was inside the lobby and Monkey was fascinated with it. As we were leaving the museum, I let the kids pick out something from the gift store. Monkey picked a red panda and Little Man chose bag of dinosaur figures. Yeah, big surprise there.
All in all, it was a good day.