By Sarah Colson
On a balmy summer afternoon last week, a group of local elementary students were splashing around to stay cool … but they weren’t just playing around with the water hose. These kids were water screening—using hollow boxes with fine screens in them to separate dirt and other sediment from fossils—at the East Tennessee State University and the General Shale Natural History Museum at the Gray Fossil Site’s annual summer paleontology camp.
“I’m here because I like dinosaurs,” Alexander Whitton, a rising third grader from Lake Ridge Elementary said as he dug his shovel into the dirt. “There are actually dinosaurs in Gray. Did you know that? They’re just buried very, very deep down. I may find one today if I dig really deep. Look how much we’ve managed to accomplish already.”
Gray Fossil Site summer field worker Derek Jurestovsky just graduated from ETSU with his masters of science in Geosciences. Jurestovsky grew up in Arizona and did some field work in Utah before landing in Gray. He said he would have loved the opportunity to go to a paleontology camp when he was a kid.
“It gets them excited about it,” he said, “and lets them experience what it’s actually like at an early age so they can actually discern it. …The first time I was able to experience paleontology was in high school. I’d always been interested in fossils and dinosaurs but I never got to actually see what the work was like. … I can only imagine having a site like this nearby as a kid.”
One of the group’s favorite parts of paleontology camp is the water screening. Maegan Beale, the site’s education coordinator, said it’s one of the fastest ways to get dirty and wet.
“They dug and put a bunch of dirt in their own bucket,” she said, “and we split it up into four screens. They’re trying to find microfossils.”
Fellow field worker Lucas Carroll-Garrett is in the University of Tennessee’s geosciences program. He grew up in Johnson City, graduated from Science Hill High School, and spent three-and- a-half years as a volunteer at the dig site after attending the paleontology summer camp in middle school. This summer, he designed the bins the kids are using for water screening.
“When I was young I saw a picture of a dinosaur and I was smitten,” he said, laughing. “Then I figured out that I could volunteer here after going to the summer camp one time. I was once one of those kids.”
Beale, who has worked at the site since May of last year, said summer camp at the fossil site offers a rare opportunity.
“There’s not many summer camps out there where you actually get to go dig out in spoils piles and water screen and do all these other paleontology things,” she said. “It’s important because it really gets their interests sparked. A lot of kids just like dinosaurs but then they’ll leave the camp wanting to do paleontology.”
Beale added that the camp is also a great way to introduce younger students to the math and science behind digging in the dirt, and the hands-on experience is enhanced by the presence of actual paleontologists.
“We have real life paleontologists out here monitoring,” she said, “and if we have questions, like we found a bone on Monday and a paleontologist was out there and was like ‘yep, that’s a little juvenile tapir (a nocturnal, hoofed animal) bone. So it’s real and that’s the great thing about it. It’s all real.”
Third grader Grayson Smithson came to the site from South Carolina. For him, the camp being “real” meannt finding a lot of stuff in the dirt.
“There could be teeth, it could be fish droppings…” Smithson said. “You know it’s a fossil because it’s brown and if it’s broken you see the squishy marrow. I’ve found a lot of wood. It’s not rare over here. There’s a lot of fossilized wood. We find it all the time.”
Finds like that and others, such as teeth and smaller bone fragments are pretty much the norm at the camp. But last December, the staff made a discovery that is having impacts on this summer’s campers.
“In December in the lab it was actually pretty busy because that’s when they pulled the big mastodont skull out, so they were really busy prepping that in the lab,” Beale said. “I usually just stick my head in the lab and get ideas for summer camp.”
On the same day News & Neighbor visited the site, archaeologists and paleontologists were still staying busy in the lab trying to restructure pieces of that mastodont skull. The huge discovery lay in the middle of the lab floor while several staff members carefully navigated around.
“At first they were kind of bummed out because it wasn’t the shovel tusk elephant they once thought, so morale was low,” Beale said of the day they found the skull. “But then like right after that they realized it was something probably way cooler and brand new, so everyone was pumped up. Today (in paleontology camp), they’re making mini fossil jackets for them to pretend that they are doing a real one. The kids are taking a small dinosaur figurine and encasing it with a black trash bag, putting the burlap dipped in Plaster of Paris and then making a mini one, and then they’ll get to crack it open when it dries. I try to do all things that are very similar to what the paleontologists do inside the lab.”
Copying the work of paleontologists suited Towne Acres Elementary second grader Kara Barrett just fine.
“I want to be a paleontologist,” she said as she dug her soaked hands into the bin while water screening, “because we get to dig and get muddy and learn more stuff.”
“We’ve learned so much and it’s only our third day,” added Juleeauna Jones, a rising third grader from Bristol. This is her second summer attending camp, and she had already found a large piece of fossilized wood. “It’s really, really hard to shake the basket in the water, but it’s my favorite part. And we got to make these little things that show fossils. It was kind of like making a cast. It was casting. And we’ve gotten to do a lot of other stuff like coloring color sheets with dinosaurs on them. I don’t have a favorite part because it’s all fun.”
To learn more about the Gray Fossil Site or other available programming, visit etsu.edu/naturalhistorymuseum/.