Gray, Tennessee, a hamlet between Kingsport and Johnson City, has become a very big deal in the world of paleontology with the discovery of one of the richest fossil sites in the world.It seems that 4.5-7 million years ago, a cave collapsed and created a sinkhole into which fell all manner of animals: rhinos, tapirs, pandas, and other mammals, large and small. Sorry kids, no dinosaurs. These animals became fossils and lay in situ until road construction revealed them. The site covers 4-5 acres and is up to 130 feet deep.
This is a stupendous find, one that will be studied for decades. In the meantime, final touches are being put on a combination museum and visitors center. I saw the site for the first time today, and happened to run into the architect, Shawn T. Benson. He reports that the building will be complete by early 2007, and then the exhibit people take over. He estimated that the center will be open to the public during the summer of 2007.
This museum and visitors center should give a shot in the arm to Washington County tourism, as this site is just a couple of miles off I-26. It may be more interesting to see how it plays with the locals.
One of the issues in opening a museum such as this in the Buckle of the Bible Belt is that any talk of fossils makes it hard to avoid the “E” word: evolution. East Tennessee State University, which manages the site, takes the bull by the horns and contains a link on the page below saying “Learn About Evolution.
For fire-breathing fundamentalists, however, no amount of science–no matter if there is 130 feet of it–can get around this oft-heard argument: Fossils were put there by the devil to confuse people. As Humphrey Bogart said to a fellow character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, “If you think like that there’s nothing to do but tie you up at night.”