Fossil Museum evolves in East Tennessee

The museum with the longest name in the state, the East Tennessee State University General and Shale Brick Natural History Museum has now been open for several months. This museum came about when a road construction crew dug into a massive collection of fossils dating back 4.5 million years. Seems that an ancient sinkhole filled with water proved to be a wonderful collection site for animals of that time. The sinkhole filled with clay that resisted erosion to the extent that what was a depression is now a small hill.

Relatively few museums offer the visitor a chance to walk 50 yards and see the very digs from which the fossils on display were found. That’s one of the charms of this place. Another is a chance for visitors to–in warm months–watch actual paleontologists at work.


That being said, visitors expecting stupendous fossils will be disappointed. There are no dinosaurs here, and the skeletons present–alligators, tapirs, and camels–aren’t all that big. Large animals have been found there–saber toothed tigers, a short-faced bear, and shovel tusked elephant–but not complete skeletons. To be fair, this is a young museum and the exhibits will improve as excavations continue.

Speaking of excavations, visitors can walk outside, go under a shed, and and have a chance to push a screen back and forth to look for fossils that might have escaped the diggers. The casual observer can quickly see how tedious digging actually is. Museum guides state that paleontologists spend 20 hours in the lab for every one hour in the field, and I believe it.

I wonder if the state of Tennessee gave the Museum an adequate budget to operate the lab. State governments are fond of erecting a building yet not providing sufficient funds for the work inside. One thing I found interesting is that the state does not own the entire fossil site. A good amount–I’d estimate at least 20 percent–is in private hands. I’ll blog about that later.

More photos here.

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