Fossil Hunting

Our family has an all consuming new interest...fossils. The way this story unfolds, I am reminded of how lucky we are to be able to homeschool. We have enough control over our lives to allow intense interests to happen. In the past six weeks, we have joined the Maryland Paleontology Club for a day of hunting fossilized sharks' teeth, visited "wild and wonderful" West Virginia, and joined with the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) for a group fossil hunt in the Tidewater area of Virginia. We have read every book we could find about fossils. We have visited the Department of Minerals. We even traded dinner for knowledge with a distinguished fossil author/illustrator who went over all the kids' finds, clarified any misidentifications we had, and allowed us to pick his brain for an was great! All of this sort of just fell into place and the timing could not have been better.

As is typical in our house, this learning adventure began as a simple walk up the street. My nine year old wanted to go to a yard sale all by himself. Having spent fifty cents, he came home with a glass jar containing 1,013 fossilized sharks' teeth (which he counted many times). We began our research on the internet and at the library. When the Department of Minerals opened on Monday morning, we were there to verify what he had bought and get a date estimate. Because they were picked up on Long Island, they were dated as approximately 300,000 years old. That certainly got the kids excited!

The following weekend there happened to be a fossil hunt scheduled with the Maryland Paleontology Club - we found this group on the internet and were invited to join them at no cost. This was a long road trip (3 1/2 hours each way) but more than worth it. First of all, we were very successful in finding fossilized sharks' teeth...lots of them. Second, it was really nice to be with people who knew their fossils - providing answers to the many questions my kids posed. And third, we were able to be with people of all ages who were as enthusiastic as we were. This location provided fossils from the Miocene Epoch, dating them from 5 - 26 million years old.

Next, we rented a PATC cabin as close to the West Virginia line as was available. By this time, we had found a fossil guidebook that was easy to read and full of helpful advice. It told of some sites in West Virginia that we wanted to investigate. This time, we were looking for really old fossils from the Devonian Period, 400 - 500 million years ago. Once again, we were successful and found many fossils. Most startling to me was finding shell fossils at the top of a mountain!

Finally, in Tidewater we met up with a VMNH group to hunt for fossils from the Miocene Epoch. We went to a quarry in the morning and along the James River in the afternoon. Again, we were not disappointed with the volume of fossils we found. They were everywhere! This was a larger group of people (about 50) of all ages interested in fossils. The size of the group really was not a problem as we spread out at the sites and the paleontologist roamed around to the different people helping with identification and questions. What was notable was the genuine interest the people who were there had; no one was complaining, even the youngest of children.

As novice fossil hunters, we did learn some tips that should make the going easier for other newcomers. There is definitely an element of danger, particularly in West Virginia, where sites are often along the road and the rock is extremely hard. If you are using a pick (we had a good geologist's pick and a brick hammer), wear safety goggles and gloves. The rocks chip and splinter as you hammer. Younger kids should be happy to look on the ground, as we found many loose fossils along the roadsides. Definitely remember the first aid kit - check your supplies and replenish what is low. When along rivers and waterways, watershoes help a lot. Some of the tiny shells can work their way through the shoes, so socks help too.

The mountains in West Virginia are straight up and down and can be hard on older vehicles. Remember to check your car over before you leave. Do your car maintenance and watch your temperature gauge. We learned the hard way this trip and had to be towed out. But, we found those fossils!

I avoided specific names and locations in this column because the resources near us are tremendous and a lot of the fun is going through the information and finding what is right for your family. You may want to begin at the public library with a book we found invaluable, Fossil Collecting in the Mid-Atlantic States by Jasper Burns. It is published by John Hopkins University Press and the ISBN number is 0-8018-4141-3.

The Virginia Museum of Natural History has a fossil Science Kit. We are currently on the waiting list to check it out and have high hopes that it will be as good as some of the rest. I anticipate it will serve as a good introduction to the whole idea of fossils. We also plan to join the Maryland Paleontology Club on a fossil hunt for larger sharks' teeth in North Carolina. Amazingly, after six weeks of intense focus, the interest is still strong as we devour more books and research more sites. I credit homeschooling for allowing us this freedom.

Mary Wilson...

Click here for Jasper Burns' web site and click on Fossil Stuff.

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