In life, all roads lead somewhere, be they of the asphalt variety or the figurative kind that meander through our lives each and every day. For Dr. Steven C. Wallace, an assistant professor and vertebrate paleontologist at East Tennessee State University, an ordinary road project in Gray opened up a new route of investigation for him and his school when it began relinquishing a treasure-trove of fossilized remains.
In the summer of 2000, the widening of Highway 75 was on schedule until blackish sediment was unearthed between Johnson City and Kingsport. Unsure if the deposit could support a roadway, workers notified officials of the Tennessee Department of Transportation for further evaluation.
“Typically around here the sediment is orangey-red,” Wallace said. “When they hit the sediment that was almost black, finely layered, and organically rich, they knew something was wrong. You just don’t find that around here. They were actually trying to decide if they could put the roadway on this material.”
As TDOT geologists weighed the roadworthiness of the soil, they began to find fossilized bone and bone fragments. The sheer volume of their find was enough to arrange a personal visit from then-governor Don Sundquist to assess the situation.
“He decided they needed to stop the project and protect the site,” Wallace said. “Halting the excavation was one of Governor Sundquist’s big steps to preserve the site. They talked about building the road over the site or around the site, but the end decision was to actually move the highway.”
That decision afforded other experts, including those from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, the opportunity to inspect the site. It was soon realized, however, that UT was too far away to maintain the kind of presence needed to properly inspect the locality. Consequently, East Tennessee State University, situated only minutes away, was tabbed site curator. A faculty position to lead the dig was created and Wallace was hired to fill it.
Ably qualified with a bachelor’s degree in Geology (Bowling Green State University), a master’s degree in Paleontology (Fort Hayes State University), and a doctorate in Vertebrate Paleontology (University of Iowa), Wallace was eager and excited for the rare opportunity to teach at a university associated directly with a fossil locality.
“My original intent was to be a science teacher in secondary education,” Wallace said. “One of my majors was Geology, and that sort of got me hooked. I decided to go strictly Geology, and I had an interest in skeletal anatomy. I combined the two and went into paleontology. The rest kind of snowballed.”
Now fully entrenched as the site steward, Wallace is enthusiastic when he describes the timeline from site discovery to its potential impact on ETSU.
“When they first discovered the site, they started finding big chunks of ivory, or tusks basically,” Wallace related. “A quick assumption was that this was Woolly Mammoth, a typical Pleistocene (15,000-30,000 years ago) or Ice Age fossil. It would not be unusual to find something like that. They started finding tooth fragments, and were not sure what they were.”
The first responder analysts were geologists who did not have a formidable background in paleontology. Other experts were called upon to help identify what mouth the teeth came from.
According to Wallace, “… they reported that the ivory is elephant, for sure, but the big tooth fragments were actually rhinoceros, and as soon as they identified rhino at the site, that completely wiped out the age. Rhino went extinct in North America about 4 1/2 million years ago.”
That significant fact moved the age of the locality to Miocene (4- to 20 million years ago). It is the first Miocene site that does not reside either in Florida, along the Gulf Coast Plains, up through the Great Plains, or up into the Northwest. The historical relevance of this find cannot be overstated.
“One of the most important things said about this locality is that we’re filling in a big gap in the fossil record,” said Wallace. “There’s nothing in this part of the country and it’s a chance to say what was going on here at the time.”
Typically, Miocene locales in other parts of the United States are open plain faunas or made for animals with an open ground preference, such as horses, bears, and cats.
“This site is unique because it was a closed environment or heavily forested,” Wallace added. “It will tell a different story. We’ll be adding to the puzzle, but at the same time, we’ll be adding a very unique piece to the puzzle.”
So far, the story it has told is intriguing. The site reflects a 500-year snapshot of time for life in the Miocene Epoch around what was once a probable sinkhole. When activity flourished around this depression, many animals fell in and became trapped. When they could not ascend its sides, they sank to their death below the water.
“We do find nicely articulated skeletons where all of the bones are still in place, and they haven’t been scavenged or pulled apart,” Wallace said. “We do have alligators at the site, so you would have expected them to pull them apart when they fell in, and then eat them. What probably happened was that over time, as the sinkhole filled up and its edges eroded, it became a pond or watering hole, and you still had animals attracted to it. The day-to-day activities would have led to the accumulation of quite a few animals.”
Fauna found to date include rhinoceros, elephant, a fox-size dog, a large cat (saber-tooth), weasel, bear, snake, alligator, turtles, amphibians, frogs, fish, and birds (turkey-size and songbirds). Also found at the site are bones of the tapir, a horse-like animal that still exists today, most notably in South America. Wallace believes the 5-acre dig houses the world’s largest concentration of tapir fossils. Plant life present includes leaves, sticks, nuts (hickory, oak, beech, acorns) and even pollen.
Students in Wallace’s “Geology and Vertebrate Paleontology” classes or volunteers do a lot of the fossil finding. During the summer, their fieldwork includes collecting the site’s original database, and compiling specimens to analyze. They also learn how to dig, clean and prepare, and catalog them. Wallace believes ETSU will eventually become a school for paleontology.
“I think, realistically, whether ETSU wants it or not, they will become associated with this site,” Wallace said. “We now have a Bachelor’s Degree in Geology, and have also established a Master’s Degree in Geosciences. We’re attracting a lot of students now, but in a few years, ETSU will be known for its geology program and a lot of students will focus on paleontology because of its locality.”
Another focus of the university will be to help supervise the construction of a visitor’s center to be located near the site and just a few miles off of Interstate 181 (future I-26). Aided by an $8 million federal grant, the center will be built to showcase the goings on at the dig. It is anticipated the 50,000-sq. ft. facility will foster learning opportunities for its visitors. Heading the site’s science education department is Larry Bristol. An instructor at ETSU for eight years, Bristol is the site coordinator and responsible for enlightening the layman about the lives of those who once inhabited this Jurassic park.
“My main focus, down the road, is to be in charge of all science education at the site,” said Bristol. “Eventually, when we get a museum/learning center/research facility built, there will be lots of talks, tours, field trips, and discussions, not only locally, but at other universities.”
Bristol is considered the site’s #2 man and wears many hats, including that of caretaker, maintenance person, lab supervisor, and public liaison. As the site develops, he hopes to bring groups in for tours on almost a daily basis.
“It’s not just going to be a museum. We want a facility where not only will we display the fossils, but we’ll prepare them, clean them, store them, and put them together. I envision a facility where scientists can study and analyze them.”