Visitor's center groundbreaking held for 4.5-18-million-year-old fossil site

Photo By John Bryant
Nick Fielder (front), state archaeologist, helps break ground at the Gray Fossil Site.

By Lesley Hughes
star staff

  A groundbreaking ceremony held Tuesday for a visitor's center at the Gray Fossil Site, which is estimated to be somewhere between 4.5 and 18-million-years old, was like a dream that became reality for officials associated with the historic find. The dream of sharing amazing fossil discoveries with the public is finally on it's way to reality.
  The federal government funded the groundbreaking with an $8 million grant, and officials expect the center to be complete in the fall 2006.
  The visitor's center will include storage space for the growing fossil collection, a preparation lab, a museum, an education center, and a workshop for displaying the construction and assembly of the fossils.
  Dr. Paul Stanton, president of East Tennessee State University, opened the ceremony by saying, "Five years ago, this very land that we are standing on, had very little meaning to ETSU. In fact, I could say it had no significance. For most of the campus community, including myself, topics that were to come, such as the rhino, teleoceras, tapirs, the red or lesser panda, were not the subjects of any of my conversations."
  "My imagination is that we will see little yellow school buses lined up on any given day coming in here," Stanton said.
  Stanton introduced Dr. Steven Wallace, ETSU paleontologist in charge of the dig. Stanton predicts the work of Wallace and others at the site could go on for 50 to 100 years.
  Wallace called the site a "rare find" because the area has been preserved so well. "The museum itself is going to be a unique facility. It is not like any other museum. By having the museum literally right behind me, you can actually see everything. You will be able to see them pulling the fossils out and actually seeing them working in the lab. You can see them putting these things together and finally seeing them on display.
  "You can see every step of the whole process in your own backyard and it is right here. Then, of course, there is the whole scientific aspect. The site itself is very unusual compared to other fossil sites of it's age.
  "I have used this joke a million times and I will still use it again. I am not from around here, but even I notice that everything you see is orange. Even I recognize this soil is unusual. This dark material really stood out," Wallace said.
  Nick Fielder, state archaeologist, was instrumental in persuading former Governor Don Sundquist to stop the road construction that accidentally uncovered the rare fossils. "I believe very strongly in historical accidents. It was an accident that there was a sinkhole here that these animals fell into five million years ago. It was a historical accident that they decided to put the road right here and that the work was stopped and I got involved.
  "But the biggest historical accident was the fact that Don Sundquist had taken geology in college and apparently enjoyed it." Fielder gave the governor three options while on an airplane tour of the site. Sundquist quickly decided after seeing the area that the road construction should be stopped and relocated away from the area. Fielder said, "It's good to be the governor."
  History goes back to road construction in May 2000, when a bulldozer operator noticed the color change in the soil. "This is now hallowed ground. It cannot be tampered with but for the functions that we will be outlining for you today," Stanton said.
  Carter County native Larry Bristol, paleontology coordinator for the site, found the tooth that belonged to the Pristinailurus bristoli, or red panda. The red panda, a lesser panda, represents the most primitive member of its clade. The animal, named after Bristol, is "the only fossil panda found in eastern North America and only the second fossil panda ever found in anywhere in North America. What makes our panda really unique is that it is the oldest and most primitive panda found anywhere on earth," Bristol said.
  Other fossils found are an alligator, small bear, camel, fish, frogs, a saber-toothed cat, shovel-tusked elephant, snake, rhinoceros, tapir, turtles, weasels and more.
  According to Stanton, "The discoveries are just beginning."