Location: Gray, Tennessee
General Description: Tennessee State Highway 75 was being straightened out in 2000, when the road excavation uncovered some fossils buried in some hard grey clay. Initially experts believed the site was likely an ice-age site dating back 100,000 years, but when they found a fossil of an alligator, they knew they had found something much older. It has now been dated to be between 4.5 and 7 million years old based on the species of animals found so far. This puts the site into the Miocene Era, the only Miocene site in the Eastern US. East Tennessee State University created a Geology Department and a graduate degree program in Paleontology to manage the site. The current dig was determined to be a semi-circular sinkhole that created a pond environment for around 5000 years before it filled in. So far they have excavated about 10% of the site and found over 18,000 fossils. They already have the largest tapir collection in the world, the most complete skeleton of an ancient rhinoceros, a new species of red panda, and a new species of plant eating badger. Fossils have also been found for a small species of elephant, camel, alligator, saber-toothed tiger, small faced bear, and many species of birds, turtles, and frogs. The Natural History Museum at the site, which opened in 2007, includes a small museum highlighting the fossils found at the site and laboratory and storage facilities. From spring through fall, visitors can watch students, faculty and volunteers meticulously excavating the site including detailed GPS locations of each fossil. Throughout the year, visitors can also watch the ongoing work in the laboratory to clean, reconstruct, identify and catalog new fossils. Finally, graduate students provide periodic tours of the facilities providing useful and interesting interpretation of the many finds.
1) Based on the fact that we knew nothing about this site before seeing the sign on the Interstate, this was a great find! Although the museum is small, it is well designed using fossils to create a realistic scene of life at the sink hole. It also has some cute interactive systems to entertain and educate young students.
2) The best part was the tour led by a recent graduate from the Master’s program. Unfortunately, we did not get to watch them digging in the site as it was too early in the morning, but we did get to watch volunteers and students cleaning fossils in the laboratory. We were the only ones on the tour and I don’t know if the tour usually lasts over 90 minutes, but we really enjoyed talking with the student and finding out all we could about paleontology and how the site operates. I really appreciated his time and we had a really good time.
3) I strongly recommend visiting the Gray Fossil Site and Natural History Museum. We were there for over 3 hours, most of the time with the graduate student on the tour, and it was a morning well spent!