The Gray Fossil Site is excavating history one bone at a time.
In Gray, Tennessee, students gathered for an orientation session for excavation volunteers worked as paleontological assistants in the fossil site’s museum classroom. These volunteers came from all over the region to participate in the unearthing of a mastodon skeleton.
The Gray Fossil Site brings in approximately 100 volunteers, student workers and staff members to work each summer.
Shawn Haugrud, the Gray Fossil Site’s lab and field manager, who trains the volunteers, explained the role the volunteers are taking in the excavation.
“We’ve been digging up the mastodon for about four years…We have a hole about the size of three or four swimming pools, eight meters across by around sixteen meters. We dig around the bones, then do a plaster cast around them…We bring a whole bone in and then carefully take it apart, clean it and reassemble it,” said Haugrud.
Shawn and the volunteers have been slowly excavating the entire skeleton of the giant mastodon from head and neck to femurs. This mastodon is approximately twice the size of the average eight-ton mastodons which have been previously excavated in North America. This summer they will focus on completing the excavation of the torso.
“We’re just getting started [this summer]. I’ve got a small crew of G.A.s, federal work study employees, and volunteers…We starting opening up pits and wet screening…We’re just getting geared up for the new volunteers,” said Haugrud.
Shawn trains the volunteers in the processes of wet screening dirt for the small specimens and digging for the larger fossils. “Once the sediment is wet screened outside, a forty pound bag is turned into a half-gallon zip-lock bag, and people pick that under a microscope for all sorts of new critters…People find new species that way,” said Haugrud.
“All the specimens we are finding are between four and a half to seven million years old, geologically,” said Haugrud.
The Gray Fossil Site has previously excavated numerous specimens, including but not limited to Tapirs, ancient moles, an elephant, an alligator and a short-faced bear.
The discovery and subsequent excavation of Gray Fossil Site’s prolific soil is described by Haugrud as “An anomaly…TDOT was taking off the entire hill. If someone was putting in a house here, no one would have found this interesting new specimen.”
“This mastodon could be a top three or four largest land mammal ever,” said Haugrud.
Follow The Gray Fossil Site and be sure to like them on Facebook for news and fresh discoveries, and if you’re interested in volunteering in the future, check in periodically on social media for a potential fall orientation.