Have you ever found something that was approximately 50 million years old, thus just a bit younger than the last dinosaurs, and you were permitted to keep it? Exactly that happened to my husband and me very recently when we were exploring the quaint town of Republic, Washington. For it is the home of a world-renowned Eocene fossil site and the Stonerose Interpretive Center, which it belongs to.
After a short introduction as to which rocks might be yielding a fossil find, what those finds might be (anything from fossilized leaves to pine needles, fish scales, or insects), my husband and I headed off to the fossil site with our rental tools, a hammer and chisel each. It was a quiet morning, and only one other family was already working away in one corner of the lot. We started looking for rocks and were hammering away, when we were approached by some Stonerose members. One of them – he turned out to be Vice President Tom Wolken – started showing us where to look best. Within minutes the fossil treasures started piling up around us. It was an eye opener.
Tom started telling us about the lake that had been in this place about 50 million years ago when the earth was significantly warmer than it is today and lacked any polar ice caps. Plants, insects, and smaller animals either died in the lake or were washed in, where they were buried in the sediments and preserved. “We seem to be headed for another such period”, Tom told me. “And so, it is extremely interesting for scientists to see what happened. Each person digging here helps the scientists because scientists usually don’t have the time to dig themselves.” Tom Wolken, a Seattle architect, has worked with the Burke Museum and helped excavate dinosaurs in other states. In Republic, he helps hopeful diggers identify the minuscule finds if need be with a looking glass. “It’s really exciting to make the connection between a leaf that has been eaten from and an insect’s jaw shape that fits that of the bite.”
But how did they find out that Republic is such an important site for paleontology, the science of fossilized plants and animals? Well, the entire area had been known by gold prospectors for a while, and as gold pretty often has such ancient lake-beds as its host rocks, gold miners came up with fossil finds, too. Republic had the biggest mines in the region, and it is probably only natural that the number of fossils found was mind-blowing. As the significance of Republic in the paleontological world became more and more substantiated by written work, it became clear that it would be helpful to have a brick and mortar organization on site. In 1987, the Stonerose Interpretive Center was founded. Ten years later, renowned museums such as Seattle’s Burke and Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian spent five days to explore and catalog systematically what kind of fossils the Eocene lake bed holds.
After maybe two hours of hammering and exciting finds in the open, just among the rubble, my husband and I returned to the Stonerose Interpretive Center with our cardboard boxes filled to the brim. We each emptied our finds into felt-lined troughs; and the young gentlemen docenting at the building explained to us what we had found. There was not a single disappointment! Each digger may keep three pieces, by the way. If you find one of real significance, the Center keeps it for the scientists, and it gets marked with your name as the finder. I kept some slate-thin split-open rock that showed worm trails, a small chunk of rock with an embedded piece of wood, pine needles, and insects, as well as – for the sake of it simply being so pretty – a slate-thin piece of mineral-stained rock.
Looking around the Center for a second time, everything, though still being the same, seemed utterly different and so much more meaningful. Tom had told me that the Center had just purchased the new building they are now in on North Clark Avenue. It will offer more room for wonderful exhibitions. And the basement, among other uses, would serve as a storage room for shale that can be accessed during the snowy months that the region experiences. Did I mention that the Center reaches out to schools as well, and that each student they teach gets their own little piece of fossil? Well, imagine how much room it takes to store rocks for a school year of maybe only fourth-graders in a county! It’s a 2-million-dollar project to get the new building where it needs to be to answer all the scientific needs and ambitions that come with such a unique scientific site. When we left Tom at the fossil site, he was expecting to meet the director of Washington, D.C.’s very own Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. They might support some grants, but meanwhile donations of any size are more than welcome and helpful to the Stonerose Interpretive Center (https://stonerosefossil.org/).
My husband and I are still reveling in our memories of the fossil site and the fun we had digging and hammering, asking and showing. My rocks have made it to a shelf that has been rearranged for that purpose. Something that was alive 50 million years ago … I’m looking at rocks in a different way now.