Preservacation is a series of essays by Brad Hatch about the preservation related adventures, issues, and sites that he and Lauren have encountered on their travels. This is #2 in the series.
By Brad Hatch
As archaeologists know, we are time and again plagued by several oft repeated questions from the public. Among these are: Have you found any gold? Aren’t you hot out here? Do you dig dinosaurs? Well, I’ve never found any gold, it is hot, especially around late July or early August, and I don’t dig dinosaurs. Actually, come to think of it, I do kind of dig dinosaurs, but not professionally, and they’re not usually dinosaurs. I’ve always had an interest in old things, and often times, the older the better. Like many archaeologists, especially the elderly ones, I’m a collector of old stuff. From antique wooden fishing lures, to coins, to fossils, I have a fascination with things that were around long before I was. Fossil collecting, however, didn’t find me until I started doing archaeology.
Working at Stratford Hall Plantation in the summers as Doug’s field school assistant got me into the habit of doing two things: fishing every evening and combing the beach for fossil shark teeth. Many people don’t realize that much of the tidewater region of Virginia was a shallow sea millions of years ago teeming with ancient marine life. Fewer people realize that the erosion of the cliffs at Stratford above the Potomac River has exposed the geologic formation that is full of the remains of these ancient creatures. As these fossils erode out of the cliff the river brings them to the beach at Stratford where they wait to be found. While there are all kinds of fossils to be recovered there, the main type that people collect are sharks’ teeth, due to their abundance (a shark can lose up to 35,000 teeth in a lifetime), ease of recognition, and natural beauty.
This past winter Lauren (another archaeologist turned fossil collector by the Stratford Hall field school) told me about a fossil hunting trip she took to Aurora, North Carolina with some of her friends from Eastern Carolina University. Soon after, she and I were on the road to go visit. Aurora, like most of the rest of eastern North Carolina, is pretty much away from everything. This isolation, coupled with a unique geology that includes a rich phosphate formation, makes it the perfect place for the PCS phosphate mine, one of the largest in the world. The town itself has one street with a few buildings, two of which house the Aurora Fossil Museum. The fossil museum was opened in 1978 as a cooperative effort between the local government, PCS, and area collectors. Since then it has grown to encompass two buildings which house fossils that represent millions of years of life on earth found on most of the continents. Naturally, its exhibits tend to focus on the geologic history of North Carolina, particularly the Pungo River area where Aurora is located.
The museum experience starts with an introductory film made by PCS about the geologic formations they mine and some of the ancient history of the area. In general, it’s a pretty good overview of the geology and what the mine does, but it has a propaganda feel to it and looks like it was made prior to 1978. The majority of the exhibits consist of certain fossils and the information about the animals they are from in terms of size, diet, etc. In some ways this makes for dry reading, but there really isn’t too much you can say about 15 million year old bones. Interestingly, they have a whole section in the back of the museum about Native Americans. This sort of exhibit is actually a pet peeve of mine because it lumps Indians in with animals, as if they’re more a part of the natural world. These kinds of exhibits in natural history museums serve to perpetuate the myth that Native Americans were somehow closer to nature and by extension less cultural (or less human?) than Europeans. Having said this, however, they did try to incorporate the fossil theme into this exhibit by showing tools, such as scrapers and axes from the area made out of fossils, which are actually pretty unique artifacts.
Getting down to it though, the real draw of the museum is the pile of mining spoil they have out front for visitors to search through. This spoil contains all kinds of fossils from coral, to bone, to shark teeth, to coprolites (fossilized poo). The chances of finding big fossils, however, are slim since most of the spoil is picked through by the mine workers before it arrives in town. With a little patience, though, and a sharp eye you can find a bunch of cool things, and even if you don’t you can always go to the gift shop and buy some (they also sell Native American artifacts, but I wouldn’t recommend buying them, it’s pretty unethical). While Lauren and I were there we spent about an hour or so combing through the pile out front, and a smaller one behind it, and found two Ziploc bags full of shark teeth, stingray teeth, bone, and a few coprolites. The best find of the day was a piece of a Megalodon tooth, which can be as big as a dinner plate (these sharks could grow larger than a school bus). Afterward, we rode through the PCS mine, which was a very unnerving experience. It’s unbelievable what these large scale pit mines do to the landscape, and one can only imagine the environmental impact. I won’t get into those issues here, but I will say that at least they are trying to give back to the community through the fossil museum, as well as allowing fossil hunts within the mine.
So, many of you are probably wondering what this has to do with preservation. To be honest, I’m not completely sure, but I think the museum experience and history raises important preservation-related questions. First of all, it shows how a community can cooperate with industry to at least gain something out of a bad situation. Despite the mine’s affect on the environment, the town of Aurora has taken advantage of it and used it to attract people from near and far (supposedly, it is packed during the summer with fossil hunters) for better or worse. Secondly, it raises questions concerning the environment, how can it not with huge open pit mines all over the place?
Thirdly, it makes me wonder, as an archaeologist, if paleontological collecting is ethically dubious. Archaeologists discourage collecting artifacts, it destroys context, which is crucial to our interpretations. Do paleontologists feel the same way about this? I’ve never heard from any one way or the other and am very interested to know if they have similar views to archaeologists. Finally, and most interesting to me, it raises the question of the design of natural history museums. Specifically, should Native Americans be included in them and what sort of stereotypes does this inclusion perpetuate? These are all important questions we, as preservationists, need to think about and address. The Aurora Fossil Museum, in addition to being a fun place to visit, acts as an important place to get people (especially preservationists) thinking about the role of industrial propaganda, the proliferation of stereotypes, and environmental conservation in a museum setting.