Preservacation: The Aurora Fossil Museum

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.

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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.

Fossilized whale skeleton. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Fossilized whale skeleton. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Lauren inside the reconstructed Megalodon jaw. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Lauren inside the reconstructed Megalodon jaw. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

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 PCS phosphate mine. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

The PCS phosphate mine. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Me in the real Megalodon jaw. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Me in the real Megalodon jaw. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

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.

A stratigraphy diagram in the Native American section of the museum. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

A stratigraphy diagram in the Native American section of the museum. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Native American artifacts. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Native American artifacts. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

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.

Lauren on top of the spoil pile with her bag of fossils. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Lauren on top of the soil pile with her bag of fossils. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

A sample of shark teeth I found. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

A sample of shark teeth I found. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Fragment of a Megalodon tooth I found. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Fragment of a Megalodon tooth I found. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

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.

Preservacation: Weaverville, NC

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 #1 in the series.

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By Brad Hatch

About a month ago my girlfriend, Lauren, and I took a trip to Asheville, North Carolina to visit the Biltmore Estate (the subject of a future posting) and stayed at the Dry Ridge Inn, a bed and breakfast in a historic house just outside of the city in a sleepy little town called Weaverville. Weaverville is one of those towns that really only has one street with commercial establishments, aptly named Main Street.  At first, Lauren and I figured there wasn’t going to be much to do in Weaverville, though we didn’t mind since we were there to see Biltmore. But, as is often the case, we had stumbled upon a little gem of a town.

The Dry Ridge Inn in Weaverville, NC. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

The Dry Ridge Inn in Weaverville, NC. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

The first thing we did, after unpacking, was take a walk downtown to grab a bite to eat. We stopped in at Blue Mountain Pizza and had a tasty pie while we listened to live local music, which is a nightly occurrence. This would not be our last pleasant surprise in this town. Later that weekend we got the chance to talk a walk down Main Street and look around in some shops. There were several local art galleries filled with everything from paintings to photographs, to pottery, all made by local North Carolina artists. Interestingly, we learned that many local artists have their workshops in the mountains surrounding the town and twice a year the town and artists put on an Art Safari where people can visit the different workshops. The shop that really caught my eye, however, was Preservation Hall. This little place contains a wide array of salvaged architectural elements from things as small as door knobs and keys all the way up to doors and mantles. As preservationists, Lauren and I were like kids in a candy store gazing over all of the things we learned about in various classes at Mary Wash. It’s definitely worth checking out if you get the chance just for fun or if you are looking for some pieces for a restoration job, they have a huge collection.

Lauren and me in front of the Zebulon Vance House. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Lauren and me in front of the Zebulon Vance House. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

One of the other places we got the chance to visit on this trip was the Zebulon Vance birthplace, about 5 minutes outside of Weaverville. I won’t get into the details of Zeb Vance’s life here, but he served in the Confederate army during the Civil War, was elected governor of North Carolina three times, and did a stint in the U.S. Senate. To put it plainly, he is to North Carolinians what Robert E. Lee might be to Virginians; they love him down there. The birthplace, situated in the Reems Creek Valley, is administered by the state of North Carolina and consists of the reconstructed home of Zebulon Vance, with the original 1795 chimney, and associated reconstructed outbuildings. Zeb’s grandfather purchased the property in 1795, but it is unknown whether the structures were already extant. The main house consists of a two-story log building with a one-story addition. It is furnished to reflect the things that the Vance’s, a wealthy family on the frontier, may have had, which did not amount to much.

Another view of the Zebulon Vance House. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Another view of the Zebulon Vance House. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

The slave quarter at the Zebulon Vance birthplace. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

The slave quarter at the Zebulon Vance birthplace. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

It was a real contrast coming from 18th century Virginia plantations to a small frontier farmstead and seeing the difference in material possessions. All of the possessions in the Vance house would not have been able to fill a single room in a place like Mount Vernon or Stratford Hall. They did, however, have some luxury items that were symbolic of their wealth. Most notably and best explained, was a wall clock. This was a status symbol for the Vances since nobody would have had one and it was virtually useless on the frontier, since it was impossible to set accurately if it ever stopped. In addition to the main house there are also several outbuildings, including a weaving house, a smokehouse, a tool shed, and a slave quarter. However, like most historic sites, these structures were left up to us to explore and were not interpreted. Despite this, the site served as an excellent reminder that the majority of people in the 18th century were not living in manor houses, and most, both east and west, were in even poorer material conditions than the Vance family.

Finally, I want to quickly mention that the Blue Ridge Parkway is only about 15 minutes from Weaverville, and only a couple of miles from the Vance Birthplace. It is a beautiful road and definitely worth driving on if you get the chance. Of course, Lauren and I explored it on a rainy, foggy day, so it felt more like a trip to our doom. About 20 minutes away from the Zeb Vance birthplace along the Blue Ridge Parkway is the Folk Art Center. It is huge and features a museum about folk art, particularly in the southern highlands, as well as a shop where you can purchase items created by local artists. Many of these pieces, including wood carvings, face jugs, and quilts get at the heart of Appalachian life and culture, which is why this is one stop you don’t want to skip.

View from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Courtesy of Brad Hatch

View from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Courtesy of Brad Hatch

Now that I’ve rambled on about Weaverville for far too long I should say that it is a wonderful place if you like preservation. It is a treasure trove of interesting buildings, art, culture, and beautiful scenery to enjoy. You won’t be able to see it all in a weekend, especially with Asheville so close to keep pulling you away. But, if you’re like me, you won’t want to see it all at once because it will spark a love affair with the Appalachians that will keep you wanting to come back for more.