Fossil Day: History at home in Oak Bluffs

Ann DuCharme, of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, shares fossil facts with Sam Gurney, 9 years old, who has been studying fossils since he was 3. — Photo by Siobhan Beasley

Some 230 fossil enthusiasts arrived at the Oak Bluffs Library on Thursday, October 16, to celebrate National Fossil Day. The event was hosted by the Vineyard Haven-based Marine and Paleobiological Research Institute (MPRI) and the Oak Bluffs Public Library, in partnership with the National Park Service, with participation by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, and a celebrity guest appearance from Drs. Maurice and Meg Tivey from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Dr. Frederick “Fossil Fred” H.C. Hotchkiss, director of MPRI, said he was inspired by the attendance. “We had about 50 more visitors than last year, with lots of children, parents, teachers, and earth-science oriented citizenry,” Dr. Hotchkiss said.

The Woods Hole contingent led the technology pack with a dynamic visual series of photographs and graphs, including slide shows and underwater video, which drew a constant gathering of all ages to their table.

Joining Dr. Hotchiss to share their knowledge about the natural artifacts were Ann DuCharme and Anna Carringer of the M.V. Museum; Thomas Bena of Chilmark and his family with their fabulous sharks’ teeth, bones, fossils and other finds; Dr. Henry Kriegstein who is both dinosaur hunter and ophthalmologist; and fourth- and sixth-graders Jacob and Sam Gurney, to name a few.

Jacob had an impressive whale vertebra while Sam, the younger, reported that his finest find fell and hit him on the head while he was digging in the sand at the base of a cliff in Chilmark. Their mother said the family keeps an eye out for shale deposits or other hopeful sites while traveling on family vacations.

Renowned paleontologists were there, such as Duncan Caldwell of Aquinnah and Paris, who, besides being a fellow of the Marine and Paleobiological Research Institute, is an artist, writer, scientist, and explorer. Known as a tireless researcher, Mr. Caldwell’s recent works are to appear in the Journal of Anthropology and Aesthetics, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, and the Art Museum of Harvard University.

But Thursday’s gathering also drew curious amateur naturalists. One impressive walk-on was Lisa Strachan of Vineyard Haven, a pottery artist and designer who is a member of the Night Heron Gallery. Ms. Strachan brought interesting fossilized sponges. The handful of tiny orbs, found in Aspen, Colorado, were initially suspected to be ancient bird eggs, but they were later determined to be sponges from that town’s subsea era, 300 million years ago. Ms. Strachan said her interest in fossils grew from the collections of her grandparents Seth and Mary Jane Thomas, formerly of Oak Bluffs.

Diving contractors and instructors Heidi Raihofer and Joe Leonardo of the Vineyard Dive Shop had an impressive assortment of underwater finds, many from the Cooper River in South Carolina. Jamie Rogers, a silversmith metallurgist who sells her work at Vineyard Artisans Festivals, brought a massive, fossilized whale vertebra, the size of a very large soft ball, which she found while walking on an Aquinnah beach. Swimmer, diver, and fossil collector Michael Wooley made a beautifully arranged table of his finds, including petrified wood found as beach rubble in Aquinnah.

Lisa Epstein of Lambert’s Cove drew a crowd with her dinosaur footprint, found near Mt. Tom, in the western part of the state. The print was a very popular hit, but the competition was steep.

Bill Moody, a self-described amateur archaeologist, may have stolen the show with his mastodon tooth and fossilized teeth from the original species of very ancient North American horse

“This was a great success as a drop-in and mingle event,” Dr. Hotchkiss said. “People  brought fossils to share, discuss or to ask about, or just came to see what others brought in and share each other’s knowledge.”