Unearthing Island history: A celebration of National Fossil Day

Islander Bill Moody holds a Siberian Wooly Mammoth Tusk from Moscow at last year’s event. — File Photo by Siobhan Beasley

National Fossil Day, the Island’s annual fossil extravaganza, will be hosted locally at the Oak Bluffs Public Library on Thursday, Oct. 15, from 4 pm to 7:45 pm. The event is free and open to all, from the merely curious to the doctoral level in appreciation of earth sciences, history, and where the fields combine.

Event host Dr. Frederick H.C. Hotchkiss, Ph.D., founding director of the Vineyard Haven–based Marine and Paleobiological Research Institute (MPRI), encourages attendees to drop in and mingle at the event. He asked that people bring fossils to show to others or to ask about. Spectators are also welcome to pop in and see what others bring, or to just come and share knowledge. Thousands of fossils will be on display and expert paleontologists; photographers; archaeologists; geologists; oceanographers; and more will be on hand to help inform the public.

Fossil Day is a natural for the folks of Martha’s Vineyard. If ever there was an event to touch everyone on the Island, it would be this casual yet informative exchange of discussions of artifacts, often found here but equally often retrieved and brought back to the Vineyard from wherever Islanders roam. Much of Island life is about truly seeing and cherishing our environment, to better connect with our surroundings. This means looking and actually seeing flowers, fruits, or flashes of antiquity, even archaeology (ancient artifacts) or paleontology (fossils). Fossil Day and fossil discovery lends themselves to hands-on family fun; fossil hunting is a magnificent means of spending family time while walking in spectacular places across the Island and beyond.

A Chilmark family regularly combs the Island for sharks’ teeth and anything else which speaks of antiquity. Together, the father and daughter have literally hundreds of megalodon (ancient shark) teeth.

Everyone has something of earth science interest they’ve liked enough to pick up and examine, then bring home, no matter what age or background. Two of the youngest presenters at this year’s event, grade schoolers Jacob and Sam Gurney, look for ancient history wherever they go, including on family vacations.

Last year, when nearly 250 science and nature-oriented visitors attended the event at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Jacob displayed an impressive whale vertebra. Sam, the younger brother, reported that the find wasn’t really dug but rather that it fell and hit his brother on the head while he was digging in the sand at the base of a cliff in Chilmark.

The Gurneys will be back, along with Island artist and swimming instructor Mike Wooley, who will display many of his treasures, often ones found underwater.

On the other end of the spectrum, this informational mixer will host education docent Ned Sternick of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum; geological oceanographer Dr. Meg Tivey, Department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI); radiocarbon dating researcher Dr. Ann McNichol, National Ocean Sciences Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (NOSAMS) facility at WHOI; and dinosaur hunter and ophthalmologist Dr. Henry Kriegstein. Additionally, blacksmith and silversmith artist Jamie Rogers and avocational archaeologist and collector Bill Moody; paleontologist Jessica Cundiff, curatorial associate, Invertebrate and Vertebrate Paleontology, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University; Scott Smyers, senior scientist from Oxbow Associates, Acton, who conducts independent research on amphibians, reptiles, insects, and fossils of New England; marine ecologist Wendy Culbert; and, of course, paleobiologist Fred Hotchkiss of MPRI.

Mr. Hotchkiss said that in 2013, some 50 of the curious arrived at the Oak Bluffs library, with nearly five times that many in 2014. He said that last year, attendees brought fossils of both beauty, interest, and wide variety, most of which were found on the Island; others, including fossils of ancient horse teeth, were from far away. Other attendees showed up empty-handed but described and asked about objects of interest.

Mr. Hotchkiss explained that previously the presenters displayed and explained special pieces they’d brought from their private collections, and some just asked the attending elders about entering items they had brought from home, often found on up-Island beaches.

He emphasized, “It’s an open event, for anybody who has found, looked for, or wants to see pieces of very ancient history.” He added, “Everyone is invited, but students and families are especially welcome.”

The Marine and Paleobiological Research Institute is a 501(c)(3) organization located in Vineyard Haven, and was founded in 2004. The event is partially supported by grants from the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council and from the Staples Educational Foundation.

National Fossil Day, Oak Bluffs Public Library, Thursday, Oct. 15, 4 pm to 7:45 pm. Free. For additional information, call the library at 508-693-9433.