Fossil Day unearths serious collectors on Martha’s Vineyard


The 6th annual Fossil Day brought collectors old and young out of their shells and into the Oak Bluffs Library on Thursday. Part of National Earth Sciences week, Fossil Day celebrates fossil collectors and is held to foster appreciation of natural sciences. For collectors on Martha’s Vineyard, it is an opportunity to show off the treasures they have unearthed on the Island’s rocky shores or other parts of the world.

This year, there were 10 tables which included fossilized goods from organizer “Fossil” Fred Hotchkiss, the MV Museum, part-time resident Duncan Caldwell, a carbon dater from the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, plus local collectors Jacob and Sam Gurney, Michael Wooley, and two walk in displays from Lilli Claussen and Connor Dunham.

“Fossil” Fred Hotchkiss of the Marine Paleobiological Research Institute of Vineyard Haven organized the event with the hope of inspiring curious young minds.

“People can take career paths in earth sciences,” he said, nodding at the table of Jacob and Sam Gurney.

The Gurney boys, who are in 6th and 8th grade respectively, have been collecting and studying rocks, fossils, and animal remains since they were young. Their favorite spots are Lucy Vincent Beach and Lobsterville Beach, especially after a hurricane. After years of searching and collecting, they now have an impressive spread of sharks teeth, whale vertebrae, and fossilized flora from all over the Island. The boys dream of going to the Badlands in South Dakota to dig for fossilized remains, though they lament the fact that you can’t take anything out of national parks.

Duncan Caldwell, local pre-historian and evolutionary theorist, brought a 2-million-year-old petrified Bubalis antiquus (cousin of a modern water buffalo) skull and horns, which spans over eight feet wide.

His table of archaeological discoveries told a poetic narrative that started with a small petrified beach pebble, which looked eerily similar to a human toe and was jokingly labeled as such, next to a replicated bust of Homo erectus. Tools fashioned out of rock by early humans were also displayed. The grandiose centerpiece of the B. antiquus fossil made a significant statement: the species went extinct because of pressure on its environment due to human activity. To the left of the skull rested two replicas of early human art depicting mammoths, another well-known extinct species. One was a carving from the Czech Republic that is about 26,000 years old. The other was a drawing of a mammoth that is between 15,000 and 17,000 years old.

“This is the connective tissue going from technology to art,” Mr. Caldwell said. “These animals were living with the species that will eventually drive them to extinction and then memorialize them in art.”

Lilli Claussen was very excited to have an open table where she could display a collection of 300-million-year-old brachiopods. She unearthed the shell-laden chunk of rock from a waterfall in a northeast Pennsylvania river in the town of Corry. As a novice collector of wampum beads and other hidden Island goodies, this was a big day for Lilli, who, with the help of Fossil Fred, was able to identify the specifics and age of her most prized find.

Aquinnah resident Michael Wooley’s table was filled with findings from as far away as Australia and Peru and as nearby as Aquinnah. The ruby-red table cloth draped over his station was covered with petrified wood, various mineral deposits, teeth from ancient prehistoric animals, and fossils galore. His favorite piece on display this year was a wholly intact megalodon tooth that he found in Aquinnah, his favorite place to collect.

“I’ve always been into rocks,” Mr. Wooley said. “I remember my mom asking me, ‘What are you going to do with all those rocks?’ and I said ‘I don’t know.’”

Mr. Wooley ended up keeping many of those rocks, and continued to travel the world looking for more. He now displays them at Fossil Day every year, and the crowd in the Oak Bluffs Library seemed thankful that this was the case.

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