Amy Lynn Reifsnyder
May 14, 2018
How do I tell you that since participating in Petrified Forest Field Institute’s Fossil Dig east of Blue Mesa, I look out my front door differently. What could I tell you that would bring to you the same sense of adventure, the same appreciation, the same excitement that came along with the dig?
Should I tell you that, when I was a teenager, my younger brother – who fancied himself my elder – told me to “act my age.” I didn’t know what he meant then; I still don’t know what that phrase means. I mean, come on. I was born in 1961, but on Saturday, May 12, 2018? I was – oh, maybe 10.
See, the last time I intentionally dug for fossils, I was in Mrs. Horst’s fifth grade class. We had a field trip to look for fossils of ferns and bivalves somewhere in the hills of Pennsylvania.
Last summer, I met a family while camping in Tonto National Forest. The husband/father cracked open a stone for his son, and low and behold! A fossil appeared! How did he know?
How do you find fossils, anyway?
It takes dirt. Time. An awl. A couple of brushes. Knowledgeable scientists. Patience. An opportunity offered by Petrified Forest Field Institute (www.petrifiedforestfieldinstitute.org). And bright, mid-day light to find fossils in the “bone layer” of the mound we went to work on in the colorful badlands of the Petrified Forest National Park. We started the day with a tour of the research facilities located behind the Painted Desert Visitor Center, on the Interstate-40 end of the park. There we learned about the phytosaur, whose partial skull was on display. Handsome thing, it is, with a toothy snout about as long as my forearm. Looks kind of like a crocodile with shark teeth. But it isn’t a croc. It is a descendent of the archosaur, and is a distant relative, but it is a phytosaur – who knew?
The paleontology team, comprised of Bill Parker, Chief of Resources; Adam Marsh, Lead Paleontologist; Ben Kligman, Paleo-Intern; and Chuck Beightol, Term Paleontologist, worked patiently with myself and four others as we unearthed any number of fascinating items buried in the rock. I found a vertebra of I-don’t-know-what, but it was still exciting. I mean, look. Here we are in 2018 and I unearthed a bone from a reptile which lived somewhere around 220 million years ago. MILLION. Not last year. Not the year before. Not my granny’s birth year (1900), but 220 million years ago.
Kids think I’m old at 57. I suddenly felt like a youngster, a whippersnapper, a 10-year-old. Someone my age, you might think, might know a thing or two, but suddenly, I was aware that there is oh, so very much more to know – and it is under our feet.
We spent most of the day kneeling or lying in the dirt, chipping, sweeping, and prying rock apart to see what we could see. Marsh kept an eye on what I was doing, and occasionally picked up an ancient fish scale that I had overlooked. (They are very small.) He supervised while I dug out coprolites (fossilized dung), some of which also contained scales.
Beightol observed from above the dig line, catching glimpses of remains we missed. Someone found a really tiny spinal column. Most of us found teeth. Parker identified an ulna. Kligman supervised handling of the “small details”.
It was a blustery day, and from time to time, a hat, a kneeling pad, or baggie would get away from us. This sort of distraction was actually beneficial, as it gave us a moment to look around. Some of us were waiting for Mad Max to come screaming over the horizon. For all I knew, we could have been transported to a different planet. But there’s no need for intergalactic travel to find something new and unusual. Simply get to know the world around you. Everywhere you go, there is something new and interesting to find and explore. Maybe it’s a bone from a reptile from the Triassic Period. Maybe it’s fossilized trees. Maybe it’s something as simple and remarkable as how the changing light creates new colors on the hills and canyons. No matter where you go, it’s a cool planet.
My world has gotten much bigger – and older – since Saturday. When I was little, I always wanted to be one of those people who made great discoveries. Well, for at least one day, I was that person.
Accepted for publication by Petrified Forest Field Institute and Navajo Times
On query elsewhere.
Photo by Lloyd E. Johnson