A Personal Fossil Journey in New England

“Can you please help me find the Beneski Museum?”

This was the second student I’d asked. Initially, I’d asked a student for help finding the museum—no thank you, GPS–and then help with elusive parking. My request to the young woman in front of me was to help re-find the building I’d lost sight of amongst many other brick buildings.

She pointed me in the right direction, gave me detailed instructions, and added, “It will take you approximately three minutes to get there.” A thoughtful detail that made me smile that much more broadly.

Students with backpacks dotted the campus and passed me as I headed forward: some lost in thought, some in conversation, others laughing. Their presence, just as much as the rolling hills of manicured lawns, towering trees and historic buildings, made me feel right at home. Although not where I’d attended school, it felt similar, and I basked in the feelings that surfaced. Of course, none of these feelings included the stress or the struggles I felt throughout college. Long gone are the days of working most of the night on papers, studying for exams or the abject terror of oral presentations. No. These days I learn on my own, at my own pace, as I wish, and where I wish. I adore it.

But learning in this fashion is not at all linear.

A recent trip back to see Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, CT, enabled me to re-read exhibits that didn’t mean as much to me when I’d first seen them so many years prior.

DSP - entrance

DSP - great view of tracks bridge diorama

Images of Dinosaur State Park, Rocky Hill, CT, taken by the author

 

Since that time, I’d read Dr. Anthony Martin’s “Dinosaurs Without Bones”—a fascinating journey into the science of learning more about extinct creatures through fossil traces. I’d also spoken with paleontologist, Dr. Karen Chin, about both ichnology (the aforementioned science) and the work of Dr. Martin Lockley—a man who has spent a lifetime learning about and collecting fossil footprints.

Pegasus - Dinosaurs Without Bones, Anthony Martin

Book cover to”Dinosaurs Without Bones” by Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

 

So when I saw a small note about Edward Hitchcock and his collection of footprints, I decided to check it out.

DSP - sign New England ichnology

Informational panel at Dinosaur State Park that mentions Edward Hitchcock and Amherst College, taken by the author

 

Which is a long way of explaining why I had traveled a couple of hours south to Amherst College.

I knew the museum offered other fossils along with Hitchcock’s fossil footprint collection, but I did not expect them to be as diverse or as impressive.

 

 

Beneski - mammoth front

Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) skeleton at the Beneski Museum, Amherst College, taken by the author.  Smilodon and dire wolf skeletons are on the right.

Beneski - Irish elk

Irish elk (Megaloceros hibernicus) skeleton at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - mastodon front

American mastodon (Mammut americanum) at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

 

Beneski - mastodon close-up jaw

Close-up of the American mastodon mandible at Beneski Museum, taken by the author. The lower tusk on this mastodon surprised me, and I spoke about this with Museum Educator, Fred Venne.  Conversations on Twitter prompted very interesting comments by @maxthemastodon from the Western Science Center, @dr_mastodonna (Dr. Katy Smith) and @chriswidga (Dr. Chris Widga).  It is important to note that this mastodon is comprised of components from at least two or more different mastodons.

 

Asking whether I could take pictures in the museum is how I first met Fred Venne, a tall, gracious man who walked toward me the moment he saw that I had questions.
I had never previously met a Museum Educator in person. Fred has now set the bar exceedingly high. It seems artful, his ability to share knowledge and offer insight, yet step away and enable someone to learn on one’s own—a very considerate balance. I marveled at this, just as I marveled at everything around me.

 

Beneski - Fossil Mammal Wall full great

Fossil Mammal Wall at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - Fossil Mammal Wall sign images

Images corresponding to the skeletons on the Fossil Mammal Wall at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - view of bottom and first floors

A view between two of the three floors at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author; notice the hint of fossil footprint slabs a the bottom right.

Beneski - gryposaurus - hadrosaur

Triceratops skull and Gryposaurus (a hadrosaur) skeleton at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - racks of Hitchcocks trace fossils

Beneski - great wall of tracks

Beneski - footprint on rack of trace fossils

Various images of the many trace fossils collected by Edward Hitchcock over his lifetime at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

 

It was Fred who informed me of a nearby excavation site. Searching online in his office and writing down the address for me, he then called the owner of the site to make sure he knew I was coming.

(Fred also introduced me to a member of the team who discovered Tiktaalik and visiting scholar, Steve Gatesy. Dr. Gatesy very generously proceeded to explain a bit about his current research, picking up and showing me specimens of single fossil tracks. For a day in which my expectations were simply to see fossil footprints and maybe a handful of bone fossils, this was proving to be extraordinary.)

My GPS almost got it right. I pulled in to the driveway just short of the actual destination, the neighbors smiling and waving good-bye after explaining it was just down the road.

At first glance, Nash Dinosaur Tracks has the air of a campground. Situated in a rural area, one drives up a path to a large opening, surrounded by forest. There is a single building in the corner, a cozy construction with hand-made signs.

Nash Dinosaur Tracks sign

Entrance sign to Nash Dinosaur Tracks and Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - road to the fossil store

Path leading into Nash Dinosaur Tracks and Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - store outside

Nash Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - dilophosaurus sign

Sign depicting Dilophosaurus, the type of dinosaur thought to produce the type of tracks in the area.  “Eubrontes” is a name coined by Edward Hitchcock to describe these tracks.  Image taken by the author.

Beneski - types of Hitchcock tracks2

Image of two types of tracks believed to be made by two different (as yet unknown) types of dinosaur, as defined by Edward Hitchcock: eubrontes and grallator.  Sign at Beneski Museum, image taken by the author.

 

I feel it’s important I mention two conflicting feelings I had when Fred first described Nash Dinosaur Tracks, an area of active excavation with a fossil shop: ambivalence and overwhelming enthusiasm.

I’m not a paleontologist.  I don’t even work in a museum. I’m still learning many of the very basics of paleontology. And I know that in this country, fossils found on personal land belong to the person who owns that land. I’ve read quite a bit about the sale of fossils throughout the world. I’ve communicated with paleontologists who have differing views on the subject.

It is enormously complicated.

Large, beautiful skeletons arrive on the market for auction, sold to those who can afford their extravagant prices and then lost to the general public.  Sometimes, those skeletons are donated to a museum (or sold at a lower price). But in some places, the sale of important fossils means survival for those who sell them, a much different type of economic exchange. The biggest lightning rod right now is the sale of ivory, a turbulent conflict that affects both human and elephant lives, and extends into the sale of mammoth tusks.

Do fossils belong to the general public?  And if so, what public? (Country of origin? International groups?) Do museums or scientists have a right to them above all?

I don’t have answers.

But I do know that I cringe every time I read about fossils being sold, and this colors my perspective on the sale of any fossil any where.  Even on personal land, such as that of Kornell Nash.

So it was with mixed feelings that I walked into the fossil shop and called out, “Hello?”

Nash - store inside

View inside Nash Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - store footprints and fossil for sale

Examples of fossils for sale, some under $100, some $3000 in the shop; image taken by the author

Nash - store Kornell Nash - displaying layers of stone

Kornell Nash, holding a fossil footprint on its side to display the layers of rock; image taken by the author

 

Kornell Nash appeared and introductions were made. He seemed a very gentle, unassuming man.  I learned later that this had been his day off; he had, in fact, just awoken from a nap.  But he mentioned none of that initially.  When I asked about the quarry, he indicated where it was, pointing to a door leading behind the shop.

“Feel free to look around,” he said and disappeared.

Nash - store - outside door - footprints in stone

Stone outside of the door leading from the fossil shop to the quarry.  Can you find the fossil tracks?  (According to Kornell Nash, this stone was obtained by his father, Carlton Nash, from a different location.) Image taken by the author.

 

The word “quarry” in my mind conjures enormous stone and cavernous holes.  This was not such a place.  As I eagerly walked on a pine needle-strewn path, I kept expecting something bigger, something huge. Something to match my expectations of a place that had produced fossil footprints for decades.

What I came upon was a modest outcrop on an incline.

 

Nash - quarry - whole thing from path

View of the fossil quarry from the path, taken by the author

Nash - quarry looking up

View of the entire quarry, looking up, taken by the author

 

As I got closer, something crunched under foot.  I looked around me and saw bits of shale everywhere and I panicked.  Was I crushing fossil footprints?  Shale littered the ground; there was no where to walk without stepping on it, so I continued….gingerly.

Kornell had indicated there were large footprints across the top of the stone, but I didn’t see anything at first.  It wasn’t until I literally stepped upon the stone outcrop that I found them.

 

Nash - quarry footprint and pieces taken out

Example of an area of stone cut out by Kornell Nash, taken by the author

Nash - quarry shale segments

Segments of shale detritus that lines the back of the quarry, taken but the author

Nash - quarry footprint detail

One of the many fossil footprints in the quarry, taken by the author

 

This was my first experience with fossils in-situ.  More importantly, this was my first experience actually touching the evidence of the life of an extinct creature.  While I love fossil skeletons, there was something much more significant–something inordinately more meaningful–in seeing where an actual dinosaur had STEPPED. And it is no exaggeration to say that putting my fingers into these footprints was the closest thing to a spiritual moment for me.

This, from private land with a fossil shop. Not from a museum, my normal haven and revered institution, but from the very thing that caused my self-righteousness.

I thought about this when I eventually walked back to the shop.

Nash - store newspaper articles on wall

Nash - store newspaper articles on wall2

Newspaper articles of Nash Dinosaur Tracks (formerly known as “Dinosaurland”) and Kornell Nash on a wall in the fossil shop, images taken by the author

Nash - store pictures of Hitchcock and Mignon Talbot (blurry)

Pictures of Edward Hitchcock and Dr. Mignon Talbot–a paleontologist from Mount Holyoke College who discovered Podokesaurus in 1911. Kornell Nash’s dad, Carlton, corresponded with Dr. Talbot. Image taken by the author.  

 

There is so much history to the place, in and around the fossil shop.  Echoes of it hang on the walls, yellowed newspaper articles with edges curling and wrinkled.  Letters are tacked to a post.

Looking later on the Nash Dinosaur Tracks website, I was surprised to learn that Carlton (and George) Nash purchased the land in 1939 for $85.  Carlton Nash–Kornell’s father–is mentioned in the book “Bones for Barnum Brown” by Roland T. Bird.  Bird describes his visit with the family and seeing the fossilized remnants of what Carlton believed was an animal lying or sitting down.

Nash - store picture of how his dad found the footprints and animal lying down

Image of a picture of the fossilized trace of an animal lying or sitting down, according to Carlton Nash; picture of this picture taken by the author at the Nash Fossil Shop. This was described in a book by Roland T. Bird.

Nash - store footprints and impression of animal with tail lying

Image of that actual fossil with a slab of tracks above it in the fossil shop; image taken by the author

 

He communicated with numerous well-known scientists, including Dr. Mignon Talbot of Mount Holyoke College, discoverer of the Podokesaurus.  He donated a section of tracks to what is now known as Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech.  A response was sent from Grace Coolidge, the wife of former US president, Calvin Coolidge.

Carlton Nash passed away in 1997.  Kornell Nash has been the owner since.

I asked him if he shared his father’s passion for paleontology and geology.

“In a different way,” he emailed back. “I really enjoyed the travel growing up.  We traveled all over the United States at a time many of my friends didn’t even get out of the Northeast. In a way, dinosaurs are quite common to me. Doesn’t everyone’s father dig dinosaur tracks?”

Nash - store Kornell Nash describing detail of footprint

Kornell Nash describing the detail of a footprint in his fossil shop, taken by the author

 

I had a long way to drive home, and it was a beautiful drive on a beautiful day.  Autumn in New England means brisk air, pumpkins on the side of the road, corn stalks decorating porches. My head churned with what I’d experienced.  I pondered the people I’d met and the things I’d witnessed.

It was but one page in the chapters of my life thus far, but this page, I savor.

Nash - quarry footprints

A fossil footprint path in the quarry behind Nash Fossil Shop; image taken by the author

———-

Fred Venne made what might have been a good trip to the Beneski Museum one that was an absolutely outstanding adventure.  He is a superb ambassador for Amherst College, and I am profoundly grateful for his thoughtfulness.

A sincere thank you to Dr. Steve Gatesy for his time and his willingness to share details about his current research!

I am indebted to Kornell Nash for letting me explore his fossil quarry alone and for being able to actually touch fossil footprints in-situ.  I am grateful for his willingness to connect with me and share more insight into his father’s communication.

I am sincerely thankful to Amherst College for making the Beneski Museum open to the public (and for free!) It is a marvelous museum, and I encourage all interested to make the trip to see it!

And I remain consistently grateful (and awed) by the generosity of so many paleontologists who have helped me as I learn more about their field. You are all extraordinary!

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