Guest Blog: The Solite Experience through the Eyes of an Educator

New on the Updates blog – Guest Blog Posts! The first in this series is from Sydney Brown, one of the VMNH Educators. Since her first day of excavating, Sydney has been a regular part of the Solite Quarry excavation team. In this blog, Sydney shares her thoughts and experiences gained while out in the field.

There is nothing quite like watching a piece of slate fly through the air and shatter into numerous pieces as it impacts the ground. This is the point at which one turns to stare at the grinning paleontologist to whom you just handed a “fossil,” that one that you thought was really important. The shattered “fossil,” the paleontologist regretted to inform you, was nothing but crap (literally or figuratively…the team does find plenty of fossilized poop out at Solite).

Sydney at Solite

When I first started as an Educator here at the museum, I had no idea that scenes such as the one I just described would become common place. It wasn’t until a month after starting that I was approached by Christina, the Paleontology Technician, and informed that the paleontology department, along with volunteers, ventured out to Solite Quarry at the ungodly hour of 8:00 a.m. every Saturday and asked if I would like to join them. At first, I was loath to give up my beauty rest (who doesn’t like to sleep in on Saturday?), but I quickly realized what an amazing opportunity this was and couldn’t pass it up. Being an educator, we have plenty of fossils that we show to school groups and the general public, but we can only describe the fossil digging experience based off of stories we’ve been told and things that we have read. The real deal is that it is quite different to experience an excavation than to simply recite generalized facts from a book.

You see, when you go to Solite and you actually start digging, after you have received your safety briefing from the superintendent Scott (which involves such warnings as: don’t fall off a cliff, don’t electrocute yourselves, don’t get hit by a train, etc. etc.) you are handed a rock hammer and a chisel and told to split rocks. Almost immediately, visions of the beginning of Jurassic Park leave your mind and you quickly realize that you will be solely dealing in rock, very sharp rock that you almost immediately cut yourself with. After bandaging your wound and noting that gloves are your best friend, you start cracking open those rocks dreaming of all those vertebrates you are going to find. After bringing your 6th split rock to the exasperated paleontologist that tells you, for the 6th time, that that bump is not a backbone but just a part of the rock, you start to get the feel of this whole fossil digging thing. You quickly become one of the aforementioned rock throwers and you actually start to find things. Things such as: fish, plants, Tanytrachelos (an aquatic reptile), and a Mecistotrachelos (a gliding reptile; seen in the image below found by yours truly) or two. Then at the end of the day you transport all of the equipment, fossils, and your dirty visage back to the museum and know that it will all begin again next weekend.

Syd mecis

I will be going out to Solite (after the holidays) for the fifth time soon. When I first started going to Solite with the paleo department I estimated that I would go a maximum of two times to sate my curiosity and to gain some experience. Something happened along the way, though, and I became hooked on digging for fossils. Part of it is that feeling you get when you split open a rock and a 225 million year old plant or animal is revealed, making you realize the rarity of finding such a thing. Because let me tell you, a fossil is not something easily made or found, a lesson that we here at the education department try to impart all the time on our students. I also think that part of the reason for my continued visits out to Solite Quarry is the people that I go with, because there is nothing quite like cracking jokes and watching the visible excitement on peoples’ faces when they find something worth saving. These, along with all of the other stories and findings I have named, are the reasons why I will continue to go to Solite Quarry for the near future, because you never know what you might find. Seriously, who knew that an educator would find one of the rarest fossils (Mecistotrachelos) at Solite?

Syd cheesing

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Solite Excavation: Day 14

Chelsea, Kelly, and Devin

On Saturday, our last day of excavation for 2014, we reached the cumulative work time of two weeks. During that time we collected ~53 cubic feet of insect bed and several boxes and crates full of various plants and vertebrates including many fish, Tanytrachelos and 1 or 2 Mecistotrachelos specimens. On the 13th day of excavation, Ray succeeded in collecting all of the insect bed that we had exposed; therefore, our efforts this weekend focused on continuing to remove the overburden from the recently exposed material. Continue reading

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Solite Excavation: Day 13

120361 stacked

While I was out of town this past weekend, the VMNH excavation crew had an excellent day in the pit at Solite Quarry. Led by Ray Vodden, the VMNH crew (Jim, Kal, and Sydney) and a few students from Virginia Tech braved the cold to find some stellar fossils. One such find is a potentially complete specimen of Mecistotrachelos, uncovered by our educator Sydney Brown. Continue reading

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Fossil Fair 2014 at NC Museum of Natural Sciences

Syd sara and me

Saturday, the VMNH paleontology department (Ray and I), the biology technician (Liberty), and two educators (Sara and Sydney) traveled to Raleigh, NC to participate in the 2014 North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (NCMNS) Fossil Fair.

Continue reading

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Solite Excavation: Day 12

Cleaned pit 11-8-14

Saturday was a double-booked day for me. Therefore, Ray took the crew out to excavate bright and early while I stayed behind to give a tour to a class from Lynchburg College. While the students wandered through the exhibits, I was able to conduct some work with their teacher, who is also a VMNH research associate, Brooke Haiar. In response to our progress two weeks ago with the backhoe, Ray et al. focused on cleaning the debris off the outcrop. Continue reading

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Solite Excavation: Day 11

Group with backhoe 102514

Today’s blog is dedicated to the foreman of the quarry, Scott Traenkner. Scott has been supportive of our excavation since the start and offered his skills should we need them. On day 11 of our excavation, we were able to take Scott up on his offer in a big way. Continue reading

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Solite Excavation: Day 10


Day 10 of our excavation at Solite Quarry was all about Tanytrachelos, a small aquatic reptile from the Triassic. Much of the area we were excavating involved shale within ~2-3 inches from the top of the insect bed. It was within this range that many of the Tanytrachelos specimens were found. We collected at least 12 Tanytrachelos individuals including the one above that Ray Vodden found. Below are a couple other Tanys that we collected. Continue reading

Posted in Invertebrate Paleontology, Newark Supergroup, Vertebrate Paleontology | 3 Comments