Brushing Up on the Past

Let’s start by playing a word association game.

Hello. Goodbye.

Out. About.

Fossil. Dinosaurs!

You can blame “Jurassic Park” for that last one. Whenever somebody mentions fossils – admittedly, this doesn’t happen very often, but hear me out – I automatically assume we are about to start talking dinosaurs. My favorite is the Stegosaurus. That thing was rocking a Mohawk way before it was cool, then uncool, and then cool again. Also, I like potato chips, so any animal that looks like it could be plucked apart and stored in a Pringles can is okay with me.

My point is, when I read there were no dinosaur fossils at the Falls of the Ohio State Park, I was disappointed. How entertaining could a bunch of fossils really be when they aren’t the preserved parts of monsters that once roamed the earth and ruined Jeff Goldblum’s weekend?

Turns out, non-dinosaur fossils are awesome.

Located on the banks of the Ohio River in Clarksville, Indiana, the Falls of the Ohio contains one of the largest naturally exposed Devonian fossil beds in the world. The word “Devonian” didn’t mean anything to me last week, but a handy infographic inside the park’s interpretative center taught me that it refers to a geologic period that predates dinosaurs and most other animals.

On the afternoon I went, the park was hosting a special event called “Digging the Past: A celebration of archaeology and fossils.” The family-friendly event was a collaboration between the park, the Division of Historic Preservation, the Falls of the Ohio Archaeological Society and the Fossil and Mineral Interest Club. In the parking lot and picnic areas were booths and special activities for children, like a mock dig and an atlatl-throwing station. (An atlatl is an ancient throwing stick or dart, a precursor to the bow and arrow.) Naturalists were on hand helping children identify their findings and chatting with adult fossil and mineral hobbyists.

Being that I fit into neither of those groups, I opted for one of the guided tours, which happen daily at the park. Armed with a spray bottle full of water, my guide Alan walked us down a set of stairs to the lower fossil bed and explained that where we were standing used to be a coral patch reef. Using the spray bottle to clean off dirt and highlight things, he pointed out several types of coral – horn coral (tabulophyllum), pipe organ coral (acinophyllum) and honeycomb coral (pleurodictyum) – and a few small animals. Then, he explained what information can be determined about them based off their positioning. After about 15 minutes, I became an expert (all right, all right, an enthusiastic amateur) capable of identifying horn coral and knowing what position it had been in while it was alive 400 million years ago. Not too shabby.

Then, like Mufasa to Simba, the knowledgeable guide motioned toward the expanse of fossil bed before us, as if to tell me, “This is your kingdom now. Go forth.”

If I sound like an excited schoolyard kid, it’s because I felt like one. I found myself jealous of a Boy Scout because he had his own bucket of water and a scrubbing brush. It just goes to show you that immersive scientific experiences like this can be just as exciting for adults as it is for children. (Alternatively, it could prove that I am still emotionally 8 years old, but surely that can’t be right.) Just think: because water is constantly flowing in and out and over the fossil bed, they are constantly changing. New fossils are being revealed all the time, which means you could theoretically be interacting with something that hasn’t been seen in millions of years. That’s a nice reminder of how tremendously big and marvelous the planet is.

The Falls of the Ohio is open year-round, though how much of the fossil bed is exposed depends on the season and river levels. Late August to early October (aka, right now) is the best time to visit the outer bed. I am told that is where the best fossils are, though I was satisfied sticking around the lower bed and not needing a foot massage at the end of the day. Visitors are also welcome to hike to the outer bed on their own. Guided tours are also offered, but only on certain Saturday mornings. Those take about three-and-a-half hours. Interested folks can visit the park’s website, fallsoftheohio.org, or call the visitor’s center at 812.280.9970 for additional details.