Road Construction Leads to Extraordinary Excavations

Story derived from Nick Fielder and Harry Moore's Five Million Year Old Fossil Site Discovered in Washington County. Adapted from the "Bone Hunters", by Harry Moore.

Imagine accidently uncovering an ancient fossil site, rich with fossils, from a land that flourished more than 5 million years ago. Well, this is exactly what happened to the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) during a routine highway construction project in what is known today as Upper East Tennessee. Back in 2000, TDOTs orders were to straighten and widen a two-lane road just south of Gray Station in Tennessee's Washington County. The project was well underway and operating smoothly until the contractor uncovered an extremely unusual deposit of soft black clay in the normal Tennessee hard red clay.

Never having seen soil like this before, and knowing that the soft black clay would not likely support a roadbed without being specially treated, the contractor knew that he needed to contact TDOT's geologists for some technical advice. Little did anyone know that this scheduled, ordinary road construction project was about to lead to extraordinary excavations from an ancient fossil site, and would even unearth a surprising fossil discovery of an ancient red panda species unique to only one site in the world -- this one! Journey with us now to learn what has already been revealed and what remains uncovered in the remarkable Tennessee Gray Fossil Site.

Photographs Courtesy of the Natural History Museum