Initially arriving at the site was Harry Moore, a geologist from the Regional Geotechnical Office. With Mr. Moore was TDOT geologist Larry Bolt and TDEC geologist Martin Kohl. After examining the soft black clay, the men determined there were tons of fossilized animal bones and plant remains that appeared to be in perfect condition, yet seemed to be a lot heavier than normal bones. Knowing that they would need additional expertise, Dr. Walter Klippel and Dr. Paul Parmalee from the University of Tennessee Department of Anthropology were contacted and asked to join the research team on site. TDOT's highway construction project was still underway at this time, and after each day's work, the TDOT crew would allow the scientists to collect newly exposed fossil pieces. This collection process was not proving to be very successful; however, scientists were already able to determine that this site was very unique. With this being the case, Nick Fielder, archeologist and director of the Tennessee Division of Archeology, was called in to evaluate the site. After some time, Mr. Fielder was able to get TDOT to halt the road construction until the group was better able to figure out just what was being discovered. In order to determine the best course of action for moving forward with excavating the site, a group of specialists comprised of geomorphologists, structural geologists, paleontologists, zooarchaeologists and construction engineers was formed. There were lots of questions that needed to be answered and decisions that needed to be made.
Knowing that they had a host of unanswered questions, the group of specialist scientists immediately went to work to try and unearth some answers. TDOT brought in a drilling rig, enabling them to determine that the site was roughly four acres in size with clay that was more than 100 feet deep. They also quickly discovered that this site was unique and unlike any other because the sediment layers containing the fossilized animal and plant remains were tilted. Fossil beds generally have horizontal sediment layers. The scientists decided that something forceful must have played a role in rearranging the layers, which led them to believe that this particular site was formed from a limestone cave whose roof eventually collapsed, creating a deep sinkhole. This seemed to be the most logical explanation, because of Tennessee's typical limestone bedrock. As the walls of the sinkhole continued to erode over time, causing the sinkhole to fill up with sediments and water, animals were drawn to it for watering, feeding and bathing.
Photographs Courtesy of the Natural History Museum