Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Just Amateurs

I have been exploring a small clutch of early Eocene marine fossils from the Fisher/Sullivan site in Virginia.  During the early Eocene, this site was shallow, near-shore marine, under the western edge of the Atlantic, and in a markedly warmer climate.  It’s an estimated 53.6 to 52.8 million years old.  To paleontologists – amateurs, professional, or otherwise – this has been a magical site, producing “by far the best sample of early Eocene vertebrates and land plants so far found in Virginia or Maryland . . . .  More than one hundred species of vertebrates now are known from this one horizon, but even so, many more species probably remain to be discovered.”  (Robert E. Weems and Gary J. Grimsley, Introduction, Geology, and Paleogeographic Setting, in Early Eocene Vertebrates and Plants from the Fisher/Sullivan Site (Nanjemoy Formation) Stafford County, Virginia, edited by Weems and Grimsley, and published by the Virginia Division of Mineral Resources, Publication 152, 1999, p. 1.)

Though a wealth of fossils from sharks and other marine animals has been found, a significant source of the paleontological importance of the site are the fossil remains of mammals, as well as fruits and seeds, found here, presumably washed out to sea from nearby land.  These give a rare glimpse into life on land in the Atlantic coast portion of North America during this period.

The site is commonly referred to as Muddy Creek, though it’s actually located on an unnamed tributary of said creek.  The name Fisher/Sullivan refers to the land owners.  I have never laid eyes on the place or enjoyed the rigors of digging and screening there, but from what I’ve heard from those who have, it well deserves that adjective – “muddy.”

I have been working on a few ounces of material that were already washed and screened, and every bit of these few ounces is small fossilized material, including shark teeth, pieces of sting ray dental plates, fish vertebrae, possibly some fish teeth, and what I believe are a few coprolites (fossilized poop).  Most of the teeth are very small and some of those are wonderfully intact, still bearing delicate cusplets (secondary crowns) along side their main crowns.  When one realizes that during the course of its active excavation, beginning in 1990 and leading to the publication of the volume cited above, over 100,000 fossils were found at this site, another adjective is clearly deserved – fossiliferous.

The examples below give a sense of some of what I have in just a few ounces.  The teeth shown in the first photo are:  at left, Serratolamna lerichei (Casier 1946) (12.2 mm height); in the middle and elevated, Abdounia beaugei (Arambourg 1935) (2.3 mm height); and, at right, Abdounia recticona (Winkler 1873) (5.5 mm height).  The second photo provides a sense of really how minute these teeth can be, showing the A. beaugei specimen next to a dime.  (I relied on Bretton Kent's chapter titled Sharks from the Fisher/Sullivan Site, in Early Eocene Vertebrates and Plants from the Fisher/Sullivan Site for these identifications.  Of course, any errors are mine alone.)  [Later edit:  Someone who knows the Muddy Creek fauna well suggested I look more closely at the crown of what I called A. recticona and compare it to images of A. recticona on (Nanjemoy fauna).  He's right, I got it wrong.  We'll see what he suggests it actually is.]

Frankly, it’s not the fossils that I find most interesting about Muddy Creek (though they are amazing), it’s the how amateurs and professionals interacted in bringing these fossils to light.  I’m basing my description of this process on two accounts, one by Weems and Grimsley in Early Eocene Vertebrates and Plants from the Fisher/Sullivan Site, and another by Dick Grier, Jr. in a history of the Maryland Geological Society that appears on the MGS website.

According to Weems and Grimsley, the site was first explored in 1990 by Richard Brezina who recognized its importance, given the wealth of material he was uncovering along the stream.  Subsequently, Brezina turned to his fellow members of the newly formed MGS, a club of amateur and professional collectors of fossil and minerals.  [See comment below from Brezina clarifying that he was not a member of the MGS.]  As MGS members worked the site, screening stream sediment, the actual source of the vertebrate fossils emerged, a geological rock group that heretofore had yielded few such fossils.  To those collecting here, “it seemed reasonable to suspect that this locality was scientifically important.”  (Weems and Grimsley, p. 1.)

After gaining permission from the landowners for an organized exploration of the site, “over a period of several years, members of the MGS excavated tons of sediment from the fossiliferous layer and washed them through screens to extract the fossil content.”  (Weems and Grimsley, p.1.)

Faced with the daunting task of describing the massive collection of fossil material brought out from the site and so making it available to science, MGS members enlisted the aid of several professional scientists to describe different parts of the collection.  Their analysis and description of the fossil finds make up the content of Early Eocene Vertebrates and Plants from the Fisher/Sullivan Site.

The process that led to published report on the site suggests that it featured a remarkable confluence of well-minded amateurs and professionals.  As Weems and Grimsley describe it:
Thanks to a unique and remarkable display of cooperation among land owners, amateur collectors, professional paleontologists, and the Virginia Division of Mineral Resources, this volume for the first time offers a rich and detailed picture of the life and environment that existed in Virginia during the early Eocene epoch.  (p. 1-2)
Grier’s account of what transpired at Muddy Creek will wait in the wings while I comment for a moment on Jack Hitt’s new book Bunch of Amateurs:  A Search for the American Character (2012).  (I read the Kindle version which has no page numbers and so must dispense with page references below.)  Hitt writes for Harper’s, GQ, and The New York Times Magazine, among other publications, and also contributes to NPR’s This American Life.  Scott Simon’s interview with him on NPR’s Weekend Edition for Saturday, May 19, 2012,  put me onto the book.

The hypothesis of this somewhat eccentric work is that at the heart of the American character is a spirit of the amateur, the one who is outside the accepted canon or orthodoxy and, so, sees things differently and is willing to try the new and unusual, sometimes with profound results.  Hitt writes of the
amateur’s childish spirit, of liberty, of leisure – the emblem of the lightness of being, where creativity thrives.  It can be American, not out of nationalist pride, but because this sense emerged at our founding and is the inheritance of anyone born or driven to come here.
The act of the amateur, according to Hitt, accords with the “pursuit of happiness,” leading him or her
to abandon one’s past and one’s self, as well as one’s culture, tradition, and history.  To walk away from everything that one is – whether it’s fleeing a repressive nation for this new place or simply out the back door for the garage – that is the real freedom.  It’s a story that everyone who lives here or comes here recognizes in their gut is true, that the amateur’s dream is the American Dream.
Hitt defines the amateur as “simply someone operating outside professional assumptions” but claims there is an American versus European distinction to be made in what is meant by the term.  In the latter, the amateur may at times have credibility but is usually and clearly sitting “below the salt” from the credentialed professional.  In contrast, Hitt asserts, amateurs in America occupy a broad spectrum that ranges from the kook to the nigh on professional.  Ours, he posits, is a more understanding and accepting view of the amateur, seeing the amateur in two basic forms – someone aspiring to break into the professional tower or someone turning her back on the tower and going her own way.  Frankly, though, in pursuit of his argument, Hitt often equates the amateur with the tinkerer/inventor who is indeed working in the garage to fashion the next break through.  It's a narrow view of amateur.

Hitt weaves his theme through a collection of essays exploring the doings of a very disparate collection of so-called amateurs who are engaged in challenging the status quo be it in such arenas as astronomy, bioengineering, archaeology, robotics, ornithology, or history.  These stories of amateurs are enlightening, amusing, and puzzling.  Who cannot take pleasure from the energy and glee that these folks bring to their tasks?  Be it Meredith Pattern assembling McGivered equipment in her kitchen in order to accomplish the bioengineering feat of injecting a gene responsible for phosphorescence into bacteria that will, in turn, make yogurt that glows in the dark; or the voice of the amateur David Sibley whose expertise allows him to say the ornithological establishment has no clothes when it comes to the ivory-billed woodpecker’s reappearance.

But, frankly, these stories remain puzzling to me.  I'm not sure what to make of this mixture of dreams and quirks that never quite gels into the proof of his hypothesis.

I read this book looking for his insight on the role and contributions of the amateur to science, and there is a bit.  He acknowledges that astronomy and paleontology are among disciplines “just teeming with amateur passion right now and long have been.”  But when he considers what amateurs are doing in the sciences it’s to focus on those who are in pursuit of big idea, the thesis that will come out of left field and knock the establishment for a loop.  His view is one of us (the amateurs) versus them (the professional), and the them are the stereotypic insiders with their hands on the levers of the establishment, working for money and status, jealous of position, fearful of outsiders.

What a depressing picture that is of the professional, and I think it's patently unfair.  The notion of the “pursuit of happiness” being a defining aspect of the American amateur implies that it’s the amateur with the unbridled enthusiasm, the face that lights up when he or she discusses what’s up.  That doesn’t square with the professional historians (my field of training) or professional paleontologists (my wanna-be field) I’ve met.  They are frequently open in their delight with new ideas, happy to explore and explain, often welcoming of the amateur, indeed, particularly for the paleontologist, acknowledging dependence upon the amateur.  Hard to square with Hitt’s perspective.

Though I found the book interesting, it offers a slim array of evidence upon which to expound about the “American character.”  What it did do, at least, was to force me to think more fully about the role of the paleontology amateur.  Yes, there are outsiders banging on the castle gate in the mix.  Hitt writes of Jack Horner, a renowned dinosaur expert, who is not professionally trained, and so is an amateur in Hitt’s eyes, despite the decades of expertise he has built up, the science he does, and the publications he has written.  What attracts him to Hitt is that he is an iconoclast, planting idea-bombs in the foundations of the establishment, such as his view of the Tyrannosaurus rex as a scavenger, not the lawyer-eating predator of Jurassic Park.  I have my own favorite iconoclast in Joan Wiffen, about whom I’ve written previously.  She was the New Zealand housewife turned paleontologist who overthrew scientific orthodoxy when she proved conclusively that dinosaurs had inhabited New Zealand during the Cretaceous.  As she put it in an interview, “I was too ignorant to know that dinosaurs officially never existed in New Zealand.”  (Jack McClintock, Romancing the Bone, Discover Magazine, June, 2000.)

But that’s not the vast majority of amateur paleontologists who, when their paleontological interest expands beyond the thrill of the hunt (which never actually goes away), are likely to take steps to emulate the professional paleontologist, and, in their heart of hearts, seek to contribute to the scientific enterprise if they can.  We’re not a bunch of barbarian at the gates.  In fact, often there are no gates and whatever arms there are, are often open arms.  Indeed, I guess I believe there’s much more of what Hitt characterizes as the European vision of the amateur (“an earnest and uncredentialed aspirant”) alive in the United States than he would admit.

Now’s the time to bring the Grier account in from the wings.  Already the Muddy Creek story is one that seems to center around real paleontological work by dedicated members of a fossil club, mostly amateurs, and willing collaboration with professionals.  (Yes, one could argue that the amateurs held the upper hand since they had excavated the site, but that does nothing to gainsay the productive coming together of amateur and professional in this instance.)  Grier’s account does introduce some of the messy dynamics that one expects to arise in this kind of endeavor, but interestingly, it’s not amateur versus professional.

As I interpret Grier, a threat to the successful excavation of the site arose when the actual source of the fossils was discovered to be above the water level in the stream.  Screening stream sediment for fossils, a process largely benign for the stream, was quickly superseded by digging into the stream banks, something potentially far more damaging to locality.  Grier describes how this shift in focus went down,
The site was located on private property, but the landowners were friendly to collectors, for the most part, and nothing was usually said about the parking and the digging. Within 3 years the stream bed had been effectively "worked out", as others, one at a time were invited to dig at this site. Later, [two MGS members] discovered that the source of the teeth was local, and they were in the stream banks above water-level. This started a landslide of digging activity by everyone.
Landslide of digging activity.  I relish the phrase, as I do the throwaway line about the friendliness of the landowners to this activity on their property for the most part.  Clearly there was conflict brewing involving landowners and collectors, and it came to a head.  Here’s Grier on what happened.
Although I was never exposed to this, there had apparently been some minor scuffles between the landowners and certain individuals, and for a while the site was "off limits" to all collectors.
But in a move that speaks volumes about the relationship between amateur and professional in this effort (so there, Jack Hitt), the amateurs turned to professionals to defuse the situation.
The MGS members asked Dr. Weems to intercede for them with the landowners and to negotiate for some [sort] of compromise. . . . [F]inally it was decided that 15 members were to have "collecting privileges", and their names were placed on a list.  Everyone else, unless they were a guest of these 15 people, would be considered guilty of trespassing.
Marvelous.  Not sure what Hitt might make of this.

[Note on later edit:  I've corrected repeated misspellings of Hitt's name that appeared when the post was first uploaded.]


  1. As a past approved collector at Muddy Creek, I really enjoyed your article.

    Michael Folmer

  2. Hope I didn't do too much damage to the truth of the Muddy Creek story. Tony.

  3. One small error. I have never been a member of the MGS. The word about this place got out when I told a few collectors who told other till it seems everyone knew about it. The shame was that some of them really tore the place up. Also the locals built a dam on the up stream part of the creek it covered over the best part of the site.


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