Blast from the Past

by Peter Kranz, Paleontologist

"The engineer giveth and the engineer taketh away." This is the motto of the modern day paleontologist, a person who studies fossils. Everyone thinks that diggers and blasters only destroy, but with out the diggers and blasters our museum exhibits would be a lot more empty than they are today.

Here in the eastern United States there is a great amount of rain fall which leads to lots of vegetation ground color. And what the plants fail to cover is by asphalt, concrete and building. Excavation for projects, public and private, reveals fossils, remains of prehistoric plants and animals, which are then available for study by scientist. Most of the discoveries are brought to the attention of scientist by the diggers themselves without whose sharp eyes and presence of mind important fossil finds would be lost.

In times past, much more work was done by a man with a shovel. He was close to the earth. Nowadays, most work is done with big machines removing the digger far from the earth. In many cases, the operator never even sees the earth he digs. A recent case from Ireland indicates how serious the problem can be. In the past, many ancient human bodies were dug out of peat bogs by men with spades but with modern peat cutting machines a recent body had to be pieced back together from the dozens of pieces it had been chopped into by the machine. So, nowadays, it is the alert digger and blaster who find a fossil on his lunch hour or while on break.

Important fossil finds at construction sites in the National Capital Region

Bones of all sort of exciting extinct animals have been discovered in the course of construction in the National Capital Region including dinosaurs, mammoths, extinct sea lizards, whales, rhinos, deer, bison and even mice. One geologist, R.S. Bassler, once called our region a "geologist's paradise" because within a 50 to 100 mile radius of Washington, D.C. we find rocks representing virtually all of Earth's history.

I will tell only a few of the stories I have been involved in about discoveries of bones of extinct animals in the past ten years.


In May 1991, I was asked to speak to the Natural History Society of Maryland. I told them that we were finding dinosaur bones between Washington and Baltimore along the Route 1 corridor. I said that if they went out and looked they might make an important find themselves.

The next Sunday one of the men who heard the lecture took his children to look for dinosaur fossils in a clay pit near his home in Greenbelt. He knew that he needed to find a place with green clay, lignite and ironstone, the indicators of an environment where dinosaur bones can be found.

When they arrived at the clay pit, they collected lignite for a while, until one piece which he picked up he recognized as fossil bone. It was obviously a piece of an extremely large bone. He knew someone at the Smithsonian and called him. The crew came out and recovered what turned out to be the largest dinosaur bone ever found east of the Mississippi. It is a leg bone from a sauropod, a dinosaur with a long neck and long tail, called Astrodon johnstoni now Maryland's official state dinosaur. The bone can be seen at the Maryland Science Center's exhibit of local dinosaurs at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Leapin' Lizards

On a Saturday in 1989 I was leading a group of children on a fossil field trip for a birthday party. We went to a place where new homes were being constructed.

A father, who was on the trip, picked up a fossil back bone. As I was in the process of explaining how we knew what animal it was from he said "But what about that one there and that other one over there and that one." and so on. What we had found was a largely complete skeleton of a mosasaur, a seagoing lizard from the age of dinosaurs. The skeleton is now at the Smithsonian.

Mammoth Discovery

Another time when I was teaching paleontology one of my students missed a field trip. In an attempt to makeup his missed work he went out on his own. He was unsure exactly where to go. He was supposed to be looking for fossil sea shells, but he was lost and found none. He wandered down into a drainage ditch at a building site. At which point, he got his boot stuck in the mud. When he pulled it out, he also pulled out a rib bone which was a yard long.

Convinced it was a cow rib, the place had previously been a farm, he wandered on for another half hour. Bored he eventually returned to where he had found the "cow's rib" and began digging, figuring even a cow skeleton was better than nothing at all. When he suddenly, pulled out a foot-long piece of ivory, he knew this was no cow!

I was called and after a brief investigation decided we needed a crew from the Smithsonian. After four months of digging, we had the most complete wooly mammoth skeleton ever found in eastern Maryland.

Whale of a Tale

One day about three years ago, I received a cryptic email from the Pentagon saying that an important fossil discovery had been made at a nearby construction site, but was being kept secret. After a month of detective work on my part, I found the skeleton in a large cardboard box in a construction trailer. It was 25 million year old whale. Unfortunately, by the time I had reached the site the rest of the skeleton was buried by further digging.

This story illustrates our biggest problem which is that the paleontologists are not contacted in a timely manner and often not at all. We hope that when learn about the importance of a find like these that you will contact me or some other paleontologist as soon as a discovery is made. I can be reached at the information at the end of this article.

One of the reasons we are not contacted, is that we are confused with archeologists, individuals who study old buildings and other works of people. There are many laws protecting archeological and potential archeological sites. There are NO LAWS like that for paleontologist. We must depend, as it should be in my opinion, on the goodwill of public. We cannot stop or interfere with any construction or industrial work for fossil discoveries which is why timely reporting is so important.

On the Track of Dinosaurs

Lest you believe that all fossils are found only in clay and sand, I was called recently, by a man who was turning over rocks near Dulles Airport. On one stone he found what looked like a footprint. He sent it to me. It was a dinosaur track made 210 million years ago when the now red slates were a muddy lake shore. Dinosaur tracks are common in this area where red slates exist. There are also fish fossils in the black slates which were the ancient lake beds.

These are but a few of the important discoveries mad at construction and industrial sites. Up until this point I have been what my friend calls a "vertebigot", that is I have concentrated only on animals with bones. While it is true that animals with bones tend to be the most dramatic fossil discoveries, most fossil finds and many of the important ones are animals with out bones and plants. One can expect to find these commonly as the map shows anywhere east of Route 1. West of Route 1 there are few fossils until one strikes the Blue Ridge. The only exception is the Culpepper-Gettysburg Basins which are the dark region in the Western Piedmont.

Two final notes: You are on the front lines. Most finds are not made by paleontologist; there are very few of us. Also, paleontologists are the "church mice of geologists." If any of you or your organizations wish to contribute your time, equipment, time, information or money there are many projects waiting to be done right now which will only be possible with your help.

Peter Kranz
President Dinosaur Fund
300 50th St. SE #103
Washington, D.C. 20019
(202) 547-3326

This is a draft of an article that Dr. Kranz wrote for the Jan-Mar 2000, Newsletter of the Potomac Chapter of the Society of Explosives Engineers.